Graham speaks just as generously (and vaguely) about his Sly Stone years as he does of the Artist. "That, to me, was my Sixties," he says simply. "A wonderful experience." But last year, band members and associates publicly recounted for the first time the atmosphere of violent intimidation that preceded Graham's exit. According to Joel Selvin's oral history For the Record: Sly and the Family Stone, Graham at one point hired his own security for protection from Stone, and in one incident Graham's guard was battered in a hotel lobby by Stone's entourage. ("We put the street on 'em," bragged one attacker to Selvin.)
Even after Graham spent the Seventies with his successful Graham Central Station, the Eighties going solo, and the Nineties playing session man, it's easy to see why the Artist's drug- and profanity-free bubble might offer some comfort. The younger musician, while startlingly original, can also, according to Graham, play every single part of every Graham song. When a teenage Prince Rogers Nelson was still attending Central High School, he played in a jam band with childhood buddy André Anderson (later Cymone) that called itself Grand Central Corporation. And in many striking respects, the free-floating atmosphere in Paisley's studio resembles the young Prince's adolescent ideal: The all-hours jam in a basement bedroom, where Prince lived under Anderson's roof, away from parental authority. As Graham describes it, there are no deadlines at Paisley, no budgets, and all-night recording is the norm. ("I've kept late hours all my life," Graham says. "Even my daughter's like that.")
Quite famously, the Artist has achieved his own sort of release--from what he sees as the clock watchers, budget setters, and critics who would contain "Prince." After using the music industry to circumvent Minneapolis's white club circuit, which shut Prince and his black peers out of the scene before Uncle Sam's became First Avenue, the Artist now shuns the industry. He brings the world to him, on his terms. George Clinton, Chaka Khan, and Graham are only the black musicians he has coaxed into his studio--smack-dab, as Chaka once remarked, in the middle of nowhere. Others visit. And those who see the Artist as an isolated Presley-to-be should take note that in the past month alone, the performer has carried on in private with musicians including Carlos Santana, No Doubt, and Ani DiFranco. He and mate Mayte bowl with the Grahams and play pool with Lenny Kravitz. And whenever the mood strikes, the Artist heads into the studio. (Engineer Hans-Martin Buff admits he works on call.)
"There's total freedom there," says Graham of Paisley. "My single is called 'Free,' and that's really how I feel. You can go in, and there's no one telling you that you can do this but you can't do that. That is a very unique situation. If you don't feel like recording, you don't have to. If you want to redo something, you can go ahead and redo it."
And if "Free" sounds less agonized, more obsessively polished, and nowhere near as hairy as There's a Riot Goin' On and Sign o' the Times, it may be because Artistic freedom too easily becomes license. For better and worse, Graham and Baby Brother alike have settled into a groove.
Larry Graham and Graham Central Station perform with the Artist at 2:30 and 8:00 p.m. Friday, July 30 at Northrop Auditorium; (612) 624-2345.