#149: Santana, "Santana" (1969)

149 Santana.jpg

“Soul Sacrifice,” the closing argument on Santana’s 1969 self-titled debut is one of my favorite songs of all time. It features brilliant guitar and keyboard work, an iron-spine of a bassline, all pushed ever forward by some of the best percussion you’ll find on a song from the ‘60s. A terrific listen. But I’d ask that, if you’re going to take six minutes out of your day to experience this song, that you do so with a movie.

I’ll present two examples, the first, probably the song’s most famous performance, at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, later released in the 1970 documentary of same name. Check it out here.

That drummer’s name is Michael Shrieve. He was 20. Here, he plays maybe the only drum solo worth watching. His drumming is the rider and the ride itself. He looks like at any moment he is going to laugh or cry, stop or start. It says a lot that on a stage full of so much talent the camera continues to return to his changing expressions. I assume he is on drugs. I hope he is. It makes his use of a traditional grip all the more compelling. This ain’t your grandfather’s drummer. But actually, this is your grandfather’s drum grip.

I don’t know if I would love this song without the footage from Woodstock. When I first saw it I was an idiot punk who held most ‘60s music in contempt. I’m not a punk anymore. I’m still mostly an idiot. And much of the music from the ‘60s was awful. But Shrieve’s obvious talent and crazed look broke through. It is incredible, that on a stage where Carlos Santana is losing part of his mind, a kid kind of stole the show.

The second sequence is from David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. Watch it here. The song is edited. Basically, they cut it in half. It sits behind dialogue and ambient sound from the streets of San Francisco, pulsing.

“Soul Sacrifice” backs a sequence depicting two seperate arrivals. First, cartoonist Robert Graysmith take his kid to school, rides the elevator, gets coffee etc., before finding his desk and heading to his morning editorial meeting. The second arrival is the delivery of a letter. First to the mail room, then the sorting table and upstairs. That letter is from a serial killer. It is the first of several letters addressed to the Chronicle by the Zodiac killer. The delivery date of the letter is July 31, 1969. That is 1 month prior to the commercial release of “Soul Sacrifice” and only 2 weeks prior to Woodstock.

The real-life timing of the album release and the letter are mere coincidence. Fincher’s choice of soundtrack for his dramatization is not. And it feels especially poignant to hear that music and its menacing throttle placed with a historical event so near its conception. Here, again, the drums are the showcase. Ambient sound drops off toward the end of the clip as we watch a message from a psychopath ride atop a huge pile of letters bound for editorial. I love the image of the sorting table, with letters being picked and pulled, designated and routed, while Shrieve solos in the background. The people moving parcels along like an assembly line.

The sequence adds a visual cue for everything I enjoy about the music. There is that endless push forward, seen through the frantic workings of a newspaper in the ‘70s. The drum solo is given its own brief visual counterpart. And the menace created by the song title “Soul Sacrifice” is echoed both by Graysmith’s alienation from his children and coworkers but also by the letter itself being from a serial killer. The visuals and the music work in concert to foreshadow the tragedies to come.

I don’t mean to imply that “Soul Sacrifice” or the album it comes from can’t stand on their own. They are both terrific pieces of music. But for me, I don’t think I understood how powerful this stuff was until I saw it coupled with images that enhanced that power. When I listen to the song now I can latch on to a larger context and let my mind wander from there. And when that solo hits, I know to airdrum like a maniac.

Don’t underestimate Santana’s self-titled debut. It is easy to write off the entire enterprise by simply humming four bars of “Smooth,” his mega-hit collaboration with Rob Thomas. But in 1969, Santana, both man and band, were placing their culture’s mark on “The Sixties”. They made a powerful, unique record which was also a statement about their identity and culture. If you don’t feel it right away, watch the clips above and then return to “Soul Sacrifice” with renewed context. It is an astonishing piece of music.

—Steven Casimer Kowalski