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Bathed in Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond by Colin Harper

John Kelman By

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It's a lengthy read (the 480-page book is augmented by another couple of hundred pages of bonus material for the e-book version) but it's a captivating one, as Harper traces McLaughlin's roots, his move to London and, despite already being different to those around him—an extremely disciplined man already searching for answers to the greater questions of existence and spirituality while those around him fell prey to alcohol and drugs (not that McLaughlin didn't go through a period of experimentation with such things, but it was relatively brief)—how he quickly established a reputation in London as a guitarist's guitarist. Harper explores how McLaughlin struggled, both physically and mentally, to stay his course at a time when so many jazz musicians were exploring freer terrain, the guitarist already charting new territory that was largely antithetical to it and predicated more on compositional rigor and discipline.

The book is not a full-fledged biography; it ends with the dissolution of the third and drastically reduced Mahavishnu Orchestra with keyboardist Stu Goldberg, bassist Ralphe Armstrong and drummer Narada Michael Walden—also the time when McLaughlin's allegiance to Sri Chinmoy ended and he began to explore his already burgeoning interest in the music of India with Shakti, a group that was as groundbreaking and transcendent as Mahavishnu Orchestra but garnered less attention if for no other reason than, after what had come before, his record label had no idea what to do with this move towards all-acoustic music, played with master Indian musicians including tablaist Zakir Hussain and violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar.

For those looking for a full McLaughlin bio, they'll have to wait, as the definitive script has yet to be written, perhaps because—despite being in his early seventies, a life of discipline and attention to both mind and body leaving the guitarist in remarkable physical and mental condition as he continues to record and tour regularly with the 4th Dimension group he formed in 2007, heard most recently on the stellar live album The Boston Record (Abstract Logix, 2014), as well as occasional reunion dates with Shakti—the story is far from over.

But for those who want to understand the origins and confluence of a multiplicity of factors that led to McLaughlin's seemingly sudden emergence as one of the world's preeminent guitarists, how the Mahavishnu Orchestra literally changed music as we know it, and what it was like to be a part of the exciting London scene of the '60s—when musicians from many disciplines were interacting and engaging because, for many, there were no boundaries around genres, it was all music and virtually anything was possible—Bathed in Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond sheds a massive spotlight on parts of McLaughlin's life previously unexplored in any detail. More than any other book on McLaughlin to date, with Bathed in Lightning Harper paints a more complete picture of McLaughlin by focusing on his early years and how they led, inevitably, to who and what he is today.

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