Soul music went through its psychedelic period, too, thanks in large part to Sly Stone. The transformation wasn’t quite as drastic as in rock: the songs became longer and there was more effect-coated guitar work, but The Temptations still sounded like The Temptations. Sly’s influence is more obvious in the development of funk, where his guitar stylings merged with James Brown’s strong emphasis on the downbeat to create the sound you hear in George Clinton’s bands. Sly also spurred Motown to move beyond the limitations of boy-girl romance tunes and into songs with socio-political messages.
I’ll give him all that, but music critics have consistently overrated Sly Stone’s influence, as well as the overall quality of his work. Joel Selvin wrote in his oral history of the group that “There are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.” My goodness! Lumping Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Little Richard into a homogenous group of primitives is an astonishingly stupid claim. Having grown up in the same town as Mr. Selvin, all I can say is dumb shit like this is what reinforces the stereotype of San Francisco as hopelessly provincial. Mr. Selvin is a San-Francisco based critic who used to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sly and the Family Stone were a San Francisco-based band. Think there’s a bit of hometown bias operating there? I found that this trend is embedded in the DNA of San Francisco music critics; my dad says that Ralph Gleason pulled the same shit with John Fogerty, anointing him the Mark Twain of rock music.
As for the quality of Sly’s work, it was wildly inconsistent, but he did manage to produce some pretty good songs before he became a slave to drugs in the period after Stand! became a runaway success. To his credit, Sly was colorblind when it came to music, and his openness to the work of white artists gave him more territory to explore in his own music ventures. When he was a DJ with KSOL, he stunned his listeners by mixing songs by The Beatles and The Stones in his playlists. He produced white bands like The Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men and The Great Society. When he formed Sly and the Family Stone with his two siblings, he hired two white guys to play sax and drums, an act that seriously pissed off The Black Panthers. While I love the message and the meaning of his work, I have to say that Stand!, like nearly all psychedelic albums, is a mix of good stuff and bad stuff, of solid lyrics and mish-mash, of creative highs and undisciplined indulgence.
The title track opens the album, and once you get beyond the rather annoying self-help lyrics and the underpowered bass guitar, you find a well-arranged piece with definite enthusiasm and energy. Many people have commented that the best part is the “gospel” section following the self-help pamphlet. Well, I agree and disagree. It’s a solid, less-than-a-minute sample of good hard funk music, but the cut from the song proper to this segment is so abrupt that it feels tacked-on at the last minute. The contrast is also heightened by the sudden emergence of the bass that had been missing in the song, which is explained once you realize that half of The Family Stone weren’t around to record this section and Sly and the remaining members worked with studio pros to get the job done. A better approach would have been to let “Stand!” fade into nothingness and extend this promising piece of funk music into a track of its own.
Instead, the next track is “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” a title that I’m sure was very provocative at a time of Black Power and White Backlash. As for a message to back up the promise of that title, fugheddaboudit. Here are all of the lyrics:
Don’t call me nigger, whitey
Don’t call whitey, nigger
Well, I went down across the country
Ana I heard the voices ring
People talkin’ softly to each other
And not a word could change a thing
That’s it? Perhaps calling the song “Wimp Out” might have given the listener fairer warning. The song clocks in at six minutes, though, and Sly chose to the fill the time playing with his new toys: a vocoder and a wah-wah pedal. The result defines the word “tiresome.”
Next up is the studio version of the song made famous at Woodstock, “I Want to Take You Higher.” This is a pure groove song where the words don’t matter at all, but it’s pretty obvious that the word “higher” was used specifically to score points with stoners (a point conclusively proven by the call-and-response on the live version from the Woodstock album). Ignoring that shallow attempt at consumer manipulation, this is still a great dance floor piece with undeniable energy and a well-executed arrangement that blends a solid foundation with sonic variation. It also highlights the strength of the family approach, with the four vocalists each getting a line of verse before coming together in the chorus. “I Want to Take You Higher” is easily one of the best songs of psychedelic soul, synthesizing soul, rock and funk into a power-packed, get-down-and-dirty experience.
The idiot who wrote the Wikipedia article on Stand! described “Somebody’s Watching You” as a “somber song about paranoia,” defining himself as yet another male with his head stuck firmly up his ass. Any woman will tell you that this is a song about female cattiness. We broads (self included) have been programmed to check each other out: shoes, makeup, hairstyle, shape and scent. It’s a little different with me, since the reason I check out women is to see if I want to fuck them, but I fell into the habit of eyeing the competition during my formative years because all my girlfriends were doing it. The practice stems from centuries of cultural indoctrination that we need to compete for male attention; its main purpose is to find something wrong with the other woman you can pick at, giving yourself a little buzz of haughty superiority. When the woman is clearly superior, you’re left with, “She must think she’s pretty hot shit, the bitch,” which isn’t half as satisfying. Think of it as the female version of trash-talking, but unlike guys, women really fucking mean it. The effect of all this is to put additional pressure on women to think, look and act beautiful, and that’s really what “Somebody’s Watching You” is all about. It’s a message to women to relax, be themselves, explore the whole person inside and stop spending so much time in front of the mirror:
Pretty, pretty, pretty as a picture
Witty, witty, witty as you can be
Blind ’cause your eyes see only glitter
Closed to the things that make you free
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
The closing line “Jealous people like to see you bleed” is no fiction: there are women in the world who deeply resent those who are prettier, and would love to scratch the sheen off their lovely complexions in a cat fight. The music features nice movement, relaxed spot harmonies and some very tasty counterpoint guitar work. The processed vocals on the last verse are a bit irritating, as the processing lowers the volume and reduces the bottom, but all in all, this is a pretty good tune. I can’t say the same for “Sing a Simple Song,” no matter how many Motowners covered it. It’s like something that you might hear in the soul version of The Sound of Music: flaccid, superficial and sanitized. “I hate each Julie Andrews film they’ve made,” sang Vivian Stanshall, and I feel the same way about “Sing a Simple Song.”
As luck would have it, though, it’s followed by “Everyday People,” one of the great singles of all time. For once on this album, Sly strips the arrangement down to the absolute essentials, allowing the groove to carry the song without a lot of extraneous noise. The piano sticks to the vamp, Larry Graham’s slap-pop bass keeps the throb going, and the space is cleared nicely with the soft “ooh, sha-sha” for Sly to belt out the most important line, “We’ve got to live together.” I love the horn section’s supporting pattern of melody and counterpoint and would love to hear an instrumental-only version. The message is still relevant today, as we all struggle with the notion of “different strokes for different folks.” I have a hard time with gun owners, religious zealots and the greedy rich; people can’t accept me because I smoke, have sex with both genders and engage in various perversions. My solution was to leave the U. S. and live in a place where the people who make me uncomfortable are in shorter supply, but while the move has definitely improved my spirits, I have a weird, nagging guilt that I copped out instead of standing my ground. Maybe I don’t believe in “different strokes for different folks” if it means tolerating someone’s violent, dogmatic or selfish proclivities. Sigh. I’m another flawed human being, I guess.
Hmm. Lots to think about. Well, there’s that and then there’s the truth. I’m stalling because I loathe the next piece.
Casual readers who read my tagline and find my bare ass halfway down the page may assume that I would automatically like a piece of music entitled “Sex Machine.” I would tell those people, “Look, I may be horny most of the time but I still have a brain and a pair of ears connected to that brain and I don’t do all of my thinking through my clit!” Those ears tell me that “Sex Machine” is probably the worst instrumental in all of psychedelia, a rancid piece of garbage more foul than any pointless jam recorded by the Grateful Dead. Sly’s obsession with his vocoder is taken to bizarre extremes, as this structurally boring jam pretty much covers the entire vocabulary of that regrettable piece of technology in thirteen excruciating minutes. The piece engenders a feeling that combines simmering irritation with the creeps, and I hope I never have to hear it again as long as I live.
And that’s me trying to be nice.
Stand! ends with “You Can Make It If You Try,” bookending the album with another set of self-help and self-affirmation messages. The song has a good strong groove but the lyrics are a string of Successory-like clichés designed to buck up those who need more confidence. My prescription would be a few shots of single malt scotch or whatever your favorite likker happens to be. I also think the message “you can make it if you try” is silly, as it ignores the institutional racism, sexism and elitism that can’t be conquered by putting your nose to the grindstone. This is Sly channeling the naive optimism of the hippies, and while it probably helped sell records to white people, he was capable of more nuanced and intelligent thought.
All in all, I found Stand! an album of highs and lows. What I noticed most is that it didn’t generate anywhere near the excitement I felt listening to the records in my Motown series or to the live performance of the band on the Woodstock album. Despite a track called “Sex Machine,” Stand! isn’t a particularly sexy album. While Martha Reeves, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson consistently stimulated both my hip muscles and libido, Stand! leaves me stuck in neutral. Even the social commentary seems milquetoast in comparison to later songs like Edwin Starr’s knock-you-on-your-ass-take-no-prisoners classic, “War.” My hypothesis is that there was something about the psychedelic music ethos that resulted in music that was more diffuse and less focused.
I wrote that, read that and said, “Well, duh!” Less focused? No shit! Everybody was higher than a frigging kite!
Let me tell you about the first and only time I dropped acid.
I had always been somewhat curious about it, because my parents would sometimes reference acid trips they took in their hippie primes. What held me back was a very conservative attitude when it comes to drugs: I prefer to keep my mind clear so I can understand what I am experiencing. I had smoked marijuana a couple of times and didn’t like the way it made me feel: stupid and lazy. I tried cocaine once at a party and found the process of snorting uncivilized and disgusting, to say nothing of the outrageous expense for what turned out to be a fifteen minute buzz. I avoided ecstasy entirely on the principle that “if everyone one is doing it, it must be a pretty lousy experience.” What intrigued me about acid was its power to alter perception, and I like experiences that challenge my perceptions.
I asked my dad if he knew where I could get some, but he’d been out of the scene for too long and didn’t have a clue. I asked around at high school and eventually wound up talking to a guy named Freddy who lived in a flat near St. Luke’s. I bought two little blue pills for twenty bucks, because in the course of my detective work, a guy I’d fucked a couple of times said he’d like to try some, too. We set the date for 6 p. m. on a Saturday night, and I insisted that we do it at my house for two reasons: my dad would be there (Maman was visiting her parents in Nice) and he would know what to do if we freaked out; and two, my dad didn’t care what I did in the privacy of my room and my parents were used to me having my fuck partners over from time to time. I did not tell my dad what I was planning because I wanted him to have deniability in case something (or someone) went wacko.
My friend arrived on time and we immediately went into my room, turned on some music and swallowed the pills. Here’s what I remember:
- For the first hour I felt all tingly and couldn’t stop laughing. Everything was funny: my window, my hands, my friend’s face, the walls, the sounds of human speech. I laughed so hard my sides hurt.
- The next hour began with my friend suggesting I play my guitar and sing. First, I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the stereo, and I spent a long time staring at the silver buttons and knobs in complete bafflement (it didn’t help that they seemed to be vibrating and changing shape). My friend couldn’t figure it out either so he crawled under the desk and unplugged the stereo (and whatever else was down there). It seemed to take a very long time to take the guitar out my case, because my fingers worked like they were made of jello. When I finally got it out and sat down to play, I’d start a song, look at the fretboard and notice that the strings vibrated in colors: lime green, neon pink and a weird purple. I’d stop playing to watch them vibrate and my friend would shout out, “Why the fuck are you stopping?” I’d try again and the sound would go WAH-WAH-WAH and the colors would come back and finally I threw the guitar down on the bed and said “I need a cigarette.”
- The next hour was spent trying to light one cigarette. At first I became fascinated by the colors in the fire from the lighter. Then I realized my mouth was too tingly and I couldn’t hold the cigarette with my lips or teeth. So I had my friend try to light it and finally managed it by holding the cigarette steady with fingers from both hands. When we finally got it going, I just sat and experienced the act of smoking while studying the patterns in the smoke. Doing something resembling “normal” felt really good, but it took all of my concentration and some impressive lip acrobatics to pull it off. Meanwhile, my friend figured out how to plug the stereo back in while the nicotine helped me remember how to use it, and I put on Sgt. Pepper. It was beautiful and calming, but the orchestral crescendo in “A Day in the Life” made us both feel like we were on a roller coaster ride and we held onto each other for dear life.
- I’d lost track of time by now, but I think it was then that he suggested that we get naked and fuck. I thought about that for a minute—actually, my mind was going to a million different places, wondering why his face was purple and squishy, why my hands looked old and wrinkly, and trying to figure out why I felt so heavy in my pelvic area. Was I horny? No, that wasn’t it. “I think I have to pee,” I said, and sort of tiptoed spastically down the hall to the bathroom. I remembered hearing my parents say that the worst thing you could do on an acid trip is look in the mirror, so I kept my head down when I entered. I couldn’t find the light switch but the night light was on, so I just sat there for oh, about an hour, tripping out on the flower print on the shower curtain and admiring the texture of a terry cloth towel until I started to see mean faces and skulls in the terry cloth. Finally I remembered I had to pee but something didn’t feel right. “Oh, I have to take my pants off,” I said to the dimly-lit bathroom. That took forever, then I sat down on the toilet and started to wonder if I was going to explode if I didn’t pee soon. I started to freak out a little, imagining my body in pieces all over the walls, but then I heard the sound of me peeing and the relief was indescribable.
- Instead of going back into my bedroom, I went out and sat with my dad, who was watching a baseball game on TV. I didn’t say a word, just stared at the screen tried to make sense of it. I turned and looked at my dad and was admiring his beard and I really wanted to touch it to see if it felt silky but he turned to me and said, “Extra innings.” Then he turned to me again and said, “Extra innings.” He seemed to do this about five times, so I turned away in private horror and tried to calm myself by watching the beautiful colors on the television. The grass was a beautiful shimmery blue but trying to process the crowd noise, the announcers and those tiny little figures on the screen put my brain on overload. My friend came in looking lost and I said, “We’re watching the ball game,” so he flopped on the floor near the TV, almost hitting his head on it.
- Somehow the game ended and my dad was happy. “Hey, let’s go to Orphan Andy’s and get some grub,” he said. I thought about the word “grub.” What a funny word! “Grub, hub, sub, chub, flub, stub,” I rhymed. Saying the words made my mouth feel good. I made it out to the car, and the next hour was a blur of high-speed motion: I remember barreling down the hill on Castro Street like I was on a Disneyland ride; I remember the sidewalks jammed with people when we got near Harvey’s, their faces looking sad and lonely; I remember going into Orphan Andy’s and how it glowed and throbbed in reds and yellows; I remember trying to drink a cup of coffee and being unable to hold the liquid very well and slobbering all over myself; I remember how strange people looked when they ate, like they were desperately trying to survive by doing this disgusting animal-like thing. I ordered pancakes even though I hate pancakes, and I can’t begin to describe how beautiful it was to watch the whipped butter melt. What should have blown my mind was that my dad found a parking space in the Castro on a Saturday night, but that kind of mental effort was way beyond my capabilities.
- My dad took us home and as soon my friend and I got into my room he said, “I thought we were going to get naked.” I didn’t remember any of that, but I said, “Sure” and I got naked and lay on the bed. He started to strip, but when he pulled off his underwear I broke into giggles. I then got on my knees on the bed so I could look more closely at his pubic area and told him, “The little turtle’s all scared.” His dick had shrunk so drastically that it had almost disappeared into his pubes. For the first time that night I felt imbued with a sense of purpose: I wanted to see the little turtle come out. So I pulled him down on the bed and started working on his prick. He started moaning very loudly and I told him to “Shh!” I licked his balls, enjoying the feeling on my tongue, though my tongue seemed disconnected from the rest of my body. I don’t know how long I spent trying to get him hard, but he finally managed enough of a boner to work, then lost it trying to find my hole. By now I was reconnecting with my plumbing and getting impatient, so I whacked him on the ass a few times to try to get him focused. It worked, then I guided him into my hangar. We didn’t move much, just lay there enjoying the amazing oneness, and shit if he didn’t start crying. “I love your tits,” he said, “They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” he said, weeping over my nipples. This was starting to kill my mood, so I whacked him again to get him focused and in a few minutes he came, which made me come, and it wasn’t a very pleasurable sensation . . . more like the relief I felt when peeing combined with a strange discomfort. We then lay there talking, giggling and listening to music until we fell asleep.
I woke up alone some time the following afternoon, feeling a strange sense of accomplishment and total exhaustion. I went to the kitchen and made some coffee, sat at the kitchen table and had about five cigarettes in a row, thinking about the experience. I guess my dad had been out and about, and when he came home the first thing he said was, “So how was the trip?” My first question was, “Did you say ‘extra innings’ five times last night when I came in?” “No, only once.” “Shee-it,” I said, “That stuff was powerful.” We then spent the rest of the evening talking about my experience while watching a real baseball game played on beautiful green grass.
In the 196o’s, the word psychedelic took on far greater meaning than its original application in the world of psychology. It was the aggressive rejection of everything The Establishment stood for and the aggressive pursuit of the new and/or different. The folkies and civil rights marchers of the early 60’s were sincere but rather drab-looking people who focused on specific issues and tried to work within the system; the hippies took on the entire socio-cultural structure from family to fashion to fascism. The psychedelic period was about the elimination of limitations and assumptions of all kinds. It was a time when anything was possible and everything was up for grabs. Only a few years before the era was recognized by the national media, Joe Pepitone was playing first base for the Yankees in the World Series and lost a throw in a solid background of fans wearing white shirts. Contrast that visual with the radical neon pinks, oranges and greens, or the strange effects of black lights and strobes, or the patterns of tie-dye and paisley that psychedelia brought into fashion. Although people poke fun at the hippies today—and I’d rather hang myself than wear a tie-dye t-shirt—the cultural earthquake they created simply had to happen. America was way too uptight before the hippies: any culture that had to train people when to laugh through the insertion of laugh tracks on TV sitcoms needed all the free love and marijuana it could get.
I am fortunate to have impeccable sources of background information on this era: my parents. My father grew up a few blocks from the Haight and could stumble into the epicenter of the earthquake any time he wanted; one day he stumbled a couple of blocks north to the Panhandle and met the beautiful French exchange student who became my mother. For my dad, adopting the emerging norms of hippie culture happened organically; for my mother, it was total culture shock of a most welcome kind. I asked her to write me a paragraph about what psychedelia and the hippie movement meant to her:
You have to remember that from the time I was seven years old my life was study, practice and recitals. My parents had big dreams for their child prodigy, and those dreams required a very structured life of school, music lessons, practice, performance, sleep. I had no life outside of that cycle, and very few friends. And as you know, the French have very definite ideas of how one should behave in public, so I lived a very structured life inside a culture of many expectations. When I received offers to study in America, my parents were very resistant but I stood my ground and they finally allowed it. They wanted me to go to Julliard but I did not want to live in the snow and San Francisco had always seemed a magical place to me. And that was the first step, wasn’t it—to defy your parents? I came to a place where people my age had decided enough was enough and they wanted to be free from all the rules and explore new things. Although I admit I was appalled at the lack of hygiene, I embraced the spirit of the times and let myself revel in the celebration of new ideas, of new ways of relating to each other and to the world. The music was very important because it was the antithesis of all I had learned: it had no specific destination, no preconceived notions. Yes, I did drugs with all the rest but never to excess; I still had a sense of self-discipline and judgment that many of my new friends lacked—they wanted to gorge themselves on the experience, for they had been starved for so long. But you must remember it was about much more than drugs—it was an attempt to replace the old, dead world with a new one that embraced life; to replace tired ideas with fresh ideas; to replace social exploitation with social justice; to replace war with peace; to explore any path you chose. It was a very wonderful, very exciting time to be alive.
In the tradition of breaking free from parental paradigms, I developed into a Summer of Love skeptic, and except for Surrealistic Pillow, I have tried to avoid reviewing albums classified as psychedelic. Although I’ve always found 60’s history exciting and endlessly interesting, and I have yearned to live in an era characterized as groundbreaking and defiant, I’ve never been impressed with hard-core psychedelic music. Given the abundance of 60’s reviews I’ve done, I obviously adore several albums from the 1966-69 period, many of which are timeless masterpieces that reflect psychedelic influences. But the permissiveness of the times often threw aesthetic judgment to the winds, allowing dozens of lame bands to make several very bad records during that period. It wasn’t just a time of unlimited experimentation, it was a time of unlimited and often stupid experimentation by people who had no business calling themselves musicians. There are more “you had to be there” records (or “you had to be stoned” records) from that period than any other, and much of the music, the literature and even the humor is lost on people like me who grew up in the 90’s. I could never get into Richard Brautigan or Ken Kesey, and try as he might, my father has never been able to get me to crack a smile when he plays The Firesign Theater for me. I’ve also noticed that current reviews of psychedelic albums—both professional and fan reviews—are seriously over-the-top in their praise: all the artists are either “legendary” or “immortal” and all the albums were the greatest fucking advance in human evolution since group sex. That kind of blind love always brings out the skeptic in me, which is never far from the surface anyway.
Still, I love a challenge, so I’ve decided to temper my skepticism and take a virtual acid trip this summer to challenge my perceptions about psychedelic music, now that it seems to be enjoying a sort of resurgence. I screened something like forty albums and narrowed the list to seventeen that I suspect have some kind of value. I will admit up front that there are several albums on this list that I thought were positively dreadful during my screening, but I chose them because of historical significance or because they demonstrated something about the period that I felt I had to capture. I’m even including artists from my no-fly list like Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead. We’ll see if my standard three-full-spins changes any of my unfavorable opinions.
Here is the full series: the albums I’m going to review, in chronological order, at a rate two or three per week. If any new releases of interest appear on my radar, I’ll squeeze them in on the weekends. I’m not holding my breath.
- Part One by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, 1966
- Electric Music for the Mind and Body by Country Joe and The Fish, May 1967
- Moby Grape, June 6, 1967
- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd, August 5, 1967
- Procol Harum, September 1967
- Strange Days by The Doors, September 25, 1967
- Forever Changes by Love, November 1967
- Axis: Bold As Love by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, December 1, 1967
- Mr. Fantasy by Traffic, December 1967
- The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by The Incredible String Band, March 1968
- Anthem of the Sun by The Grateful Dead, July 18, 1968
- Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company, August 1968
- The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse by The Bonzo Dog Band, November 1968
- S. F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things, December 1968
- Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone, May 3, 1969
- It’s a Beautiful Day, 1969
- Woodstock, 1970
Wow! I’m creating my own Summer of Love here! Hope you join me on the trip!