If you’re of a certain age, and know what Woodstock is, then you’ll know that 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival. And to my delight, I found the following article in today’s New York Times. Though I wasn’t at Woodstock, I’ve heard the album and, of course, watched the wonderful movie (I was at a not-as-famous music festival, “Summer Jam” at Watkins Glen in 1973, where I heard the Dead, the Allman Brothers, and the Band in a crowd estimated to be 600,000 baked hippies. I also own an original Woodstock poster, autographed by the artist, Santana, Richie Havens, Wavy Gravy, and Grace Slick, which I won in a radio “stump the DJ” contest.)
At any rate, there’s some good stuff in this interview, and I’ll reproduce a bit of it.
The band hadn’t yet released its first album. How did you get booked at Woodstock?
Our manager, Bill Graham, was my first archangel. I have certain people who show up at the allocated, correct time and place, and open big doors for me. Bill invited us to his house in Mill Valley. We were still living in the Mission [District] in San Francisco. He said, “There’s going to be a concert that’s going to change your whole life. I need for you guys to really hear me: After this concert, people are going to start looking at you the way they look at the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. You guys will get in trouble because your heads are going to get so big, you’re going to need a shoehorn to go in a room.”
We rolled our eyes and we go, “Bill, we’re from the Mission. We don’t buy into that rock star thing.”
Lots of groups had long delays before their sets. But Santana was rushed onto the stage, right?
When we landed, the first person I saw was my brother and friend Jerry Garcia. He looked like one of those yogis in a cave in the Himalayas. He had that beatific, everything is all right already look. For me, he was like assurance, confidence and a sanctuary.
They’d told us we were going on two bands after the Grateful Dead. He goes, “Well man, you better get comfortable because apparently, we’re not going on until one o’clock in the morning. It’s a mess here. And by the way, would you like to take some of this?” It was mescaline. And I was like, “Let’s see, it’s 12:30 in the afternoon. By two o’clock in the morning, I’ll be all right.” I used to take LSD and mescaline a lot, so I knew the timing. After eight or 10 hours, you’re into what we call the amoeba state. Your thoughts become very galactic and universal and microscoped.
Two hours after I took it, there was a face in my face that said, “You need to go on right now, otherwise you’re not going to play.” By this time I was really, really on it, you know? I just held on to my faith, and what my mom taught me. I asked, over and over, “Just help me stay in tune and on time.”
I assume that in 1969, Jerry Garcia’s mescaline was pretty potent.
Oh, it was. I’d been dosed by them a year before. It took me two to three days to coordinate after that one. I’d been baptized into consciousness expanding, I’ll call it, so that didn’t scare me.
We knew already they had a reputation for dosing other bands and since we were opening for them in Las Vegas, I made sure to carefully wash this Coca-Cola can I was going to drink. But what I didn’t know is, they knew how to put a syringe in the soda can. So we played our set and left, and on the way from the airport to the plane, the hall kept getting longer and longer. The colors in the carpet and in the wall started oozing like lava. I said, “Uh oh, they got me.” When I sat down on the plane, I looked out the window as we were taking off, and the Vegas lights looked like Aztec hieroglyphics. [Laughs] I said, “This is going to be intense.”
When you were onstage at Woodstock, were you hallucinating?
Oh totally. You can tell by my body language. I’m wrestling with the guitar — not wrestling in conflict, but like a surfer, wrestling to maintain and sustain a balance. That’s the key to everything in life. Whether you’re straight or on mescaline, maintain your composure and your balance.
Here are two videos from Santana’s performance. You can hear the complete 40-minute set here, but without video. You can clearly see him “wrestling with the guitar” in the first song, “Soul Sacrifice”, which features a great drum solo by Michael Shrieve (you can see a separate video of that here.) At 20, Shrieve was the youngest person to perform at Woodstock.
I have to say, that if I were a musician, I’d be afraid to play on psychedelics, even though many of them did in the Sixties. I’d worry that the drugs would mess up my playing and my timing, but it apparently had no effect on Santana—or maybe even improved the performance. For surely this is one of the great rock performances of all time:
Who played the best sets at Woodstock, and where does Santana rate?
There was only three bands I recollect that were putting it all on the line. You’re playing like Buddy Rich or Miles Davis; you’re playing for your life. Sly and the Family Stone for me is No. 1. Jimi Hendrix is No. 2. Everybody else has to fight with us for No. 3.
What we brought was basically African rhythms and melody. After Woodstock, every band all of a sudden started getting congas. Miles had congas. The Rolling Stones had congas. Because they saw that mixing congas with guitars is a win-win situation — especially with women!
Sly and the Family Stone! I don’t even remember their performance. Here’s Santana with “Evil Ways”:
Bill Graham predicted that the band would become bigheaded after Woodstock. Did it?
Oh, totally. In my case, I fell out soon enough to embrace spiritual discipline. I moved to Queens, New York, and cut my hair. I wasn’t doing drugs, wasn’t drinking, changed my diet. For 10 years. I was devoted to a certain code of conduct that serves me well now. I got more energy than when I was 17.
I’d like to hear a little bit about your bigheaded phase.
[Laughs] Sure you do. You buy expensive, flashy cars, and you waste a lot of time in the mirror changing clothes. It becomes like what happened to Prince and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. You create this mask — it’s called persona, like Batman and Bruce Wayne — that is draining to maintain. That’s why I made a change to drop that and become a person rather than a personality.
Long live Carlos, still going strong at 72!