On Second Thought: Sly Stone — “High on You” (1975)

sly 

by Dave Gebroe

In the early morning hours of August 16, 1969, Sly Stone held hundreds of thousands of love children in the palm of his hand.  Watch the “Woodstock” documentary, and see for yourself.  More than any of the other performers, Sly nailed it. He owned that audience.  He then promptly hunkered down, picked up a nasty drug habit, reassessed the good-time vibe he’d been propagating, and released the groundbreaking “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.” Then came a couple more records, and in 1974 Sly went insane or succumbed to a drug overdose that left him catatonic.  No, wait…actually, he died.

Or so history seems to have been rewritten to have you believe.  Somehow, in the course of things, Sly wound up burning so many folks in the music biz, and souring so much of the positivity he’d been single-handedly responsible for creating, that his career no longer stood a chance.  It didn’t matter how bad or good he was, whether he had more to say or nothing left in him, that was irrelevant.  The world was done with him and it was hard to argue with the reasoning behind the collective decision to pretend he didn’t exist.  After all, it was easier than dealing with the monster he’d become.

1974 was Sly’s last year as a high-profile star.  In June, he played a show at Madison Square Garden during which he married girlfriend Kathy Silva.  It was a ploy to help boost ticket sales, and it worked.  The wedding took place in front of 20,000 guests.  The marriage wasn’t nearly as successful as the performance, though; Silva filed for divorce four months later.  The back cover of the record the band released that year, “Small Talk,” depicts a bleary-eyed Sly lying in bed, looking wasted beyond all reasonable conception.  That record included his final top 40 hit, “Time For Livin’.” 

Live bookings had plummeted quickly for the band since 1970, seeing as Sly was skipping out on almost as many shows as he played.  The final straw came in January, 1975, when the group booked itself at Radio City Music Hall.  The venue was only one-eighth occupied for the gig, and the band had to scrape together money to make it back home.  That was the end of the Family Stone.

Then Sly just…disappeared.  It’s no wonder he’s been called “the J.D. Salinger of funk.”  However, it’s arguable whether he consciously went underground or was coerced into extinction by a world sick of his wayward antics.  After “Small Talk,” Sly released four more albums of new material.  The first (and only record billed to Sly Stone solo) was “High on You.”  “Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back” came out in 1976, followed by “Back on the Right Track” in 1979, and “Ain’t But the One Way” in 1983.  It’s a shame these records have been written out of history, as there’s a lot to be said for them, both in the fascinating context of Sly’s failure to live up to his promise and as good, solid funk music.

“High On You” is Sly’s eighth album, and includes only two remaining members of the Family Stone — perennial Sly cheerleader and trumpetist Cynthia Robinson and saxophonist Jerry Martini.  No, this record is not as important as “Stand!” or “Riot,” but there is plenty to recommend it.  In fact, except for tossed-off instrumental “Green-Eyed Monster Girl,” there really isn’t a bad song in the bunch.  The strongest material is front- and back-loaded, kicking off with the fantastic one-two punch of “I Get High on You” (a #3 R&B hit) and “Crossword Puzzle,” the latter unquestionably the best song on the LP.  It’s a classic, and certainly the hit that never was.  Over a mischievously descending bassline and nursery rhyme keys, Sly’s vocal about an illegitimate child is grittily on point.  It sounds like he’s actually singing out the side of his mouth. 

There are also a series of great songs that wind down the record.  “My World” is a wonderfully woozy mute-trumpet ballad, in which we seem to get some kind of glimpse into what it must be like to be Sly at three or four in the morning.  

“So Good To Me” is a great little funk tune featuring a dash of fuzz bass lifted from the “Stand!” days.  Then there’s “Greed,” a powerhouse tune that kicks off with “fe fi fo fum!” muttered over percolating percussion before a wall of trumpets burst in to mock Sly’s all-too-human failings.  What a way to go out.

“High on You” is a lot more cleanly produced than the the gritty, labored-over tape hiss of his early ’70s classics.  There’s also far less counterpoint in the melodies; what you have here is simple, straight-up funk.  My guess, although admittedly a stab in the dark, is that he wanted a slicker sound to banish his newfound reputation as the king of darkness, and thus return him to his roots as Smileyface McGee.

Unfortunately for Sly, it was too little too late.  What’s most disturbing about Sly’s post-“Riot” output was that the cat was out of the bag. This was the new Sly, and the news wasn’t at all good.  So the series of unconvincing about-faces that followed didn’t fool anyone.  Sly frittered away the last ten years of his career doing his best to convince the world that, as his drug habits and isolationist tendencies worsened and the Family Stone fell to pieces in a morass of guns, bulldogs, and PCP, everything was fine!  Better than ever, in fact!  You don’t believe me?  Check out my album titles!  “Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back!”  “Back on The Right Track!”  I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an unreleased album from that era called “I Don’t Do Drugs Anymore, So Trust Me When I Say That Everything’s Cool!” 

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of real, true consensus on whether Sly’s post-1973 output is bad or if it exists at all.  Although a lot of confusion exists over the later material, one thing’s for certain: Sly never was able (or maybe just never bothered to try) to reach the dazzlingly murky depths of “Riot” again.  That’s the kind of work that colors everything else an artist releases, and even recasts his prior work in a whole new light.  That record was a stick of dynamite that blew Sly’s entire discography apart, and contextualized his every move.  “Riot” laid it on the line: Sly was dying, this was how it was, and for better or worse this was how it was going to continue to be.

What we get in “High On You” are little glimpses, tiny hints here and there of the obvious horror-show that was still going down in Slyville.  Sly was too much of a true artist to spend the entire duration of a record selling the listener on his rehabilitated gentlemanliness.  So, however fleetingly, the truth does manage to slip out: “Some of us will go astray (repeated four times over in “Greed”); “Jimi tried to pull me round, but I can’t let it bring me down (from “So Good To Me”).

And then there are Sly’s desperate and ultimately listless attempts to reconnect folks with his once-relevant position in the pantheon: “Different pills for different thrills, different days for different ways, different freaks for different weeks” (from “Le Lo Li”).

These reminders backfired gloriously on Sly.  They underscored how redundant he’d become in his insistence on cowering in the shadow of his former self.  They made it quite clear that he’d been reduced to running off at the mouth, repeating himself, condemning himself to uselessness.

The world might have gotten its wish in making Sly go away, but you can’t change the fact that he kept making records.  Those records are just as relevant to understanding the man as anything else he released. Are they as good as the early stuff?  You be the judge, but the godfathers of rock criticism saw fit to prematurely write him out of the picture, and Sly deserves better than that.

Mid-70s Sly on television. Looks good in red and sparkle.

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2 thoughts on “On Second Thought: Sly Stone — “High on You” (1975)

  1. Great article. I prefer the more introverted and personal post There’s A Riot Going On Sly to the hippie-Dippy Utopian fantasy land of Everyday People. He was exorcising hid demons on those early to mid ’70’s recordings almost the way Richard Prior was doing on stage. The illness of addiction was present and the action and reaction both lyrically and musically is very real even though you feel someone choosing to go down in flames.
    I think of a Hubert Selby Jr. novel set to funk.

    Thank you,

    Devon

    Like

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