Carlos Santana and Michael Shrieve look back at the album Clive Davis told them was “career suicide.” Michael Fagien leads a freewheeling conversation about the times and influences that produced a Santana classic.
Michael Fagien: Hi, we’re here with Carlos Santana and Michael Shrieve — two artists that need no introduction — in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Caravansarai. Now, I have to tell you, this fourth studio album for Santana was a game changer for me as a listener and a fan. I still see the album cover and it’s part of pop culture. You know, right away you get a feeling when you look at the album cover. The first question I wanted to ask is, when you delivered this album to Columbia, I recall Clive Davis saying this is “career suicide.” What were you thinking at the time when you changed directions from being pop Latin rock to this fourth album that went in another direction? What was going through your mind at that time when Clive said something like that?
Michael Shrieve: Well, we were so proud of this record. I mean, we just worked hard on it. We were really proud of it and felt that it was representative. And when Clive said that, you know, there was really nothing to be done. I believe [pianist Larry] Harlow said something like, “You’ve said your piece and that’s it.” You know, so we hear you, but nothing’s gonna really stop us. So I don’t know. I think it didn’t matter. We knew we were moving in a different direction and I think what we felt was we were so proud of it, so be it. Whatever happens, this is the right thing to do at that time.
Carlos Santana: Clive brings a lot to the table, just like Bill Graham. They were supremely important in our lives, you know? And he was right. There wasn’t a single within a million miles in Caravanserai. They’re not even songs. They’re just big slices of life. But we knew that we didn’t have a radio hit, and we weren’t gonna stop the album just to create a song to fit in there, because it was like a statement. Even back then I wanted to honor Bill Graham and Clive Davis and honor myself, honor Michael, honor everybody, because everybody needs to be validated for who they are and what they bring on this planet.
Having said that, Michael and I were actually pregnant with this Caravanserai thing. For me, it started naturally and organically, because the things that I was reading, Paramahansa [Yogananda] — which is where I got the name, “eternal caravan” or reincarnation. I was like, “Whoa, that’s a hell of a statement.” And then we got together with, I think it was [visual artist] Joan Chase, who put together some different slides on the wall. And I said, ‘That one. I want some of that, that red sun or moon, whatever it is, with a caravan, a variety of camels and stuff like that.’ And we visualized the music and we visualized the whole concept of it. So we couldn’t go back. We’re fearless. We’re not cowards, man. We’re gonna go after something that needs to be birthed, you know?
Michael Fagien: Michael, you wrote this beautiful, expressive piece about listening to Caravanserai after 25, 30 years. I did the same thing — maybe it’s been 15 years since I’ve listened to it from beginning to end — and it brought me back to this incredible moment in music history. There was a lot going on then that I could see where you were influenced, and you had influence on so many other bands to come. What was happening? What was the Zeitgeist back then? On one hand, you were doing Latin rock, but you were also doing progressive rock, and you were doing this jazz fusion thing, and it was all happening at a time where it probably was also very tumultuous time for you with the band and a lot of things going on. Can you comment on that?
Michael Shrieve: Carlos and I were making a shift spiritually and making different choices after being through this whirlwind of success. So there’s a lot of influences around you at the time that we felt it was time to get out of that. And simultaneously, while we were feeling more of a spiritual mode and seeking that sort of thing, we were reading the same kind of books, and we went groove shopping together. And that was a beautiful thing, you know, it was really wonderful. But simultaneously, what was happening was all this music that was coming out. It was such an exciting period with anything Miles was putting out. Bitches Brew blew the doors open. And then the beautiful thing about Miles is that the musicians that come from him, they go on and become fruitful. And they multiply. And just those people alone started their own things. And every one of ’em was a thing of beauty, and it was a different world than we were participating in. But mind you, we used to do this kind of stuff. Carlos and I, we’d invite Weather Report to open for us for a tour, so we could watch ’em every night.
Michael Fagien: Well, it’s interesting that those bands were all on Columbia. It was Weather Report and Herbie Hancock and Miles, of course. And you had this thing happening then musically, and as you say, spiritually, and it was really, I think, a lot of fans’ first introduction. It was their first glimpse at the spirituality of what was happening with you, Carlos, and the band Santana.
Carlos Santana: Everything that was happening around Michael and I thrust us into becoming more determined. You know, on the logistics side, when once I started reading that Abraxas was outselling Abbey Road, and some of the Rolling Stones [albums], and The Who and this and that, I was like, wow. You know, that’s quite a compliment. And the numbers ain’t lying. What was happening at the time with the band and the bands around us, people started becoming like cartoons and caricatures of themselves, because when you overindulge, staying up all night doing whatever you are doing, and then the next day you gotta play, and now you take cocaine to get the energy back, and now you are tired and wired, and you smell funny and you look horrible.
We were like, “This shit is depressing, man. We gotta do something different.” So we felt that we needed — here it is — spiritual discipline. That’s what Caravanserai is about. Caravanserai is a statement of pure spiritual discipline, pursuing something that your light, your spirit, your soul and your heart wants to do that is different than your ego and below the belt kind of energy. I mean, it’s still very sensual, but, you know, Abraxas is infinitely more sensual. Just look at the album cover, you know? And it’s OK. We just wanted to make it more sacred, make that sensual energy a lot more like, Well, what’s it like to make love to an angel, a real angel, that kind of thing, you know?
And so I said, “Well, it must be like listening to John Coltrane.” You know, like any of those songs, “Crescent,” “Angel Eyes” and “Naima.” It’s a different kind of making love, you know? And I wanted to play like that. I wanted to be a lover, through my guitar, over a different frequency than just the obvious stuff. But the main thing for me was that I was very disenchanted and discouraged watching people that I grew up with becoming very predictable, empathetically victims. I don’t wanna be a victim, man, in any of my incarnations. I need to be victorious and with triumph and glory, not with ego, but I want my spirit to have a say. So when we bring something to the table, and Michael helped me crystallize all of these elements, because he was constantly feeding me some music that enhanced my appetite, my thirst, with Pharaoh Sanders, and a lot of Elvin Jones.
My wife [drummer Cindy Blackman] loves Tony [Williams]. I love Elvin. And and so I think it was Joe Zawinul who baptized me and called me “the melody man.” I said, what? He says, “Nobody plays melody the way you do, man. You can play the hell out of a melody. So you are the melody man.” And I was like, OK. So I’ll just, I’ll just concentrate on bringing a nice, heartfelt, soulful melody to whatever Michael brings, you know? And I would come into a room and Michael and [bassist] Doug Rauch were creating these moving pictures. And I had to find my way to become Aretha, Etta James, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, with that kind of Miles-ish phrasing, in all this rush of feeling. So that’s how I think. I think of all these components, but you still have to land on the most memorable melody. Like, I’m playing that on “Waves Within,” that’s one of the main things that I start with, which is like a “Nature Boy.” I still wanna do “Nature Boy” and “Oh Danny Boy” together, you know? I think there’s a place for that. Michael and I were talking about embarking on a new adventure pretty soon.
Michael Shrieve: I just heard the story of how “Nature Boy” happened. I’ve been a huge fan of that song, but it’s a fascinating story. So, Nat King Cole was approached by a person that looked like a homeless guy. And, in fact, he was; he lived in the park, but for some reason, he was attracted to Nat King Cole. And likewise, Nat King Cole treated him like like a man, you know, no disrespect and everything else. They visited a couple of times, and then this guy brought these lyrics to him, and then he disappeared. And Nat King Cole saw it and said, this is a gift, and I’ve gotta make a song outta this. But yeah, it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of music. Wow. Carlos, those, those notes that you play on that are in my head since I started listening again to [Caravanserai] like a week ago, like at that place it happens in “Waves Within.” It’s so perfect. It’s just so perfect. It’s interesting you brought it up.
Michael Fagien: Legend has it, Michael, that you introduced Carlos to jazz. Truth or fiction?
Michael Shrieve: Well, it’s true. But at that time, we were all living in the same house in San Francisco. And everybody was bringing in their stuff. I mean, I learned so much just from being around those guys in that environment. Like I said, in my  Rock Roll Hall of Fame speech, I quickly learned that this was no hippie love thing. This was like a street gang, and the weapon is music [laughs]. Everybody was bringing in their stuff. [Michael] Carabello had a lot of the Latin stuff. Carlos had a lot of blues and Latin. Gregg [Rolie] was like, English rock. And what I had to offer Carlos, knowing that he was a melody man, was I wanted to introduce him to [jazz], but I thought, how do I do that? And so, you know, two things: One, Coltrane Ballads and two, Miles Kind of Blue, where the melodies are strong, and he could relate and it worked. Carlos is always saying that about me, but I have to give Carlos credit for being open to it, because everybody else wasn’t, you know what I mean?
But that’s the way it is when destiny comes into play. You recognize each other’s spirit. And that’s what happened with Carlos and I.
Michael Fagien: And you hear it right in the first track, in the intro. It starts out with the sound of crickets, which predated Pink Floyd’s “Money,” where when you hear the cash register, you know, it’s Pink Floyd. When you hear the crickets, you know what it is. And then you know you’re gonna go for a ride, and you have this Kind of Blue thing happening. And then you’re on that journey, and it takes you for the whole album. In the beginning, you had to listen to Side One and then flip it around. Now you can listen through the whole thing without having to flip to Side B. But it’s a journey. It’s an exploration. And that’s what sat with me for so many years. And when I went back and listened to it, it brought back all those feelings that I had the first time I listened to it, which set me on the journey into the world of jazz.
Carlos Santana: Michael and I, we crystallize everything we hear into certain statements. When we listen to [Caravanserai track] “Future Primitive,” or you listen to this and you listen to that, you hear so many elements. You know, you hear astral traveling from Pharoah Sanders … . I wasn’t surprised when [Rolling Stone critic/editor] Ralph J. Gleason called [Miles Davis’] On the Corner and Caravanserai the most important music that was coming out, you know? And I was like, “Damn, Michael, you gotta read this. There’s an article in Rolling Stone.” And it’s very, very validating, because in the beginning, I didn’t have such a good relationship with Rolling Stone, because I was pissed off.
Whoever did the writeup for [1969’s] Santana, they said, “Well, this is a psychedelic mariachi rock band.” And I’m like, Well, fuck you. No, you’re not gonna do that to me, man. Uh-uh, this is world music. It was, and it is, and it will always be world music. It’s very racist to say, well, you’re mariachi. Well, you want me to play a fucking piñata music for you from now on? You know that’s not gonna happen, man. And so I had that kind of [attitude] … you know, like a cat in a dog pound. I didn’t take it kindly for whoever wrote it to try to put a ceiling on me and the band, “psychedelic mariachi.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I’m more than that. I’m definitely more than that. I go to Africa, and I’m not a tourist. I’m part of the family. I can name you a lot of names, and they go to Africa. Nobody knows who they are or even cares. But when I go to Africa, people are like, “Oh my God! It’s Santana! Look!” And, “My wife got pregnant to ‘Samba Pa Ti’!” And the music from Santana, you can hear it in the Himalayas in a cave. You can hear it in Timbuktu. So that’s when I knew that Santana was one of the first world [music] bands. Like, Bob Marley. Very grateful because of it.
Michael Fagien: You introduced me to world music, too, because at the time, I didn’t know who Antonio Carlos Jobim was. And I listened to [Caravanserai track] “Stone Flower” and I thought it was a Carlos Santana song. Of course, years later I figured out this is the genius composer from Brazil’s “Stone Flower” on there. In some ways, people have analyzed and overanalyzed your masterpiece, but for me, that was my introduction to Brazilian jazz. And I think that as part of the world music that you’re describing; that’s certainly world music.
Michael Shrieve: What’s special about that also, in listening to the record again, for me, was it’s the first time that upright bass is introduced. Just that sound alone is so smooth coming in after Dougie playing all his funky, genius [electric] stuff. But that sound is so important. And it was like going into a candy store, listening to the record again, because I get it. So much of the journey is sonic, just like in between the songs, in between the slices as Carlos calls them. And I think what creates part of the journey is like, being aware of the sonic stuff. I can’t wait to see if we could do some more; just wait, I’ve got some ideas for sound and the next one, it’s going to be exciting. I’m all jazzed up again. I got a text from Carlos a week or so ago saying, “All day, I’m listening to Caravanserai.” And I thought, “I know I gotta get to that. I gotta sit down and get to it.” But I don’t go back very often, and sometimes you think, “Oh, it’s gonna bring up this memory or that.” But everything was beautiful and joyous and it was exciting to revisit it.
Carlos Santana: Here’s the quote from Wayne Shorter. He says, “I don’t call it jazz. I never called the music jazz. I call it ‘I Dare You.’”
Michael Fagien: You know, what’s interesting about the intro track, just to go back to that for a second, I recall back then when some people were calling it jazz, and then some people were saying, ‘That’s not jazz.’ Fast forward 50 years, I think anyone that knows anything about jazz knows that the opening track is undeniably jazz. In fact, there has been so much jazz that has come out since you recorded that, that sounds like that. I think it, it’s no longer an argument. What do you think about that?
Carlos Santana: Well, if you wanna get down to the real nitty gritty, you can call it making love or the F word, I don’t care. What it’s really called is energy. Divine energy, wanting to — with fire, passion — give birth to newness. And when you take people to the [old-age home] and they’re really old, and you put ’em in a certain place, there’s places to take ’em where they still thrive. You know, you don’t just sit there and rot [while] reminiscing. You have to thrive, man. You have to thrive no matter what. And for me, I’ve always been a person that I don’t relate at all to the victim mentality.
I relate to thriving. And so, like kids, you’re gonna bust your toe or bump your head over there. So what? You’re still gonna get up and and pursue thriving. That’s what I learned from Miles and Coltrane and Michael Shrieve. Man, don’t be don’t be predictable and stagnant. That’s worse than suicide, you know?
So I thank you. It’s important that jazz magazines are still here. And it’s important that we take these magazines to pre-school, junior high school, high school, because when you read these articles, it helps you like the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible. Sometimes even more important than that, because it’s not about necessarily a spiritual path. It’s about all the paths and none of them. For example, people ask me once in a while, “Well, Santana, you’re an interesting dude, man, what’s your sign?” I go, What do you mean? “You know, your sign, astrology.” I go, “Oh, all of them. And none of them.” And they go, “Whoa.” See, that’s not Velcro. And, so therefore, Michael and I can embark on this direction, that direction. And no matter where we arrive, we are gonna be content and happy.
Michael Fagien: Well, this classic album was the album that wasn’t supposed to be. And yet we’re so glad it was. Carlos, Michael, it’s been a pleasure. And I will look forward to your next projects, and further celebrations of this milestone, this 50th anniversary of Caravanserai.
Featured photo by Libby Fabbro, courtesy of Santana.com.