Released on Columbia Records in 1973, Love Devotion Surrender was a collaborative album by John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana. I purchased it as a teenager and was taken aback by the back-cover photo of the two guitarists — dressed all in white, hands clasped in respectful prayer — with spiritual teacher Sri Chimnoy. I thought, I know McLaughlin was into this spiritual stuff, but I guess he roped Carlos in too? More on this in a moment.
Love Devotion Surrender is a mind blower of an album, starting with its version of “A Love Supreme,” a track that, to me, features the greatest guitar duel ever. Curiously, McLaughlin is mixed louder on it than Santana, but both men are on fire, answering each other respectfully, with sawed-off shotguns blaring. There is a wonderful calm after the storm, as the amazing Larry Young plays mystical, atmospheric organ lines that conjure a blissful sunrise after a violent hurricane.
But the album has many other highlights, like the intimate acoustic duet “Naima,” on which Carlos plays the melody introspectively. On “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord,” McLaughlin shreds tirelessly over the music, his solo so energized that it’s almost otherworldly. It’s good when the band starts to groove and Carlos does his thing, but to me McLaughlin is the star of this track. When he re-enters, his playing is so intense that you can almost feel his Marshall amp shaking the ground.
Like many in the vinyl age, I listened to the album while reading its liner notes, which declared, ”Love is sweet, devotion is sweeter, surrender is the sweetest.” To me, a teenage kid growing up in south San Francisco unaware of any spirituality other than Catholicism, those writings about love, peace, joy and bliss were like a message in a bottle, inviting me to a higher plane of existence. Trying to understand why Santana and McLaughlin embraced Sri Chimnoy, I concluded they were simply trying to be better people.
Love Devotion Surrender seems improbable now. We have access to millions of MP3s without liner notes. We have guitar heroes who consume material goods to such a degree that what they own is as important as the music they play. Everyone is trying to make a buck, me included, but McLaughlin, Carlos, Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan and my other guitar heroes of that time weren’t fetishizing consumption.
Through his music and spiritual example, McLaughlin altered the course of my life. As a teenager, I intuitively sensed there was something greater than what I was experiencing, and Love Devotion Surrender beckoned me to take a journey that was righteous and true. To my limited knowledge, McLaughlin may no longer fully embrace the beliefs he had back then, but even today, “To serve and never be tired is love” is a beautiful message to put on a record jacket.