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.
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“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.
After many phone calls and apologies, though none from Sly himself, I found myself back at the Hilton on Wednesday night, scheduled to meet Sly at eleven. JR answered the door and then disappeared into Sly’s bedroom, leaving me with Stephanie (Sly’s secretary girlfriend) and Cynthia Robinson, the trumpet player in the band. Stephanie and Cynthia reminded each other of the highlights of the shaving cream fight while I watched the local news. After half an hour I knocked on Sly’s door and shouted to JR that I would like to get the show on the road. JR introduced me to Sly and they both retreated into the bathroom.
Sly emerged after another half hour, having added a black leather jerkin to his ensemble. He looked strikingly more alert. He strutted over to me and assumed the offensive immediately. He had failed to appear the other day because of “valid negligence,” he said. I said that valid negligence was a contradiction in terms. Sly bristled, drew himself up, and stared at me. “What are you, dense?” he said.
Suddenly he switched to a conciliatory mood, offering me a snort from a tin of something labelled “Ozona Sniffing Powder.” It was a tease; the powder happened to look exactly like cocaine. “Don’t worry, it’s legal,” he said mockingly. “I ain’t about to hip you to anything.” The Ozona was a snuff that smelled faintly of wintergreen. “I give you the first one free. Then I make you pay for the next,” said Sly.
I sat down on a stool at the foot of the bed, turned on my tape recorder, and began to ask questions. “Wait a moment,” said Sly. “Wait just a moment. We want our own copy, to check for accuracy.” Richie set up a professional-looking multi-dialed stereo cassette recorder on the bed. Sly tested it at length, yawned, sighed and then began the interview by asking me whether I would like to look at the instruction booklet for his camper. No? Ok, he would interview me; he would; just wait and see.
One thing was clear. Sly didn’t want me to interview him. He was wearing a mask of studied indolence. His eyes were half-shut, hooded with apathy. His lips were curled back, revealing a smile of total ambiguity.
Having been a disk jockey, Sly can speak like Demosthenes if he cares to, but he frequently prefers to mumble — (“Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” is a very accurate transcription of Sly’s elocution at moments when he doesn’t want to be understood). “What was that?” I would say. Sly would lean back on the pillows and quote from one of his new songs. “‘I can’t say it more than once/’cause I’m thinkin’ twice as fast/Yodal ayee, yodal ayee hoo!’ Hey, what’s happening?”
I asked whether Kapralik had been right when he said that Sly was really two people. “He’s probably either right or wrong,” said Sly. “They’re so close together, that’s all right.” Sly hadn’t had a chance to read what Kapralik had said. He had been too busy writing songs in his head. He was writing a song in his head right now, but if I wanted to hear it we’d have to forget about the interview.
“Kapralik said that Sylvester is fantastic, he’s responsible, he gets everywhere on time, he’s a beautiful cat,” I said, trying to bring Sly back to the question.
“Did he say that?” said Sly.
“But Sly on the other hand, is not responsible, he’s a fuck up. . . .”
“Did he say that? I’ll tell you what is true. David Kapralik tries his best. And I don’t think he has any malice in his heart. Whatever he said, he didn’t know what he was talking about, I don’t think. ‘Cause I am who I am when I am it.”
What about the body guards Sly was rumored to have had until recently? What about his German shepherd, named Gun, who is allegedly trained to kill? What was it that Sly had to be protected from?
“I don’t know anything about all this,” Sly drawled. “My dog’s really nice, man. He’d like you. I didn’t train my dog to do anything wrong to people. He likes girls, like I do.”
“The rumor goes,” I said, “that you were going around with three or four body guards . . .”
“. . . and that you beat up some people in the lobby of a New York motel a while back.”
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Sly volunteered. After meandering off on a minor tangent, he told me. “There were no guards there — I don’t think. And I didn’t beat anybody up. I just tried to keep from getting beat up. Some guys jumped on Cynthia, and one guy held her down with his knee. There were about six guys jumped on my brother. My dad said, ‘Hey, you always take care of your brother.’ So I didn’t understand anything other than goin’ down there and talkin’ it over. But they didn’t want to talk. So I got afraid. And fear breeds bravery.”
“What was the bravery?” I asked.
“The bravery was the result of the fear,” said Sly. “I just kinda ran through the lobby.” He gave a deep, rumbling laugh, chorused by JR. “You’da been proud. I was right. I had a peace sign on and a flower and everything.”
What about the rumor of assassination threats by the Panthers? “Panthers are only leopards,” said Sly, matter of factly. “Leopards are only panthers. I got a lot of Panther pahdnahs. Is you hip to it?” He closed his eyes, opened his mouth and let loose a guttural, sinister, mind-clearing “Baah!” “I got a lot of Panther brothers,” he continued. “They ain’t gonna assassinate anybody — ’cause I’m from the ghetto. You know, they’ll tell ’em to stop. They’ll say, ‘Stop.'”
How about Kapralik’s interpretation of the song “A Family Affair”? Kapralik maintained that Sly was being torn apart by two factions — Kapralik on the one hand, certain members of the Stewart family and the Panthers on the other. “Well, I’ll tell ya,” said Sly. “They may be trying to tear me apart, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel being torn apart. Song’s not about that. Song’s about a family affair, whether it’s a result of genetic processes or a situation in the environment.”
I paused for a second to consult my notes — for about ten seconds, actually. “Wake up,” said Sly and — thwaak — pegged a wet washcloth square in my face. A wet washcloth in the face is not a bracing as it might sound. It leaves a soggy, heavy sensation — like egg. It makes you feel pretty silly as you sit and wipe off the water and meanwhile your mind is groping for a comeback — what would it do to Sly’s Sir Fopling hairdo if you poured a pitcher of something over it. Baaah! Summoning up all of my macho, I picked up the washcloth and said, “Wouldn’t want to catch you nodding off.” Sly closed his eyes and thrust his face out. Sly looked big. Sly is big. The air was crackling with a tacit threat of escalation. I longed to throw the washcloth back, but my arm wouldn’t budge. A minute passed, Sly relaxed, and then I threw it. JR let out a low whistle. Sly mumbled something about “owing me one.”
Later, Sly got up to yell at someone who had tried to make an unsanctioned entrance into the room. He came back flipping a screwdriver as if he were going to throw it at me. I flinched. “Only one thing I know to do with a screwdriver,” Sly said innocently. “Screw.”
Having gotten the message that Sly didn’t approve of the direction the interview was taking, I switched to some technical questions about the recording sessions. Was it true that Sly played many of the instruments himself, overdubbing the parts onto the tape? What did he play on the new record? “I’ve forgotten, man,” Sly just managed to say. “Whatever was left. Clean your nose, Rich. Jesus. All this stuff and shit. You’ll never know about the sessions. You gotta be there. If you wanna ask a question, talk into my mike, man.”
Maybe Sly would like to talk about Africa. There’s a song on the new record called “Africa Talks to You.” For instance, why didn’t Sly make his planned safari to Kenya? At this question, JR doubled over in helpless laughter. “Oh, God, Kenya,” he kept repeating and he stumbled around the room as if he had just walked into a cloud of tear gas. “Hey, JR,” said Sly. “This washcloth don’t have enough water.” Turning back to me, he growled, “Can’t make all them gigs. I don’t wanna shoot any animals. I wrote a song about Africa because in Africa the animals are animals. The tiger is a tiger, the snake is a snake, you know what the hell he’s gonna do. Here in New York, the asphalt jungle, a tiger or a snake may come up looking like, uhhh, you.”
Sly’s eyelids were drooping lower. For the third time he said, “Hey man, will you get this shit through.” I didn’t bother to remind him that he had wanted the interview. His answers were getting more slurred and he said he didn’t even want to talk about the time the soul DJs boycotted his records in Washington. For a question about the future of the two groups he was producing—6ix and Little Sister—he perked up momentarily. “I’m ready,” he said, and then: “I’m through. We got 6ix material, Little Sister material. They can’t handle it. The record companies are pretty fucked up. And they try to fuck you around, and fuck the kids around. The executives, on higher levels, they don’t really associate with, uhhh—you have to live the blues to sing about the blues. And honest to God, Clive Davis hasn’t really been livin’ a hell of a lot of blues. And I just use Clive Davis because I admire our president to that degree.”
Sly declined to get more specific about his problems with the Columbia executives, or theirs with him. He did say that the Family Stone alone had three albums’ worth of material ready to master, whenever Richie could get it mixed. And that the band was rehearsing some of the new material to do at concerts. “Hey, we’re taking care of business,” he said. “You’d be proud of us. The younger generation. Hula hoops and the whole shtick . . . Hey, you gonna write nice things?” I said I hoped I would. Sly closed his eyes and went: “Motha. Motha. Motha. Baaaah!”
“Where’s that come from?” I asked.
“The heart,” said Sly. JR applauded.
One last thing. Where was Sly going to live? He had been evicted, at last report, from his lodgings. Sly said that he intended to move back into his $250,000 Hollywood home, throw out his old equipment, buy new equipment, and record all his albums there to avoid studio fees. “We’ll put Gun right at the front of the studio,” he said dreamily. “Gun and Dave.”
“A nice contrast,” he said.
Sly was growing increasingly restless, lapsing into monosyllables, so I turned off my tape recorder, got up and thanked him.
Sly sat up and shook hands. “It’s been a real pleasure,” he said. “As far as I can see. To the best of my knowledge.” JR ushered me toward the door while Sly got up and headed for one of his tapedecks.
Just as I started to go out the door, I heard a sodden “thwaak” a couple of inches from my ear. It was the washcloth.