Could Rock and Roll Survive 1969?
It was July of 1969. The state of rock and roll seemed to be in flux.
Guitar wonder of the world Jimi Hendrix wasn’t selling enough albums. And if Jimi Hendrix wasn’t moving units, what hope did the rest of rock music have?
Jim Morrison of The Doors was in trouble with the law. He had a bit of a meltdown and exposed himself during a concert. This lead to his inevitable arrest. Suddenly, the controversy of shock theatrics seemed to eclipse the music. And wasn’t it supposed to be all about the music?
And Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone, one of the industry’s newest rock, funk, and soul darlings, was tangled up in drugs. The use and abuse of drugs would wreck careers and ruin lives in rock and roll. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are maybe the two names that first spring to mind, but there are legions of others. Syd Barrett. Brian Jones. Kurt Cobain. The list goes on and on.
So 1969, it seemed, represented turbulent times for rock and roll. Non-musical events like commerciality, drug abuse, and sexual expression seemed to be dominating the atmosphere. Would rock music even survive?
But something else was happening in rock and roll at that moment. A band named Santana had just recorded their very first album and the band was in the preparatory stages of releasing it. In the meantime, they were getting ready for a gig. While playing a show was nothing uncommon for the San Francisco Bay Area band, as it turned out, this particular gig was going to change the lives of everyone in the band.
The name of the gig was Woodstock.
Bill Graham’s Quest to Bring Santana to the World
In 1969, Bill Graham was not one of the most recognizable faces in rock and roll. Unlike Bob Dylan or John Lennon, Bill Graham could slip into a bar and have a drink without a person so much as batting an eyelash, let alone setting the establishment into a frenzy.
Nevertheless, Graham was one of the most important men in the rock and roll business. Born in Germany, the American immigrant would found the Fillmore and the Fillmore East, two of the most important venues in all of rock history.
He also was pretty good at sniffing out real rock talent. And he saw something in Santana.
With their Latin roots, rich percussion, and lead axeman Carlos Santana’s distinctive and expressive guitar tone, Santana was unlike anything else happening in rock. Graham knew that they could be enormous. He just needed to get them in front of the right audience.
And to accomplish that he had an idea.
Bill Graham in 1969 was working on the Woodstock project. The outdoor festival of peace, love, and music would go on to become the most historic and legendary concert in all of rock history. It therefore had the power to make or break a band.
What would it do for Santana?
Woodstock – Unlike Anything Santana had Experienced Before
Santana agreed to play Woodstock and Bill Graham arranged for the members of the band to stay in a house in Woodstock, New York the week of the festival. The town was sleepy. The men in Santana got bored. Sometimes a member of the band would meet a woman and bring her back to the house. Other times they wouldn’t.
There were other musicians hanging around, too. The folk-rock icon Bob Dylan, who had changed the entire rock and roll game, lived near the quiet upstate New York town. Jimi Hendrix, a guitar god, was hanging around too. But Carlos Santana was too intimidated by his legend to seek him out for counsel or even a drink. After all, who the heck were Santana? This was Jimi Hendrix.
When the Friday of the festival arrived, rumors came swirling through to Santana that things out there were a mess. The traffic getting to Bethel, New York, the actual site of the New York City festival, was so terrible that people were getting stuck on the road. Even abandoning their vehicles. The concert was also having some sound problems.
The band was told to arrive at the concert early on Saturday and by 5:00am they were ready to go. As the band helicoptered down towards the festival, they could see a vast sea of people. The roar of the crowd was so intense that it drowned out the sound of the helicopter.
This was unlike anything Santana, a little band from the Bay Area, had ever experienced before.
Jerry Garcia – A Familiar Face in the Crowd
In a sea of uncertainty, of unknown faces, a familiar visage emerged from out of the crowd. It was the face of Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, another Bay Area band that Santana knew from back home.
Garcia and Carlos Santana made a bit of small talk when suddenly Garcia offered Santana some mescaline. Santana didn’t hesitate. The band wasn’t supposed to go on until the evening. Plenty of time to get high and come back down.
Or so he thought.
Because of the traffic situation, some of the bands scheduled to play were missing. In response, the organizers of the concert had to frantically figure out how to rearrange the schedule. They needed a band to fill the next slot. There was a panic. Then suddenly it dawned on them.
Santana. Santana would go on next.
Carlos and the rest of the band were approached by the organizers. They were told that if they didn’t get onstage immediately to play that they would lose their spot in the festival.
It was now or never. And Carlos Santana was only beginning his mescaline trip.
The Legend of Santana
This wasn’t the first time Carlos Santana was going to play guitar high.
But this was a momentous occasion. The band had never played a show like this before. Not in sheer magnitude. This was a different beast.
As Carlos and the band took to the stage, they launched into their first song. They opened with the lead tune from their upcoming debut album, “Waiting.”
This was unlike anything the Woodstock crowd had heard before. The Latin-tinged percussion. The groove-heavy bass. The hypnotic organ ringing out above the crowd.
And then the guitar. That tone. The inflection. A melodicism unlike any other.
Meanwhile, Santana was literally praying that the Lord would keep him in tune as he began to hallucinate. He watched as his Red Gibson SG morphed into a slithering snake in his hands. Yet his hands magically kept performing, as if through divine intervention or pure hypnotism.
And the crowd was eating it up.
The band played for 45 minutes at Woodstock that day. And when it was all over, the crowd was ecstatic. As the band began to inch towards the exit, Bill Graham rushed over and stopped them. He motioned for them to look out into the crowd.
“Savor this moment” he softly uttered to the band.
The members of Santana took in the view, utterly astonished at what was happening.
This was the last time that Santana was ever going to be anonymous. This same band would go on to sell over 90 million albums. They would win 8 Grammy awards. And they’d be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But for a few more brief minutes at time, they were just a little band from the San Francisco Bay Area, anonymous and pure, playing their music the only way they knew how.
Straight from their hearts.
– Brian Reiser