#186: Sly and the Family Stone, "Fresh" (1973)

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“In Time,” the opening track of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh, is truly fresh. “I felt so good I told the leader how to follow,” Sly croons toward the end of the song, which, in all its 3/5 funky verve, makes you tap your foot in a way you never have. But rewind. Listen to those first thirty or so seconds. That’s Andy Newmark snapping snare shots atop the percussive syncopated undertones of a drum machine bopping along a groove. You don’t really know where it’s going at first listen. It sounds, in all honesty, like someone feeling something out. Like Sly told Andy to check out this groove and see what he could do on top of it. Like Sly told Andy this and then pressed record. And this would make sense if it wasn’t for the way, about 30 seconds in, after the guitar’s repetitively sneaky and snaky riff, Sly’s voice brings it both all together and to a head at once. The legend goes that Miles Davis played “In Time” for his band on repeat for half an hour. I’ve been listening to just the first 30 seconds on repeat for days.

“In Time” seems to build off of “Family Affair,” a track from Sly’s previous album, the seminal There’s a Riot Goin’ On. In “Family Affair”Sly’s last number one hitthe dark and funky drum machine syncopation is there, but the real drums are way back in the mix. I don’t know what made him bring those drums further up into the mix a few years later, but I think of those lines“I felt so good I told the leader how to follow”a lot when I think of Sly, who, at the release of Fresh in 1973, had just turned 30 and had seemingly lived a lifetime. I think of Sly wearing long fur coats and outlandish outfits, doing choreographed dances with his band at live shows. I think of him, in the years before There’s a Riot Goin’ On, missing so many of those same shows. I think of him using. I think of him figuring out his politics. I think of him making music for the Black Panthers. I think of him not making music for the Black Panthers. I think of him recording There’s a Riot Goin’ On, in all its confusing, gritty, funky, dark, hopeless, blunt, introspective glory. And then I think of him on the cover of Freshkarate-kicking his blackness against an all-white background, teeth gleaming, and then, in my thinking of that, I think of Zora Neale Hurston’s assertion, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and here I am holding the record and feeling its edges and corners, and I am thinking still of Morgan Parker’s poem after both Zora and Glenn Ligon, and how she writes, “I feel most colored when my weapon / is I feel most colored.” In that same poem, she writes, “Stone is the name of a fruit.” Heh, consider that. What kind of fruit is Sly? And how fresh? Sometimes I think an orange. Sometimes I think a ripe banana. Sometimes I think the beam of light yellowing the skin of an apple in a bowl, and how it shines the fruit to a polish so beautiful, you think the apple will pick itself out of its place and find its way between your teeth.

What I want to say about Fresh is that, like all great art, you should listen to it now and feel how it echoes against both its own music and the world that has given birth, died, grown back, waged war, made peace, and fucked and schemed and lived around that same music. On July 1st, 1973, the day after Fresh was released, the United States founded the Drug Enforcement AgencyDEA for shorta federal institution used indiscriminately in the War on Drugs to discriminate against people of color. It’s hard to think of this and listen to Sly croon on “The Skin I’m In,” where he sings, simply and full of verve:

    If I could do it all again
    I’d be in the same skin I’m in
    The clothes I wear and the things they dare me to do
    The places I go
    And the people I know
    The things I gain
    Sometimes they rain on me
    The skin I’m in
    And the things I never, never win

Combine Sly’s honest, tender hopelessness in this poem-of-sorts with the fact that, in 1973, despite massive civil rights gains in the years prior to Fresh’s release, there is still a not-so-secret war against people of color. Combine Sly’s painful awareness of his own future losses with the fact that, in 1973, the President of the United States pulled the country out of one of the most obscene wars in modern history. Combine Sly’s nostalgic sadness with the fact that, in the months that followed Fresh, that same President of the United States was under continued and worsening investigation for the Watergate scandal. Combine Sly’s understanding of his and his people’s own continued politics of interrogation, discrimination, and death with the fact that all of thisthis song, these verses, this albumwas composed while a nation made by and for white people was falling desperately out of control because of the failings and over-extensions and egotistical, racist motivations of those same white people. Combine all of this and more, and see how Sly and his family rile up their notoriously funky hope to sing, just a few tracks later, above a bouncy, pulsating rhythm: “If it were left up to me, I would try.” What can we make of this?

This is why art is both hopeful and hopeless, why we turn to it for comfort and why we turn from such comfort and face the world and all its burning, only to say, now what? Sly understood this. He always did. Which is why he can sing, on the same album, about everything he will “never, never win,” while at the same time begging to “let me have it all.” Great art exposes the contradictions that exist both in this world and society. It lives between the folds of our eyelids, between what we see and what we want to see, between what is and what could be, or what is and what was. Art, in many ways, is its own tense. To art is a verb of neither present nor past nor future. It is, perhaps, all three, all at once. What is the word for that? Eternity? God?

In Hilton Als’s beautiful, introspective piece on Diane Arbus in the June 8, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books, he writes, of Arbus, “She wanted to see the world whole, which meant seeing and accepting the fractures in those connections, too, along with all that could not be fixed.” I think, with Fresh, one can say the same about Sly. But it’s worth noting that seeing the world whole carries with it its own set of possible consequences. Sly leaned hard and heavy on drugs. Sly and the band were pulled apart. Friends left, became friends no longer. There’s an idea about the way art takes its toll on the artist, about how it suffers the artist toward a too-short, often painful existence. I don’t want to believe in this. I don’t believe in it. But when I consider Sly, I dwell on this word fracture. What does it mean to be breakage? To inhabit it? To be, like a lullaby, in a world that is already and perhaps forever broken, that trying song before sleep?

On the subway, as I write this, “Que Sera Sera” comes on in my headphones. I’m on the elevated train in Queens, heading home from work. There is something about the light in Queens. I say this to everyone. I think it’s a little more orange, a little more golden. I think this has something to do with the fact that Queens lies a little lower than the rest of the city, its buildings not-so-much scraping the sky. I think there’s more room for light to do light’s work. It’s evening and all of this color comes in at a slant and the train car is not really full and we are all, each of us here, sitting in our own softened pools of color. We won’t have rainbows day after day, I know this. But we will have light. And soul. We will have ourselves living in such light, like cats sprawled out on the floor in the sharp rectangles of a shadow’s opposite. There is joy here, is what I’m trying to say. It is simple enough to point out and hard enough to find. The future’s not ours to see, I know, but I believe that it can be ours to determine. Even this light, this beam touching my boots, is a kind of future, how it has traveled such a great distance to arrive, and how traveling in and of itself, is a reference to a future. This is what I mean when I say we can be tenseless, when we can be both action and its result, the force to break the thing and the broken thing itself and the way a thing broken can always be referred to as a thing having been broke. Have you ever taken a mirror to a beam of light, and changed its course?

In 1975, a couple years after Fresh, Sly and the Family Stonea band of such great heart and funk and love and souldidn’t even come close to filling up Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Fresh, in many ways, was somewhere beyond the beginning of the end, closer to the end than any rumbling beginning of it. But, like hurt, like joy, like sorrow, like light, like every synonym for every word and every synonym’s oppositeI still can’t get enough of it. I’m still here, when the train pulls underground, listening to “In Time,” my foot bumbling along the floor, trying to follow Sly’s lead.

—Devin Kelly