NEW YORK — The moment I stepped into Sly Stone’s room at the New York Hilton, the expression “holed up” sprang to mind. The room had the stagnant, stock-piled look of a fugitive’s hideout. It was the middle of the night. The covers and sheets on the oversized double bed were rumpled and askew. The bed-tables were cluttered with signs of a woman’s presence — spools of thread and a wheel of contraceptive pills.
Across from the foot of the bed, on top of a cabinet that contained a radio and TV, were stacked turntables, tape-decks, speakers and cassette recorders of all brands and sizes — a sound laboratory. On the far side of the bed sat a coffee table with another turntable and more speakers on it. The main door of the room was locked and chained; Sly’s aides barked an ominous challenge of “Who is it?” at anyone intrepid enough to knock. In the adjacent living room, the remains of a lobster dinner were congealing. It was as if all of Sly’s loot had been hastily collected here, everything he needed to make a last stand, to run his life without recourse to the outside world.
The key men were in attendance, too. There was Richie, a bear of a man, the longhaired former Berkeley music major who had been at work day and night for a week mixing Sly’s album. Richie sat in a corner and said little. There was JR, a heavy-voiced Italian-American who functions as a sort of squire to Sly. “I want to find a quiet room and talk to Sly alone,” I said to JR.
“I’m allowed, aren’t I?” JR replied.
JR was wearing no shirt over his huge barrel-shaped torso and his torpedo biceps. He had slicked-back black hair, a slightly hooked nose and gat teeth. He sat in a chair a couple of feet away from Sly, towelling himself off. He and Sly had just waged a shaving cream fight that used up the better part of a can of Barbasol, several pots of coffee and a bucket of ice-cubes.
Sprawled on the bed, surveying everything and everyone with grand indifference, was Sly. He was clad in white vinyl boots and red leather pants with fringe; his hairdo was several inches high and shaped like a Guardia Civil hat. It was astonishing to find Sly in his stage regalia off-stage; it was like meeting a circus clown who lounged around the house with the putty still affixed to his nose. Sly extended his hand without raising his body and mumbled several in decipherable sentences. Suddenly he said something distinct. “I got to pee,” he said. “Ok if I pee?” Sly and JR locked themselves in the bathroom and didn’t come out for half an hour.
At the twenty-minute mark, I nearly got up and left. I didn’t like the feeling of having entered an untidy, four-suite province in which Sly’s whim was law and where everyone seemed to regard the release of Sly’s record as a national priority. I was tired of waiting for Sly, something I had been doing on and off for three days.
Sly had been scheduled to meet me one Sunday afternoon at 3 PM. When I arrived at his hotel room, Richie had opened the door and announced that Sly and JR had gone to Long Island to see JR’s mother and were then flying to New Haven by helicopter to make a concert. But Sly would be back by 1 AM.
At one in the morning, Richie answered the door again. Sly would be back at any moment, he said. He asked me in, gestured to the TV, went into another room and shut the door. Two and a half hours later he reappeared with the news that Sly had called from Long Island, was starting immediately for Manhattan, and had asked me to wait. Waiting seemed to be a good idea. In an earlier interview, David Kapralik, Sly’s personal manager, had made some outspoken, controversial statements about Sly — to wit, that Sly was really two people: dependable, poetic, loyalty-inspiring Sylvester Stewart and irresponsible, inexcusable, infuriating Sly Stone. It seemed only fair that Sly should get equal time. Kapralik himself thought so, and had phoned me to say that Sly was ready to give an exclusive interview.
The hours passed. As the garbage trucks gargled up 54th Street, the TV stations signed off, and the sun came up over Central Park, Sly’s people filtered in and out of the sitting room. Manny, a black kid from Brooklyn who wore tacky imitations of Sly’s splendid custom-made costumes, was hanging around trying to make himself sufficiently indispensible that he would be asked to accompany the Family back to California. Fayne, a stylishly dressed black woman who arrived at 4:30 AM, said that Sly had signed her to sing on one of the records he was producing. She had left her two children with a sitter in order to drop in on Sly. Neither she nor Manny nor anyone else seemed surprised or concerned that Sly had not arrived. “Well, that’s just Sly,” shrugged Fayne.
Sly did not reach the Hilton that night. Instead, he and JR pulled over to the side of the highway in Sly’s 28-foot camper and took a five-minute nap that lasted well into the morning hours. They finally arrived after noon, when I was already on a plane flying back to Boston.