Before and after the Riot

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  June 12, 2007

It’s not that the utopian cast of the band’s early work has ignored harsh realities. You don’t record a number called “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey (Don’t Call me Whitey, Nigger)” if you’d like to teach the world to sing. But as befits the leader of a racially and sexually integrated band, Sly had confidence that people were better than their prejudices. And though his huge Afro and the outrageous clothes he and the band wore made him beloved of the freaks, he wasn’t arrogant enough to try to keep the squares from dancing at his revolution. “I am no better/And neither are you,” he sang on “Everyday People,” and he expanded that thought on the gorgeous “Everybody Is a Star,” which had the grace to believe that people will rise to the occasion life presents to them and them alone.

All these threads come together in the showstopping celebration that is Stand! The album is studded with hits: the title song, “Everyday People,” “I Want To Take You Higher.” It’s big and flashy, a band showing off what they can do, and at the same time so welcoming they draw you into their embrace.

Which makes Riot that much more of a shock. Whereas two years earlier S&TFS had exhorted the audience to stand, this album sounds at first as if it had been made by a man who can barely get to his feet. “Feel so good inside myself/Don’t wanna move,” Sly sings over and over on the opening “Luv N’ Haight.” The murk of the production, the funk grooves that — instead of opening up into ever broader territory, as they did on Stand! — circle back to the cocooned solipsism of that vocal, all enforce a sense of willed isolation. The earlier celebration of a community with no boundaries gets a stinging reversal in “Family Affair” (one of the album’s two hits), with its tale of a disintegrating marriage and Sly’s stoned, croaking voice delivering the cold slap of “Blood’s thicker than the mud.” The closing “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” is a remake of the sharp, funky “Thank You (Falettinme . . . ),” that song’s boastful contingencies slowed down to the rhythm of a junkie’s nod; voices thread in and out the mix, echoing the lyrics, breaking them into howls and groans, and Sly moans, “I’m a dyin’/I’m a dyin’.” And as the album slips into the darkness War would sing about in one of the pieces of black rock Riot inspired, the entire history of the band seems to go with it.

Fresh and Small Talk — the latter the souvenir of Sly’s marriage to Kathy Silva, celebrated at Madison Square Garden during a S&TFS concert and dissolved five months later — were footnotes, if that. The turmoil of Sly’s life has been written about by others. The relevant chapter in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train posits Sly’s career as a metaphor for the implosion of the expansiveness of the civil-rights movement into the factionalism and paranoia of the black-power movement, and the despair of black America in general under the law-and-order ethos of the Nixon years.

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