Smooth As Santana

In a couple of weeks, at this year's Grammy awards--where he's nominated in 10 categories--we'll all get to watch what's almost certain to be the uplifting conclusion of the Carlos Santana comeback story, but only two people witnessed the beginning. Three years ago, in Clive Davis's private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the aging rock-guitar icon (now 52) sat face to face with the aging Arista Records founder (now 66) and told him a story that might have had you or me rolling our eyes. During a meditation session, Santana said, an entity called Metatron had announced: "We want to hook you back to the radio-airwave frequency." (Probable translation: get your stuff played.) And now Santana wanted to make a new record that would "reconnect the molecules to the light." (Possible translation: get his career happening again.) Davis, who's known Santana since he signed him to Columbia back in 1969, didn't bat an eye. But he imposed conditions: half the new album would be classic Santana--chugging, roiling Latin rock with that bluesy, soaring electric guitar--and half would feature cool young performers with appeal to the kind of folks who go to record stores more than once a year. "Carlos told me he was very open to it," Davis recalls. "We hammered it out right there."

The result--as you surely know unless there's been a media blackout in your area since last summer--was the quintuple-platinum "Supernatural," the country's No. 1 album for six weeks; right now, eight months after its release, it's at No. 2 and still selling a quarter-million copies week in and week out. Those sales should spike again if it wins even half of those 10 Grammys, including record of the year (for the hit single "Smooth") and album of the year. But win or lose, this is the biggest comeback since Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind"--and far more surprising. However low his sales, Dylan was Dylan; Carlos Santana, though revered by fellow musicians, had become a whatever-happened-to. He'd been a star at Woodstock in 1969, classic-rock stations still played (and played) his '70s singles--"Black Magic Woman," or the catchy cover of Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va"--but his '80s and '90s albums typically sold as many copies in total as "Supernatural" does in a week. And nobody quite understands why it all turned around. The Latin-music craze? Some atavistic craving for guitar heroism? The simple, appealing video for "Smooth," showing a joyous street party on a summer's day? All of the above? "It has a lot to do with grace and synchronicity," Santana told NEWSWEEK in a recent interview. We have no better explanation.

Well, unless it's those guests. Clive Davis hates it when you call them that ("It wasn't guests. I wasn't looking for guests. I was thinking of creative collaborators"), but whatever you call Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, Wyclef Jean and Everlast, they were certain to tempt smart young record buyers--even despite Eric Clapton's name on that last track. Conversely, Clapton's presence was calculated to reassure graybeards who'd been seeing the name Wyclef Jean for a while now but didn't know how to pronounce it. Still, Davis and Santana clearly wanted matchups that made musical sense--if they'd wanted big names, where were Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey?--and the younger artists they pulled in were longtime admirers. Santana was one of Jean's holy trinity, along with Jimi Hendrix and Steve Vai. "We all reverted back to that 16-year-old kid playing air guitar in front of the mirror," says Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, who wrote and sang "Smooth." "In the middle of the song I looked over and I thought, 'Holy f--k, that's Santana right there'." And the sessions all went smoothly. "Nobody had a cow, nobody was weird," says Santana. "It was all very graciously done." Some mystic cosmic alignment? Maybe. But Thomas credits the well-honed people skills of Clive Davis, "because you're dealing with enough egos to choke a horse."

Still, there was something preternatural about how some tracks went down. When Davis approached Jean, the Fugees' rapper-singer-guitarist blithely said, "Yeah, sure, I've got a song." In fact, he had nothing but faith: "I knew I was such a fanatic of the guy that all I had to do was see him and I would know what to write. We got to the studio and the song just came to me." Jean wrote the hit single "Maria Maria" in a couple of hours; recording it, he says, "was like smoking weed, man. I was just inhaling, exhaling and vibing." The first glimmerings of "Love of My Life" came to Santana when he was picking up his son from school and turned on a classical station. A fragment of melody lodged in his head; desperate to track down the piece, he hummed it for a Tower Records clerk, who recognized it as a bit of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2. Santana tweaked the melody and hummed it at Dave Matthews, who wrote the lyrics on the spot. Such stories, in which inspiration transcends perspiration, make you wonder if Santana's mysticism is as silly as it sounds. "He says things like 'crystallizing your intentions,' and 'changing people's molecular structure through music'," says Thomas. "But you buy into it, man. It's true, coming from him."

We'll believe the part about our molecular structure when we see the lab report, but there's no question Santana's a sweet guitar player, with a distinctive, singing tone and the bent notes and tense, economical lines of a great blues player. But where Buddy Guy's high notes can be shrieks of anguish, Santana's more often sound like cries of joy. His bilingual fusion of African-American guitar style and Latin rhythms (he was raised in Tijuana, Mexico) has long been considered innovative, yet from his point of view it's only common sense. "Jennifer Lopez, Gloria [Estefan], Ricky [Martin] and yours truly--all of us are playing 100 percent African music," he says. "I don't know why they call it Latin." This is why he's smart to stick to the guitar, and leave the marketing to the Clive Davises.

What we've avoided saying so far is that, if not for Santana's playing, "Supernatural" would be largely bland and monotonous. That may matter no more to the Grammy voters than it has to the 5.5 million presumably satisfied customers; voters will probably warm to Santana's comeback as they did in 1998 to Dylan's, in 1993 to Clapton's and in 1990 to Bonnie Raitt's. A Grammy sweep would be a bottom-of-the-ninth win for Davis, who's been under pressure to name a successor. "This record is very special," he admits, then hastily adds, "but not for the reason you alluded to." Best of all, though, it would honor a master musician still at the top of his game--and make some entity very, very happy.