The insane circumstances surrounding Sly Stone’s bizarre appearance in Santa Rosa last Friday, Oct. 18, were told to me by several people involved with the show. Crazy doesn’t begin to describe it. Here’s how it went down.
The morning of the show, Sly Stone is in Los Angeles. He fires his business manager. Sly tells the promoter that he’s his own boss now, that he’s the one who’s going to get paid at the show, and that he needs $3,000 wired to the bank account of an Iranian BMW saleswoman before he’ll even get on the plane to San Francisco.
And about that plane: it was supposed to arrive from Los Angeles at 11:30am. No Sly. The limo waits at the airport. Sly’s next flight becomes 1:30pm, then 2:30pm, 3:30pm and 5:30pm. No one can get a hold of him at all. The promoter drives to the airport in the slim hope that Sly might walk through one of the gates.
Finally, at 7:30pm, with his young Japanese girlfriend in tow, the 65-year-old Sly shows up at the airport. He’s an hour and a half away from the show—which starts in a half hour—and he demands to go to the hotel. The young girlfriend finally talks him out of it, and he agrees to go to the show, but he’s still talking about getting paid.
He sleeps all the way to Santa Rosa.
Sly doesn’t hit the stage at the Wells Fargo Center until 10:30pm, during the fifth song of the set. He walks off the stage 25 minutes later, in the middle of “I Wanna Take You Higher,” telling the crowd, “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”
But Sly never comes back. The band continues on without him, killing time for 30 minutes. During the last song, a man appears on the stage, whispering into band members’ ears.
Meanwhile, backstage, Sly is demanding to be paid. The show is still going on, and the promoters are telling his handlers to get him back out to perform more. But his handlers know the drill. It’s been this way for years. What can they do?
Before the show is over, Sly is out in the parking lot, still in his white suit, trying to get into the promoter’s car. All the doors are plainly locked, but he keeps trying. Finally, a woman drives by, picks him and his Japanese girlfriend up, and they whiz away. Word of his departure gets inside.
It’s not too hard to figure out what the man on the stage was whispering to the band. How about: Sly’s making a getaway? How about: Sly’s driving off right now? How about: You’d better chase after him if you want to get paid?
And after quickly finishing the song and exiting the stage, that’s exactly what they do.
The band members pile in their cars and find Sly precisely where they thought he’d be—at the Fountaingrove Hilton. Except he’s not in his room. All the rooms are reserved under the business manager’s name, who Sly fired that morning. So Sly’s there, fuming about not being able to get into his room, when the rest of his band suddenly pulls up.
“Get me out of here,” he’s heard telling his driver, and they peel out.
It is not an uncommon sight to see cars racing down Mendocino Avenue on a Friday night. But it’s a different story altogether when the lead car giving chase contains an absolute funk music legend, pursued by five more cars driven by band members, some of whom have played with him for 40 years and are actual, literal family members. Six cars race down the street, weaving in and out of lanes.
Finally, past midnight, Sly’s car is cornered at a gas station. A long stand-off ensues between him and the band while the young Japanese girl cries hysterically in the car. A gas station on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. That’s where it all falls apart.
At press time, no one can get a hold of Sly Stone—not his management, not his band mates, not his family. The last anyone sees of him, he’s headed south on Highway 101. Everyone’s got a pretty good idea how he’s spending the money, but no one knows where he is.
And no one ever wants to play with him again.
To read a review of the Sly Stone show, click here.
At the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone did not take a bow.
In fact, at the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone was nowhere to be seen. He had left the stage long ago, during “I Want to Take You Higher”—one of only four songs he actually performed—explaining to the crowd: “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”
But throughout the rest of the 90-minute set, Stone never returned, leaving the Family Stone to awkwardly vamp songs in his absence, just like they had at the beginning of the set, until, well, the hell with it, you know, and they simply gave up and left, too. The house lights came on, and a young man sitting a few seats away from me said it all.
He stood up, angrily threw his arms in the air, and yelled, “What the fuck??!”
Yes, it was disappointing. Extremely disappointing. And by far the hardest part is that for the few songs Stone appeared on—“Sing a Simple Song,” “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Stand!” and “I Want to Take You Higher”—he was an electrifying presence which transformed the show from a schmaltzy Vegas act into a truly special occasion. That is, when Sly Stone—one of the greatest talents in soul music and an undeniable genius—wasn’t referring to Santa Rosa as “Sacramento” or telling the audience, point-blank, to shut up.
Even before the show started at 9:55pm, trouble was in the air. The opening act had played for far too long, and when Sly’s announcer finally came on stage, he felt compelled to convince the crowd of the overshadowing importance of the evening. “I know you’ve waited a long time,” he said. “But this is history! You can tell your grandkids that you waited for Sly and the Family Stone!”
The nine-piece band then took to the stage, without Sly Stone, announcing that their “master” had asked them to “warm up the stage” for a while. Apparently, “warming up” means dicking around for five minutes. They sloppily introduced the band, gave shout-outs to their friends in the crowd and joked painfully amongst themselves. Eventually, they remembered that their job was to entertain paying customers, and tore into “Dance to the Music.” The crowd went nuts.
Then came “Everyday People,” which was noticeably weaker without Sly around, and “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” which caused people to start shouting. “We want Sly!” they yelled. “Where’s Sly?” The band answered by first playing a quick funk instrumental, and then by futzing around with the monitors and complaining to the soundman.
Then, weirdly, and with no fanfare, Sly Stone appeared—coming down the aisles, walking slowly to the stage and murmuring greetings into his wireless microphone. The band kicked into “Sing a Simple Song,” and Sly opened his mouth to unleash a signature deep, rich voice that hasn’t really changed much in the last 40 years. A thrill ran through the building. The crowd jumped again to their feet and danced like crazy.
Especially moving was Stone’s version of “If You Want Me to Stay,” with its impossibly low notes and an ever-hypnotic chord progression. For as bizarre as Sly Stone is these days, he is completely and authentically in the moment during songs like “If You Want Me to Stay.” He has that kind of unpretentious honesty that draws people to him as an artist. He’s not trying to be anyone he’s not, and this keeps him from being a caricature of himself.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience,” said a grateful-seeming Stone. “We’re happy to be here. We’re lucky to be here.”
Then came “Stand!,” which a large portion of the audience responded to by sitting down, and maybe Stone took the hint. Halfway through “I Want to Take You Higher,” he was off to take his piss. And to never come back.
The rest of the set dragged on in the worst possible way—with hopelessly long jams, misplaced caterwauling, obligatory drum solos, and guitars being played with teeth. People who most likely hadn’t heard Stone’s muttered promise to return and thus had figured that the show was basically over flooded out of the theater. Others, holding out hope to hear Stone come back and sing “Everybody is a Star” or “Family Affair,” stayed in their seats while the band flogged every last tiny drop out of mega-extended versions of “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” “Thank You (Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Somebody’s Watching You.”
The theater was already half-empty by the time the band shed their instruments and exited the stage. Scattered boos underscored the mild applause. A girl was overheard near the back, beside herself with disbelief. “Seriously?!” she exclaimed. “75 bucks to see a cover band!”
It was a rough night all around, highlighted bittersweetly with a brief flash of brilliance. Sly Stone may not retain the ability to perform much longer, whether because of mental and physical deterioration or simply because of an utterly ruined reputation. But even viewing tonight’s show through this cynical lens—that it was, at least, a historic event—it’s incredibly cold comfort in light of the disappointment he left us to remember him by.
Dance to the Music
Hot Fun in the Summertime
Instrumental Funk Jam
Sing a Simple Song
If You Want Me to Stay
I Want to Take You Higher
Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey
Thank You (Fallettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin)
Somebody’s Watching You
UPDATE: Read all about the behind-the-scenes tumult and insanity here.