Why Sly Stone Matters.
This week the web was alive with the NY Post story that Sly Stone, mastermind of Sly & The Family Stone, had lost his Napa area home and has been living in a van on Crenshaw Blvd. in Los Angeles. *click here*
To casual fans of 60s and 70s pop music, it might just seem like another story of an old-timer who lost it all, another dead man walking from showbiz’s past. But if you have been keeping track of his career over the last year, in articles like David Kamp’s amazing Vanity Fair story from 2007 *click here*, you just knew that, like Gil Scott-Heron, the man was not out of the woods yet. His demons may yet kill his genius.
And that, to me, is a shame and a tragedy.
Because Sly Stone matters.
And not just because, without him, Prince never would have had a template for his own funky pop.
Sly Stone matters because, high or not, his music represented a joyful coming together of white and black in American music. A tuneful celebration of everyday people and having fun in the summertime. But he wasn’t blind to the riot going on in the hot streets of his homeland. Up front, Sly was always sunshine and stoned bliss, but his imagery and the integrated lineup of the Family Stone, told the story of a funky pop mosaic. Just like the mixed race unity of Booker T & The MGs in Memphis, Sly & The Family Stone made their statement with the music. It was inclusive. Everybody could feel it. Everybody was welcome. Different strokes for all kinds of different folks but we’re all together moving as one to Sly’s communal groove.
But he was always on his own planet.
The story, in the sleazy NY Post and dutifully picked up by TMZ and the world, is actually kind of touching in places. Apparently, a retired couple lets Sly shower in their house (he’s parked outside) and makes sure he eats at least once a day, and their son helps out as a de facto assistant and driver. Besides being the potential plot for an awesome biopic, this act of fan kindness speaks to the loyalty and gratitude we feel towards true artists whose art has made our lives better in palpable ways. And furthermore, the 68 year old Sly is said to have a laptop in the van and is apparently working on music.
So there’s that.
“I like my small camper,” he tells the NY Post writer, “I just do not want to return to a fixed home. I cannot stand being in one place. I must keep moving.”
Should we take him at his word?
According to my Google search, he put out an album in August of this year, yeah I didn’t hear about it either, called Sly Stone: I’m Back! Family & Friends. According to Amazon, the album features remakes of old hits with guests like Ray Manzarek, Ann Wilson, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter, Bootsy Collins, plus some dubstep remixes. Anybody hear it?
As always here on the Pulmyears Music Blog, I have a personal (if fuzzy) memory of an encounter, of sorts, with Sly Stone.
Like so many of my stories, the place was Toronto in the 1980s and the venue was the Nickelodeon on Yonge St. The Garys, the top punk and alternative promoters (who also knew their soul and R&B) had brought in an act billed as “Sly & The Family Stone Band”. That added “Band” turned out to be significant, for when we arrived at the upstairs club for the 8pm show, the “Band” turned out to be an anonymous (if talented) crew of musicians, what we might call a “showband”. The “Family Stone Band” vamped their way through a set of pop and R&B hits, none of them by Sly, including Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”.
But where was Sly? I know the old showbiz tradition, probably handed down from James Brown letting the Famous Flames warm up the crowd before his entrance and all, but was this the same? Would he even show up at all?
Eventually, and I mean after a solid 60 minutes of frankly bland pop R&B, we hear a ruckus from the back of the club. Two bodyguards are leading a shades-clad man who is either really really high or legally blind. It’s Sly. He’s being walked to the stage, although it looked a little like “perp walk” as the two strongmen seemed to have some personal interest, more than he did, in him getting there. He made it to the stage. The band kicked in to the intro to “Dance To The Music”. Sly sang a couple of intelligible lyrics, barked out like a guy calling in on a cellphone from the best party in the world. The one in his mind. Then, they switched gears midstream and played two verses of “Stand”, then two verses of “Family Affair” and a quick truncated jaunt through “Hot Fun In The Summertime” and about six others. Then, just as things got cooking, the two men appeared again and perp walked him out of the room. No encore. No nothing. The set probably lasted twenty minutes.
Funny thing. While we were all rightly let down at this version of the man and the “band”, I don’t any one of us felt ripped off. We kind of felt like we were just there to say thank you to the man. We also knew he’d never be himself again.
I sure hope the attention gets Sly back to the audience who loves him, but then again, I saw Gil Scott-Heron almost come back and not quite make it.
I live in hope, but you know…
Dig the man’s music either way. I wonder if Prince can do anything?
Because Sly Stone matters.