I Want to
Take You Higher

The Life and Times of
Sly and the Family Stone

Jeff Kaliss
(Backbeat Books)
Those of us who managed to live through Woodstock Music and Arts Fair (and the film "Woodstock") can never forget the entrancing appearance of Sly and the Family Stone. Most of us had never heard of him, and thus on 17 August 1969, at two or three in the morning (a time when most of us could not tell what time it was), this skinny-looking guy, with huge glasses, and a huge grin, appears in this angel-fly white tight pants outfit (with black and white feathers dangling down from his chest and legs and arms), starts in massaging the electric piano and moving around like electric plasma there on the stage.

We were transfixed. "I want to take you higher," he intoned, and he was all over the place as he danced and cavorted, drove us nuts. "It's not the band's best performance" writes Kaliss, so we guess Kaliss wasn't there, or maybe he didn't watch the CD or doesn't know anything about pre-1960s white-folk's concept of rhythm and blues. Thus, he probably didn't see Sly's wonderful set for what it was: a careful but riotous caricature of every cliché; an absolute spot-on joyous parody of every notion that has ever been said or written (or thought) about black music and black musicians from Stephen Foster and Alan Lomax onwards.

In this book, Kaliss is obviously banking on his access to Sylvester Stewart, who has been out of public view for two or three decades (the Washington Post has called him the "J. D. Salinger of Pop.") So what the writer is giving us is the standard mold (or mould) of biography, birth, childhood, and stardom --- along with the requisite downer in studies of current musicians --- tales of dissolution, drugs, orgies and near-death experiences.

Kaliss tries connecting Sly to the stars by seeding the chapters with quotes from Henry David Thoreau, Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven: "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus ..." etc etc. But Sly is such a charismatic character that we think he deserves better. Instead of the usual tedious passages on cocaine and shotguns, the publisher might have done well to let the musician tell his own story.

"I don't read much of what anybody writes about me, but I know that it's mostly secondhand stuff that looks like it's supposed to be firsthand," Sly writes in the forward. "I don't know nobody, and nobody knows me, and they don't know what they are talking about."

    I'm only craving fewer pieces of paper, fewer words in my letters and fewer letters in my words, in order to say what I gotta say.

God wish that Backbeat Books had given him those words, that paper. It would have made us happy, even, perhaps, made him happy. Though, as he says,

    There's more happiness, but the one you're looking for, I think, stays the same distance away.

--- LeRoy Washington, MA
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