Before withdrawing into the inner-city slums, Sylvester Stone had been a transformative musical legend. With his Family Stone, he turned Max Yasgur’s farm into a dance party, traded rock for funk, and was among a handful of acts to emerge from Woodstock as a bonafide “superstar.” Before his fall from grace, the former disk jockey and San Francisco record producer became one of the hottest acts of the era with monster hits “Everyday People” #1 (Epic, 1968), “Hot Fun in the Summertime” #3 (Epic, 1969), and “Family Affair” #1 (Epic, 1971).
Arriving late for concert appearances became a notorious part of the Sly Stone tradition. Stone cancelled 26 of the 80 dates he had committed himself to in 1970 and roughly half of the next year’s shows. Tardiness wasn’t the problem, but his struggles with substance abuse, like a raging riptide, were. After an arrest for cocaine possession, the singer was placed in a drug diversion program in Los Angeles in October 1979. Two years later he was arrested in Hawthorne, CA for possessing a controlled substance, and arrested again on July 27, 1982 in Los Angeles after police found cocaine and a handgun in his attache case.
It only got worse. In June 1983, Sly Stone was found unconscious, with a female companion, at a Fort Myers hotel. Officials stated that he “was in a narcotic trance or semiconscious state” when deputies arrived to arrest him. Police found what appeared to be a glass free-basing kit, three propane tanks, a torch, and a razor with white powder still on it. Stone was charged with third degree felony possession of cocaine, possession of drug paraphernalia and attempting to skip out on a bill for food and drinks. As Woodstock celebrated his coronation, Fort Myers witnessed his fall from grace. He was booked into the Lee County Jail after refusing to go to the hospital, and, after posting a $5,750 bond, was released.
Long associated with the rich and famous, cocaine (Cocaine hydrochloride) is a water soluble salt that the user can snort, eat or inject, but not smoke. In his book, Street Player: My Chicago Story, former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine watched as cocaine, ever present in the 1970s, gained a powerful hold on his peers:
The beauty of the hippy movement had long since turned ugly. The drug culture had cast a shadow over everything. People like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had already succumbed to their addictions. Nobody simply experimented anymore. Drugs were being used for daily maintenance, not recreation and exploration.
An alternative Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sadly lists musicians who succumbed to cocaine: Steve Clark (Def Leppard), Kevin DeBrow (Quiet Riot), John Entwistle (The Who), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls), David Ruffin (The Temptations), and Ike Turner.
Cocaine is made from hydrochloride and alkaloid, also known as “base.” In the 1970s, ether, a highly flammable liquid, was used to “free” the base from any additives and impurities. A heat source, like a lighter or torch, was used to heat the freebase, to inhale the vapors. Within seconds, a powerful rush and an orgasmic, longer lasting high, was experienced. With a 75% to 100% purity, freebase triggered psychosis, hallucinations, paranoia and violence. The high is often followed by depression, anxiety, and uncontrollable drug seeking, as the user craved freebase again and again.
Freebasing caused numerous burns and accidents whenever the heat source sparked the incredibly flammable and unstable ether. Soon, another reworking of freebase, known as crack, hit the streets. Crack was made by boiling cocaine in a mixture of water, and baking soda, creating a waxy rock-like crystal. Sold in vials, these rocks were to be heated and inhaled into the lungs. The term “crack” referred to the crackling sound when the rock is heated.
Although the terms “freebasing” and “smoking crack” are used interchangeably, crack is less dangerous because the user does not have to heat ether to free the base, and is generally less expensive than freebase, which is almost pure. Crack has the reputation of being the “poor man’s drug,” but has appealed to many accomplished personalities like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and musician Gil Scott-Heron. Crack plays no favorites.
Several individuals raised our awareness of the drug’s perils. In 1980, Richard Prior’s body was severely burned while freebasing. That same year, Sly Stone boasted that freebasing was superior to snorting cocaine. Once a millionaire, Stone was now bankrupt. In November 1987, he was charged with possession of cocaine, the second time in less than a year that he was charged. In 1989 he spent Thanksgiving in a California jail. With mounting legal troubles, and lawsuits against his former manager, his fall from grace persisted. In 2011 he was reportedly homeless, living in a white van parked in the rough Crenshaw neighborhood of LA. He was arrested in 2017 (once again) for cocaine possession. It was a sad ending for someone who had forged a brilliant and innovative career.
One of the most profound signs of wellness is when someone has the courage to ask for help. In Mychal Denzel Smith’s article, “Why did we let Sly Stone slip away?”, the author uncovered an obvious truth:
It’s easy to draw the line from genius to dark and troubled soul, but something about Sly suggests that he simply enjoyed getting high more than he enjoyed performing and being fawned over. And that’s just Sly, the main reason we haven’t heard from him in so long and the main reason we haven’t been able to be there for him the way we may have been for other fallen legends who needed our support: he just didn’t want it.
“I wanna take you higher,” Sly Stone sang out to the masses, but, the higher he climbed, the harder he fell. Stone chose freebase over powder cocaine because the effects were more intense and immediate. It became his drug of choice, more powerful than the applause of his fans. For this former superstar, who had attained majestic heights of greatness, freebase became his sad and publicized fall from grace.
Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org