Thursday, November 07, 2013

Multiplicities Of Genius, Part 2: Sly Stone

Am I the only one who felt a slight sinking sensation upon realizing that Scorcese's brilliant film about Dylan, No Direction Home, was not going to go past 1966? One would think that by 2007, it was time to see Dylan's sixties work in context with the rest of his legendary career, which includes over 25 albums since 1970. I'm as capable of fetishizing the sixties as anyone else, but in the case of some of the music legends that came out of that time, it actually diminishes them to confine them to one era.

Sly Stone is another such genius. While his post-Woodstock career is nothing like Dylan's, his later work still deserves to be assessed and not dismissed, as it often has been. In the early 90's a friend sent me an import CD of Fresh, Sly & The Family Stone's album from 1973. Sony/Columbia/Epic had not deigned to include the gold-selling record that contained If You Want Me To Stay and In Time in their first round of CD issues. Why? "Too funky," my friend opined. "Too personal," I thought. Small Talk (also a gold record) and High On You, from 1974 and 1975, were also left out in the cold, along with the three albums that followed. Whatever the reason for the revisionism there has been a gradual correction, if an incomplete one, to the official canon. A huge step in the right direction was made in 2007 when Epic/Legacy put out a box set of the first seven albums, newly mastered and featuring bonus tracks.

It was a delight to hear beautifully prepared releases of Fresh and Small Talk, and to have a real opportunity to consider them in relation to Sly's more lauded work. Even considering the travails caused by his personal problems and addictions, he managed to keep the quality up. While the later albums didn't always innovate on a sonic level, they certainly held their own against the likes of Kool & The Gang and the Ohio Players, to mention just two of Sly's progeny. For the deep fan, however, there was still that twinge: What about High On You (represented only by a demo of Crossword Puzzle tacked on to the end of Small Talk) and the other albums? Shouldn't we have the opportunity, with an artist of Sly's stature (and one who has sold millions of records) to grasp the whole achievement?

Well, now another step has been taken, with the release of Higher, the lavishly packaged four CD set, which includes some pre-Family Stone work and goes right up through Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back, the last Sly album on Epic before he decamped to Warner Bros. There's also 17 unreleased tracks, including a few spectacular live performances, and many of the most famous songs are issued in their mono single masters for the first time on CD. There are some real gems among the rare material, like Remember, a swaggering blues that came out of a collaboration with Billy Preston (Free Funk from his Wildest Organ In Town is his version), and You're The One, a hit for Little Sister and performed furiously by the Family Stone on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert in 1973.

The live material from The Isle Of Wight festival is also stellar, but some of the newly unearthed material is strictly for bragging rights, such as a number of so-so instrumentals. There's a telling remark by drummer Greg Errico appended to one of them in the book included in the set: "These aren't instrumentals per se; they are tracks before the vocals were added," and that weren't completed for one reason or another. While the instrumentals aren't that memorable in their current form, they do serve to throw into relief the brilliance of Sly's lyrics, vocal melodies and arrangements. As for the classic material, much of it is well-chosen, although I would argue against including the nearly 14 minute Sex Machine (from the Stand! album), which I've always found leaden. The valuable real estate it occupies could have made room for two or three more songs from the final three albums, represented here by six songs in total, or accommodated one or two cuts from Back On The Right Track, Sly's first album for Warner Bros., such as the wry groove of The Same Thing (Makes You Laugh, Makes You Cry) or It Takes All Kinds.

On the whole, while the true fan will want all the complete albums as well, Higher comes closer than anything else to displaying the breadth of Sly's achievement. The book includes a decent essay, song by song descriptions with many quotes from band members (including Sly), and a timeline, along with great photos of the group and associated memorabilia. If you can find it, the "Amazon exclusive" version of the set is highly recommended as it comes with a bonus disc including six more tracks, including Sittin' On My Fanny from 1975.

While the essay does mention the "excess, strain, and recklessness which sometimes follow fame," there is no visual representation of the darker side of Sly's life. I have often wondered what it looked like as he made There's A Riot Going On, a dark murky album that still managed to produce three or four hit singles. I'll have to keep looking because all the pictures in the book show Sly smiling and seemingly in full command of the situation. This makes it easy to avoid thinking deeply about why Sly fell victim to drugs - was it just brain chemistry and opportunity, or could he feel the walls closing in as the culture's definition of him as a cartoonish avatar of sixties optimism grew more and more sealed? I believe that until we address questions like that head on, we will not be taking Sly's full measure with all the love and compassion deserved by someone who has brought the world so much joy and insight.

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