Extract From Bathed In Lightning (eBook bonus chapters)

Context: It’s 1975, the second Mahavishnu Orchestra have recently finished a European tour and are enjoying some down-time before an onslaught of dates from April to June. But changes are afoot…

A huge American tour, co-headlining with English guitar hero Jeff Beck, had been booked running from April 24 to June 15, with two weeks off in the middle (May 12-27). Prior to that the Mahavishnu Orchestra had a run of seven or eight dates at East Coast universities during which to warm up. But there was a problem. Jean-Luc was leaving. Having waited ages for a solo violinist opportunity, Steve Kindler had to deal with two coming along at once:
‘Elliott [Sears] introduced me to Jan and Jerry, long before he introduced me to Jan and Jerry,’ says Steve, ‘by playing a pre-release test cassette of [their duo album] Like Children[1] that he’d just brought back to our road from Caribou Ranch [in Colorado], and Ken Scott’s amazing ears. Music, some of which I would be saddled with for years to come.[2] But he also told Jan about me, and seeing that I was, at that point, eminently qualified for the kind of music that Jan played, had me placed just there when the moment arrived. And the moment, for me, was in my sister’s little log cabin up on Mount Scott in Vanillaville [Oregon].
‘We were off the road and Barb and I had just spent the night up talking, smoking and playing and listening to music, as was our wont, when the phone rang. It was 5am, a year after the first phone call. Barb answered, looked around eyes bulging, and hissed, ‘Jan Hammer!’.
‘I took the phone laughing nervously, ‘Jan! To what do I owe the honour?’
‘He said, ‘Hey man, Elliott Sears gave me your name and said you might be available. Jerry and I have had a falling out and have parted company and I need a violinist. Elliott said you could handle it. I’ve got a four-piece with Doug Rouch and Tony Smith and I want you to come up to my farm and rehearse.’
‘Just like that. Just like Jan, straight to the point, ‘right into the net’. I don’t know what I said after that, what I was able to incoherently sputter out, or what he said, but I put down the receiver with a vague notion that we were to meet and play upstate at his house. After jumping and cavorting around Barb’s cabin howling with laughter in stark raving glee we both sat down in amazement. With the possibilities spinning cyclonic around us and her trying to be the voice of reason and prudent advice, before the dust had even settled, there comes another ‘rhanging on the pheune’. Barb answers, turns dumbstruck, and whispers vacantly, ‘John McLaughlin’. Terrified, I take the phone.
‘Hello, STEVEN?’ in a stern voice.
‘Mahavishnu,’ I said meekly, ‘what a surprise…’
‘Do you remember what I said to you again and again all through this year, when you were begging me to give you more opportunity to play?’
‘To be patient and to prepare and be ready?’
‘And how rapidly things can change?’
‘Yes, yes?’ I said, almost squeaking.
‘Well things have changed. Jean-Luc has left the Orchestra.’
‘And we have a national tour that’s been booked, in less than a month, with Jeff Beck. And I want you to know that I am counting on you take over Jean-Luc’s position and play solo violin…’
‘Oh Mahavishnu! Thank you ver...’
‘.. and what’s more, I would be very disappointed in you if, for any reason, you were not there to take over as soloist. (Basically, ‘after all I’ve put up with’.) Do you understand?’
‘Y-yes Mahavishnu… Oh thank you Mahavishnu… I’m SO happy Mahavishnu! I’ll be there Mahavishnu…’ grovel, toady, grovel, fawn, fawn, etcetera.
‘Once again the end of the conversation was lost beneath the sound of the ‘Hammer’ing of my pulse, sounding the very tramp of doom in my temples as I sat there stunned, wondering what in the name of Jesus’s Jammies I was going to do. The two best gigs any violinist could ever imagine and they both fall in my lap in the same hour.
‘Didn’t I tell Jan that I would join his band?’ I asked weakly.
‘Barb’s pat answer: ‘Do both.’
‘Then it began to dawn, even on my addled brainstem, 5am… 8am New York time… Mahavishnu had gotten wind of Elliott’s little scheme and the departure of Jerry, and they both were waiting until opening of business to call me, at the crack of last night in the north woods.[3]
‘When I got back to NYC, and walked into SIR, into that same rehearsal room in which I’d watched the first Shakti rehearsal, I had, thanks to Elliott’s advice and reassurance, a plan that seemed reasonable and forthright. But I was still petrified to ask Mahavishnu to give me a day off to go play with Jan. With good reason. As soon as he heard Jan’s name from my trembling voice he pointed me the door. But with Elliott right there to speak for me, after my brain and mouth stopped working, the moment ended quasi-amicably, and Mahavishnu, once again detached and compassionate, let me have my fun. The next day I wended my way upstate.
‘The jam with Jan was fantastic, of course. Doug Rauch and Tony Smith were the best rhythm section that I’d ever heard. Funky as the day is long! Doug Rauch, Rest His Soul, my favourite all time bass player. And Jan on the Minimoog? Dazzling in so many ways - execution, feel, command of odd times. My folks were both folk dance instructors, and so I was born listening to the Balkans, Eastern Europe, you know. That’s why I could hang, in some measure, with those cats. But Jan was born there, and he said he used to wake up when he was little, open the window, and there’d be this accordion player or bagpipe player with a drummer out in the alley, just ‘burning out in 11, or 13, or 9’. So I mean it was in his blood, not so much up in the head like the Indian plays time signatures, but naturally funkier and danceable, which after all it is, dance music. That was some of the magic of MO1, the blending of those disparate concepts of time - Indian, Czech, and Central American. And why Jan was always the consummate player of jazz rock, fusion, whatever you want to call it. To me, he was the best. So I got my jowls torqued that day and no mistake! I brought a cassette back for the Mahavishnu Orchestra to listen to as well. Torqued their jowls too. And so the ‘timing’ worked out perfectly as well, for Jan was recording [his solo album] The First Seven Days and asked me to come back during the two week break in the middle of the Mahavishnu/Jeff Beck tour and play on the album. ‘Sure thing!’’
Following the European tour, further changes were made which would transform the second Mahavishnu Orchestra from an essentially symphonic unit into a funk band. The (once symphonic) brass section became, in effect, an R&B wind section:
‘John came over to my house,’ says Bob Knapp, ‘and told me that Jean-Luc had left the band and he was going to have to change the line-up somehow and wanted to get somebody who was more of a soloist, like on sax or something. I said, ‘Well, you know, I wasn’t brought in to be a soloist’. He said, ‘I know, I know, but we’re going to try this with Norma Jean…’ She was more of a kind of R&B sax player, wearing glittery get-ups, trying to bring more soul to it or something! And I was like, ‘Well, we’ll always be friends, you know. It’s your band, you can do with it as you need’. I would have liked to have played with the band the whole time. I wasn’t really asked to be a front person. Maybe if I had been asked, I could’ve stepped up to it – I don’t know.’
            Norma Jean Bell, a saxophonist and vocalist, was a friend of Ralphe Armstrong, and yet another native of Detroit. As with Ralphe, Michael Walden and Greg DiGiovine, she was also an alumnus of the New McGuire Sisters:
We first met Norma up at the farm [in Canaan, Connecticut],’ says Greg. ‘And she was like a bundle of energy – fun, crazy, wild, a really funky player. The women before her – except, maybe a little bit, Carol Shive – were all very humble and conservative and sweet and very low-key. Norma was like a fire-cracker. When you get people from the Detroit area together – Narada, Ralphe, Norma Jean - even if they’re not like that all the time, they can tune into that [sound] because they all grew up with it. It was easy for them to do that. It brought a little bit of fun to John because he did like to flirt around with playing funk sometimes.’
            Aside from the nature of the band, in its music, the equilibrium within it – never perfect, but arguably at its most settled during the European tour - changed too:
‘There were three black people in the band then, who hung out together,’ says Carol, ‘and I felt that energy-wise. I felt shy around it ‘cos there was a force there, or attitude. The vibe was different. That’s just on a personal level, I don’t know how the other white people felt.’
            Phil Hirschi’s nose was perhaps even more out of joint with the new development:
‘Dropping Bob – dropping a disciple – for this girl who wasn’t a disciple: I was not happy about that, and I viewed it as a crumbling of the spiritual core of the group. She dressed kind of provocatively, which I was scandalised by. We were very uptight. Bob Knapp and I were good friends and I was very sad… I attributed it to [John] wanting to black up the band a little bit. He was going a little bit more towards a cosmic funk kind of thing. It felt like he wasn’t as dedicated to the path as he had been before.’
Steve Kindler was more open to the new injection of energy:
‘Mahavishnu’s addition of Norma Jean ‘the Queen’ Bell, late of Stevie Wonder’s band, was… wonderful. We loved her. A real sweetheart, great energy, great singer. Hangin’ with [her and Ralphe] was so much fun, a revelation. And with her to bounce off of (sometimes literally) Ralphe was a different guy. So wonderful to be a part of, for little white me to see what urban Detroit was all about. She wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated, wouldn’t take any shit from Ralphe, or anybody. Pure joy! I remember being up in the room, and we were playing music, you know, trying to put something together for the band. We had a cassette player ‘up in there’. And talking about ‘spiritual’ music. And Ralphe says, ‘I just don’t understand why, if you’re sing songs about Guru, it has to be something like - and then he breaks into this cloying falsetto - ‘Peace in the heart of the lover, of the looOOoouuUUoover…’ cracking us up. ‘If you’re you’re gonna sing then, dammit, sing! ‘Talking ‘bout a Guuuuroo… Take me to yo Guuuuroo…’’ sung to the tune of Sly Stone’s ‘Higher’ while doin’ the Bump with Norma Jean.’
            ‘Frankly, I like to see racially mixed bands,’ John said, later that year. ‘The music the Mahavishnu Orchestra is playing stems greatly from the real, ethnic, indigenous culture of America – the blues, jazz, funk – that is, black music. Music is very strong as far as the black race is concerned, and Michael and Ralphe have their own feelings about what music should be. It’s like the Indians: when they play, they play; they don’t mess around… [B]ut you do get interesting things happening with a cross-pollination of races.’[i]
Steve Kindler, for one, can testify to it:
‘Ralphe always ridiculed the way I dressed saying, ‘Kinlahs, look at yourself - white jeans, white tennis shoes, white tee shirt… man, you’re playin’ with the world’s greatest band, the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA! And you look like ‘what died and who did it’! Man, you gotta git y’self some style!’ But whenever I went out for ‘stagewear’ with him, when I came back it was like open season on ‘Stevie’. Once in Cleveland I came in with this ‘slick’ pair of white satin pants with those big disco cuffs on the bottom. It must have looked absurd, with everyone but Ralphe laughing in unison. ‘I didn’t know Woolworths was open today,’ says ‘GQ’ Joseph, cueing more hoots of laughter.
‘At a boutique down the block from Electric Ladyland, Ralphe points to a pair of ‘white’ 5-inch platforms, saying, ‘Man, them thangs are hip. Look good on you, Stevie!’
‘You think so Ralphe?’
‘I’m like 6’4” and in those bitches I must have looked like Frankenwhite. Get to Kennedy Airport on our way to London, walk up to the group, and Mahavishnu practically falls over laughing. But gradually, over the last six months, as we got comfortable with the demands of the music, and with the growing awareness of ‘band image’ and the ‘show business’ environment of glitter and glamour that we occupied, the nurse’s aide look, so assiduously adhered to at the beginning by the disciples, slowly gave way to a more style-conscious appearance. And when Norma signed on in the spring of ‘75, effectively forming our own little Motown Revue within the ranks, there was a change of perspective regarding the importance of growth in the realm of ‘stage presence’. The smell of incense was still there, but mixed with the smell of raspberry ‘Afrosheen’.’

[1] Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman, both still managed by Nat Weiss, recorded Like Children in 1974, for Nat’s Nemperor label, with Ken Scott producing. Jan played keys and drums, Jerry played violin and guitar. A quirky but underappreciated album, it featured several late-period MO1 cast-offs: ‘I Wonder’, ‘Steppings Tones’, ‘Full Moon Boogie’. Ralphe Armstrong recalls that he was asked to play bass for the pair in a live band, but Jan and Jerry fell out before it came to pass.
[2] Steve Kindler was to join the Jan Hammer Group later in 1975. Eliott Sears would leave the MO operation, in May, and dedicate himself to Jan’s new solo career. Steve: ‘Elliott saw a young, talented, reasonably good looking kid with a promising future (so he thought) and (also) did many helpful things to further my meteoric rise to failure. He [later] introduced me to Cat Stevens, whose music I learned on violin and guitar, in preparation for touring behind the Isitso album, who I rehearsed with and was on the verge of touring with, when… he gave it all up and embraced Islam.’
[3] Jan had initially phoned Carol Shive with the offer to join his group, possibly even that same morning. Carol: ‘When the MO broke up, in the middle of the night Jan Hammer called me, and I thought, ‘What? Who’s calling me at 2.30 in the morning? I have to get up at 5.30 and meditate!’ And here’s Jan, wild-assed, crazy hippy man asking me to be his electric violinist in this new band that he was forming. So – I was in shock - it took me all of maybe 10 seconds to wake up and go, ‘Carol, you are not a maniac, wonderful, incredible musician like wild-man Jan… No!’ I said, ‘Er, Jan, thank you very much for asking but I think the person that you want to have in your band is Steve Kindler’. He was set for having a woman in his band, or whatever, and I just kept saying, ‘No, I’m telling you: Steve knows how to improvise much better than I do, his energy is much more in tune with the way you are…’’

[i] ‘Visions Of The Ever Changing Mahavishnu’, Mick Brown, Sounds, 13/9/75