Okay, let’s admit it. Plenty of musicians that we glorify (Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, et. al) were basically junkies. And I don’t think it’d make for great reading to write a biography about any of them focusing entirely on their drug use. However, you really couldn’t write an honest biography of Stiv Bators if you were to call him a misunderstood family man. And that is precisely the problem with this book.
I admit that I’m not a fan of funk music, and, while I can respect the influence of funk music on other forms of music I know little to nothing about (hip hop, jazz, etc.), to me, Sly & the Family Stone always seemed like exactly what punk rock was not: long jam sessions, elaborate costumes, excessive posturing, and fucked up celebrity relationships.
However, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the story of the band, and Sly in particular, would make for interesting reading. Indeed, the more you read this book, the more convinced of this you become. Sadly, Jeff Kaliss, the author, has mastered the art of mentioning bizarre facts and then entirely failing to examine them. The result is a book that’s more than a little thin, despite Kaliss’ in-depth research of Sly and the band.
For example, in describing the then twenty-eight-year-old Sly’s relationship with an eighteen-year-old girl, Kaliss writes, “She refers to Sly’s sharing cocaine with her, to help her maintain her academic schedule.” That has to be the best reason I’ve heard for introducing a teenager to drugs, but Kaliss chooses not to comment on it. He then goes on to mention that, “Sly had subjected [his girlfriend] to a couple of episodes of physical abuse.” So, why not just say that Sly was an abusive boyfriend who convinced his girlfriend to start using coke?
Elsewhere, Kaliss writes about Sly’s street thug friends “facilitating and protecting Sly’s indulgences,” which is a pretty good way to say “providing girls and drugs.” How about the reasons Sly ended up broke? It couldn’t be that he suffered from drug addiction and general celebrity excess. No. “Along with the cash, it became ever easier for Sly to acquire roadies, personal assistants, and luxury vehicles.” Oh, the struggles of fame and its corresponding easy acquisition of expensive items! We also hear about Sly convincing girls to sleep with him by saying that he wants to include their vocals on an upcoming record, and even recording those vocals, only to erase them the next morning.
And then there’s the small incident in which Sly’s entourage, influenced by A Clockwork Orange, assaulted a fellow Family Stone band member with “fists, feet, and walking sticks.” Then, we hear about his ex-wife, who sued for divorce, stating that Sly “beat me, held me captive, and wanted me to be in a ménage a trois.” A short time after filing suit, Sly’s pit bull “lacerated” Sly’s son’s scalp. Needless to say, the divorce was granted, but Sly didn’t pay any child support until the court forced it out of him many years later. But all of these incidents, and many others, are mentioned as mere stumbling blocks on the way to recording yet another hit song.
The strange thing is that the people Kaliss interviews, the ones who actually know or knew Sly, do not gloss over his personal problems. One friend said, “Everybody had pistols…Sly be talkin’ to you, but he ain’t there. He’d be lying on the piano whacked out of his brain when it was time to do a vocal, and they’d have to lay the microphone next to his head.”
With his drug use spiraling out of control, Sly left the music industry and has been a recluse ever since. Kaliss scores a rare interview with Sly—the first interview Sly’s done in over twenty years—but, sadly, Sly doesn’t appear willing to engage in any in-depth conversation, which, in a way, mirrors Kaliss’ own unwillingness to tell the story of Sly Stone in all of its fucked up, bizarre, and musically influential glory.
By the book’s end, you’re left with bits and pieces that, when you put them together, say: This guy recorded some of the most influential funk music of all time. He also struggles with drug addiction. He beat up his girlfriend, held his wife captive, refused to pay child support, conned other girls into having sex with him, and hung out with thugs. What this book doesn’t provide is any insight into how Sly became this way or how it influenced his music, particularly considering that most of the early Family Stone music is all about family, unity, and love. And that’s a shame because, regardless of whether you like the band or whether you care about Sly Stone, his real story, if it ever gets told, would make for fascinating reading. –Maddy (Backbeat Books, www.backbeatbooks.com)