Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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At the Apollo, a Backfire

Ever stop to think about a downfall

Happens at the end of every line

Just when you think you've pulled a fast one

Happens to the foolish all the time

Somebody's watching you.

Live it up today if you want to

Live it down tomorrow afternoon

Sunday school don't make you cool forever

And neither does the silver of your spoon

--Sly Stone, "Somebody's Watching You"

The 7 o'clock show is supposed to begin at 7 PM, sharp as a vaudeville turn. None of this white-boys-with-hair-like-Jesus tuning-up jive on 125th Street. Yet at 7 PM on a recent Friday, with the long lines still milling in to fill the 1,683 seats, Bob Schiffman was preparing to screen an aging, anonymous English suspense film, one of those cinematic formalities that always punctuate live entertainment at the Apollo.

Appropriately, it was in black and white (the giraffe movie from Kenya that followed was in color) and although the film was assuredly chosen for its low rental, the title could have been a bad, sad joke: Backfire. A joke, because this was to have been Sly's homecoming, the first time the most influential artist in black popular music had played the Apollo since July, 1969--and it backfired.

Sly Stone had filled Madison Square Garden on seven different nights in November, 1970. He had played 41 of 43 scheduled concerts since September, 1971. His first album of new material in more than two years, There's a Riot Goin' On, had been an instantaneous best seller even though the new material itself was a severe departure, almost perversely inaccessible and down. As if to prove that the people really dug Sly's new thing, a single from the album, "Family Affair," was one of the year's biggest. Despite the recent statistics, however, Sly was burdened with a reputation for arrogance and no-show that had been building since mid-1970. At first it was just big-time, multiple-hour lateness. Then he began to miss gigs. Eventually, the performances themselves sagged. Yet some of the worst no-shows in the business have discovered the spirit back home at the Apollo, so this engagement was critical, symbolically. Epic Records even planned to run a banner across 125th Street: "Thank You Fa Lettinme Be Mice Elf Agin."

Most of what is exciting in American popular music is ultimately Afro-American. It is directly related to the experience--which means the oppression--of black people on this continent.

It isn't totally unreasonable to argue that everything good about rock and roll comes from the same source. Its rhythms, its phrasing, its vocal feeling, its blues chords and scaling, all began as adaptations of African music to the American environment.

When white people try to re-adapt this music, they usually end by toning it down or faking it up. Yet the racial issue isn't that simple. Country music does have an authenticity of its own. So does rock and roll, which, like country music, can be seen as the expression of a relatively autonomous subculture with its own unique life-experience and values. The values include the rediscovery of joy, suffering, feeling within the experience--a move toward a white kind of soul. What's more, rock and roll means technology, which is the white man's major contribution to world culture, if anything is.

The rock and roll star operates in an artistic context defined by technology. His high-powered instruments possess musical potential unique to themselves, and even more significant is the way his persona is projected through the media--the world is literally his stage. For economic reasons, black audiences have had more difficult access to this context, but at 26, Sly Stone has proved his genius in this area three times over. Like all pop music innovators, he seems part seer and part jive-ass, but in Sly, the dichotomy is intensified because of his continual effort to straddle the racial divide.

Similar attempts by other artists have often seemed dubious in retrospect, but when they succeed (Chuck Berry is the best example), they are very exciting, and Sly has never missed a chance to go higher. Before he was 21 he was producing hit records for the first San Francisco rock group, the Beau Brummels, as well as for black singer Bobby Freeman. As a soul disc jockey he played the Beatles and Bob Dylan. And he tried to hit the same combination with his own music, first in a group called the Stoners and then with Sly and the Family Stone.

As befitting a seer and jive-ass, Sly made music that was really weird, so weird that even its weirdness was hard to pin down. It inspired much vague talk about psychedelic psoul, but not too many specifics, probably because it borrowed not from the hip ballrooms--Sly produced the first version of "Somebody to Love" with less than mind-expanding results--but from the tough outer-city dance clubs where Sly's bands worked out.

It was designed to attract attention, experimental and commercial instead of experimental and arty. The chunk-ka-chunk dance beat was embellished with simple, repeated wah-wah and fuzztone riffs, producing a jagged effect augmented by alterations of high and low voices and garish stereo separations. Although the singers, including Sly himself, were permitted great vocal latitude, growling and shrieking and muttering, their voices were always placed in a carefully composed frame. Even the longest instrumental passages sounded completely unimprovised.

Sly developed hip and soul cults as soon as he began to tour in 1968, but his real future was mainstream, and it was a hit single, "Dance to the Music," that made his career. By Woodstock, there was hardly anyone under age 25 who hadn't danced to his music and been taken higher. Sly appealed to hitters and hippies alike, and if a rare talent like Aretha Franklin or the Rascals crossed racial boundaries, Sly smashed them altogether. He was the only rock artist who appealed equally to black and white audiences.

Not only did his music combine loud white instrumentation with soul vocals and beat, but his lyrics exploited the most commonplace brotherhood cliches--love-generation rhetoric cut down to its lowest commercial denominator--and miraculously made them work.

You Can Make It If You Try. Stand! I Am Everyday People. Everybody Is a Star.

The words were effective because they worked musically and theatrically. On "Everybody Is a Star," for instance, lines were divided among the four vocalists. Beyond such craft, however, they were credible because the band lived them. Long before women's liberation, two women, Sly's sister Rosie, who played organ, and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, assumed non-stereotyped roles in Sly's ensemble. Two of the musicians were white, including drummer Gregg Errico, doubtless chosen for his natural rhythm. All were relatives or old friends. And they gave to their audience as few rock bands ever had.

Within a year and a half, from early 1968 to post-Woodstock 1969, Sly became one of the biggest stars in the history of black music. As a producer-leader-writer-performer, he earned unimaginable money, millions for certain. His appeal inspired Motown Records to revamp its production style, so that the Temptations were soon singing an embarrassing song about a "psychedelic shack" and everybody on the label finally came out against the war in Vietnam. Black performers by the dozens began to court the white audience, although they rarely succeeded. Sly alone was king.

Then the trouble began. Always flamboyant, Sly seemed determined to dissipate his income, and muttered jokes about all the ways of getting higher. The most generous live performer in the music became sullen and self-protective, manifesting many of the symptoms of stelliform paranoia, including an entourage of muscular flunkies. He told a crowd at San Francisco's Cow Palace that he wouldn't play because they didn't understand his music. After producing four albums in less than two years, he produced none in more than two. Epic Records placed him on suspension. Whites, accustomed to petulant heroes who succeed beyond their means, noticed and shrugged, but the black audience disapproved, and Sly was subjected to editorial censure in soul magazines. As a final insult, Norman Whitfield, who had fomented Motown's wah-wah revolution, wrote a song for the Temptations called "Super-star": "Remember beneath the glitter and the gleam/Like everyday people you're just a Human Being."

There's a Riot Goin' On, when it finally appeared, indicated that Sly did remember. Conceptually, it was brilliant, demonstrating the kind of album-as-art sensibility that has previously been the exclusive province of white musicians. But what a concept. The music managed to be both low-energy and nerve-wracking at the same time, without abandoning Sly's basic structural formula. One critic commented that it represented Sly's decision to "get off the truck." No longer would he confine himself to the Negro entertainer's work of bringing us higher; he wanted to write about the torment of his own life as well as its joy. There were veiled allusions to the Black Panthers, and the title track was just a title, its time indicated as 0:00. There is no riot going on right now.

It is strange, in a way, that all this should come from Sly at the pinnacle of his success. But then, until now, he's been too busy getting there to think much about it. In any case, the problem is what is always the problem with a difficult, unpleasant message--how to communicate it to an audience--and Sly hasn't solved it yet.

Faced with professional and financial disaster, Sly has been keeping his bookings, but the reviews have been discouraging. Maybe people just don't want to get off the truck--Sly no longer importunes people to dance, just tells them they can if they want--or maybe it's that Sly has contempt for his audience. Probably both. The great artist trip is one of the most seductive in the whole white experience, and Sly would appear to be on it. That's why everyone who looks to him was counting on the Apollo. Maybe Sly would solve his deepest artistic problems when he came to his own people. Uh-uh.

"If I'd had the balls," said Bob Schiffman, whose family has owned the Apollo since 1934, "I would have walked out on the stage and said, 'He's late. He will not appear. Your money will be refunded' But I didn't. I'll never make that mistake again."

Sly was late, and when he appeared his show was more lackluster than ever, Cynthia provided a bright moment during the second show when she did a big mock foxtrot with Sly during "Family Affair," but Sly didn't even attempt to do any of the rest of the Riot material. That would have made some sense and required rehearsal. Instead, he sang "Higher" at about two-thirds tempo, an auto-destruct if ever there was one.

His charisma carried the crowd somewhat on Friday, but on Saturday he was even later for the late show and people were walking out long before the set was finished. Sunday he showed but never came out on stage. Two members of the band were sick, his agent says. They probably were. But when the people filed out to get their money back, Schiffman was at the box office and instead of directing their wrath at the white man who owns their theater, they told him he should stop booking jive-asses like Sly. There was no riot going on.

N'day, Apr. 3, 1972