In 2003, all incoming freshman at Wauwatosa East High School were required to take a public speaking class, a time I like to revisit when I run out of things to be embarrassed about. There are many events and chapters in my life that I look back on with the sober wisdom of experience and think, "Man, I’d kick ass at [insert thing I used to suck at] now" or something like “That catering job that gave me food poisoning was a picnic compared to this office fuckery.” Something about the rose tint of hindsight refracts pain into a perverse longing. You don’t realize in the moment that being astronaut high and coming up with new ways to cut cantaloupes is perhaps an apex of some employment/pleasure ratio until you’re using your master’s degree to rotate pdfs for someone making three times your salary. That in retrospect, having a public speaking class as the only ringing problem in your life is pretty cushy considering some of the alternatives. But it’s hard when you grow accustomed to comfort to not look back in anger.
The crux or pedagogy (see I would kick ass at this shit now) of the public speaking course was to help all of us pimple-pocked, hormone-addled, unannounced-erection-having anxiety blobs get over our fears of being heard by a group of our shade-throwing and shit-talking peers; an experiment that proved woefully, if not frightfully, un-empowering. I vividly recall stuttering through a how-to demonstration on cookie baking, and holding back a stress poop as one of my fellow classmates whispered the terms of a handjob with another of my distinguished colleagues. So who’s the chump in this scenario: the sweat drenched incontinent covered in flour, or the system that allows for such a charade to occur? Now I’d go gluten free for a week.
But despite building a repertoire for failure, I always fell reaching, and the toast was my crowning achievement. We were told it was a chance at levity; that we could choose between solemn eulogies or frivolous homages. One of my compatriots, for example, gave a rousing tribute to his friend and fellow skater, regaling at length his ability to shred rails and thumb his nose at city ordinances, all while making oblique and obvious reference to their shared reverence for choice bud. This modern day Cicero went on to receive a week’s suspension for an honest attempt to hotbox the gym pool during a raucous game of unsanctioned water polo because not all heroes stop bad guys.
As I in no way understood how humor could impress a faded crowd, I let myself be intoxicated by the pomp of the assignment and leaned hard on both the grandiose and the sentimental. And I was in luck, because I’d just received a transformative musical bequeathing that thoroughly rocked my as of yet un(in)formed opinions.
For my birthday that year, my uncle handed me an open and unwrapped cardboard box full of CDs. As I read the spines (Blind Faith, Traffic, Roxy Music), he removed one of the cases and handed it to me. It showed part of an American flag with the stars replaced for actual suns, the plastic cover cracked on a bias.
“Now these cats,” he said, pausing for emphasis as he nestled a Camel filter into his faux-ivory cigarette holder before clamping it in his teeth like the Penguin, “these cats could play.”
So I started there.
Of course I’d heard Sly and the Family Stone before: “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song,” however you spell that “Thank You” gibberish. But this album was different. It sounded worn, yet unwavering and persistent, like a copper roof gone green. The way the sun looks through UV protective lenses. I spun it endlessly: my canary yellow Discman complete with athletic style wrap-around-like-a-record-baby headphones that looked like a croakie on full blast, pushing play again and again.
I had decided to honor Sly Stone with a lifetime achievement award as my final project. The toast was meant to combine all our new knowledge and acumen into one grand gesture of freshly tapped confidence. I memorized every member by name and instrument and sought out their other records, even some I learned Sly loved to spin as a DJ at KSOL in San Francisco before he met Cynthia Robinson. Pouring over lyric sheets, I followed their rise and fall and tried to trace the mountain. But it wasn’t until after I crossed the spotlighted stage of Wauwatosa East High School to stand at a podium with onlookers masked in the darkness of the theater that I felt the air get thinner with every word I uttered, for I had studied and agonized over the details of an artist I barely understood.
The panic that comes with staring down a fear is a cheap and uncomfortable high, one that tunnels the mind and dulls the senses. I don’t remember a thing about that speech other than the noises: my own mouth, dry and crinkling at the edges of words, the hum of the lights, the low-slung rustle of my classmates. The only proof I have of my performance is a C+ scrawled on paper and the memories of days of preparation. This was unequivocally something I sucked at, one that time and wisdom have done little to improve. Some things don’t get easier, we just adapt to shift their weight and put the odds back in our favor. I try to stay off stages.
But if forced, my wise and kickass self would have tried to get up and talk about how this record has swagger, a word that as a card-carrying member of the cool guys, I know and use regularly. I would have tried my hand at humor. But I’d still be grasping at the same inescapable quality that eludes me about this record, because with Riot there's something more going on.
I’d talk about how it’s a schism of body against mind; a record that revels in the need for swagger by confronting the things swagger is built to push away. That it's learning how to swim by treading water. That it’s hard bark against a double standard. That it’s emotional Kevlar. Gripping the podium, I’d talk about addiction, about the power of art, the question of race. And just as the heat became unbearable my time would be up and I’d recede back into the cooling darkness.
That is what Riot is about. It’s about who gets to catch their breath and when, and how those afforded that luxury make space for those society aims to suffocate. It’s disavowing a self-aggrandizing notion that we value the lives of those who stop providing us with a piece of themselves to consume. That as a species, we’ve evolved beyond empathy for the husk left over after creativity has been scattered to the winds.
When traveling, Sly Stone famously carried a violin case full of cocaine, which complicates the sociopolitical wokeness of “I Want to Take You Higher” when the means to that end proved chemical. Of course, that’s a glib summary. But when we talk about Sly Stone now it’s impossible to do so without landing on his eventual outcome: a drug-addled recluse familiar with experiences of homelessness. I type this hoping he’s OK, my ears red from the toast I don’t remember that didn’t end like this:
Being perhaps so exhausted by the thought that we the people would never get along, Sly traded in his 60s optimism for the disappointment from which we are all still hit with shrapnel. If “Everyday People” captured the hope of a generation, Riot reflects the bitter reality that rose from its ashes. It’s a record with unpaid debts and a limp, because at its core swagger is just bravado with panache, its purpose couched in whatever it serves: distant cousins of both the albatross and the Cuban Link. Because with there being so much to unpack from what Sly gave us, perhaps all we can do is keep listening and try to listen better.
So please don’t make me get up and talk about it.