Updated: Sep 20, 2019
The moon was gone, the sky was black, and the night was silent.
But there was an Inner Mounting Flame.
About twenty years ago, John McLaughlin saved my musical life. There was only so much blues I could play or feel. The pentatonic patterns were wearing out on me, and the hypnotic attraction of all my former guitar heroes was waning.
I wasn't into super-fast guitar players. I didn't have the need for speed. I wanted to surf sound waves and feel the textures of guitar tone. I liked listening to Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jeff Beck. Sure, those guys were pretty fast, and they liked to put on a show, but most importantly they had soul and good guitar tone. When they played it seemed they were searching for the right notes. It seemed they were listening.
I was listening too. But after a while I got bored. I got bored with the blues. I knew the story, and I knew the blues man was lonely. I was lonely. The archetype seemed too one dimensional for me to model. I worried that maybe I was growing out of my love for music. I had the terrifying thought that maybe I was just growing up. That's not a joke, consider losing your love for music to an empty notion such as "growing up". All living things need to grow, especially artists and musicians. But let's not get growth confused with "growing up", which could mean to abandon what inspires you. But I wasn't inspired.
I wanted more from music than what I was getting with the blues. I wanted to be lifted out of the shuffling struggle and into the higher streams of conscious music. John McLaughlin's album Inner mounting flame was the bridge. His band, The Mahavishnu Orchestra had deep roots. The Mahavishnu Orchestra took primal sounds and sent them soaring into the great beyond with rhythmic fluidity and blistering solos like nothing I had experienced in the blues. I marveled at McLaughlin's mysterious guitar technique. The Inner Mounting Flame rekindled my passion for music. After hearing Mahavishnu Orchestra I discovered Gypsy Jazz, Flamenco, Indian classical music, music from North Africa and the Middle East.
Fifteen years later I saw John McLaughlin at the house of blues in Boston Massachusetts. I walked out. I watched the show for 45 minutes before leaving. I felt bad for leaving early. His band was called The 4th Dimension. He had Etienne M'Bappe on bass, Gary Husband on drums and keyboards, and Mark Mondesir on drums. They were incredible. I had a strong appreciation for the band, but I couldn't understand the music. The song structures and harmonies were too complex for me to follow. Once again I was reminded of my mortal status as a musician. Witnessing John McLaughlin's exploration into vast musical spaces beyond my comprehension was giving me a headache. I still believed in him, and I had a lot of personal gratitude for his expression. I just couldn't stay any longer.
Before I heard Inner Mounting Flame, I was tired of playing the blues. I was bored with listening to the blues. I was not a great blues musician. I wasn't even a student of the blues. Blues is an art form with a formula that can be easily understood. It’s not a complicated formula, but it’s not easy to master. The simple beauty of the blues emphasizes the subtleties of rhythm and melody. Timing is critical. The blues can be dangerous, but is can also be dignified and worthy of the respect it demands. I would say at the time, when I was bored with the blues, I was struggling to live up to an archetype that I didn't really understand. It was me who was one dimensional, not the blues man.
When I experienced the Inner Mounting Flame, I heard one message in the music: "Hurry!" You can’t quit. It’s not up to you because the inner mounting flame is inevitable. It either burns you up, or helps you glow. The outcome depends on you.
So, I aspired to grow. I became a student of the blues, and eventually I became a student of other musical forms. I'm still not a master, though I have had masterful moments. I still want to understand more of the deep secrets of the musical universe, and I believe that the universe has an unspoken agreement with humanity. Once you have sufficiently integrated and effectively used the knowledge and tools available to you right now, then another door opens and you are granted access to more knowledge, and more tools. Master this level, and maybe you'll get to the next. I don't expect the universe to make any guarantees, but perhaps it’s true that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.