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COLUMN SEVENTY-EIGHT, NOVEMBER 1, 2002
(Copyright 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)

RETROPOP SCENE:
THE PREACHER


SLY STONE TRIMS HIS SIDEBURNS

Sly Stone says he likes me, so I let him trap me into admitting that I think he's fucked up.

"Tell me how!" he says.  "Tell me how, man! If you like me, help me.  Tell me how!"

It's late Fall of 1970 and Sly and I have just met.  He called himself Syl, short for Sylvester.  Outside the door, down the corridors of the New York Hilton, you can hear the drunken laughter of Middle America celebrating its presence in this tower, a party of business convention people showing off their vices like a new line of wares, dark-suited men and cocktail-dressed women with their glassine badges still hanging over their hearts.

Sly is in town for interviews, leaving his usual troubles behind him.  In Boston, there had been a riot for the Jackson Five the week before and so the authorities had ordered Sly's show cancelled.  In Detroit, he had decided to arrive in town by limousine instead of by his scheduled flight and when the promoters couldn't find him at the airport they called the concert off. Now, he is booked into the Garden for two shows next weekend.  Both concerts are already sold out but he has surrendered to his advisors and agreed to try to butter up the press.

"Help me,? he says. "Help me, man. If you think I'm fucked up, tell me how."

I had started out by saying it to show that I trusted him enough to walk into his trap. I liked him, too. But now he has playfully sprung his trap on me. Still, I feel intimate enough with him to  tell him I think any star traveling at his kind of pace is in danger of burning himself out.

"Man,? he says, "I'm just sure about me. It does not have to be my body, my soul, my music. My group is me."

He points to his manager, David Kapralik, sitting in a corner on the sofa.

"Dave Kapralik is me, I don't think that's fucked up, man.  I think you're fucked up!"

"Everybody is," I say.

He is wearing a crocheted green wool cap and a zippered green leather jacket to match.  It has multicolored leather panels on the front and back and is styled along the lines of a thunderbolt. 

"This is my Elvis Presley jacket," he says.

"Elvis would never wear a jacket like that," I answer.

"No," Sly says, "But he would if he was me."

He stands up as if to pace the floor and looks at me.

"Ask me a something hard," he keeps saying. I just want to ask him something friendly, but he is having too much fun playing with the prey he has caught in his trap. He won't let me go.  I tell him I


'. . .I like to see people happy,'
he says.
'I don't want to see 'em cry. . .'


know his music has the power to move people to great excitement but I think it lacks the dimension of being able to make them cry.

"I like to see people happy," he says.  "I don't want to see 'em cry.  That bum kicks me.  I come from the streets, man.  I don't want people to feel that shit!  We got to have more of this," and he takes two fingers and pushes up the corners of his month, forcefully extending his smile.

"But music that cuts both ways lives longer," I say.  "It doesn't burn itself out so fast."

"I have no doubt about my music," he answers.  "The truth sustains.  If you want to talk about fucked up, everybody's f-u-c-k-e-d up.  It's like saying everybody has an accident.  Music?  I don't care about nothing else.

He stands up to get a glass of water.  He says he is going to tell me a story and then he changes his mind.  I tell him that anyone who has the power to magnetize large numbers of people the way he does must obviously have been touched by the finger of of God.

"I know, man," he says.  "I'm a preacher.  That's what I am, a preacher."

"But there's a difference," I say, "between being a preacher and a being a conjurer."

"They don't know how to categorize it," he says.  "They can't say it's R&B, they can't say it's rock, they can't say it's pop, because even I don't know what it is."

"No," I say, "What I mean is that when you're touched by the finger of God, you've got a responsibility.  When someone has made it the way you've made it"...

"I ain't made it!" he interrupts.  "I will always be going forward.  I will always tell truth to the best of my knowledge as far as I can see.  You need some lessons about the right direction and made to feel that you learned it yourself.  I made it when I was 12 or 13.  When I was nine, I had a roller coaster.  I had a smile.  I made it like this?---and he turns up the corners of his mouth with his two fingers again.  "You know what I always say.  I always say that everybody's mind---sometimes ---has to take a shit."

He picks up my notebook to make sure I'm getting everything down.  "Man, you've got a terrible hand?writing," he says, and we both break into a laugh.  Dave Kapralik suggests I ask him why he hasn't brought out a new album in two years.

"Sly," Sly says, "Sly lives in the studio."

Sly says he was building his own and I ask if he had been down to see Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady studios, capable of recording 24 tracks.

"I don't need but four tracks," he says.  "Do you want me to get you a stenographer to take your notes for you?  You don't need a bunch of secretaries and all that phony stuff.  You just need a four-track studio.  I'm going to write and arrange and produce and I'm NOT the boss, I'm only the leader.  If anybody in the group don't like it, we don't do it.  If I can't reach the people right here"---he touches his chest---"I don't want to do it.  Because I ain't a commercial item, man.  I ain't!

"When I was a disc jockey, the first station I ever worked for I got the best slot.  I have no idea why, except I could write and I could read and I had a nice speaking voice and the girls liked me.  I blew the station's whole format, but the ratings were 58 to 7. Put that down, that's good for my ego.  I played Lord Buckley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Lenny Bruce on an R&B station.  I had all these black cats callin' up and sayin, 'Why you playin' whities, man?' I explained to 'em that there ain't no black and there ain't no white and if it comes down to that, there ain't nobody blacker than me.  'There ain't nobody blacker than Syl."

Sly smiles.  We hug each other before I leave.  ##

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