Will Sly show up?
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."
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)."
What to make of this? Was Sly's newfound quasi-visibility a sign that, at last, his return was nigh? Early this year, I managed to get in touch with Vet Stone, who confirmed that her brother was indeed planning a return: a show in San Jose on July 7 with her band (which, with Sly's blessing, has been renamed the Family Stone), and then some summer dates at festivals in Europe. After several telephone conversations in early spring and one meeting with me in person, Vet called one day with the news: Sly would speak. We would meet up on May 9 in Vallejo, his hometown, 25 miles north of Oakland.
Are You Ready?
On the designated day, Vet and I arrive early at the designated meeting place: Chopper Guys Biker Products Inc., a Vallejo business that manufactures parts and frames for custom motorcycles. Sly, who lived in L.A. on and off for 36 years but recently relocated to Napa Valley, gets his bikes serviced here. As Vet and I kill time chatting, we eventually notice that it's about 10 minutes past the appointed start time of our meeting. Nothing worrying, but a long enough period to have faint thoughts of Hmm, maybe this won't work out. Vet tells me how many doubters she's had to deal with in booking those summer European dates, "people who wouldn't take my call, people who hung up on me, people who think I'm a delusional woman." She has been the catalyst of Sly's tentative re-emergence, the one who pulled him out of L.A. and found him a home up north, who persuaded him to play with her band and get back out on the road again. It's exhausted her, and she's openly daunted by the logistics of planning for her brother, never the smoothest of travelers, to fly to Europe and then zip from Umbria to Montreux to Ghent.
But she's gotten this far, which fuels her faith. "All I can say," she says, and it's something she says a lot, "is that I'm his little sister, and he's never lied to me." Nevertheless, even Vet is starting to get a little nervous about the interview, checking her cell phone, stepping outside the front door of Chopper Guys with me to see if anyone's coming.
And then, like John Wayne emerging from 'cross the prairie in The Searchers … a strange form advances through the wavy air in the distance: some sort of vehicle, low to the ground, rumbling mightily as it turns off the highway and into the parking lot. As it comes closer, the shapes become clearer: a flamboyantly customized banana-yellow chopper trike, the front tire jutting four feet out in front of the driver. He sits on a platform no higher than 18 inches off the ground, legs extended in front of him, his body clad in a loose, tan shirt-and-pants ensemble somewhere between Carhartt work clothes and pajamas. His feet are shod in black leather sneakers with green-yellow-red African tricolor trim. Behind him, on an elevated, throne-like seat built between the two fat back tires, sits an attractive, 30-ish woman in full biker leathers. He always was good at entrances.
Sly Stone and his lady companion, who I learn is named Shay, disembark from the chopper and walk toward the shop. He applies pink baby lotion to his hands, which I notice are huge, with elongated, tapering fingers. He's still very slim—there was never a Fat Sly period—and he does not appear frail, as several recent reports have described him. In fact, he moves rather well, especially for a 64-year-old man who's just spent time scrunched into a custom-chopper cockpit. But he has the same hunched posture he had at the '06 Grammys—a bit like Silvio Dante's in The Sopranos—and he wears a neck brace.
We shake hands and say hello. I've heard he owns an old Studebaker, so I tell him I, too, own an old Studebaker. "Really, what year?" he says, looking up at me with a smile. He pulls two chairs together for our chat, a metal stool and an old barber's chair. As all these mundane things are transpiring, I realize I'm recording them in my mind like a doctor observing a patient recovering from brain trauma. He is aware of his surroundings. He is capable of participating in linear conversational exchanges. He is able to move chairs.
The only strange part: he is still wearing his helmet and shades when we sit down to talk. Good lord, I'm thinking, is he going to wear the helmet the whole time? Fortunately, without my prompting, Vet says, "Why don't you take your helmet off?," and Sly obliges, revealing a backward San Francisco Giants cap.
"Still sporting the blond Mohawk under there?" I ask.
the same face from Woodstock, Cavett, and the cover of Fresh. It really is Sly Stone.
David Kamp is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.