Now Sly Tells his Side of the Story, Sort of
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.
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