Artist: Sly and the Family Stone
Album: Greatest Hits
Place: KARM, 3555 West Emory Rd.
Most people associate Norman Rockwell with saccharine portrayals of small-town white America before the civil-rights movement. But Rockwell himself, like America, could not avoid grappling with racism—the thing he called "The Problem We All Live With" in his 1964 painting of the courageous Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by four burly Deputy U.S. Marshals. Racism remains the problem we all live with. We discuss what it is and what it means. We wonder about the extent of its existence and the consequences of its deployment. And sometimes those of us concerned about racism wander around like those paranormal idiots on cable television who are deposited in long-shuttered asylums; we look for racism where we think it exists, we remain vigilant should it rear its wraith-like head, and yet we remain relentlessly ill-suited to identify it and characterize it and contend with it when we find it.
Popular music, like almost everything else in America, has always been racialist. For most of our history there has been music and race music, records and race records. But Trayvon Martin and Paula Deen notwithstanding, America has changed. How much? I'll cop out and leave that question to others. For me, the more immediate question, and one I feel better equipped to answer, is how? Clearly, people like Sly Stone are part of the answer.
Sly and the Family Stone are not generally mentioned with the giants of American rock 'n' roll, but they should be. They presaged so many things that their history alone, quite apart from their music, is worth attending to. The Family Stone was multicultural before that became a hackneyed goal for PR-seeking institutions of all kinds. As a professional, Sly treated women as human beings before that was fashionable—his sister played keyboards and sang, and the dynamic Cynthia Robinson played the trumpet. And Sly's history—sordid and tragic—is America's history. He began as a sunny realist, issuing pleas for peace over funky fun-time music. His optimism waned in the late '60s, and in the '70s he was whipsawed by social forces he couldn't withstand. Record companies wanted him to remain commercially viable (and avoid "darker" music dealing with the social and political realities of 1970s America), black nationalists allegedly pressured him to take a stand for racial solidarity by jettisoning the Family's white members, and money and fame intersected with drugs and booze to cause ineffable trouble. Today, Sly Stone lives in a van on a side street in Los Angeles.
So what about the music? Like the band, it's a stew—funk, soul, R&B, rock, and psychedelia. "Dance to the Music," for example, features a driving rock rhythm section, four lead singers, some gospel organ, and big jazz-band horns. "I Want to Take You Higher" evinces a similar eclectic approach, featuring lots of instruments, bluesy guitar riffs, a funky bass line, and cool James Brown guitar chords. Of course, good music comes down to good songwriting, and these songs are perfect funky pop records that burrow into your brain. They affect the body as well. This is eight or so minutes of serious good-time party music. The other standout up-tempo track is "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," a hard-driving funk piece (complete with slap bass) that seemingly influenced pretty much every funk record made afterward.
We allegedly have Sly Stone to thank for the phrase "different strokes for different folks," which appears here in "Everyday People," Stone's plea for peace and harmony. The song's lyrics are facile ("We got to live together," "I am no better and neither are you"), but the song works because it is earnest and genuine and proudly collaborative. In short, Sly puts up even if you want to tell him to shut up. The music is viscerally uplifting, and the singers' blatant ingenuousness obviates our cynicism.
There's some filler here (I'm not crazy about "Fun" or "Life"), but the good is so good it doesn't matter. To me, the most obvious analog to Sly Stone is Brian Wilson. Both men are guileless geniuses who sometimes find living difficult. Of late, Wilson has found a way to join us here in the real world, and we are all better for it. Sly Stone deserves a similar fate.
Corrected: A previous version of this column attributed lyrics to "Everybody is a Star" that were actually from "Everyday People."