Having vented my spleen on Santana’s utterly shitty Guitar Heaven, I would like to turn now to a broader contextual discussion of the record. How does something like this come into existence (and I am not prepared to rule out the possibility that a mad scientist created it in an attempt to destroy the world) and who is it for? And what, if anything, could such a musical abomination mean?
To take the last question first, Guitar Heaven might be the last nail in the coffin that holds the rapidly putrefying remains of Rolling Stone’s credibility. The magazine gave the album three stars (out of five) and called the performances, “mostly faithful to the originals” which suggests to me that Rolling Stone‘s Mark Kemp may not have actually listened to Guitar Heaven. Not that I can blame him. If you think the Joe Cocker-sung abortion that they call “Little Wing” on this album is “faithful” to Jimi Hendrix’s original, I will fight you. I will literally, violently, will all the force of my rage, fight you. With a two-by-four and a sock full of quarters. If anything, Cocktana’s version of “Little Wing” serves as definitive proof that we should pass an international law that forbids people to cover Jimi Hendrix songs.
And how did something like Guitar Heaven come to exist? That’s the easiest question of all to answer: it came about the same way every Santana album has for the last dozen years. Santana decides he wants to buy a boat, some producers come in and write some shitty tracks, arrange the collaborations with some brand-name, talentless vocalists (I know some people think that lasting a few weeks on American Idol means you’re talented, but I submit to you that it means exactly the opposite of that), and behold! a full-length album’s worth of crap is ready to clog up your FM radio for another year. Santana gets his boat, one or more asshole collaborators get Grammys, and everyone wins except, of course, people who believe in things like truth and beauty. Guitar Heaven turns the formula on its head by eliminating the need to actually write songs at all – now, Santana and his partners in crime (let’s just call it what it is, okay?) can mangle songs that people already know and love. And don’t believe for a second that this is a one-time deal; I’ll bet you every one of Carlos Santana’s dollars that there will be a Guitar Heaven II some time in the near future.
So who’s it for? You might be inclined to guess that it’s for the same Baby Boomers who saw Santana, drugged off his ass, at Woodstock forty-one years ago. If so, shouldn’t they be outraged? After all, Guitar Heaven almost certainly represents the co-opting and watering down of some of the great, primal rock ‘n’ roll moments that were the soundtrack to the youth of a many a Baby Boomer. Santana’s guitar tone renders the notes of Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Angus Young in a warm, digitally polished shine that is about as vital as a road-killed squid (it happens more often than you think) and only one vocal performance on Guitar Heaven really does justice to the original song; Chester Bennington’s performance on the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”, is every bit as boring as Jim Morrison’s.
Of course, Guitar Heaven isn’t just a cynical attempt to create and cash in on the perfect Baby Boomer nostalgia bait. It also tries to nab those of us on the cusp of Generation X and whatever the fuck the generation after X was. “Photograph” was a song from my childhood and having Chris Daughtry sing it is a clear attempt to get fourteen-year-old girls to buy this album or at least get that one track from I-Tunes. And if we’re talking about cynicism, what other word describes putting “Under the Bridge” on the album at all? The song is clearly not a guitar classic, but it was on the radio twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for about two straight years in the 1990s. That one is aimed squarely at people my age (as is the inclusion of Chris Cornell, although I was not fooled into believing for even a second that Cornell is as great as he was even as late as Superunknown), but literally nobody my age has ever strummed a solitary air-guitar note to “Under the Bridge.” Why? Because it’s the slow, sensitive song you put on when you want to try and slide into second base (I never did that, but I knew guys who did).
If you’re troubled and/or infuriated by Guitar Heaven, allow me to provide you with some comfort: although you’re right to be infuriated by this album (because – and I’m listening to it as I type this – it really fucking sucks), you needn’t worry that it represents some new kind of musical evil. These attempts to cash in on music someone else wrote have always been around. Paul Anka tried it a few years back with an album called Rock Swings which was so transparently hungry for the money of twenty-and-thirty-somethings that Anka even attempted a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There are, of course, good covers albums but they are the exception that proves the rule (the rule being, “Covers albums are generally cynical attempts to get money quick”). Astute readers will be in a hurry to point out that I loved Bettye LaVette’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, and I say, “That’s very astute of you.” The thing is, LaVette, without any big-name assistance, took songs other people wrote and made them her own. There’s a sense, for instance, of the personal resonance that “Wish You Were Here” has for LaVette. When you listen to Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana choke the life out of “Sunshine of Your Love”, you can hear that the song means dollar signs to them and nothing else. They’re wringing it out like a sponge, waiting for money to fall out.
It might be tempting to try to link Santana’s decade-long mission to sell out as much as possible (which is his right, by the way – if you want to suck for money, that’s up to you, but don’t get all indignant when I call you a whore) to the Baby Boomer Generation as a whole. After all, a lot of these people spent maybe a decade (some more, some less) trying to stick it to the Man before deciding that they can save more for retirement if they just started working for him. Again, that’s their business and I certainly don’t mean that all Baby Boomer are sellouts, but I am willing to bet that those among the Boomers who buy Guitar Heaven are probably the most ashamed of their hippie-dippy past. And to be honest, I don’t care so much that Carlos Santana is a sellout per se. I care that he’s a sellout who makes shitty music and now he’s making shitty music out of formerly good music.
And, lest I receive any Red-baiting comments, let me clear up what I mean when I say someone is a sellout. Making money doing what you love is not selling out. Watering down, pussifying, and taming your passions for mass appeal is selling out. Let the great Joseph Campbell sum it up for you: “There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.” Carlos Santana hasn’t just fallen “off the beam”; he’s swan-dived off of it into a swimming pool full of money, exchanging soulless, lifeless “music” (for it can just barely be called that, and mostly only because it consists of known chords and notes) for cold, hard cash. Or, to put it more succinctly:
Ladies and gentlemen, Carlos Santana has “lost his life.”