#GIA14: Racial Conversation as Performance Art
15 hours ago
DAVID MILLS: You have led a very dramatic life. I’d like to walk you through it, if you don’t mind, because it’s so fascinating and because of your new perspective on things.
Let’s start with your childhood. What were your feelings about race and America while growing up in Arkansas?
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: I didn’t stay there long enough to get deep impressions. I left Arkansas when I was about 10 years old, so my memory of Arkansas is really about learning how to hunt with my dog, chasing rabbits, things like that.
MILLS: After moving to California, what kind of things influenced your political development?
CLEAVER: In growing up in L.A., I realized the existence of the white world, the black world and the Chicano world. I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominately Chicano, and the Chicanos, particularly at that time, had their own subculture which totally rejected white America.
I spent a lot of my time – my early years – as part of that view. And I think that had something to do with the strong withdrawal and rejection [of America] that I experienced.
MILLS: If you had grown up in a predominately black neighborhood, you might not have been so anti-American?
CLEAVER: I think so. And I say that because hanging out with the Chicano guys as a choice was, in itself, a rejection of what the blacks were doing – going along with the program.
In the ’40s, the Chicanos were involved in kind of a war in L.A. against the establishment, against the police. It was a very powerful reality in your life. The cops were always chasing them, they were outlaws. Living in that neighborhood helped sow the seeds of rebellion.
My parents wanted to guide me into being a minister. This was something that was really square as far as I could see, so I chose a rebellious direction.
MILLS: How many years of your life have you spent locked up?
CLEAVER: I add it up to be about 15.
I was sentenced to prison twice: once for possession of marijuana, and once for assault with a deadly weapon – not, as many people think, for rape.
When I was in prison, I wrote a book [“Soul on Ice”]. One section of the book dealt with the subject of rape, and I described some activity that I was involved in. And the way the press took it up, it was just sort of assumed that I was sentenced to prison for rape.
I was sentenced to prison for possession of marijuana, and I served two and a half years for that, then I was sentenced to prison for assault charges, and I stayed in there for 10 years.
MILLS: The first time you went to prison, how did that affect you?
CLEAVER: Well, I had some prior training for that by going to juvenile hall and the youth authority. So on that level I was already broken in to prison. But I think it had the effect of powerfully fixing my rebellious path.
I went to prison when I was 18 years old, and that’s a very delicate age for a young man. It’s an age when your sap is beginning to flow. And being locked up at that point is really one of the worst kinds of experiences.
That’s when I really began to be filled with hatred, and I think I became much more violent in prison. I believe that prisons, in that sense, are schools for crime.
I became a Communist in prison. I studied Marxism in prison.
MILLS: When you came out after that first term, you spent about a year on the outside before your second conviction. And during that time, as you revealed in “Soul on Ice,” you set about raping white women as a principle of black rebellion.
CLEAVER: I wrote this in prison. And I wrote this because I was trying to describe my own feelings, my own attitudes, and the attitudes of a lot of black men. At that time, this was something that was not really written about, talked about. It was kind of scandalous. There was a lot of denial in blacks who had these feelings.
MILLS: What feelings? Sexual attraction to white women?
CLEAVER: People used to deny that. The whole phenomenon was raging at that time because this whole black consciousness thing was coming in, interracial relationships were rising.
One of the old bugaboos of race relations in America has been black rape. It has been a big problem down through history and continues to be a problem. For my own part, I think there is often a lot of denial in that. But I think the facts will support a case that there is quite a bit of black rape.
MILLS: How come?
CLEAVER: Well, it has to do with social dynamics – I’ve said what I have to say about that subject in “Soul on Ice.”
MILLS: Looking back on that period now, how do you feel about your own activity?
CLEAVER: What I would do if I wrote about that again would be to put it in a larger context. At that point, I was trying to describe the motivations of the black rapist – what goes on inside his head, what he was thinking – whereas today I am very concerned about male violence against women. That was not what I was addressing in my essay. I would not repeat today what I said 20 years ago because the context is different.
MILLS: You have said that your affiliation with the Black Muslims and the solidarity of that group kept you going while in prison.
CLEAVER: I think it was very important in prison because everybody is organizing, like little armies, for survival. Racial tensions were really high in prison because of things that were going on outside. Consequently, we had a lot of riots in prison.
The prisons in California used to be segregated, and there were struggles inside the prison to break up some of those traditional practices. So there was a lot of motivation for people joining together in these kinds of groups. And the one that appealed to me was the Black Muslims.
You had the Mau-Mau, the Blood Brothers, just little cliques of people taking different names. But I had liked the concern of the Black Muslim organization, and the fact that it was an organization that was more legitimate than some of the cutthroat activity.
MILLS: But all during that time, you didn’t accept the Black Muslim philosophy that all white people were devils, correct?
CLEAVER: That’s why Malcolm X appealed to me, because Malcolm was more political. He had more of an economic analysis, whereas Elijah Muhammad was just full of that demonology.
Sometimes we would really wonder about the truth of Elijah’s teachings, because it was very easy to believe the whites were devils, particularly the way the information was organized. And it was very appealing to believe that. One man said that it was necessary to teach the black that the white man is the devil in order to get him to stop believing that the white man is God.
MILLS: After leaving prison in 1967, what attracted you to the Black Panthers?
CLEAVER: The fact that they were armed. When I left prison, I didn’t know anything about the Black Panther Party. But I left with the conviction that blacks had to take up guns.
The civil rights movement was turning violent already. I was still in prison when Watts went up in rebellion, and all the major cities across the country were experiencing those rebellions. So what I was aware of in prison was a lot of black people were being killed. And police were using police dogs, cattle prods, water hoses, all these things on the people. We in prison used to look at that news.
And we were already violent people. We were in prison for involving ourselves in criminal violence, nothing political. So it was very easy to transfer those attitudes. You began to just live for the day when you could get out and get involved.
One of the first things I did when I got out was to get some guns. And shortly thereafter, I met the Black Panthers at a meeting. When they came into this meeting, they had their guns. It was like love at first sight.
MILLS: What did you think of Martin Luther King during this period?
CLEAVER: At that time, I was very negative. I actually sort of hated Martin Luther King for preaching non-violence, and for being a Christian preacher. Martin Luther King to me was the embodiment of a lot of problems for black people.
I used to want to kill Martin Luther King. I thought it would be good if he was out of the way. I thought he was holding up the movement. Non-violence was never popular among the majority of black Americans from the very beginning. …
MILLS: Looking back now, what do you think of Dr. King?
CLEAVER: Well, looking back, for a long time, I have come to really admire him. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I got busted two days later [in Oakland]. The gunfight I was involved in was part of the whole atmosphere that was reacting to his assassination.
When Martin Luther King was still alive, we were sort of waiting in the wings impatiently because we saw that non-violence was on the way out. Non-violence worked mostly in the South. When things moved toward the North, they became violent immediately. …
I remember when the media was anti-NAACP. They thought the NAACP were the most extreme people to come along, and they were for a while. But after a while, the media started loving the NAACP.
That’s because each extreme point, calibrated on a spectrum, tends to legitimize the ones it has eclipsed, if that makes sense. Like Martin Luther King and his direct-action movement, even though it was non-violent, eclipsed the NAACP’s legalistic tactics.
And when Martin Luther King came along, he started getting busted and going to jail, and the NAACP started getting invited to the White House. Then, when more violent people came along, Martin Luther King started getting invited to the White House.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
DAVID MILLS: It seems quite a change of heart you’ve had over 15 years. During the Black Power movement, you thought the primary crisis we faced was the American system. Now you say it’s the Communist threat.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: It’s not a total change, because the stuff I was preoccupied with in the ’60s is still true. American history is American history. I’m not trying to say America is utopia. Far from it. But I think that in the past I was oblivious to what was going on in Communist countries, or I didn’t believe what was said against the Communists.
I was really favorable toward the Communists because they made such a strong critique of capitalism and America. They were opposed to America systematically, so I viewed that as a source of strength or a source of alliances. Many people do this. We used to say that America’s enemies are our friends. …
What changed my whole point of view was that I had a chance to leave America and go live in Communist countries and see what was going on there. Without having that experience, I probably would still, like a lot of other people, be running around pushing the same line.
We have many problems in America, and some of them are absolutely outrageous. But with all our problems, we have more freedom in this country than any of those Communist countries.
So what I say today is we need to be more precise in what’s wrong with America. In the past we just used the shotgun approach, and just said burn it down, destroy it, overthrow it, that sort of stuff. Well, that’s very dangerous thinking. It’s not even thinking. It’s sloganizing.
Everybody admits that we have a huge economic problem, but the question becomes what do we do about it? Just close the curtain down, you know? Stop the show, change all the furniture around on the stage, and then let the show go on?
That’s one of my gripes with revolutionaries. Most of these revolutionary scenarios call for exactly that. But it’s like changing a tire on a moving vehicle; we have to figure out how to solve these problems while the thing’s in motion. So that means being very precise about what’s wrong.
MILLS: Let’s backtrack, because it’s ironic. Do you think that during the Panther movement when you were advocating revolution, that you and the Black Panthers were being used by the Communists?
CLEAVER: At different stages, you could say that. The Communists did not summon us into being. We grew up in our own community around our own issues and, as a matter of fact, against the activity of the Communists. They weren’t happy to see us come along because we were organizing people outside of their fold. They also had an attitude toward armed struggle that was more conservative than ours.
At a certain point, the Communists recognized that we were the ones having impact in the community. So they came to us. They offered us free legal representation – we always needed lawyers – and they would contribute finances to us. And we wanted to do this, because we were Marxists ourselves.
I think at a certain point, the Black Panther Party became the driving engine for a whole phase of the [Communist] movement. So in that sense, the Communists used us. On a worldwide basis, they used us propaganda-wise.
MILLS: What’s ironic about that is that was the FBI’s excuse to go after the Panthers, wasn’t it? That you were tools of the Communists?
CLEAVER: Well, it’s not against the law to be a Communist. But when you advocate the violent overthrow of the government, or when you practice it –
You know, many people lie about what they’re doing. And we used to lie, use falsehood, when we were describing our own activity. For instance, we would go out and ambush the police. Then, if we got caught, we’d say they shot at us first.
MILLS: And that was not true?
CLEAVER: It wasn’t always true. There were many times when we would shoot first.
And I say this because it illustrates the distortions that get involved when the people hate the police because they always see the police making trouble. But a lot of times, the police are not wrong. A lot of times, people did exactly what police said they did, but then they lie about it.
I think we were in that situation in the ’60s with the FBI. The FBI investigated us and came to the conclusion that we were a dangerous group.
MILLS: Was the FBI right?
CLEAVER: I think it was right. See, the problem gets into what does the FBI have a right to do to you? Once they make the decision that you are an enemy of America, then they consider you outside the law, so they use all their dirty tricks on you.
This got them into a lot of trouble. If they could have proven that we were systematically engaging in armed struggle, then they would have had less trouble with the public over what they were doing.
The whole thing is a mixture, because we were not always wrong. And we didn’t start out actually shooting at the cops. We were rebelling against a routine. We were rebelling against a whole history. We were rejecting America, America’s laws, everything like that.
MILLS: So the case could be made that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were justified in going after the Black Panther Party?
CLEAVER: I think a case could be made on the following points: that the FBI was not always wrong; that many of their accusations were accurate when it came to our use of violence, our use of bombs, our use of ambush tactics.
So if I would fault the FBI at all, it would be in its overzealousness in using CIA tactics on the American people. I say this because they did this to people who were not Black Panthers, or who were not involved in that kind of activity. Just people who dissented.
MILLS: There is still that kind of dissent in America. Why do you think that is?
CLEAVER: To really understand it, you have to go back to the Second World War. The Second World War was considered a patriotic war. America was solidly behind it.
But from that time on, there was a new kind of struggle, very controversial, with a new kind of political party which was not well understood, an international party coming in trying to change the government. That started the Cold War and what you call the “struggle for the minds of men.”
From that time on, we have had in America a preachment against the government, condemning the government, condemning the activity of the government in foreign countries – in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, all over the world. It was a whole period of decolonization that took place.
So we have in America a couple of generations of people who have grown up just hearing negative about America. This is amazing because it has a distorting impact. I think Americans have been bombarded with very powerful negative propaganda. … It has a brainwashing effect on people.
MILLS: What about black Americans? There’s nothing new about black dissatisfaction with America.
CLEAVER: I think this is one of the very serious constituents of the black identity crisis. Blacks generally don’t feel part of America. I call it a fence-straddling mentality.
Even though you don’t have a strong “back-to-Africa” movement, you do have that theme that floats around in the community. The consequence is that you have people paralyzed on the fence. They neither go back to Africa nor do they participate fully in America. So you have millions and millions of blacks who are in a kind of catatonic trance over what to do.
The strong condemnation of America, the constant criticism of America, this has fixed a certain mindset. This is the mindset I have broken with, and it’s the mindset I encounter almost universally among middle-class blacks, which is what you find mostly on college campuses: America not being their home, or America being the worst country in the world, or everything being racist. Just racism, racism, everywhere is racism – not being able to draw some distinctions and to see some good in America as well as the bad.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
DAVID MILLS: When did you start playing?
JEF LEE JOHNSON: When I was around 12, I think, I begged my older sister to teach me some chords on guitar. And then when I was 13, my mother made me start playing with her in church, whether I liked it or not. Playing bass in church. I didn’t know how to play; she said, “You’re just gonna follow me.” I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just making weird noises.
MILLS: Who did you listen to that made you want to play? What was happening musically at the time? Sly and the Family Stone?
JOHNSON: I wasn’t a good enough musician to appreciate Sly or Monk or Hendrix. I was just listening to television. Like, you know, cartoon music. “Johnny Quest,” the Warner Bros. stuff.
Used to be Tom Jones had a TV show, and his music director was named Big Jim Sullivan. Going into commercials Big Jim would play little guitar things, and I would sit there with my mouth open, like, “Wow.”
Anything that had a guitar in it, I would gravitate to. So like “Hee Haw,” Roy Clark and Buck Owens…
MILLS: Pickin’ and grinnin’!
JOHNSON: Yeah, pickin’ and grinning’. My theory teacher would say, when I was a teenager, “Yeah, your ear was developing, you didn’t even realize it.”
I was going around telling kids – they were singing songs, I’m like, “That doesn’t sound right.” “No, that’s the way it goes, that’s the way it goes.” That’s not what I meant. What I meant was, it wasn’t in the right key, but I didn’t know what a key was.
But a lot of TV commercials, a lot of TV theme songs, a lot of radio, AM radio…
MILLS: You’re talking Top 40?
JOHNSON: No, I’m talking commercials. I’m talking like “Miller High Life, the Champagne of Bottled Beers.” The little jingles, I was really into them. Not even the [hit] songs, the jingles – Celia Cruz did the Miller song, or Tony Bennett.
The songs? Yeah, they were cool. But the commercials were what I really liked. I’m serious, man.
Even before you came over today, I was looking at Boomerang. The old “Yogi Bear” show, “Huckleberry Hound,” “Quick Draw McGraw.” All that weird little stuff is like still in my head.
MILLS: Back in the ’70s, city kids walked around with guitars the way kids today walk around with basketballs. Do you feel like an endangered species? Do young kids coming up today have a reason to pick up the guitar? Are they picking it up?
JOHNSON: I don’t know if it’s so much endangerment as natural selection. Things are getting more mechanical and push-button now.
I just did a film-score session with Terence Blanchard a week ago, and we were talking about the hip-hop generation. It’s weird saying “the hip-hop generation” too, because they’re probably on the way out in a second. They’re gonna be in their 30s and 40s in a minute. They are in their 30s.
And [Terence] was talking about some film he did, and some other people – whose names I won’t mention – they just did hip-hop tracks. They didn’t look at the movie and do some emotional music to move the film along.
And I was explaining, well, there’s a whole generation of kids, adults, whatever, that are very, very well-to-do, they’re making a lot of money, and you cannot explain to them what Terence Blanchard does. They have no concept of him or George Duke or Herbie Hancock – or Elmer Bernstein or somebody like that – sitting down looking at a film and making some notes about something musically that goes along with the visual content. They’ll just do some track about some guy in the film or some girl’s behind.
I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but that’s what time it is.
MILLS: It’ll make you cry if you think about it too long. Do you know anybody 20 or 25 years old who plays the guitar? Where is the next generation of black guitarists going to come from?
JOHNSON: I’m a bad person to ask because I don’t know anybody, period. I’m like an outcast. I’m not accepted in most circles musically. That’s no joke.
JOHNSON: No. I mean, the people that ask me to play hire me because I’m either peculiar, or disciplined enough to try to keep their music together without needing the badges or awards that go along with it.
One of the best compliments I ever had is George Duke saying, “Yeah, man, I love having you in the band because I can go wherever I want to go, and you’ll keep things in line.” Or he’ll do what he does and I’ll go wherever I want – ’cause he knows I’ll go.
I’ve quit most of my other gigs anyway because I just want to dedicate the rest of my existence to trying to do whatever this Jef music is.
So I’m not like the guy, you know – “Call Jef, call Jef.” I’m the guy, like, “I heard about this guy, he’s kinda nuts. If I call him, will he be all right?” I’m that guy. …
I don’t do the usual come-in-and-joke-around – “Yeah, when I was on the road…” So I don’t know who the musicians are in my own generation, as opposed to older or younger generation.
MILLS: White kids, they’ve still got rock music. They’ve got Red Hot Chili Peppers. They know what a bass player – “I wanna play the bass like Flea!” Where’s the next Bourelly gonna come from? Where’s the next Jef Lee gonna come from?
JOHNSON: Little black kids don’t even realize that that’s their music. Their great-great-grandparents created that. They only go back as far as grunge or whatever. Older kids only go back as far as the Rolling Stones. They don’t even realize, like, Big Mama Thornton or Chuck Berry were actually doing this music, getting’ beat-up, gettin’ chased out of these little lean-to places.
That delete button just keeps everybody out of focus. Like deleting the lineage. That’s an American phenomenon.
MILLS: I see you’re on MySpace. Are people finding you through that for the first time?
JOHNSON: Yes. And hopefully it’s putting things back in the hands of the artists, I hope. Because there’s no meetings and demographics. It’s like, put your mess out there, there’s 150 million people on it, they can check you out, the end. For somebody like me, a little poor starving artist, it’s a great thing.
Yeah, I mean, some cat was like, “I can’t believe I found you. I can’t believe I’ve never known you.” Stuff like that. So that’s worth it.
MILLS: Here’s what perplexes me: Why do some of our best musicians – bona fide virtuosos like Bourelly and Jamaaladeen Tacuma – have more going on overseas than they do here? Jamaaladeen needed a Japanese label to put out most of his recent CDs. Bourelly lived in Berlin for a while. And you’ve spent time in Paris. What’s going on over there that ain’t happening here?
JOHNSON: It’s what’s not going on, which is a lot of meetings and stuff that’s holding up the artistic process. If they hear something they like, if they hear something they feel, then they just go check it out, they’ll support it.
Here it’s about hype. Use that Eisner theory: if Disney owns the billboards, if Disney owns the television show, and if Disney owns the magazines, and are constantly putting up this thing, this thing, this thing, this thing, then people [say], “This thing must be great, because I keep seeing it everywhere.”
Over there, you can go play because people like you, and they’ll come see you, and they’ll tell somebody else.
MILLS: How much time have you spent in Paris?
JOHNSON: Not a lot. Probably not enough. We should tour over there. It gets back to management and all that stuff. I mean, I’m not a manager, I don’t know how to get gigs.
MILLS: Never had a manager?
JOHNSON: Never really had one. The people that wanted to be manager were either just nice people that really couldn’t get it together or really nasty people that wanted too much money or whatever.
There’s a lady coming from Belgium on the 26th who might be a good – That’s another thing about MySpace. There might be some people we’ve found that might be good fits to get us some gigs, especially in Europe.
In fact, we’ve had a couple of gigs out of MySpace. This series [of weekly gigs at Jazz Standard], I’m not sure if that was MySpace or just some cat that was a fan. He kind of forced the issue at this club. Cat named James.
MILLS: Who was that? What’s his name?
JOHNSON: James. I don’t know what his last name is. He got us a gig in his club called the Union Hall in Brooklyn. And then he went to this other club; “Jef is playing in your club.” The guy [told me], “I don’t know you, but this guy James said you’re playing in my club.”
MILLS: I got turned on to you by Pete Wetherbee, who co-produced your first CD in 1995. How did that project come about?
JOHNSON: Well, he lobbied for it. A Florida label put up [the money]. We did it.
MILLS: Was Pete still working for Bill Laswell at that time?
JOHNSON: I didn’t even know he was working for Laswell. I just thought he was some crazy guy that was like, “This guy should have a record out.” I didn’t know where he was coming from. I was like, “Yeah, I should have a record out.”
MILLS: What was the reaction to “Blue”? It was a great album.
JOHNSON: There were never any tours or gigs right after any CDs so we could get feedback. It was always, “You should do in-stores.” “No we shouldn’t.” There were always these weird little wars going on between me and everybody.
MILLS: You got a problem with in-stores?
JOHNSON: We’re kinda rough on the ears, man. We did one in Florida and, immediately, warming up, mothers were grabbing their kids and running out the store. A couple of punk kids ran up to the front; everybody else was putting their hands over their kids’ ears. We should’ve done, like, bars or whatever, as far as I was concerned. …
We’ve never had the true test yet, as far as [whether] the music is affecting people. This thing in New York, this series, we’re getting a little taste. We got our first-ever standing ovation at the end of one of the gigs. So we are doing something that people are feeling. And that’s all I’m concerned about.
If I can make a little money, that’s a bonus. But if we’re not playing the music right, that’s my main concern. Jury’s still out.
LARRY ALEXANDER: If I walked into your barbershop – first of all, what do I see?
GEORGE CLINTON: Ain’t no telling. (laughs) Ain’t no telling what you’d see. We had two or three older barbers who had their clientele, playing checkers and shit. Then we had the younger guys, who may be nodding, you know what I mean. Everybody in the town, damn-near, shot dope.
And it was a scholastic town too, which made it really weird. It wasn’t Newark, so they looked really weird, you know – one of the highest scholastic schools in the country, Plainfield High School was. They won the track meet in the Penn Relays almost every year.
But somehow, prior to ’59, somebody had come through there with real dope. Shit, I didn’t really know nothing but about reefer when I got there, and had just got that myself. I mean, “The Man With the Golden Arm” cured me of ever thinking about that as being recreation. That never appealed to me. Even though all the acid and stuff we were taking, that or angel dust never appealed to me at all.
Coke? Yeah, I’ve done my share, did my share, do my share, whatever. But all of it, I never got to the point – other than acid. I would’ve took acid forever if I could’ve. But it stopped working after while. Once it finish with you, it stop working. You don’t stop it, it stop where you just be up all night.
And then by ’70, there wasn’t really acid anyway. … When they started saying, “You wanna buy shit?,” it was over. Woodstock was the end of all of it. A lot of people think Woodstock was the beginning, but Woodstock was the first time you heard, “You wanna buy this?” Before that, it was, “Do you wanna share? You want to share this?” Woodstock, it was $20 a lid for weed, they had prices on ’em.
DAVID MILLS: Feeling how you do about heroin, is there anything you tried to do or say when you saw the younger band members getting into it?
CLINTON: I took the whole band to Toronto, all of them – Garry, Boogie [Mosson] and all them – to Toronto, ’cause we left [for Detroit], and we knew there was no way to watch ’em once we left. We took them to Toronto, and that’s where they stayed, that’s where they kicked.
’Cause there wasn’t no snorting [in Plainfield], them mugs was bangin’. Everybody was bangin’ there, that was all there was. It was deeper than New York. Plus, most of ’em was lame, so they really didn’t know what they was doing…. Thirteen and 14, girls and guys – did that one to death.
But we took them up there, and they pretty much straightened out for the most part. ’Cause there wasn’t too much up there to find. That pretty much kept them cool – from that one anyway.
ALEXANDER: So I come into the barbershop, you’re the man with the magic fingers, right?
CLINTON: I might have a girl in the back there. Somebody’s head might be burnin’, talkin’ ’bout “Get this shit out my muhfuckin’ head!”
We may have some counterfeit money in there we’re trying to color. Somebody sold us some counterfeit money, that’s why I said that. And for the last year and a half, we was coloring that shit with coffee. And spent so much of it in town that people started bringing it back to the barbershop, and we’d [say], “I don’t want that shit! We ain’t taking that shit.”
ALEXANDER: You’re the man with the magic fingers, though. How would you hook me up?
CLINTON: You’d get a fresh one to the front, with your head like that. You get a fresh one to the front – waves to the front. Like you see nowadays, but not hard.
ALEXANDER: How would you cook it?
CLINTON: Conkolene. Fry that muthafucka. Like they do with Soft Sheen, Aqua Sheen, all that shit they got now. Same thing, just put it on your head with a comb or brush, grease your head to death, then wash your head out while you pat your feet and holler.
ALEXANDER: Would you jump on the bus for New York while I’m up under that motherfucker?
CLINTON: Yeah, you might get some of that. “I’m going to audition for my record thang at one of the record companies… I’ll tell my boy to comb you out. I put the waves in ya so you gon’ be cool.”
MILLS: We talked about drugs, we talked about counterfeiting. Did you ever pimp women?
CLINTON: Hell naw, I like pussy. Hell naw.
I mean, I’ve had a girl pay me like a motherfucker. But she was teasing me. She’d come in, lay the money down, “Here daddy.” If I wouldn’t go for it, she’d say, “I bet if I walk over there, start back to pick it up, I bet he’d get it.” ‘Cause they chose in Detroit. They’d choose you. You’re the one they want to be with.
And so, I was with ’em. Damn, I couldn’t turn the money down. But I like pussy too much. I would never – she would never sell no pussy. I’d be on top of it. Matter of fact, wouldn’t be none left to sell.
MILLS: I’m jumping around a bit, but can you tell me about Ed Wingate, who owned Golden World Records? He would give you ideas for songs to write, you and your songwriting partner Sidney Barnes in Detroit?
CLINTON: Oh, he’d wake your ass up in the morning with his new title. You know, he heard Martha Jean, this disc jockey on the radio, saying, “I’m into something I can’t shake loose, and I betcha!” And he – “We’re gonna write a soooong today.” He’d buy a piano and bring it, cut the doors open in the hotel and say, “We’re gonna write this song and get you up early in the morning.” (laughs)
But [Wingate] just took care of you so much, he paid you so much that you had to try it. And we was his team. I mean, we stayed at his house.
MILLS: There’s an important moment when you brought Eddie Hazel into the band. “Billy Bass” Nelson wasn’t cutting it on the guitar. In fact, Billy told us that some of the Parliaments beat him up and threw his guitar out of a window. Is that what happened?
CLINTON: They were like our kids. I mean, Billy – his mother gave me guardian over him, me and Ray Davis. We had guardianship; if we was gonna take him out on the road, we had to be his guardians.
MILLS: You had to sign papers and everything?
CLINTON: Yeah. And he was like a brat, brat, brat. So we did everything from spank Eddie to throw Billy out a room or something, or take his guitar or something. You know, like a little brother. So it was a lot of that going on.
I done seen Fuzzy or whoever, they’d make him so mad that he would throw water in their face. They would do the same thing to [him]. That was like your little brother getting on your nerves.
MILLS: Do you remember a conversation with Eddie Hazel having to convince him to join you?
CLINTON: No. “Ask my mother” is what he would always say. “You talk to my mother. She’ll let me do it if you and Ernie” – there’s another guy named Ernie used to work at the barbershop with me – “If y’all talk to my mother, she’ll let me do it.”
And one of the guys in the barbershop, one of the older fellas – Wolf – he was the one talked to Eddie’s mother for us. Well, I talked to her too. But he was the one, in the beginning, that tried to tell me that we should listen to this boy, this kid around the corner. ’Cause [Wolf] had a room at Eddie’s mother’s house.
MILLS: Billy Bass tells the story of a gig at the 20 Grand in Detroit. Berry Gordy was there with his whole family, his parents and his wife and his mistress and everybody else. And according to Billy Bass, you got naked and jumped on Berry’s table and said something like, “You can kiss my ass.”
CLINTON: No, naw, I ain’t do no kiss-no-ass. Naw, everybody tell those lies.
I was naked, probably. And I probably poured some wine over my head, then it dripped all down on my dick, and as I run across all the tables in there – I don’t know if Berry was there, but I know the family was there, and all his sisters – I would run up and down the tables, up the bar, and wine would drip down so everybody say it looked like I peed in everybody’s drink.
But I was too out-of-it to even know if I did it or not. I doubt it.
DAVID MILLS: We heard a story that you, as a kid, went into one of those record-your-own-record booths and did your own version of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”?
GEORGE CLINTON: No, it was “Sunday Kind of Love.” That was like the epitome of doo-wops. That was like the real doo-wop song….
[It was] the group, the first Parliaments. We played it for a few people. It showed up again somewhere around New York – those collectors? That’s how I found out about it.
MILLS: I can understand why you wanted to be a singer, but did you think you were a good singer?
CLINTON: I couldn’t sing for shit. (laughs) Couldn’t but one guy in the group harmonize....
I learned to write first. And then I was around Motown for a while. Especially after I got my own style and stopped worrying about singing – Bernie Worrell, who was like classical-trained, he said it’s more like acting. I was a producer so I know what out-of-tune is, but people started falling in love with the vibe that I was doing, so it was more like acting. Once I got comfortable with acting, then I actually could move on up and sing when I have to. But we got such good singers, I don’t have to sing.
MILLS: Among the five Parliaments, when y’all hit, who was the best? I love Calvin Simon’s singing. Was there a pecking order among yourselves?
CLINTON: Calvin could sing. It was all about what style was in at the time, know what I’m saying? By the time we made it, bands was in, so it was about bands. And Sly and them had made it, so it was about the young gospel sounds. So we used Eddie Hazel, Billy Nelson, Calvin, Fuzzy [Haskins] – but Eddie and them was out front ’cause they knew more about Sly and was young enough to interpret it. I bought ’em the records and they was able to interpret Jimi and Sly.
I always utilize whoever we have, whoever is there. Then when Glenn [Goins] came, who had sang with Eddie and Billy and them, when he came it was even deeper. I had learned how to use soulful singers much more. It’s hard to use a soulful singer because they always sound older. By the time we did “Mothership [Connection],” we knew how to use ’em to make ’em sound young.
Garry [Shider] sang like Calvin and Fuzzy, but he was younger. I could have used any one of ’em, really. But I could mold the younger ones much easier. Fuzzy and them grew up with me, so [they’d say] “Fuck you, I know what I’m doing. You… how you know?” They’re gonna wear me out for a hour before they, you know, do the part. So it was easier to mold the other ones.
LARRY ALEXANDER: When’s the first time you got over with the females because you could sing? When’s the first time you got some pussy because you could sing?
CLINTON: We did that before we got records! I mean, we was the baddest group around town, ’cause love songs was all the shit anyway. Matter of fact, that’s why I still like doo-wop, ’cause all that was about was grinding and getting pussy.
After we started making it a little bit, and we saw that the Temptations and Four Tops, all them had that shit sewed up, and doo-wop was gone for the most part, we had to come up with another – Crazy was our next [thing]. Coasters, the Contours, the Isley Brothers, that was our next thing that we was good at was clowning.
MILLS: Let’s talk about that. Because even in Plainfield, the Parliaments had a very distinctive stage presence.
CLINTON: Yeah, we was cool at first. And then every once in a while, when we used to sing fast songs, we was goofy. Played pregnant, played titties and wigs and shit like that, like the Coasters. So we had all of that covered. So when we had to change to Funkadelic, all we had to do was… turn the amps up real loud, put on some robes. All the white boys [were] into blues, into metaphysical type of thangs, and psychedelic was there, so we just went totally loony.
I guess when we took acid we really did get loony and didn’t know it, ’cause we was goofing for the most part. Even with the “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” dah-dah-dah. And then we realized that people was really into it.
I didn’t never want to be pretentious about shit, so I would always make sure I was being funny. ’Cause I wasn’t no guru, ’cause I’m still trying to get some pussy. I don’t want nobody taking me seriously like I ain’t. If you catch me smoking a joint, don’t fuck with me. A little acid or whatever, you know what I’m saying…
I mean, I’m surprised by a lot of the songs myself. I look back, “Damn, I wish I was like that.” ’Cause they come through you, they’re not necessarily you.
MILLS: Do you remember the first time you took acid?
CLINTON: I don’t remember the first time. I remember Fuzzy’s first time, ’cause he’s a serious-acting person for the most part, but he was goofy as fuck. Billy and all of them –
MILLS: Who hooked you up?
CLINTON: In Boston, everybody hooked you up – the teachers. We went around to schools, Harvard, MIT. Everywhere you went, teachers, everybody had it. Couple of times, we was test students, and we wasn’t even in schools. (laughs) Was out of school for years and we went around there volunteering for these tests –
MILLS: LSD experiments?
CLINTON: Yeah. They’d watch you for two or three hours.
MILLS: So was it in Boston –
CLINTON: Oh, Boston definitely was the first time. Then Toronto. Detroit. Then I stayed loony for three years.
I never thought it did anything for me musically. But a long time after I quit, I realized that it did make my tempo unlike most tempos out of Newark. The kids made you embarrassed to want to fight your wife, or be jealous, ’cause they were so “peace and love.” For that moment, everybody really meant it.
But they had to go back to work sooner or later. So soon as ’70 came, it was over. And Jimi, Janis and all them died – it was over.
MILLS: But you were a hippie for real. Did you go around barefoot?
CLINTON: For years. I wore a sheet and nothing else in the wintertime.
Then I started seeing the beat-up Hare Krishnas. They had turned the working-class people against hippies, because their son was in the war. So then it was dangerous to walk around wearing a vest that looked like a flag.
It didn’t take me but a minute to realize, “Okay, they done started callin’ ’em ‘Jesus freaks.’ It’s over.” Instead of hippies, it was the connotation on “Jesus freak” – it wasn’t quite nice. They didn’t say it harshly, but you could feel it. And pretty soon, the hard-hats would come off the buildings and jump on Hare Krishnas, who had already sung themselves into Loonyville with no drugs.
MILLS: Did you ever get fucked with in Detroit for being a hippie?
CLINTON: In Boston I did. An old man followed me around the store – it was a cop – and this little old lady was walking behind him, hitting him, “You leave him alone, he hasn’t done nothing.” I had a vest on that looked like a flag. Finally the store owner stood in between me and the other man, told him, “Robert, you don’t wanna do this, you don’t wanna get yourself into trouble,” and let me get out. So I left.
MILLS: We heard about a publicity stunt in Detroit – this must’ve been during the freak-out period – where you and Iggy Pop were supposed to get married?
CLINTON: We always [hung out with] the same “Bad Boys of Ann Arbor” crew. Amboy Dukes, Ted Nugent, and Iggy and the MC5. And we’d just bullshit, we would try to come up with all kind of ways – Alice Cooper was from there. So it was always about theatrics. Iggy said, “We ought to get married. That would make a nice crazy-ass story.” But Creem didn’t pick it up because they knew we was all goofing anyway.
ALEXANDER: So it didn’t go anywhere?
CLINTON: Naw, it didn’t go anywhere. It went further these last few years when people have heard it, since he’s got straighter, I’ve probably gotten straighter. People pay more attention to it now than they did back then.
MILLS: It was Iggy’s idea?
CLINTON: I think it was my manager’s idea, I think – Cholly Bassoline, who was really close to Iggy and all of them too. He just said it, I laughed about it, Iggy laughed about it. It was like, whatever you could do.
[TO BE CONTINUED]