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"Madonna is a Big Mac with extra cheese, wrapped up in the fashionable new brown-paper-bag packaging. Extreme, the heavy-metal band with the light-pop hits, is a McD.L.T.--steaming hot on one side, chilled and crispy on the other. And Gerardo, the rico suave hunk of the moment, is a Breakfast Burrito, available only for a limited time."
Carlos Santana is lamenting the state of Top 40 radio in the Nineties, comparing that outlet for pre-packaged, market-tested, heavily advertised pop product to a kind of "musical McDonald's." And it's tempting, indeed, to side with the insightful rock veteran and play a little connect the dots between the current Billboard charts and today's Mickey D. menu.

But given that Santana himself has managed to score Top 10 albums in each of the last three decades, and continues to exert an influence on mainstream culture (his 1969 hit "Evil Ways" was heavily sampled on a recent rap hit, and his soloing on "Black Magic Woman" was duplicated for a Miller Genuine Draft commercial), you have to wonder from which part of that McDonald's menu rock fans are still ordering his sound. In a world of musical McNuggets with negligible nutrition value, how does Santana's tried-and-true Latin-flavored rock, its basic ingredients unchanged for 22 years, manage to stay on the franchise reorder list?

"My sound is kind of like water," says the 44-year-old pop spiritualist and electric-guitar legend. "It's like, some people like Coca-Cola and some people like Pepsi-Cola, and the so-called marketing geniuses are always trying to figure out ways to make their drink look like the coolest one of the moment.

"But sooner or later, you gotta come back to drinking water. If you don't, you die. You can't live on Coca-Cola. Those drinks are okay, but water is more essential."

It's a fitting analogy. After all these years, there's still no better way to wash down the acrid, empty aftertaste of pop music's flavor of the month than with a healthy gulp of Carlos Santana's pure, fluid guitar playing.

It's an emotionally rich, spiritually filling sound few other rock guitarists have ever come close to duplicating. "Instead of people practicing so many scales and chords and rudiments," Santana offers as advice, "they should practice putting their right index finger on the side of their head, on the spot where the doctor feels the pulse. Because when you take time to feel your own pulse of life, once you begin to play again your playing has meaning. Just ramming notes down people's ears doesn't mean anything. It's what you're putting into it.

"That's why it doesn't matter how many times I play `Black Magic Woman' or `Oye Como Va,'" he continues. "What matters is, do I feel it or not? That's what makes it valid. That's what makes it interesting and fresh. You know, it's like a kiss is still a kiss, a cry is still a cry. So how come it feels so new every time? And so special?"

The water analogy springs up often in Carlos Santana's conversation, as he speaks by telephone from the San Francisco offices of longtime friend and former manager Bill Graham.

Explaining his recent decision to leave Graham and begin managing himself, for example, Santana likens the corporate hustle and bustle of the famous entrepreneur's offices to "a swamp" that was slowing down the speedboat he feels his rejuvenated career is taking off on. Describing the 20-minute meditation he engages in before every concert, the former Sri Chimoy follower compares the process to "an inner shower."

"I try to wash the mind of all the expectations and worries I might have, so that when I go onstage I feel a strength and freshness. Like you feel after a shower.

"I keep coming back to water," admits the master allusionist, acknowledging the pattern his mind is following on this particular Monday morning. "To me, water is still the most refreshing and intoxicating thing in life. It replenishes you immediately. And every time I've got too many things on my mind, or I'm feeling angry or callous or cynical, I just take a cold shower and it brings me right back to the here and now."

For many, Santana will forever be associated with the one long shower Mother Nature provided for the 500,000 people who showed up for a three-day concert in Bethel, New York, in August 1969. Making their national debut at the infamous Woodstock Festival, the Mexico-born Santana and his San Francisco-based band upstaged many of the event's headliners with their fiery set of Africans (Live Aid, in 1985), political prisoners (the following year's Amnesty International tour) and children of El Salvadoran refugees (1988's Blues for Salvador concert).

"I'm not a minister or priest or anything," says the unrelenting do-gooder. "But I do like to change people's consciousness. 'Cause it's funky out there. There's a lot of pain, a lot of hate. And if I can just maximize people's God-given capacities for joy, gratitude and love--yeah, there's a way to change this place."

It ain't easy being wavy gravy in a Ronald McDonald world, of course. Short of starting the day with a replay of the Woodstock video, where does Santana go now for a shot of that old we-can-change-the-world idealism?

"Well, you'll never get it on MTV," he laughs. "And you won't get it from the radio. I get it from listening to some of the music that's coming out of the ghettos of Paris, and South Africa and Brazil. But you can also get it from children, all over the world. Children are very, very pure. They get right to what counts."

Santana admits he now draws most of his inspiration from his three kids, who range in age from 8 to nearly 2, and from his wife of 18 years, Deborah. "I'm constantly being taught new things by my kids now," says the dedicated family man. "And my wife is instrumental in keeping me from burning out. We do three weeks on the road and three weeks off. We pace ourselves, so that when you hear what we're trying to say [in the music], to us it's still special."

After 22 years of replenishing music fans with his own brand of carefully distilled music, does Santana ever envision a day when the well might run dry?

"Never," he insists. "I always find something new to play, even after all this time. Sometimes people say, `There's nothing new under the sun.' And that might be true. On the other hand, spring is always God's way of saying, `One more time.'

"So it's like that," he concludes. "I try to make it spring every time."

Santana will perform at Mesa Amphitheatre on Monday, September 2. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern