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By Corrie M. Anders
He is as enigmatic as any of America's rock stars of the last five decades. He's the creative genius behind the psychedelic funk phenomenon that spawned Prince and Rick James. He's the über bad boy who miscarried his career with drugs and self-delusion and then dropped out of sight.
Now Sylvester Stewart, better known as Sly, of Sly and the Family Stone, wants to return to the stage in his Social Security years and once again hear the roar of an adoring crowd.
So reveals local author Jeff Kaliss in a new biography published this month by Hal Leonard/Backbeat Books, titled, I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone. As part of his West Coast book tour, Kaliss will read excerpts and sign copies at several neighborhood bookstores in San Francisco.
The Noe Valley event takes place Saturday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m., at Cover to Cover Booksellers, 1307 Castro Street. After the reading, the group will continue the discussion at the Valley Tavern on 24th Street. Another nearby reading will be on Sunday, Nov. 9, 3 p.m., at Bird & Beckett Books & Records at 653 Chenery Street. That gig will include music from the band Funk of Castile.
Kaliss, who lives in the Miraloma Park neighborhood, says he is the first author to get a face-to-face interview with the reclusive Sly in 21 years. And it almost didn't happen. (In a nod to full disclosure: Kaliss, a former Noe Valleyan, is a contributor to the Noe Valley Voice.) Over the years, Sly has been profoundly suspicious of writers, especially book writers, Kaliss says. "I think he just always felt that he would not be properly represented and his truth would be distorted. Throughout his career, he continued to be sensitive about that."
It took Kaliss a full year--working his way, contact by contact, into Sly's inner circle--to get a meeting. The ground rules were 15 minutes and no tape recorder. "Everyone said be prepared, he may try to put you down or not answer your questions," Kaliss relates. But "he was very friendly. It was just two middle-aged guys sitting down having a chat." (Sly is 65, Kaliss 62.)
Kaliss then had to wait another year for the next interview. This time, the more comfortable Sly--who currently resides in Fair Oaks, near Sacramento--sat for a much longer period and allowed the author to record their conversation.
During the break between interviews, Kaliss sought out the rest of the Family Stone, whose hits like "Family Affair" and "Dance to the Music" are among the best-selling records of all time.
"I talked to band members, high school sweethearts and classmates, my colleagues in the radio and record business, and critics and media people."
He even found the parents of Stone drummer Greg Errico in Noe Valley on Dolores Street. "They had interesting takes on their son's ambition and Sly himself, who became an occasional houseguest," Kaliss says.
The author will share more family secrets, as well as other information about the top soul band of the '70s, at the book party of your choice. For a schedule of additional readings in the Bay Area, go to http://booktour.com/author/jeff_kaliss.
from I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone, by Jeff Kaliss (Hal Leonard/Backbeat Books, October 2008).
From the author's second interview with Sly, recorded in early 2008 at his rented mansion in Napa County:
After the expected wait, Sly descended from an upper floor, comfortably dressed in loose clothing and a knit cap. He seemed in a mood befitting the warm, bright weather outside. In fact, he insisted on our leaving the mansion and getting the interview started inside his 1958 Packard, with him driving, so that he could take the classic car into town and get it washed. We walked out to the vehicle, which was stationed alongside the terraced vineyard. The Packard was colorful, shiny, and solid, the way rock 'n' roll was a long time ago.
This time around, Sly was comfortable having me record him. He was quite cogent and cordial, and he drove carefully along the narrow roads winding through the pastoral landscape.
He began by talking about social and political issues, noting that he'd never voted. "I've wanted to," he maintained, "but I never know who's who till after it's over. And everybody always switches up on me. I don't want to think that I voted for someone who's doin' shit." Regarding the 2008 Democratic Primary, Sly offered, "I'm thinking that these Clintons would not be so likely to goof up too much. How could Bill and Hillary both do two [screw-]-ups?"
"The ability of people to [screw] up repeatedly, in the same way, is incredible," I responded from the passenger seat. "It goes on a lot. And you never know when somebody is reformed...."
Pause. Sly seemed unswerved, and I switched gears.
"If you were to get out there with the whole band or most of it, would you be wanting to play all the same music you played back then, or would you be wanting them to do some of your new music?" I knew he'd been hard at work upstairs in the mansion, particularly in the wee hours.
"It would have to be the new music as well."
"In the touring you've been doing since you and I talked at the beginning of last year, it seems like audiences are yelling for you to do the old stuff. Do you ever get a little tired of it?"
"Well, yeah, they like the old stuff, but they don't know any better, so it's up to me to get the new stuff recorded, to give them reason to want to say, 'Hey, what about the new stuff?' Until then, I'm glad they like the old stuff."