I was at Lebowskifest this past weekend, dragging my blow up sex doll across the lawn, (The costume was "Fuckin' Eagles")
When i came across a friend i hadnt seen in a while and we got to talking about the forthcoming The Duke and The King album,
. The Friend asked me what my thoughts were on it, since i had previewed the tracks. I said without thought, "it's the boldest and best call for love and community since Sly and the Family Stone. Wow, i thought, that is heavy praise. It immediately brought me back to something i had said to The Deacon
(AKA Rev Loveday, AKA Nowell Haskins) of The Duke and The King at a concert last fall. I had told him that the song they should cover
was Sly and the Family Stone's "Everybody is a Star", since it captured the sound and the sense of the band as well as the visual aestetic. The new tracks stood out in my mind, likely because artists don't often write songs reflecting optimism and love, but rather, they tend to eschew these subjects for cynicism, self indulgence, and bravado.
After Lebowskifest was over Sly remained on my mind. I hadn't really listened to his music in a long time, and i thought of that moment in the film
"White Men Cant Jump" where Wesley Snipes (as Sidney) tells Woody Harrelson (Billy) that he can listen to Jimi Hendrix, but he can't "hear" Jimi.
I headed over to Ear-X-Tacy records in Louisville, and picked up some Sly and the Family Stone. Even though i had made some sort of parrallel to Sly Stone with the Duke and the King,
I knew that as good as The Duke and The King record could be, it won't and could never be Sly Stone. But i had to reinvestigate Sly's music.
Sly was always to me, The JD Salinger of Rock and Roll, the elusive genius, whose problems deprived the world of their talent for decades.
The parallels with the Duke and the King was mostly both bands present a united front, a shared vision of not so much what the world is, but what it should be.
I was listening to one album and then stopping in another town trying to scrounge up another. What i heard was someone as bawdy as Little Richard, arranging harmonies like Brian Wilson, writing lyrics like John Lennon, and as creative as the Beatles, only a whole lot free-er and funkier. He had collected everything that had happened before him and alongside him and incorporated it into his own brand hippie musical evangelism. While it incorporates aspects of 60's culture most associated with white artists, They had much in common with James Brown and Miles Davis. Sly and the Family Stone made the songs and sights of Motown seem patently fraudulent. This wasn't trying to look and sound like a white artist, but a black artist who was taking influence from white artists, and making it "Bad". Robert Johnson's rightful heir to the throne of the king of the blues, Sly is completely free. The music was a celebration lyrically and rythmically of life, unlike any rock era artist save for Curtis Mayfield. (Whose "It's Alright" is echoed on The Duke and The King's "Union Street")
On Stand!, the pimpadelic Sly sings a song that might have well been his mission statement:
In the end you'll still be you
One that's done all the things you set out to do
There's a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you're going anywhere
For the things you know are right
It s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight
All the things you want are real
You have you to complete and there is no deal
You've been sitting much too long
There's a permanent crease in your right and wrong
There's a midget standing tall
And the giant beside him about to fall
Stand. stand, stand
Stand. stand, stand
They will try to make you crawl
And they know what you're saying makes sense and all
Don't you know that you are free
Well at least in your mind if you want to be
Sly continued to push his vision of a funky and free America on songs like "Fun", "Life", "Love City" "Harmony" "Sing a Simple SOng", "Everyday People" (with its beautiful'I am no better and neither are you / We are the same whatever we do.)” and "You can Make it if You Try"
but the early tracks that standout are "Higher", "Everybody Wants To Be a Star", and "Thank You". "Higher" was Rock's ultimate showstopper of the time,(and featuring the wonderful 'BOOM-lakka-lakkalakka, BOOM-lakka-lakka-lakka') one which brought the house down at this Woodstock performance.
"Everybody is a Star" with its presentation of the band as conspirators in Sly's utopian vision, was supposed to be a call for individuality and self expression, instead knowing what was to follow,
in sounds resigned and tired. It makes the song more beautiful, a Coda on the dream of Sly and the Family Stone. The vocal performances are fantastic and portray the end of a Quixotic journey.
"Thank You" presents the signature slap and pluck technique of the innovative Larry Graham on bass, (Graham would soon leave the band because Sly tried to kill him in a PCP and Cocaine fueled paranoid attack). The lyrics and sound forbode a change in Sly's vision. He was now consumed by drugs, and surrounded by Black Panthers and Mafioso, who fueled his suspicions of others, but fed him ample amounts of illegal substances.
step off'n the collar
slugged me in the face
chit chat chatter trying
shoved me in the place
thank you for the party
but i could never stay (his obvious rejection of being Woodstock's (and the generations) "house nigger")
many things are on my mind
Flamin' eyes of people fear
Burnin' into you
Many men are missin' much
Hatin' what they do
Youth and truth are makin' love
Dig it for a starter.
Dyin' young is hard to take
Sellin' out is harder
(I must preface this next clip with this, it was the seventies, yes that guy with the blue shirt is way gay, and yes it might be Roger from "Whats Happening")
The last great gasp of Sly and the Family Stone was the critically hailed "There's a Riot Going On" from 1971. This music isn't about unity, but about desperation, loss, paranoia, and defeat. The dream of the 1960's is over,
and where the dream was, is a morally vacant America, a fragmented, broken society. Sly had stared at the monster so long, he became one, he's Ahab. The album features little of the vocal harmonies and optimism of his early work, instead it was replaced by pained vocals, with drum machines producing insistent, aggravating pressure. The drugs had robbed his love and optimism, but had yet to strip his gall and talent. The bass is unrelenting thump throughout the record, not the funky, "Dance to The Music" lines of his previous hits but rather like the slow drip of a faucet driving you mad. Sly sabotaged what his white audience wanted him to be, the optimistic face of Black America. He turns his back on them and "the Promise". The death of the "Promise" was evident in songs like "Running Away"
The deeper in debt
The harder you bet
Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee!
Need more room to play
Look at you fooling you
Sly defends his artistic right in "Poet"
My only weapon is my pen
Oh, and the frame of mind I'm in
I'm a songwriter
Ooh, a poet
I'm a songwriter
Yeah, a poet
and his new sense of pessimism is no more evident than in the opening of "Family Affair"
One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you'd just love to burn
Ultimately, Sly burned himself. Maybe he carried too much for any person to handle, the symbol for racial and gender unity, couldn't even hold together his band. At least i got those 19 hours riding back from Louisville with him.