Paco de Lucia. As I said then, I cannot tell you just how important Paco de Lucia was to me as I was growing up. There came a time in my development as a guitarist when chords would get me no further, and at that point there were two choices. Either I had to join the electric revolution, focus on building up my collection of effects boxes (like some friends) and hope that distortion, reverb and volume would cover my inadequacies on the six stringed instrument. Or I had to do something to emulate the guitar fireworks which one elder sibling brought home one day in the form of a soon-to-be legendary album, Friday Night in San Francisco.
The album features highlights of a concert given by guitarists Al di Meola, John McLaughin and Paco de Lucia himself, recorded in 1981. In a series of thrilling, enchanting and sometimes blistering pieces, the three musicians hold their audience on the edge of their seats, and for that matter all those who listen to the recording. As a young boy I simply lay in front of the stereo at home, wondering at the speed and agility of the players and imagining myself - as young boys as wont to do - playing just as fast. Indeed, that was one of the extraordinary things. These guitarists played music that was not only more inventive, exciting and expansive that your average rock riff. It was also decorated by scales and licks played at maniacal speeds. How could I ever play the guitar like that? Well, at least I could dream.
Indeed, I did more than dream. Picture me months later, travelling on a cross-channel ferry to France, a member of a youth group on my way to Lourdes, and dazzling the girls with my rendition of the opening piece from Friday Night in San Francisco, 'Mediterranean Sundance'! At least I remember my rendition as being dazzling...!
How I got there requires some explanation. At home we had one of those stack stereos with a turntable on top, a radio in the middle and at the bottom a double tape recorder. The double tape machine was very handy and had a double speed dubbing function for fast tape-to-tape copying (so important in the days before digital downloads!). You could likewise record onto tape from the turntable and convert record-bound music into car stereo fodder.
And then it dawned on me one day... Why couldn't I record my three guitarists onto a tape playing at double speed? Playing the tape back at normal speed, I now had Friday Night in San Francisco at half the speed, and quite slow enough for me gradually to pick out by ear many of the riffs and chords our guitarists executed at otherwise breakneck speeds. I was happy for a whole month - no mean feat in a hormone-ravaged teenager. I knew glory lay before me if only I could learn some of this music.
Such an imperfect process was revealing in other ways, however. It spoke volumes, for example, about the guitarists on the record. Most extraordinary was Al di Meola, one of the finest jazz guitarists America has produced. Even slowed down, di Meola was still fast; every note a percussive jewel, every scale a melodic gem. Most disappointing was English guitarist John McLaughlin. McLaughlin's strengths lay in his harmonic inventiveness best heard at normal speed; he could play fast, but slowed to half speed, every note sounded fluffed or dull.
And then there was Paco de Lucia. Faithful to his flamenco roots, he eschewed the plectrum used by di Meola and McLaughlin. From what I have since been able to observe on video, he favoured striking his strings with the thumb, index and middle finger of his right hand (P., I. and M., for those who are initiated). But every note, even slowed to half the speed, was pure and true; de Lucia's technique appeared faultless under this microscope. And I could only shake my head and wonder how he did it all, I who would never even manage the four-fingered tremelo required for Recuerdos de la Alhambra.
Then came a studio album from the same three guitarists, Passion, Grace and Fire. The listener was free to wonder which guitarist was which of these three qualities. Personally, I preferred to think that de Lucia was all three. Here again was a smorgasbord of fine tunes, harmonious creativity and guitaring fireworks, epitomised by the opening track Aspan. The composition was John McLaughlin's but the music was Paco de Lucia's all over.
The album simply cannot reproduce the highs of Friday Night in San Francisco. On the other hand, it achieves greater emotional depth, not the least in di Meola's Orient Blue Suite. Everyone has a relationship with some music from their youth. When I listen now to this music, it is like tracing the contours of a face only I know. I hear every grace note before it is played. I hear every syncopation and cadence. Somehow it is all stored away in my memory after what must be hours of my youth listening again and again to the same strains, doubtless driving my parents mad with despair.
And behind it all stands the now dimming figure of Paco de Lucia, God rest him. These albums were billed as a fusion of jazz and flamenco. But perhaps because the guitar's most characteristic voice is captured by flamenco, it is the flamenco spirit which seems to run through every track, through every melody and rhythm.
Even to the saddest of the pieces recorded on Passion, Grace and Fire, John McLaughlin's David. I'm sure I read somewhere it was written for McLaughlin's son. But when I listen to it now, it sounds to my ear like it could be a homenaje to Paco de Lucia. Its sad pavan-like strains give way briefly to a racing, flamenco section which slowly subsides to the pavan once again. It says everything that a piece of music can say about Paco de Lucia's best playing, his lyrical inventiveness and his athletic dexterity. God blessed him, like all artists, with some gift that expresses more than any rational argument the 'given' beauty of this world.
Requiescat in pace, and adios, amigo. I'm sorry we shall never hear him play again in this world.