Sly Stone, swooping out of history like a glittery geriatric pterodactyl, gave his first public performance in nineteen years at the sometimes-luscious 48th Grammys, on this past Wednesday.
He was a sight, even a specter of soul. One of his hands was wrapped in white gauze as it massaged, most gingerly, a willing keyboard. (Too much street fighting, big daddy, we need your hands whole.) His hair, presumably not naturally that shade of corn-silk, was shocked out in a mohawk, and made some punk out of his funk. I’m told by someone who ought to know that his belt buckle, ever lustrous, spelt SLY. Whoa there, mister. I missed the buckle, pleasantly distracted by a space age trench coat that must have incited the jealousy of David ‘Stardust’ Bowie.
A catalogue of rockers floated around and basked in the dinosaur’s glow; their collective shenanigans were termed an “All-Star Tribute to Sly and the Family Stone.” Some fellow with two periods in his name was there, as was a young, British and blond Ms. Stone, a Maroon lad with a mauve waistcoat. The true faithfuls were the not-exactly-stars, diligent rockers who laid down the sound for the flashy-flasho crooners.
But for all the varied glitz, the performance was something of a disappointment. While Sly’s get-up hardly disappointed – it certainly gave Reuters something to talk about – but the singing, the jive, the mus-zak, the feeling wasn’t there. And that’s all the more reason to go back to the recordings and relive their finer moments. Here are a few to check out, with humbly proffered extension activities designed to heighten your listening experience.
1. Family Affair
I think I’ve finally figured out what makes this song so hot. Listen closely. Listen for the wobbles. I don’t know what they’re technically called, and besides, I’m quite sure that ‘wobble’ out-snazzes its jargon competitors. But part of the charm is Sly’s unabashed talking. He’s not really singing. He’s rasping along, going for some high-stuff and missing it. How many can carry that off whilst maintaining the cool? School them, Sly. Good for you, man.
Just for kicks: Take your stereo outside with bubble solution and bubble wand. Blow a bubble every time you hear a wobble you like.
2. Everyday People
A confession: I am a sucker for societally responsible music. But even if the activism latent in ‘Everyday People’ (which is more deliciously socialist than ‘Imagine’) doesn’t quite do it for you, the sound isn’t half-bad. It’s superb, really.
Listen for: “We GOT to LIVE toGETHER!” Soul music garners serious stripes from such emotional bits and bobs. Also savor: the usage of “scooby-dooby-dooby”
Activity: Check out Timmy Thomas’s moody and moving “Why can’t we live together.”
3. Hot Fun in the Summertime
This song, hardly Sly’s best, still has that catchy, addictive quality that drives short-term affection. Subject matter is apt, because my listening experience – now serious, now tempestuous – has been following the prototypical summer fling discursive arc, summer flings not exactly being my line of business.
Anyway, the thing has been my main squeeze for the past week and a half. Real highlights are the simple beginning (as they always are for such affairs: ‘Is this your beach ball, miss?”) – and the parallel ‘end of the Spring/first of the Fall’ with its offbeat rhythm (notes sound eerily like The Association’s “Never My Love,” but less lugubrious).
Activity: Have a Winter Fling, if such a thing is possible.
4. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
Spelling. ‘Orthography.’ Double bah. Express yerself. And take in the wisdom nugget:
Many men are missin’ much
Hatin’ what they do
Youth and truth are makin’ love
Dig it for a starter, now
Dyin’ young is hard to take
Sellin’ out is harder
This baby’s got attitude, saxophones, and some distinctive scatting – someone’s doing something with cheeks and nasal exhalations. Excellent company for a jog, especially just as the heavy-breathing sets in, as excellent as for breathless dance parties celebrating soul. Of course, one might also add to that playlist the boogie-appropriate “Dance to the Music,” also a product of Sly and his entourage, but it’s overplayed and is not as groovy. Groove-points are rather important, one must admit.
Activity: Come up with your own groove-scale and complete a self-evaluation. Let’s make Princeton groovy.
5. If You Want me to Stay
Of this small lot of Sly Stone stuff, this is the most mature sound. That established, the real reason you should listen to it is for the scream that follows, “get this message over to you now,” about 1:50 into the song. The intro plays out rather nicely too: wobbles, some downright sultry strains, and edgy, surly vocals. All in all, a good end to a mini-Sly-fest.
Activity: Decide if you’d like to make a token contribution to the Stone’s vast fortune, or if you’d prefer to mooch listening time off my shared I-tunes 🙁
Alright, after all of that, I won’t lie to you. I won’t assure you that the glittery pterodactyl, Mr. Sly, made the best soul. He was good. He was fun. But he made an unfortunate friend in cocaine. Much of what he could have been is mere speculation. But I’m thankful for “Family Affair.” I’m thankful for the lyrics of “Everyday People” and its insistence, “We got to live together.” I’m thankful for his “Hot fun” summer fluff, for his wobbles and screams. He and his clan are good stuff. Give ‘em a listen. And welcome back, Sly.