For those who tuned in late, Sly and the Family Stone released seven essential albums, from 1967’s A Whole New Thing to 1974’s Small Talk. Go out and get them. I’ll wait. The seven-strong, five-black/two white, five-male/two-female lineup hardly erased the Negro Problem, but it had a hell of a time, and a heaven too, playing through that wall. Their joy—”Dance To The Music”—pulsed unrestrained as the Beach Boys’, but their sobering visions—”Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey (Don’t Call Me Whitey, Nigger)”—applied haiku harshness to steadfast impasses.
Commonly clucked over as a train wreck, Sylvester Stewart, who was and is Sly Stone, deserves a better look at his good page. This he receives from both books, for a portrait of the artist as a young man elliptical, wryly humorous, and blessed with a mojo squeezing cultural commentary out of even his most ingrown Family obsessions.
The turning point came with 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Sly played most parts himself after the other six went home, and emerged with a terrifying, heartbreaking vibe that sliced the listener’s throat on the way to sticking in it. “He was saying, ‘I was lying before’,” said critic Greil Marcus once on Stone’s motives. “`I’m sorry I lied, but now I’m telling the truth. The world is a horrible place.’” And he was, and it is. But that didn’t keep Sly from enjoying a carefree fuck-you coked-out romp as a “Spaced Cowboy.”
The Santiago book pushes the Stewart/Stone-as-Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy, which makes bad psychiatry but some sense in terms of how Sly wanted to sculpt and exculpate himself. The Kaliss book lands some rare face time with the man himself, proving, if nothing else, that Sly could make sense to you, but more often wants you to make sense out of him.