I sure hope so. I have an appointment with him. I've flown across the country and quadruple-checked to make sure that we're still on.
To cynics and music-industry veterans, this very premise is laughable: an appointment with Sly Stone. Yeah, right. For 20-odd years, Stone has been one of music's great recluses, likened in the press to J. D. Salinger and Howard Hughes. And in the years before he slipped away, he was notorious for not showing up even when he said he would. Missed concerts, rioting crowds, irritated promoters, drug problems, band tensions, burned bridges.
But in his prime, Stone was a fantastic musician, performer, bandleader, producer, and songwriter. Even today, his life-affirming hits from the late 60s and early 70s—among them "Stand!," "Everyday People," and "Family Affair"—continue to thrive on the radio, magically adaptable to any number of programming formats: pop, rock, soul, funk, lite. He was a black man and emphatically so, with the most luxuriant Afro and riveted leather jumpsuits known to Christendom, but he was also a pan-culturalist who moved easily among all races and knew no genre boundaries. There was probably no more Woodstockian moment at Woodstock than when he and the Family Stone, his multi-racial, four-man, two-woman band, took control of the festival in the wee hours of August 17, 1969, getting upwards of 400,000 people pulsing in unison to an extended version of "I Want to Take You Higher." For one early morning, at least, the idea of "getting higher" wasn't an empty pop-culture construct or a stoner joke, but a matter of transcendence. This man had power.
He also had a compelling penchant for folly. In the jivey, combustible early 1970s, when it was almost fashionable for public figures to unleash their ids and abandon all shame—whether it was Norman Mailer's baiting a roomful of feminists at New York's Town Hall or Burt Reynolds's posing nude on a bearskin for Cosmopolitan—Sly was out on the front lines, contributing some first-rate unhinged behavior of his own. Like marrying his 19-year-old girlfriend onstage in 1974 at Madison Square Garden before a ticket-buying audience of 21,000, with Soul Train host Don Cornelius presiding as M.C. Or appearing on Dick Cavett's late-night ABC talk show while conspicuously, if charmingly, high. "You're great," Stone told his flummoxed host in 1971, in the second of two notorious visits to Cavett's soundstage. "You are great. You are great. You know what I mean? [Pounds fist on heart.] Booom! Right on! Sure thing. No, for real. For real, Dick. Hey, Dick. Dick. Dick. You're great."
*video courtesy of my baby solemann*
Cavett, grasping for some sense of conversational traction, smirked and replied, "Well, you're not so bad yourself."
"Well," said Sly, eyes rolling up in contemplation, "I am kinda bad … "
Sly Stone is my favorite of the rock-era recluses, and, really, the only big one left. Syd Barrett, the architect of Pink Floyd's entrancingly loopy early sound, passed away last summer at the age of 60, having resisted all entreaties to explain himself or sing again. Brian Wilson, the fragile visionary behind the Beach Boys, has been gently coaxed out of his shell by his friends and acolytes, and now performs and schmoozes regularly. He doesn't count as a recluse anymore.
But Sly has remained elusive—still with us, yet seemingly content to do without us. I have been pursuing him for a dozen years, on and off, wondering if there would ever come a time when he'd release new material, or at the very least sit down and talk about his old songs. I've loved his music for as long as I've been a sentient human being—he started making records with the Family Stone when I was a toddler. And over time, as the silence has lengthened, his disappearance from public life has become a fascinating subject in and of itself. How could it have happened? How could a man with such an extensive and impressive body of work just shut down and cut out?
"I often tell people that I have more dead rock stars on tape than anyone, and they'll say, 'You mean Janis, Hendrix, and Sly?'" says Cavett today. "A lot of people think he's gone." Even if you're aware that Sly lives, you have to wonder what kind of shape he's in, projecting that beautiful but reckless man of 1971 into 2007, the year he turned 64. What of the dark rumors that he's done so much coke that his brain is zapped, and that he now exists in a pathetic, vegetative state? What of the more hopeful rumors that he's still writing and noodling with his keyboards, biding his time until he feels ready to attempt a comeback?
I had long dreamed of the latter scenario. Syd Barrett excepted, they do all come back. Brian Wilson did. The Stooges did. The New York Dolls did. Even Roky Erickson, the psychedelic pioneer from the 13th Floor Elevators, long presumed to be fried beyond rehabilitation by electroshock treatments he received in the early 1970s, has staged a robust return to the live circuit.
My hopes for a Sly comeback were highest in 2003. That year, in the back room of a music store in Vallejo, California, where Sly grew up, I sat in on a rehearsal of a re-united Family Stone led by Freddie Stone, Sly's guitarist brother. Freddie was intent on recording an album of entirely new material that he had written with his sister Rose, who played organ and shared lead vocals in the old group. "Sylvester's doing very well, by the way," Freddie told me, using his brother's given name. Gregg Errico, the band's drummer, who was also in on the reunion, explained that, while they weren't counting on Sly to join them, they had set a place for him just in case, like Seder participants awaiting Elijah. "We profess that the keyboard is on the stage, the [Hammond] B3's running, and the seat is warm for him," Errico said.
But that reunion quickly fizzled out. After that, my Sly search lay dormant; I pretty much gave up. He hadn't shown his face in public since 1993, when he and the Family Stone were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Characteristically, Sly slipped in and out of the ceremony without saying much, barely acknowledging his siblings and bandmates. So why would he ever want to perform again, much less meet up with a stranger?
Then, out of nowhere, there began a series of brief, intriguing resurfacings. In August of 2005, he was sighted in L.A. on a chopper motorcycle, giving his sister Vaetta, who goes by the nickname Vet, a ride to Hollywood's Knitting Factory club, where she was performing a set with her band, the Phunk Phamily Affair. The following February came Stone's enigmatic appearance at the 2006 Grammy Awards, in which he loped onto the stage in a gold lamé trench coat and plumy blond Mohawk, performed a snippet of "I Want to Take You Higher" with some guest musicians paying him tribute, and loped off again before the song was over. And in January of this year, Stone put in a surprise cameo at Vet's band's show at the House of Blues in Anaheim, California, adding vocals and keyboards to their performances of "Higher" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."