"A lifetime spent with his 'Riot'
There are some works of art whose greatness is so undeniable that only a fool or ignoramus would dare deny their worth. These works live eternally, captured in time, awaiting only another person’s discovery or rediscovery of them in order to sparkle anew.
Most of us could probably list a dozen books or movies or pieces of art that fit into this category. And, to some of us, these works become a companion that is always there throughout one’s life, serving both as a guide and a safe haven, a familiar place to call home.
For 25 years or so, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the 1971 album by Sly and the Family Stone has been one of my most treasured friends. It’s served me in times both good and bad. It’s been one of the few constant things in my life over the past two decades.
After years of patience, Sony has finally seen fit to re-master and re-release the album with bonus tracks and its original artwork. And listening to its 12 tracks again, I’m reminded of why it’s been such a close associate of mine since my high school days.
Writers far more eloquent than I have deconstructed the album in print — see Mystery Train, by Greil Marcus, for the definitive take on it — but my love for this album is still deeply abiding and personal.
It came into my life in 1982, when I picked up a scratchy vinyl copy at Second Time Around, in Broad Ripple. It’d been placed in a box of unwanted records by the door, free for the taking. It was easily the best gift for a confused teenager.
Listening to it through the pops and crackles, its dense grooves took a dozen or so listens to even begin to decipher. Its mood is so dark, at times even hopeless, and it’s a tough album to befriend. But I’ve been reaping its rewards ever since.
Allegedly recorded under the influence of heavy drugs, it rivals the Stones’ Exile on Main Street for sonic murkiness and abject squalor. Yet these 12 songs, written by an African-American man struggling with issues I will never know or understand, speak to me like virtually no other music does.
“Luv ’N Haight,” the opening track, starts off slowly with a pained wail from Sly as a horn crescendo builds. He sounds stoned: “Feel so good inside myself / Don’t want to move,” he sings, and you believe him. He’s trapped in a drug haze. But a few bars later, the band’s Cynthia Robinson delivers a note of hope: “And when I’m lost, I know I will be found.”
The song, like life itself, varies from hopelessness to muted optimism to unbridled joy. Maybe that’s why it’s been such a close friend over many years. It encapsulates life so perfectly and so honestly, to the point of being almost too much to take.
In one of the album’s most famous lines, Sly howls, both in pain and almost as a warning, that “the brave and strong survive.” His paranoia and fear permeate the track. Just about the only other moments in rock music matching it for despair are John Lennon’s “Isolation” and the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies,” when Johnny Rotten screams, “I’m not an animal,” as much to reassure himself as the listener.
Poignant moments abound on Riot: “Just like a baby, I cry.” “Frightened faces to the wall / Can’t you hear your mama call?” “My only weapon is my pen / And the frame of mind I’m in.”
Just when it seems too much to take, a few moments of hope appear behind the wall of Sly’s desperation. “You caught me smilin’ again,” he sings, and the optimism is like a splash of cool water on a hot day. It doesn’t last for long, however. The disc ends with a dirge-like, drugged-out remake of his song “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin.” As Marcus astutely points out, the original was a song for winners, while the remake is the last gasp of a man about to drown in depression.
By alternating hopefulness with alienation, self-revelation with self-pity, Riot documents the ups and downs of life like few other records. Misunderstood in its day, mostly ignored now, it exists nevertheless as a magnificent document, comparable to a Shakespeare play or a Sylvia Plath poem.
There are other albums close to my heart, of course — the White Album, Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear, London Calling, Live at the Apollo Vol. 3, Get Happy! — but no other record in a lifetime of obsessive listening has been as close a companion to me.
Wherever life takes me, I know this album will be with me, mirroring my happiness, my fears and my optimism. It’s been such a continual presence in my life that I don’t know what I would do without it.
And is there a higher compliment to pay to a work of art?