This appeared in slightly shorter form in Word Magazine in Sept 2007. This, is the full unedited, unexpurgated version (or, if you work for a record company catalogue department, the Deluxe Edition) written with no regard for word count or reader's attention span.
So far as I know this was only Sly's second interview in 20 years, the other being Vanity Fair earlier that year - but don't shoot me if I'm wrong on this, it's not like he has a press officer to check these things with.
The interview took place in the small hours of July 30 and if my questions seem a bit rubbish I plead tiredness, being a bit pissed and pathetically starstruck.
“We’re in here, Daddy. The door’s open, come on in.”
There’s a slight delay, a distant rumble. And there he is – for only the second time in some 20-odd years, Sly Stone is showing up to be interviewed. The last occasion was earlier this year, near his Napa Valley home, north of San Francisco: this time the location is his daughter’s hotel room in Sandbanks, a stretch of coastline a few miles from Bournemouth boasting, our driver tells us, the “third most expensive real estate in the world”.
Sly enters head bowed, dressed in a checked, hooded orange suit, somewhere between surgical overalls and pyjamas, offers a firm handshake, a smile and a hello. He doesn’t sit in the armchair so much as try to lie on it, adjusting himself to the injury (the result, it's said, of falling from a cliff near his home) that has necessitated a neck brace for the series of concerts that have been this summer’s least expected comeback. He peers upwards, almost tortoise-like, and asks in that deep baritone that has long since dropped to a croak, "Can I smoke?" Despite assent the cigarette in his hand stays unlit.
Notwithstanding the obvious physical decline, Sly is far from the broken man assumed by legend. The eyes still shine, the voice, though initially halting, soon finds its flow and the mind is plainly active. There are a thousand questions to ask the man whose disappearance from music, pursued by stories of cocaine arrests and total seclusion, has made him a mainstay in rock’s hall of casualties. So I start with the most obvious: why now?
"I’d been writing songs and felt like I’d written enough," he replies. "Again, I’ve got offspring who are pretty talented, so I thought I better get with them and get busy before they deny me."
Those offspring are both present: Novena – a classically trained pianist who mixes rock, soul and R&B and who, with her bright eyes and angular face, looks exactly how you’d imagine Sly Stone’s 25-year-old daughter would – and Rawsil Phunne (pron. fun), product of his relationship with Family Stone trumpeter Cynthia Robinson (the only original band member on this tour), and a rapper-producer (she briefly took the stage during tonight’s shambolic performance at Bournemouth Opera House). Rawsil has inherited her father’s brashness and sense of mischief. She screams in mock outrage at her dad’s controversial pronouncements and entertains herself by throwing grapes at me (‘family initiation’ she calls it), erupting in laughter when I try to catch one in my mouth.
This is not what I expected.
The call to attempt an interview came through two days earlier. Although there was no press officer for this tour, contact had been made with the Opera House’s Events Manager, the fabulously helpful James, who assured us he’d get me backstage and try to grab some precious moments with the artist formerly known as Sly ‘no show’ Stone. Since these have been virtually non-existent to all but intimates for so long (Vanity Fair’s April encounter was the culmination of a fifteen-year pursuit), the odds ranked somewhere between face time with Lord Lucan and a sing-song with Elvis. Instructions are to get whatever possible, even if it’s just a hasty autograph on a few old albums, and if worse comes to worst…well, at least I’ve had a free Saturday night out in Bournemouth.
There is, literally, no one else I’d do this for.
But Sly is special; has been ever since my teenage self was shaken from TV slumber by his supercharged performance at the Woodstock hippie-folk drearathon, enrapt by the sight of this lean black man clad in white Indian tassels leading his vice-tight black/white, male/female band and the assembled hordes through a ten-minute I Want To Take You Higher, daring them to risk their ‘approval’ by throwing up peace signs. Shortly after, a friend taped me 1971’s There’s A Riot Going On and the Greatest Hits rush-released by CBS to fill 1970’s deathly silence. They’ve been my two favourite albums ever since.
The transition from those affirmative onomatopoeic hits (Life, Fun, Stand), part Lichtenstein, part carnival, to the prickly heat of the claustrophobic Riot is as extraordinary as any of the era. But it’s what came out the other end that has defined Sly, if not the Family Stone, ever since. The 2006 Grammys sighting, a hunched Sly wondering offstage after barely a minute, appeared to confirm that his retirement should be permanent. Yet some 1500 punters in Bournemouth have staked £35 on this man and the band initially put together as a tribute act by his sister Vet (soul singer Little Sister) doing a show worth seeing.
The signs aren’t great. I was told to arrive at the venue by 6.00, when Sly was scheduled to appear for the soundcheck. But they’re not even in town yet, having only just landed at Heathrow. At 9.00 the harassed Events Manager informs me cars have been despatched to fetch them from respective hotels and they’ll have to test their equipment after support act Unklejam have played. We are officially on Sly time.
They commence just after 11.00 and the problems are immediate. Several mics aren’t working, the electric piano drowns all but the brass section. Cynthia Robinson still blows the trumpet like a one-woman war on Jericho, but during Dance To The Music’s band introductions Vet looks round anxiously as if expecting bits of scenery to collapse. After 20 minutes of this (and still no Sly) they hold an emergency soundcheck. Dale, a Scotsman doing a 700-mile round-trip to see him, screams “Get on stage you fucking cunt”. Later, after they’ve re-started with a painfully subdued Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey (once a line in the sand, here sand in the face), Dale’s ejected for continuing his protest, though the sympathetic bouncers re-admit him shortly afterwards.
By now Sly is on, performing If You Want Me To Stay (sweet irony!), prowling the stage for Sing A Simple Song, his diminished voice further obscured by ongoing mic problems. A strange stooped figure in his black baseball cap and grey-and-white bandana, he nevertheless defies expectations by leaping into the photographer’s pit during the recital of ...Higher that follows a fragile Stand. I move backstage during the encore, which Sly surprises everyone by participating in, scotching my plan to collar him while the band played on. The gig ends to as many boos as cheers (James later tells Word he’s had hundreds of refund requests), and after a half hour’s wait I’m told Sly will talk back at his hotel. I’m doubtful, but accept a lift with Scott, the tour manager, and Cynthia Robinson, who rates the show one of the tour’s best, blaming the venue for the sound’s failings (I decide against jeopardising my place in the car by querying the wisdom of a show-time soundcheck).
Arriving back at Sly’s hotel, Scott leaves to pack for the flight. "You’ve spoken to the girls, right?" he asks. I tell him I haven’t. His mouth says "Good night", his expression says "Good luck with that", and I’m alone in the hotel foyer wondering just how to broach the daughters-gatekeepers of the most reclusive man in showbiz. Incredibly, it’s a doozy. Rawsil is hospitality itself, checking that Dad’s game and inviting me into her huge room, where she and Novena play their works-in-progress on the wall-mounted CD player. Separated in age by at least a decade, they tell similar stories. They were raised by their respective mothers but Dad was about. "There was always contact," says Novena. "Nothing was a mystery. It’s funny when you’re on the inside and know what’s going on, but nobody else does. What’s the big deal? He’s chilling. Just ‘cause you don’t see him at the grocery store or he doesn’t have an album out, doesn’t mean he has disappeared."
Now that he has resurfaced, one thing about Sly is immediately apparent. The man who withdrew all those years ago isn’t about to let the world back in. His first recourse is the joke, the glib remark that answers the question but swats away analysis. His past drug problems are well known, but he is no born again, 12 Steps, Just Say No-er: “If I could do it all over again/ I’d be in the same skin I’m in,” maybe as true now as it was on 1973’s Fresh. After promising to release some of this mountain of new music via the internet and reciting some new verses that demonstrate the man behind lines like “You’ve been sitting much too long/There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong,” still has a way with a lateral lyric, he addresses the twenty-year question.
So Sly, what have you been doing?
"Writing songs and riding my motorcycle. Maybe now and then a horse, but not too much horse. But mostly I write songs, I’ve been playing music since everybody saw me last."
Do you socialise outside of your immediate family circle.
"Not too much, no. I hang with my daughters and then there are the twins I’ve known a long time, about 11 years, there’s one of them over there, Shay (he gestures to the woman who entered the room with him, who appears to be his companion). Things are working out just fine. I have no doubt we will have hit records, because we think people wanna hear it. A lot of people wanna say what we’re gonna say, but they don’t wanna be the ones to say it yet."
Do you pay much attention to people who’ve come along since, drawing heavily on what you’ve done. People like Prince, OutKast?
"Yeah, and I respect them and I’m happy for them. I’m glad if there’s anything that I’ve done to encourage them, to feel more confident in their own career, then that’s flattering. And the ones that sample me, I’m thankful, because I’m gonna have fun sampling them as well."
When you put the group together it was a completely different look: multiracial, men and women. Was that a natural evolution or a deliberate statement?
"Most things are pretty much spiritually intentional… And then there are things that I do intentionally. If we have everyone together we can do things together and it may have a lot to do with how people look at life and even in different countries, between countries. Regardless of how much we disagree and we go on fighting the terrorists and the da da da da and the whoo whoo whoo whoo, we’ve still got to live together. Kill off half the country because you feel like it? You can’t do that. So we still got to live together, so the next group may have terrorists in it. You see where my head’s at? Keep your enemies up close. If the terrorist is your enemy then a good place for him to be would be right there in the group."
The outlook of the band was initially very positive, very up.
"Yeah, something good is always gonna happen, especially when something bad’s going on. Damn near anything can happen. Some people just gotta look for the bad, and when it’s bad then you know it’s gonna get good. Garbage gets recycled at least. I guess that makes sense (laughs)."
…Riot is a very dark, very bleak album. Is that how you felt when you were making it?
"It was pretty dark. That studio in Bel Air on the top floor had a secret passage to it. You’d go in there and there was a jacuzzi and a sauna and there was a riot going on in there, everybody was rioting. The manager’s going, 'I want to get this one, I want that much money, I’ll take that, you can’t stop playing, you’ve gotta get up by yourself,' whoo whoo whoo whoo. Sounds like a riot to me."
You recorded a lot of it in a Winnebago.
"It’s fun to be able to move around, to open your eyes, to wake up somewhere else. Sometimes it has a lot to do with your outlook, your perspective. I’m sure if you wake up in a flood you wouldn’t think about dry land. When you move around you think different, if you think you lost any kind of a beat you just straight go to the ghetto. Take it back to the ghetto, that’s where it’s at. And don’t ask me about the rap by the way, ‘cause I love rap. Ask me who’s my favourite rapper."
So Sly, who’s your favourite rapper.
"They say he’s dead."
"Then there’s another name of Rawsil. You haven’t heard of her yet. You have? She’s cool huh? DNA."
Talking about …Riot, is it true you banned timepieces in the studio?
"You just lock it up, so you couldn’t tell if it was day or night, if it’s this week or that week, you just play when you play and keep on playing. That worked out better for me than anybody else it seems."
Bobby Womack said he would play for five or six days straight.
"That’s what he thought. He was up for five or six days straight, he was hallucinating, I’d be going to bed every night. Sometimes I’d stay up if there was something inspiring."
But the vibe of the record was also down and dark.
"Well yeah, there was a group called the Ku Klux Klan, don’t forget that. And another group called the Black Panthers, and the Aryan Brothers, different groups and their beliefs. Everybody had their own way of telling everybody how to live, so it sounded like a riot to me."
Legend has it things took a turn for the worse when you moved from Frisco to LA. Is that fair?
"Yeah, that’s fair to say. But I’ve never really had it bad, I can’t complain. Even when I had drugs I had all of the drugs. Can’t complain about that."
How and when did you come off them?
"When I ran out. Just woke up and there was no more. People were into doing other things, that’s cool, I’ll get high on that. I had chances in life, I took a lot of acid. Guess you can tell huh?"
When was that, the ‘60s?
"‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000. I did acid not too long ago. Nah, not a lot of acid, just maybe onnnnnnnce…a day (laughs). Maybe once a month, twice, three four times a month. But I don’t even do that anymore, I’m looking for a new drug. I hope they come up with something because this coffee is getting my heartbeat a little fast. It’s getting very boring."
They need a drug for old people.
And then he’s turning the tables, asking me questions. Are there any black people in England? Where do they live? Do they have alcohol problems? What drugs do they do? Do people still line up in Piccadilly Circus to get a fix? More pressingly, he wants to know how he can reclaim the Bouvier dog he bought in Belgium, now confiscated by UK customs. Before he leaves I ask him about the prospects of a full Family Stone reunion.
"Good chance, very, very good chance. I’m sure it will probably occur as soon as a couple of members start getting jealous that things are occurring anyway."
You’re all still on speaking terms?
"Oh yeah, things are cool. There’s one arsehole, but I wouldn’t even tell you his name is Larry. He’s alright, he’s just a little different. Came to the Grammys, he was gonna play and somehow he done some backstab bullshit with Prince, took my music and gave it to Prince. Then he got scared to come on stage because he thought I was gonna rough him up, but I wasn’t going to rough him up. I might now though. No, he’s a good guy, goes to church a lot."
Some of us would’ve been pleased with a few signatures, but got nearly half an hour of his time (and still got the autographs anyway). Returning to the foyer, I call a cab back to Bournemouth and am told five minutes, but half an hour later there’s still no sign. "I’m terribly sorry,” says the dispatcher, "the driver’s fallen asleep. It’ll be another ten minutes." No problem. I’m on Sly time.