"All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws." – John Coltrane
If the inspirational heart of this deeply loving SydArthur Festival beats with the psychedelic pulse of the Ur-Ancestors, where then did those psychedelic giants themselves search for their Fountain of Knowledge? For many of those rock’n’rollers, the answer was ‘John Coltrane’. How? No amplifiers, no electric instruments, still lugging about that old wardrobe they call ‘double bass’, and yet by 1961 Coltrane was possessed of an attitude to life that would – within barely half-a-decade – become adopted by every experimental Western musician. Like Percy Shelley, Robert Graves, Henry David Thoreau before him, ‘Trane’, as John Coltrane became known, embodied the high-reaching mysticism that would come to define the ’60s and ’70s. Trane looked to the Hinduism of India, he looked to meditation, he named his son after Ravi Shankar, he looked between the musical notes and w-i-d-e-n-e-d them considerably. His endgame? “I want more of the sense of the expansion of time. I want the time to be more plastic.”
And what Coltrane’s early ’60s band brought forth acoustically, there too traipsed the psychedelic bands of five years hence – the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, etc – but now played on loud electric axes. The antecedents of the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’? Listen to the groove of McCoy Tyner’s piano and Elvin Jones’ drums on Coltrane’s version of ‘My Favorite Things’. It’s what the Doors aped when club managers insisted they extend their set in the early days. Ah, but even the guitar genius of Robbie Krieger couldn’t hide his devotion to what Coltrane’s sax whips out at 8 minutes, 31 seconds of that track. Doors producer Paul Rothschild, himself so jazz, could not resist its inclusion on the final version of ‘Light My Fire’. Trane’s reputation was rising. So by the time the Byrds recorded ‘Eight Miles High’, it was actually in Roger McGuinn’s interest to confess to his Trane-isms on the song’s unforgettable lead guitar lines. Was it Coltrane’s ‘Africa’? Or was it ‘India’? Performed by McGuinn on a strident and unwieldy electric 12-string no less: his heathen gate-crashing melody channels Coltrane’s off-kilter saxophone magnificently. Free jazz sax permeated performances of the MC5, whose singer named himself after Coltrane’s pianist. Side two of Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia lambasted punks with Coltranean free rock.
When in summer 1982 the Teardrop Explodes passed through San Francisco’s airport, their entourage was approached by members of the Church of John Coltrane, who spoke so lovingly of their divine mentor that three of the band’s five members bought Coltrane t-shirts inscribed ‘Damn The Rules!’ The man himself would surely have approved; interviewed in the early ’60s, Coltrane openly declared his wish to be canonised within 15 years of his death.