In a 1982 interview with journalist and cultural critic Greg Tate, founder of the legendary funk bands Parliament and Funkadelic, George Clinton, describes going on tour with fellow music legend Sly Stone and being paid in cocaine and hotel rooms. He recalls the moment fondly, but his recollection could be skewed; Clinton had scored a hit in the early eighties with “Atomic Dog.” Stone had been struggling for years and was now staring at the end of his career. By 1987, Sly Stone would stop performing live altogether.
The 2006 Grammy Awards presented a special moment on a couple of fronts. A recently self-exiled Dave Chappelle emerged from the small comedy clubs he had been calling home since returning to the states after turning his back on his $50 million deal with Comedy Central to produce his hit sketch comedy show, Chappelle’s Show, to make an appearance at the 48th annual Grammys.
What made it particularly special was that Chappelle was charged with introducing Sly and the Family Stone, complete with a performance by the one and only Sly Stone, who literally had not been seen in decades. The new cultural recluse presenting the infamous recluse to the rest of the world. And though Sly only appeared on stage very briefly before exiting, it was one of the most talked about moments of the awards show that year.
Sly did a few more live performances throughout 2007. He signed a new recording contract in 2009. He appeared at the Coachella Valley Music & Art Festival in 2010. At the very least, he seemed to be functioning and crawling out, slowly but surely, to be appreciated for the contributions he made during the heights of his career.
Then this past September, it was reported by the New York Post that the former music prodigy was homeless and living out of a van in Los Angeles. Later the story became that he was not homeless, that he indeed had a four-bedroom home that was rented by his attorney and that he slept in the van as a matter of choice.
Either way, Stone had been looking into the possibility of attending rehab to help deal with his drug addiction. On November 15, TMZ reported that Stone copped a plea to cocaine charges dating back to April 1 of this year, where cops say he was carrying freebase cocaine. The deal would require him to complete an additional 60 days of in-patient rehab (he has already been in for 30 days) that if completed on time would allow the judge to dismiss case and there be no probation.
How did the man who brought us such monumental albums as Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On, classic tracks like “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” “Everybody is a Star,” and helped pioneer the funk/R&B/psychedelic fusion that would go on to define the sound of many artists throughout the 1970s and influence those to come in the 80s, have fallen from grace so hard? And how have we not noticed?
Sly didn’t make it easy. Unlike Clinton, or James Brown, or even Rick James, Stone disappeared completely from the spotlight, shunning the entire industry. Where his contemporaries still performed and toured or battled their addictions in public, Sly went at it alone, away from the spotlight. We undoubtedly continued to jam to his hits, but he was no longer a person in our collective conscious, but rather an enigmatic musical genius who existed on another plane.
Some folks probably even believed him to be deceased, they heard so little about him and definitely had not seen him. Where Brown performed nearly to the day he died, and James’ popularity rose in part as he was parodied by Chappelle and conducted often hilarious interviews, Stone existed outside of the new media landscape. He wasn’t popping up in movies like his friend George Clinton. He was off on his own, dealing with a drug addiction.
Of course, addiction is another thing that likely kept him from seeking out the spotlight. It’s easy to draw the line from genius to dark and troubled soul, but something about Sly suggests that he simply enjoyed getting high more than he enjoyed performing and being fawned over. And that’s just Sly, the main reason we haven’t heard from him in so long and the main reason we haven’t been able to be there for him the way we may have been for other fallen legends who needed our support: he just didn’t want it.
It’s hard to say for sure, but one hopes that the 68-year old who brought us such brilliant social commentary in the form of funk music will beat the addiction that looks to be crippling him. Not for us, and our selfish want to pick his brain or perform, but for himself, his health, and his family.