I'm a sucker for happy endings -- a story that begins with a grand sweep of triumph, leading to challenges faced and lost, and defeat. Finally, though, courage and will overtakes fate and the music swells and everyone who deserves to wins in the end.
That's why we love Hollywood. Because its stories are so often different from real life.
Martinez has slightly more than 20 homeless people on the street these days, according to Homeless Outreach Coordinator Doug Stewart. If you spend time downtown, you see them. They are dressed in dirty clothes, look unkempt and often confused, or high, or drunk. There's an air of unfinished business about them, and they don't easily make eye contact -- not that many of us are trying to look at them at all, let alone in the eye.
But consider this: in Los Angeles right now, there is a man living in a van on the street. He is fed once a day by a kindly retired couple, and they let him use their shower. But the man lives in the van. It's his home. Inside that van, he opens his laptop computer and records music. And he swears that someday his music will make you feel special.
Sounds crazy, huh? Well, if you're of a certain age, that is to say, if you're over 45, his music already did that. For the guy living in that van today is none other than Sylvester Stewart. You might know him better as Sly Stone. As in Sly and the Family Stone. As in "Dance To The Music," "I Wanna Take You Higher," "Family Affair," "If You Want Me To Stay," "Hot Fun In the Summertime," "Everyday People," "Everybody Is A Star," "Stand," and many other iconic tunes of the era.
This is not just a rock star. Sly is a musical phenomenon the likes of which we were lucky to see in our lifetimes. He married soul, rock, gospel and funk together in a way that could be truly celebrated by everybody. The music he created in the late 1960s and through to the mid 70s laid the groundwork for funk and R&B that came later, though no one ever recreated that joy, that spirit of fun with a wink of mischief.
Take a look at those titles. That represents many millions of dollars in record and CD sales, MP3 downloads, royalties, publishing rights, etc. Sly was at one time a very, very wealthy man. He lived in John Phillips' old house (John was the founder of the Mamas and Papas, and died of a heroin overdose). He definitely abused drugs, and showed up late, if at all, to his sold out shows. Eventually, people stopped coming, and listening.
Today, according to a story in the New York Post, Sly lives in his van, recording music into his laptop, and fearing that the FBI is after him. He wants to make music, he wants to be heard, but he's afraid of being taken advantage of again by crooked agents and managers only too glad to step in and take a stoned-out musician's money.
Does he own his current condition? Of course he does. Fame is a horrible disease for many, and it did no favors for Sly. Delusions of grandeur, drug abuse, the constant refrain of those around you telling you how invincible you are while their hands invade your pockets, the crowds adoring you. . . it's nearly impossible to resist the temptation to believe you're above it all, that you can treat people like dirt, spend money foolishly, blow your brains out with cocaine and alcohol, and come out the other end just fine. Of course, you can't. Even if you're Sly Stone.
Today, he's just Sylvester Stewart, and there are at least two generations of people in that neighborhood who think of that crazy man in the van as just that; some sad guy to feel sorry for, and stay away from.
But if you listen hard, you can hear the refrain of the 500,000 adoring people at Woodstock in 1969, shouting along with him, singing "higher!" He had those people in the palm of his hand. They loved him. He was somebody special.
And those others on the streets of our city -- they might not have a hit record to their name. They might not have achieved a mountain, or even a molehill, of glory or fame. But they come from somewhere, they have a story. It can't be all bad. It has to include some love, some triumphs, however small they may seem to us. There has to be some amount of kindness, some human attempt at connection. Somewhere, it just got lost. Something didn't work. Whether it was mental health, or addiction, or just flat-out despair that drove them to their cars, to the streets, they come from somewhere, they are somebody.
But don't believe me. Just ask the guy sleeping in the van in the Krenshaw neighborhood.