When writing a book, material is often written and later discarded or substantially reworked for all sorts of reasons. Very early in the process I created a couple of versions of an Introduction - which I decided to jettison entirely about halfway through the project. My agent Matthew Hamilton, who came on board around September 2012, suggested that we could use an ‘episode based’ preface. It was a good idea. The preface which appears in Bathed In Lightning was the result. There was a possibility that a Foreword by another writer might also appear at the front end of the book. It looked like that front end was getting a bit overloaded! Also, it was the case that a fair amount of the points made in the Introduction were reappearing in the main text. So the scissors came out. Here then, below, is that ‘deleted scene’.

Introduction

‘Playing as he does in a state of transported ecstasy – God playing through him, as it were – his music expresses a view of religion as heroic, epic, large-scale, of almost unbearable passion and grandeur. His YMCA swimming instructor features either wreathed in a beatific grin or contorted with the righteous efforts of a Good Man wrestling with the Devil, he radiates an incongruous air of preternatural calm in the midst of the unbelievably violent electronic/percussive sturm und drang of the music – like a man serenely bathing in lightning because he knows that it's on his side and will never hurt him.’
Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 1975[1]

‘Everything I do now I dedicate to the Supreme, I offer to the Supreme, be it good, bad or indifferent… It makes me aware of my limitations and also how I can overcome them. God wants me to be perfect and, therefore, I will be perfect. Simply because He wants me to and all I have to do is what He wants me to do.’
Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, 1971[2]

“Music is the only religion that delivers the goods.”
Frank Zappa[3]

This is a story about a number of things. Firstly, it is a story about how one man communicated his spiritual experience, and the creative fruits of that experience, to the world over five years in the 1970s. Secondly, it is a story about how that same man, through extraordinary will-power and discipline – fuelled by spiritual devotion – took mastery of his instrument to levels previously unknown. Thirdly, it is a story of how this man traversed the British musical world of the 1950s and ‘60s almost entirely under the radar, but gathering the necessary musical and spiritual ammunition to emerge in New York, apparently fully-formed, from nowhere, with a wholly new and exotic music of demanding complexity which enraptured the masses and left commentators searching for words, remaining distinctive and inspirational to this day. Finally, and not least, it is the story of how a bunch of young, unknown musicians got to jump on board the behemoth at various times in 1974 and 1975 for what would turn out to be the experience of a lifetime: a paradoxical spiritual/musical crusade around the Western world of Mammon during a time that now appears to have been a last hurrah for the glory days of the rock industry.

                The man who had built the machine, made it all possible, taken rock music – any music - to a point where none had reached before, creating sound-worlds undreamed of and in the process attaining, for himself, a kind of iconic immortality – arguably, the ultimate guitar hero despite avowed and repeated declarations of no interest in the trappings of stardom – simply turned it off towards the end of those two years. He essentially left what we may term the ‘rock arena’ and moved on, following his muse dutifully down many paths, resolutely immune to commercial considerations, slipping gradually and quietly away from the popular music world and the insatiable spotlight of its media. 

Created in his name, the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, five musicians who reached for the stars and got there, spanned July 1971 – December 1973; created in his image, the second Mahavishnu Orchestra, a roll-call of 14 musicians who had to follow the seemingly impossible, spanned January 1974 – November 1975. By the end of it all, the pure white clothing which had so potently defined their leader’s persona had gone; the double-necked guitar which had in his hands been as Excaliber to Arthur – at once a symbol and an instrument of supremacy – was broken, literally. The spiritual path which had occupied his every waking hour, driven and inspired his music and for which he had proselytised unstintingly to the world’s press was, with sorrow, abandoned.

                The man who walked away from 1975 and the path of Sri Chinmoy to set foot upon the rest of his life would remain spiritually focused, with a marked similarity of values to those he had espoused before, but without the guru and with a rather less ascetic lifestyle. He would continue to meditate daily and continue to push himself relentlessly in practice, in composition and in performance. Discipline had not been lost. Many, varied musical paths would continue to be followed in restless questing, while the line-ups of musicians he surrounded himself with would continue to evolve or change entirely at relatively swift intervals. That said, familiar names would periodically reappear in his bands while, offstage, it remains under-known and underappreciated how much goodwill exists – despite the constant changing of personnel and what that may superficially imply – between the man and his musicians. For all his public persona as a somewhat otherworldly character, supposedly detached from ‘everyday life’, existing on a higher plane than the rest of us, it is striking how so many former members of ‘the second Mahavishnu Orchestra’ speak with great affection for the man who was once Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, and describe how warmly and enthusiastically he has reconnected with them in encounters often many years, even decades, after those heady days in the mid 1970s when they toured the world together.

                Whether we subscribe or not to the path of Sri Chinmoy, as John McLaughlin did between April 1970 and an indeterminate point in the middle of 1975, the music that he created – or that was created through him – during that time has an indestructible magic about it. It is a canon that stands distinct from anything he created before or since. Indeed, the works of ‘Mahavishnu John McLaughlin’ deserve to be considered as a body of work wholly separate from the works of ‘John McLaughlin’. Whether John would agree or not, they are imbued with a spirit, a vision, a power and a clarity that gives them a wholly distinct essence from his other work – not merely a superficial stylistic difference.
If someone really believes their art was created in tandem with a higher power, and we believe that they sought communion with that higher power with all of their being during the period in question, we would do well to consider, to appreciate, their work in that light. Surviving Mahavishnu-era performances, on record releases and on ‘recordings of independent origin’[4] are akin to the artefacts of an ancient empire, treasured and held in wonder, like art or technology that we can no longer replicate; the compositions are perfectly formed, a repertoire as adaptable to interpretation from musicians and arrangers of diverse genres and instrumental focus as the works of JS Bach.[5]      
  
The story of the first, most impactful and most illustrious Mahavishnu Orchestra has told in detail before, but its successor has long, in retrospect, been the poor relation – forgotten as a brief period of ‘reheating the soufflé’ between the end of one ground-breaking entity and, in the all-acoustic, genre-defying Shakti (1976-77), the beginning of another. To chroniclers of John McLaughlin’s own history, those two years, 1974-75, are barely a footnote; in the lives of the young people who shared the adventure, it was a golden age, something that has stayed with them ever since as a magical experience. They joined up, saw the world and played in ‘the greatest band that ever was’.[6] Every night they built a wall of sound, breath-taking and exquisite, with a man dressed in white, bathed in lightning, knowing it could never hurt him.
*
‘The ‘60s, it was an amazing decade – what Miles was doing, what Coltrane was doing. And, you know, I’m an old hippie, I’m from the ‘60s. When the Beatles started making records like Revolver and Sgt Pepper, I mean, I became a fan. We were all tripping at that time, that psychedelic era, we were all in the same boat.’
                John McLaughlin, 2010[7]

‘Before I went to America I was in so many different bands and playing so many different styles of music. I loved them all, but I was so dissatisfied, and unhappy with my own performance.’
                John McLaughlin, 1973[8]

‘He was… a rock star who seemed to owe nothing to the sixties…’[9]
                Fintan O’Toole, 1996

Among the many curiosities about John McLaughlin, as a man and as a musician, is the question of how he managed to traverse ‘the long sixties’ – his professional involvement in music from 1958 to 1971 and the beginning of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra – without leaving enough trace on the public or critical consciousness to be perceived subsequently as a ‘sixties artist’. It’s quite a trick to pull off. He managed to play and, in many cases, to record with a litany of key figures from that seismic period in popular music – among them Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, Brian Auger, Pete Brown, Duffy Power, Herbie Goins, future members of Cream, Pentangle, Colosseum (all as a willing musical participant and sonic adventurer) as well as playing on any number of financially necessary mainstream pop sessions, through gritted teeth, for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and others.

And yet he managed, despite all this, to leave a footprint so faint as to be all but invisible – and certainly all but irrelevant – to the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, who flocked in awe to concerts by the Mahavishnu Orchestras Marks I and II in the 1970s. To them, barring perhaps a vague knowledge of his credentials with Miles Davis in the preceding couple of years, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin had seemingly emerged as a world-beating musician of singular vision, beyond category, out of nowhere, fully formed. 

Many of John’s peers from the heady days of shared apprenticeships on the rhythm and blues (R&B), modern jazz and session work scenes in Britain during the ‘60s had achieved international fame, financial success or both long before such things came to him. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker – all of whom John had known since 1962 and, in Jack and Ginger’s case, with whom he was to perform and record many times over the next few years – had conquered the world as Cream between 1966-68, securing a place in hearts and minds. It was an achievement and an identity which would define them, and to varying extents confine them, for the rest of their careers. Jimmy Page, a session colleague of John’s for many years, and John Paul Jones, twice a band-mate (with the Tony Meehan Combo and the Night-Timers), had followed Cream into the world-conquering business with their band Led Zeppelin, from late ‘68 onwards.

John’s one-time employers Georgie Fame and Brian Auger had gone on to pepper the decade with iconic hit singles: Georgie enjoying a post-McLaughlin trio of UK No.1s in ‘Yeh Yeh’, ‘Get Away’ and ‘The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde’; Brian Auger, with Julie Driscoll, defining the psychedelic era with their 1968 cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, a record more deeply entrenched in the mythology of those times than its UK No.5 placing might suggest. Even hardened jazzers Dick Heckstall-Smith and Jon Hiseman, each an old buddy and musical cohort of John’s, would find a path to enjoy a run of UK Top 30 album successes between 1968-71 in Colosseum, without compromising their ideals.

Behind the scenes, another former employer of John’s, Pete Brown – as left-field an artist as one might encounter even in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ - was to find himself unexpectedly bankable as co-writer of Cream’s most popular songs, while Big Jim Sullivan, one of John’s closest friends and a session-work colleague for many years, was to hit serious pay-dirt as MD with cabaret king Tom Jones during the height of his Las Vegas years, 1970-75 (a period he would often recall as ‘the best 45 years of my life’). 
For much of his own journey between 1958 and 1971, in both Britain and America, John would, in contrast, endure periods of grinding poverty. Committing in the middle of the decade to what he recalls as around 18 months of pop session work was an oasis of financial stability but a source of ultimately untenable stress.

‘Everyone’s got his own dues to pay just for being on Earth,’ he said, only a few years later. ‘We all have to act, make a living, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There were times when I used to weep for frustration, oh, just emotional and mental anguish of being unable to articulate oneself. The search throws your comfortable values into total chaos. If you’re seeking, you’re aware that what’s apparent isn’t necessarily so. It’s a painful process.’[10]

Other musicians may have been able to either align their muse toward a path of success – as the Cream certainly did – or, as many other musicians were able, to sacrifice or ignore any artistic concerns to achieve their 15 minutes (or more) of fame in what was a golden age of appetite and opportunity for music consumption. But John McLaughlin simply did not have it in his being to pursue anything other than his muse. And even finding that muse was to prove a long and tortuous process, involving years of relentless discipline to understand and master every scale, chord and rhythm known (or as yet unknown) to man and, of yet more importance, to wander down dark avenues toward self-realisation. Only in complete mastery of his instrument could he set aside thought and knowledge and be sure that if and when inspiration came it would be unfettered by any lack of technique.

                ‘I felt a long time ago that music and being are aspects of the same mystery,’ he later said. ‘The most difficult thing, I think, in being a musician is to get out of the way… If I’m thinking about it, I’m in the way. You have to forget, to forget everything… That’s difficult because it’s a paradox… You have to know everything, then you have to forget it all.’[11]
And yet there would always be more to learn: the process would never stop, but the first pinnacle alone – a pinnacle of knowledge and capability that few others on Earth would ever attain - would take the decade to scale.

                Asked once if, when his friends in the Cream became successful, a part of him didn’t think ‘that could have been me’, his response was emphatic: ‘No way - why should I give a shit? Great for them, fantastic - but I was very happy...’[12] John’s lack of envy was both genuine and entirely natural to him. But whether he was ‘happy’ at the time is more open to question. Several of John’s colleagues across the decade recall an individual of great sensitivity, often introspective, prone to periods of frustration and profound unhappiness as he tried to find his path and, in essence, himself.    

Commercial considerations and manipulating situations to get on the rungs of any ladder were alien to John. When his flatmate at the time, bassist Dave Holland, got a call to join Miles Davis in New York in 1968 it ‘was a coup for an Englishman, we were thrilled to bits,’ John recalled.[13] It would, simply, have been inconceivable for John to have asked his friend to put a word in for him or to pass on a tape or suchlike. When Miles’ drummer, Tony Williams, called John from New York later that year, it was on the basis of another musician, Jack DeJohnette, having jammed with John, Dave and himself at Ronnie Scott’s London jazz club. John had been thrilled to play with Jack but ‘what I didn’t know was that Jack had recorded it’.[14] That single selfless, unmanipulated gesture, of one musician passing on a discrete recording of this amazing, unknown musician in England to Tony Williams - already himself hot property, and one of John’s idols – in New York would open the gate to John’s international career. He always needed to be in New York; the only mystery, looking at it from the outside, is why it took him so long to get there. All that can be said was that when his opportunity manifested itself it was, in karmic terms, the right time. Three, four or five years earlier, New York could have destroyed him.

Formatively, the ‘60s was crucial to John’s spiritual and musical development. Regarding his music of that time itself, though, it would be fair to say that John would see it as juvenilia. He is, and always has been, his own harshest critic. When asked, in 1978, if he left his adolescence behind him when he turned professional (20 years earlier) John replied, ‘I’m still trying to lose it’.[15] Aside from early recordings as a sideman, he dismisses even those venerable jazz critics and encylopaedia compilers who would imbue his first solo album Extrapolation (1969) – in many ways, the culmination of his British years – with five-star status as ‘out of their tiny minds’.[16] 

Nevertheless, while John may dismiss, downplay or in many cases simply forget his recordings and record releases during the pre-America years[17], it’s clear from many fond references over subsequent decades that he remains a child of the ‘60s at heart, even if he may appear at times to have slipped through the decade in a manner redolent of Woody Allen’s Zelig – a fictional character recalled only vaguely, yet mysteriously present in the background of photographs at many historical events.
 ‘I just happened to be there, that’s all,’[18] John said once, Zelig-like, of his presence in the great melting-pot of London’s world-changing music scene in the ‘60s. Where the comparison falters, however, is in the pictorial evidence: the number of known images of John McLaughlin prior to 1970 can be counted in single figures, with 30 seconds of film from a free jazz event in Germany in 1968 the totality of currently known moving image.

At the other end of scale, and of the decade, he once revealed that ‘when the Beatles broke up… I was very shaken. This is the kind of thing you just don’t think is going to happen.’[19]  As a band-leader, he would have no qualms, no sentimentality in disbanding the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, even knowing the effect it would have on the audience that loved it. But he still recognised acutely the paradox of his own irrational reliance, as a fan, on the continued existence of the Beatles, the totemic heart of the world he had grown up and served his apprenticeship in.

Finding a rock of greater substance upon which to anchor his ship, in the eventual form of Sri Chinmoy, would prove crucial to John’s ability to find his own voice musically, to channel his muse in a pure and startling form in the following decade. It is hard to imagine that there is any other ‘old hippie’ who has cast off the shackles of the 1960s so effectively, and with such consequence on the musical world, as John McLaughlin. While as an artist he transcends time – transcending, to a great extent, being seen even as a ‘70s act’ by virtue of his continued, relentless evolution, his lack of interest in nostalgia and his lack of reliance in performing ad infinitum material associated with his past bands – and transcends nationality[20], John McLaughlin was nevertheless, undeniably, made in Britain and forged in the white heat of the 1960s.


[1] ‘Ike and Tina Turner, Caravan, John McLaughlin et al: Startruckin' 75’,
Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 23/8/75
[2] ‘An Interview with Guitarist John McLaughlin’, Jonathan Penzner, Hit Parader, 5/71
[3] Sourced from www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/22302.Frank_Zappa?page=1 Accessed: 5/4/12
[4] At the time of writing, at least 70 full or partial concert recordings from the first band are easily available online, along with nearly four hours of film; for the second band, at least 25 concert recordings plus around three hours of film are easily available. Known concert recordings not yet made available, seemingly legitimately, at www.wolfgangsvault.com (made by sound engineer Dinky Dawson and promoter Bill Graham) add around 30 and 36 more concert audio recordings for each band respectively, and potentially more film.
[5] To date, aside from numerous tribute bands and tribute recordings more or less in the style of the originals, the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra has been recorded in arrangements for solo piano, classical guitar/violin, acoustic guitar quartet, string quartet and big band.
[6] This phrase, part of the subtitling of Walter Kolosky’s Mahavishnu Orchestra biography Power, Passion And Beauty (Abstract Logic, 2005), was seemingly first used in print by Steve Kindler, violinist with the second Mahavishnu Orchestra, in an interview for Down Beat, 16/12/76, referring to the first band: ‘The Orchestra was the greatest band that ever was; there was no band like it before and there probably won’t be another one like it again.’
[7] Official promo video interview for To The One, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bY5r44D_Lxo Accessed 27/4/12
[8] ‘John McLaughlin: Natural High’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 30/6/73
[9] My Generation: Rock’n’Roll, An Imperfect History (Lilliput Press, 1996) Ed: Farrell, Guinness, Lloyd
[10] Untitled interview, Brian Case, NME, 1/2/75
[11] ‘Coffee And Chocolates For Two Guitars’, Robert Fripp, Musician, ?/82
[12] Interview with the author, 17/1/96
[13] ‘Evolution Of A Master’, Chuck Berg, Down Beat, 15/6/78. Miles Davis had happened to see Dave Holland in a trio opening for pianist Bill Evans’ trio (with whom Jack DeJohnette was playing) during an Evans residency, probably for a week, at Ronnie Scott’s club in 1968. Miles later hired Dave Holland on the basis of that performance. John McLaughlin has never mentioned meeting Miles at this time but at some point during the residency, Dave, John and Jack jammed after-hours, or during the daytime, and DeJohnette made his recording – presumably on a reel-to-reel machine which, frankly, would have been fairly difficult to conceal. The Ronnie Scott’s residency would have been sometime around July/August 1968, as Miles’ album Filles De Kilimanjaro was recorded in two sessions – in June and September – with Dave Holland replacing bassist Ron Carter in the September session, and at least two weeks elapsing between the London shows and the call from Davis.
[14] ‘Evolution Of A Master’, Chuck Berg, Down Beat, 15/6/78
[15] Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (Dell, 1978), Julie Coryell & Laura Friedman. The interviewer, Julie Coryell, asked, perhaps incredulously, if he really meant this, to which John replied, ‘Yes’.
[16] Interview with the author, 17/1/96
[17] During my own interview with John in 1996, he was unaware, for example, that his composition ‘Cruisin’’ had been released by Herbie Goins & The Night-Timers (a single in 1966, albeit released after he had left the band) and unaware, save in vague terms, that any of his recordings with Duffy Power had been released – despite having been in Duffy’s Nucleus when a UK single and French EP were released in 1966 and 1967 respectively, including two Power/McLaughlin co-writes. Further recordings with Duffy appeared in LP form as Innovations in 1971, including two further co-writes. All of these have been reissued on various CDs. John will have been receiving PRS income, albeit modest, for these compositions ever since their initial release. His unawareness of these sort of matters is surely an indication that his priorities do not include forensically examining royalty statements.
[18] ‘John McLaughlin’, Tony Jasper, Guitar, 3/75
[19] ‘Coffee And Chocolates For Two Guitars’, Robert Fripp, Musician, ?/82
[20]  Journalists would often comment about John’s curious and evolving accent over the years, picking up lilts from wherever he was living at the time. ‘Every country I visit, I feel at home in, because you carry your home with you in your mind,’ he explained once (‘John McLaughlin: Natural High’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 30/6/73). In 1974, when under pressure to become an American citizen in order to continue living in New York John was pragmatic: ‘It doesn’t matter; it’s only a piece of paper. I feel loyalty to all countries… I have a great love for Europe, though I don’t feel myself to be any particular nationality. I would say I am a European rather than an Englishman…’ (‘McLaughlin: It was natural evolution’, Chris Charlesworth, Melody Maker, 2/2/74)