Blogs > Cliopatria > Kirk Bane: Review of Miles Marshall Lewis's There's a Riot Goin' On (Continuum, 2006)

Sep 20, 2007 7:31 pm

Kirk Bane: Review of Miles Marshall Lewis's There's a Riot Goin' On (Continuum, 2006)

[Mr. Bane is a professor of history at Blinn College.]

A son of the Lone Star State (born in Denton, Texas, in 1941), but raised in Vallejo, California, Sly Stewart burst onto the music scene in the late sixties, fronting his revolutionary band, the Family Stone. An idealist, Sly optimistically advocated integration, tolerance, racial and gender harmony, and positive thinking. Consider such memorable Sly Stone lyrics as “everybody is a star,” or “we got to live together,” or “different strokes for different folks,” or “you can make it if you try.” And he practiced what he preached; the Family Stone, a septet counting Sly, consisted of five African Americans (two of them women) and two whites. The lineup: Sly Stone (organ, harmonica, guitar), Larry Graham, Jr. (bass), Freddie Stone (guitar), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Rose Stone (electric piano), Jerry Martini (sax), and Gregg Errico (drums). They looked incredibly far out. Prince, Lenny Kravitz, and Andre 3000 have “absolutely nothing on Sly and [his band]…Gold lame shirts with flower-print trousers; Edwardian ruffled shirts, leather pants, fur-lined boots; assorted crocheted hats and suede vests with dangling buckskin fringe; jumpsuits and rhinestone-studded tops; velvet or vinyl boots and brooches; goggles, scarves, sequined cowboy hats, and diamond-decorated name rings…The group’s look—boys, girls, black, white, and those crazy threads—got them noticed as much as their” songs (p. 37). Between 1967 and 1970, Sly and his cohorts released five stellar albums, their music an innovative blend of funk, rock, jazz, and psychedelic soul: A Whole New Thing (1967), Dance to the Music (1968), Life (1968), Stand! (1969), and Greatest Hits (1970). In August, 1969, Sly and the Family Stone also played an amazing set at Woodstock that “ratcheted the group’s profile and confidence level to new heights” (p. 67).

And then came the decline. Author Miles Marshall Lewis has written an informative and insightful study of Sly’s next release, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (New York: Continuum, 2006), which appeared in November, 1971. Lewis correctly calls Riot a “stylishly mournful masterpiece” (p. 24). The man who created this album was on a “downward spiral,” disenchanted, drug-addled, and in pain; the sunny, cheerful optimist had vanished (p. 23). Lewis contends that Riot was an “immensely bleak, moody, seductively despairing, and funky” album that “laid a sonic backdrop for the nationwide cultural and political disintegration of sixties fallout, as well as the personal dissolution of disillusioned idealist Sly Stone” (p. 24). During the recording of Riot, Sly abused “multiple drugs,” including cocaine, angel dust, and barbiturates (p. 101). The Age of Aquarius had obviously ended, dashed on the jagged rocks of Manson, Altamont, political assassinations, drug overdoses, the continued bloodbath in Vietnam, Kent State, Jackson State, and the triumph of Nixon. (Sly, as well, began to fall under the influence of the Black Power movement.) Peace, love, and understanding were over, brother. A “believer whose faith was shattered,” Sly grew cynical, depressed, and paranoid (p. 24). “Abusing hard drugs will do that to you,” Lewis observes, “but so will living in a time when J. Edgar Hoover [ran] the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Richard Nixon [headed] the country” (p. 103). Well stated.

Riot is carelessly edited in places (for example: see pp. 3, 17, 63) and several factual errors mar the book (for example: September 11 was not the “first foreign attack on US soil,” p. 21. Ever hear of the British Army’s burning of Washington during the War of 1812, or bandit-revolutionary Pancho Villa’s assault on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916?) Despite these shortcomings, Lewis has added another creditable volume to Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series. It’s an intriguing, albeit grim, tale. And remember, shun the drugs.

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