One-Man Band: A Conversation with Ben Greenman

By Jaelani Turner-WilliamsMarch 28, 2024

One-Man Band: A Conversation with Ben Greenman

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) by Ben Greenman and Sly Stone

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE front man Sly Stone, né Sylvester Stewart, turns his near seven-decade career into cryptic wisdom in his memoir Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (2023). Named after the musical group’s 1969 single, Thank You was co-authored by novelist and Auwa Books executive editor Ben Greenman. The 320-page book reveals Stone’s journey to rock and roll stardom, which surged in the 1970s as the artist experienced drug abuse, extramarital affairs, financial troubles, and a decline in success amid the disco era. Stone faced public backlash from the aforementioned scandals but seldom had the chance to tell his side, making his perspective compelling to those who never knew the full story.

Rather than obscure his faults, Stone treats Thank You as therapy. He opens up about heightened popularity post-Woodstock, followed by an exhausting year-round tour schedule that sometimes left fans disappointed if he was a no-show. He offers thoughts on maintaining his musicianship through a fickle industry landscape, one where he was dropped by Epic Records—his first label—after more than 10 years. Music memoirs regularly fall short of artists choosing to take accountability and zeroing in on the truth behind their struggles—Stone does both with acceptance of his past. Although I was born nearly 30 years after Sly and the Family Stone released their debut album, I found Thank You to be an unflinching rumination on the performer’s life.

As for Greenman—who also co-wrote memoirs with George Clinton, Brian Wilson, and Steven Van Zandt—the Thank You co-author sharply contextualizes Stone’s humor, sincerity, and musical genius, having spent roughly a decade committed to bringing the artist’s memories to book form. For the Los Angeles Review of Books, I interviewed Greenman via phone call about collaborating with Stone for Thank You, misconceptions about the musician’s personal life, and reflections that he imparts to the next generation.


JAELANI TURNER-WILLIAMS: What was the process of signing on to co-author Thank You?

BEN GREENMAN: The process is a long one: I had co-written George Clinton’s memoir that came out in 2014. We had been working on it for a year and a half before that, and I had always wanted to see if Sly would ever be interested in writing a book. George, who is close to Sly, said, “Yeah, I think it is something he wants to do. Let me connect you through to his camp.”

So I was put through, and at the time, the camp wasn’t on professional footing; he was still using drugs and much of what they were interested in was maintaining that. People were great, very nice. We had a lot of calls and we had a lot of pre-talk about what it would take to do a book. He was interested, but there was will but no way at the time. We would start to get agreements going and then they would fall apart because they would want to be paid. It just wasn’t book-industry standard.

That went on for a while; then in 2019, Arlene [Hirschkowitz]—who is his former girlfriend and current manager—had come back on the scene and started to help him sort out a lot of the details of his business, legal stuff and practical matters, and the book came to her attention, so she called me. And I was thrilled because she was very straightforward and very organized. She has a co-credit on the book for that reason.

Sometimes when you do these books, it’s easy because the person that the star then sells is ready and fully understands the process. It’s something they’re familiar with or they’ve sort of tried to do it themselves. So I was interested, but he didn’t really have book experience and it wasn’t necessarily his rhythm. He was used to being interviewed for TV or for journalistic purposes 50 years ago in a very different climate.

I think he didn’t trust the press, which is both clear from the book and clear if you know his history at all. I had a double endorsement first from George, which was very important because it matters to Sly that George said, “I give this guy the green light. I think it would be a good person for you to talk to. You can open up to him without worry.” Then Arlene was the second piece and very important because of the practical nature of having somebody there to run his sessions and make sure that he knew what we were focusing on.

You said Sly has always kind of had this mistrust of the press, and I noticed early in the book where Sly and the Family Stone’s debut album received a lukewarm Rolling Stone review. Considering that and how Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner has made controversial statements regarding Black musicians, when you think about their magazine’s review of A Whole New Thing, do you feel like it was unfair?

I don’t think that review is unfair per se. I think that it’s hard to say; I mean, they did some great reviews. Reviewers, as you know as a writer, and I’ve been a reviewer—that’s just one person’s opinion. And sometimes there’s an overlay of an editor’s or an editorial agenda, but I don’t know if any one review is exactly unfair. I think that first album was a hard pill for people to swallow because it was so accomplished. Sly was more trained than any rock star in history.

He was the most trained rock star in history before the Family Stone was formed. He already had been a DJ, a record producer, a songwriter, and a composition student. To that degree, I think maybe there was a misunderstanding. This always happens, because there’s a certain amount of built-in racial stereotyping where someone would say, “Oh, the Black musician is just a really talented guy who trained himself and the other guy was the sort of educated trained guy.”

That first album, I think in a way he probably did too much for a debut. He probably doesn’t agree but it’s very overstuffed. It’s a brilliant record and it’s a huge calling card announcement like, “Hey, I’m a major talent. I can do all these things. I can do a little Beatle stuff. I can do a little Dylan. I could out-Motown Motown. I could out-Stax Stax.” But it was a lot to swallow.

What ended up happening with him, obviously, is that musicians loved it. The public didn’t really buy it and he had to do “Dance to the Music” (1967). He was asked to do something more commercial, but it was sort of beneath him as a show of his abilities. Not that it was bad. I think it’s a great song, but it doesn’t show what he was capable of.

In the book, when Sly introduced his former wife Kathy Silva, he didn’t discuss that their relationship allegedly began as an affair since Kathy originally dated Billy Preston. So do you feel like this is something that Sly forgot?

He disputes that. Certain things he wanted to talk about more and then certain things he was more guarded about. The one thing he was really interestingly guarded on was protecting other people’s privacy, and that takes a weird shape in a memoir. For example, the bandmates, the siblings, and his children, he didn’t want to tell their story, and so he was very keen on telling his version.

So the thing with the Kathy story is that Sly said she did not date Billy Preston now. For what it’s worth, Billy Preston was gay, and Sly said he believed that that was true in the ’60s when they first met. I know the stories and we talked to him about them: Kathy was with Billy and Sly kind of hijacked her out of a party. There’s one story that circulates about that. They all went back to Sly’s place and Sly went off with Kathy, and Billy was devastated. It might even be in Billy’s book or the book of a former manager.

[Sly] didn’t think that story was the case. He said he met her at a party and then they started seeing each other. It doesn’t mean that that’s true or not true. I wasn’t literally there but I think his version of the story was slightly different than other versions. I heard that story and then I had also heard stories that it wasn’t true at all. That Billy wasn’t straight, and that if they were dating, it was that they were friends but maybe telling people they were dating. I don’t know, and Billy’s no longer with us, obviously.

I mean, [Sly] was kind of protective around his relationships with his partners, and mothers of his kids, in general. I think he has complicated feelings about those relationships, some of which he was happy to share, but other aspects of which he wanted to protect.

One thing that surprised me was his tension with the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers took issue with Sly and the Family Stone’s music for being embraced by white Americans. But There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971) is one of the most political albums of the ’70s. What stance do you think that Sly was trying to take with that album?

I think that the question of Riot, which is a critics question to me … One other thing I’ve learned in writing these books is that the artists make the work, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the best readers of or listeners to their own work. They’re the ones with the creative spark. When you say Riot is one of the most political albums of the ’70s, I both know what you mean because I know the record too and heard it in that light, and also sort of dispute it in a weird way.

I think artists go around with their antennas way up. With all the tumult and all of the tragedy and the assassinations and the riots, 1968 has a lot more hope than 1970. By the time you get to Riot, there’s a lot of hangover from the ’60s. It’s not going the way we thought it would go and there’s a lot of personal stress. There’s a lot of pressure from the record company to deliver a follow-up to Stand! (1969).

One big change is that he’s moved from San Francisco down to L.A., which completely changes the tone of his life; he’s away from where he grew up and away from a lot of his family and away from a lot of his band. What comes in then is a different crowd, different drugs, more guns, the Bel Air house—which has a whole different vibe than where he was living up in the Bay Area.

It’s political and it is very aware of a lot of the disappointments that were happening to everyone. But Sly, I think, was always a Universalist and a humanist, and you can see that in the way the band was constructed from the beginning: white and Black, male and female.

As far as the Panthers specifically, I don’t think Sly listened to anyone ever. There were all these stories that they asked him explicitly: “You got to get rid of your white management. You got to get rid of the white people in the band.” He said that didn’t happen. He said there may have been that talk but no one ever came to him and demanded a change.

But I think what you said before is right, and in a weird way, that band was in the middle. Too white for a certain part of the Black political movement, too Black certainly for racists, because they didn’t want mixed or Black acts on the charts. So he kind of occupied his own space. There was no other band like that.

Even though Sly did have those tensions with commercialism, he was a hitmaker and influence. Sly’s music led artists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to pursue jazz funk. Sly embraced it, even though it seems like later he had a disinterest in disco music. Can you describe what Sly pioneered in funk music?

If I put my musicologist hat on, it’s both complicated and simple. Before Sly, the main figure in the funk space is James Brown. But Sly—this is like a scholar-slash-professional. He could have been a DJ, a record producer, a songwriter, or an executive. So he pioneers this high, high level of professionalism, which is both calculated and spontaneous in making and designing this band. The real career that most people know about and care about is not the first record. It probably goes from Dance to the Music (1968) up to Small Talk (1974).

In that space, he goes from highly orchestrated to straightforward dance music. Even something like Stand!, which contains these incredible anthems and multipart songs with breakdowns added to the end, to Riot, which is dark bedroom funk and very introspective. Most of the band is gone; he’s kind of making it himself and pulling in guest stars. To Fresh (1973), which is this bounce-back bright album, smiley album, but it’s so complicated and brainy. To me, it’s darker than Riot in a lot of ways, because to me, it’s sort of forced here. Then Small Talk is this kind of softer bliss record because he’s getting married and Kathy and Sly Jr. are on the cover. So there’s a lot of movement there.

When the Spin exposé about his drug usage and fall from grace was published—as a music journalist yourself, what are your ethics when it comes to approaching sensitive topics like drug abuse?

“As a journalist” and “as a co-writer” are very, very different, because as a co-writer, I serve at the pleasure of the king. If I’m asking George Clinton or Brian Wilson or Sly about something for their memoir and they say, “I don’t want to talk about that,” we’re done. It’s a different job as a journalist: I think it’s all fair game.

What I would say about that Spin story—and this is from Sly’s perspective of how he explained it—is that he ended up feeling that that story came in with an agenda. Personally, I’m not that judgmental about drug use; I see that these people lived lives that were extremely complicated. I mean, try to stay up for 200 days a year.

Honestly, there is an element of race in how these things are portrayed. Nobody gives a shit that Bob Dylan was taking speed to stay up all through 1965, because they just say, sort of admiringly, “Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61, those are speed records.” There’s a different way of looking at Black stars who fell into the grip of drugs and I don’t think it’s fair.

I think sometimes there can be a different feel to it, like, “This guy became a junkie.” Now I can see in some ways why people say that about Sly; he dropped out of the record industry. He didn’t at least do music. His life did seem governed by his drugs. On the other hand, as we see in this book, he was living the whole time. When you really start to crack this apart, maybe the worst drug was fame, and maybe he didn’t want to be famous in that same way anymore.

I wanted to ask about where Sly is in terms of everything he’s given to music.

I can’t speak for him exactly except to say a version of what he says in the book, which is I think he’s humbled that his music still has currency. This happened through hip-hop and it happens whenever he has a cover: he’s very gratified that his music is still circulating. That people are still inspired and moved, and there’s still something illuminating in his music for younger listeners.

Mentally, I think he’s got to be aware. I don’t think this is telling any kind of secret that he’s closer to the end than the beginning. He’s 80 years old. He’s not in great health. He had 60 years of hard drug use. This is the last chapter of his life. So in that last chapter—and I think this is one of the reasons he agreed to do the book and he really committed himself to this—you have to have a portion of your life where you get to reflect on that life.

I think he’s grateful to be alive. He’s happy that he kicked [drugs]. One question that comes up sometimes is that people say, “Was he regretful about drugs?” There’re some celebrity memoirs where people spend the entire memoir apologizing. Sly wasn’t like that. George wasn’t like that. I think they were happy that they used for a time. As an older person, obviously, he’s regretful that it cost him time. Time with his loved ones, time as a productive artist, time with himself, time with his health. He says at the end that he would have stopped sooner.

I think he’s trying to enjoy the life he has left. What you’re asking also is a much bigger question about old age. It’s not just about Sly having been a star or Sly having been an icon; it’s just a human being getting older. How do you sort through any of that? What do you want? Do you have regrets? Are you grateful? Are you at peace that your children or the fans that you inspired understand enough of what you tried to instill in them that they can move forward?


Ben Greenman is a New York Times best-selling author and New Yorker contributor who has written both fiction and nonfiction. His novels and short story collections include The Slippage (2013) and Superbad (2001), he was Questlove’s collaborator on Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (2013) and Something to Food About: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs (2016), and he has written memoirs with George Clinton and Brian Wilson. His writing has appeared in The New YorkerThe New York TimesThe Washington PostMother JonesMcSweeney’sRolling Stone, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Jaelani Turner-Williams is a culture writer and executive editor based in Los Angeles. The Ohio State University graduate specializes in digital and print media, having contributed to Chartmetric, ELLE, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, and more.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!