Santana’s True Tone

the_universal_tone_carlos_santana_WEBAn Intimate Evening With Santana: Greatest Hits Live at House of Blues Las Vegas (see review here) remains a strong draw. Carlos Santana and his band deliver a ferocious set, even if some hipsters view him as a guitar-wanking, New Age spouting, women’s-shoe-designing jam band guru responsible for a cloying collaboration with Rob Thomas (“Smooth”).

Good thing, then, that Santana’s recent memoir, The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light (Little Brown, $30), succeeds in reminding us of the virtuoso’s gritty, hard-scrabble rise. The son of a violinist, Santana was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and cut his teeth playing blues shuffles in the bump-and-grind joints of Tijuana (Santana describes it as “a kind of Casablanca for black Americans” in the early ’60s). Even at 14, he could read a room and deftly wield the power of music:

I remember some guys would bring their girlfriends there, start to drink, and get distracted by these beautiful strippers. Then their dates would get jealous. We could tell from the stage what was going on—the tension, the emotion. We’d decide to have a little fun and start playing a tune with just the right breaks and heavy rhythm—ba-da-bum, ba-da-bum—and next thing you know the girlfriend would be up and taking off her shirt, then her brassiere. Two or three times we were able to make that happen—actually strip someone who wasn’t a stripper.

Santana’s family moved to California, at one point physically removing him from a going-nowhere career in Tijuana, where he’d contracted tuberculosis. Stateside, he struggled to fit in and graduate from high school, but found acceptance in the exploding San Francisco music scene. Eventually Santana met impresario Bill Graham, who had the teenager opening for The Who at the Fillmore. Graham would go on to negotiate a record deal for Santana and seal his place in rock history with a Woodstock gig.

Like a pair of cool sunglasses, Tone tints Santana’s life story in places where blazing light isn’t required. He eloquently expresses the pain of child molestation and his journey of healing and forgiveness. He movingly articulates the sweet genius of abrasive friends such as Miles Davis. And his mumbo-jumbo tangents (as when he discusses the representation of Christ in Franco Zeffirelli’s made-for-TV Jesus of Nazareth) are oddly endearing.

There are lapses: Santana fails to note the fatal beating of great jazz-rock bassist Jaco Pastorius outside his concert in 1987. And despite professing a love of comic books, he excludes adventure comic Scout, featuring Apache protagonist Emanuel Santana. Nitpicking aside, Tone hits the right music-memoir notes.

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