Friday, February 16, 2007

Q&A: George Clinton (pt. 1)

George Clinton is the dominant creative influence of my life.

He hit his peak with Parliament and Funkadelic during my high-school years, and he redefined the sound of black radio. Even established jazz cats like Herbie Hancock, George Duke and Michael Henderson were trying to sound like P-Funk, to say nothing of up-and-comers like the Gap Band, Tom Browne and Rick James.

I can’t dance a lick. But Clinton’s jams – so sonically and conceptually thick – totally captured my imagination. Same was true for a generation of funk nerds who have carried a love and respect for Dr. Funkenstein into our middle age. George was a showman, shaman, satirist, satyr… and bona fide genius.

In the early ’90s, I published a fanzine called UNCUT FUNK. Only lasted three issues, but it yielded great dividends, because in 1996 I was approached by rock journalist Dave Marsh to write an “oral history” of George Clinton and P-Funk, part of Marsh’s “For the Record” paperback series. I took on three partners – Larry Alexander, Thomas Stanley and Aris Wilson – and between us we interviewed more than 40 musicians and singers in our quest to tell their untold story.

I had already interviewed George a couple of times over the years, going back to my college journalism days. Thomas Stanley had done a remarkable, history-spanning Q&A that formed the skeleton of our book. But by the summer of ’97, we had a few gaps in our narrative that only George could fill. One more interview was needed.

George Clinton at that point was well into his career renaissance as the black Jerry Garcia, with his “P-Funk All Stars” jam band blowing the minds of white college kids by the thousands. Without the major-label publicity machine that came with his earlier success, George would be harder to pin down for a chat. Plus we weren’t sure how George felt about us doing this book outside of his control. So me and my boys took one of George’s funky dictums to heart: “Whatever it takes. Whatever the party calls for.”

Thomas and Larry were in L.A. with me to carve through a ton of interview transcripts. Just so happened that Clinton was scheduled for an autograph signing at the Virgin Megastore in Hollywood. Now, given the rampant rumors concerning George’s… let us say “pharmacological dalliances,” an idea struck me: “If we stepped up to George and said, ‘We’ll give you $500 cash for a 30-minute interview, right now,’ he’d probably go for it.”

Thomas Stanley said: “Five hundred? Try $50.”

So we sprang into action… hit the ATM, figured out what questions to ask, etc. We stepped up to George at the Virgin Megastore and made our offer. George said, “Follow me to my hotel.”

We did, then I laid the $500 on him, and we got the interview we needed. Matter of fact, George had a show to do that night, so our time at the hotel was tight; we only got through 20 minutes when his handlers called it quits. George, being true to his word, agreed to do the final 10 minutes by phone after the gig. What follows is that interview from July 1997.

Speaking of pharmacological dalliances, there’s a bizarre interview with George Clinton in the February 2007 issue of GQ magazine (also online here), in which he talks frankly about his crack habit. He says he’s been smoking cocaine pretty much non-stop since 1980. “Something like crack, you can’t name five people that died from it,” George told Chris Heath, unashamed. “I don’t know nobody that ever died from it.”

Larry, Thomas and I dared not mention crack during our 30-minute sit-down. But George did acknowledge a nostalgic fondness for LSD. He may not be a role model for healthy living, but the man is a pop-culture legend, and this conversation was about delving deep into some fanboy shit, going all the way back to a high-school doo-wop group in Newark called the Parliaments (named, like many doo-wop groups, after a cigarette brand).

You might want to prepare your head by listening to a recording from the post-doo-wop, pre-funk, quasi-Motown period of the Parliaments, when they were based in Plainfield, N.J., and cutting records in Detroit. I’ve posted “A New Day Begins” (1969) on my Vox “music stash.” I invite you to check it out – George displays a surprisingly sweet singing voice – then check this out:
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.



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S.O.L. said...

Hey UBM, just knowing you is making me so much damn cooler. Thank you for upping my hipness quotient. Seriously, listening to that tune was awesome -- and the interview was crazy. Makes me wish I saved all those tapes from my J days. Keep them coming.

SJ said...

I think the first comment is spam...UBM I recommend turning on 'word verification' for your comments, it keeps the spam away. To see and example look at Alan Sepinwall's blog.

Anonymous said...

Awww, those word verification things are a bitch, I hope it won't come to that.

BTW, I'm guessing the title of your first teleplay to be filmed did not come from a contemporary Ice Cube song.

Dacks said...

I have that oral history of P-funk book - it's amazing! I bought it used, not expecting much from it considering the lo-budget artwork, but it is a superior music bio. I've lent it to many of my friends. Like all my favourite music books, it's more than just the music. It goes way beyond the craziness and image of P-Funk and into some extremely important social issues, highlighting the insight of so many of the players.
I hope when the P-Funk movie gets made that this is the source. Have you seen the Wax Poetics P-Funk issue? It's vital in the same way.
Glad to see this interview on your blog.

Undercover Black Man said...

S.O.L.: Having good taste in music as you do, check out the Vox service. It started a few months ago, and it's trying to be a combination of Blogger and MySpace. What I like about it is, they make it super-easy to upload digital music files. I'm barely computer literate, so I'm all about ease-of-use. I love sharing music, like millions of people, and Vox makes for a cool little annex for this blog.

SJ: I checked out Digital Flame. That's not spam, just another new blogger trying to spread the word... and he came to me, it seems, through a similar aesthetic sensibility. But I appreciate your recommendation. Believe me, at the first sign of genuine spam, I'll go that "word verification" thing.

ItAintEazy: Actually, for that "Homicide" ep., I kept my inner fanboy in check, and me and Simon titled that episode something else. ("The Shooter," I believe.) But I had sent boss Tom Fontana a cassette of "Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome" for some reason. And it was Tom who changed the title to "Bop Gun," much to my surprise and delight.

Dacks: So glad you dug the book. Some fans were lukewarm about it... like it only scratched the surface. Hey, it was intended to be the first word on P-Funk history, not the last word. I myself like the narrative flow of it. Certain musicians emerge as real characters ("Billy Bass" especially), and certain issues recur in different time periods...

Like you, I wish like hell a movie or miniseries about Parliament-Funkadelic will come to be. But I tried to get HBO interested, hot on the heels of "The Corner," and they weren't feeling the subject matter. I didn't even develop a full pitch... they didn't want to hear it.