George Clinton: America’s Funk Maestro at 80

The P-Funk founder is standing on the verge of getting it on once again with the announcement of new concert dates as well

Happy 80th Birthday, George Clinton! (Art: Ron Hart)

Bow wow wow yippie yo yippie yay, George Clinton, the ageless funkateer, has turned 80! 

I was pretty sure he’s retired, at least he was on a farewell tour in 2019, but, wait, on his website, lo and behold, there are three shows in September, with George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic. And I checked Ticketmaster and there are a couple of concert dates in December and January.

So, he’s pulling a Bowie/Cher/Elton John/The Who. God love him.

Clinton and I talked back in 1999, yes. on the verge of the millennium, when, you know, the computers were going to crash and the world come to either a standstill or an apocalyptic end. (Those were pretty much the only two choices, right?) 

What was Clinton planning on doing? 

Not fretting. In fact, doing what he did best. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, the Atomic Dog himself, was planning to be in Fiji, dressed in some outlandish, colorful garb, cavorting about a stage leading his 19-piece band, the P-Funk All-Stars, in a celebratory set of songs such as “Give Up the Funk,” “Maggot Brain,” and “Free Your Mind.” And at that point, he would have been working as a professional musician for parts of six decades. We can add two more now. That makes eight.

 

 

On the cover of one of his many albums, You Shouldn’t-nuf Bit Fish, George Clinton was pictured wide-eyed and open-mouthed and the text asked this: “Inspired madman or complete jackass?” I loved that he could see both sides of thus and ask us to think about it and he was probably OK with whatever side we came down on.

I asked: What was the key to maintaining the energy and interest over that long stretch of time? 

“Liking what you’re doing,” he said, simply, on the phone. “The energy becomes its own replenisher. If I ever get to the point [of thinking I can’t do this anymore] I try to think of the alternative and the alternative is real hard to think about. What am I gonna do 9-to-5? I go, `Hell, yeah, I can do this some more.’ I love it, it’s my job — I mean I get to go to work for play. I feel lucky.” 

Interjection: I once asked Lemmy the same question about age/retirement and he was gobsmacked by even the possibility: “What else am I gonna do? Host a fucking talk show?” he said.

Despite a massive trail of LPs behind him – in various guises – and thousands of gigs, Clinton hardly felt too old to rock ‘n’ roll or, if you will, funk. “I think it’s the other way around,” he said. “I think this makes you feel younger. Old is relative to how you think and feel. Even other guys in the group who’ve gotten older, I keep telling them all you have to do is think about playing four hours a show and you start losing weight.”

At the height of boring jamband mania, I wrote something to the effect of – P-Funk was the only jam band that mattered, cheekily echoing that of Epic Records boast about The Clash. But I meant it, too. These were deep psych-funk jams worth getting lost in, seeing where the many musicians might take it. I won’t say there wasn’t down time, but there were more than enough fireworks to stay the course.

I asked Clinton if his world was getting crazier or more sane? 

“I guess it’s probably getting more sane,” he said. I believe I detected a whiff of sadness. But then he brightened. “I gotta come up with a new craziness ’cause everybody’s catching up [with me]. I’m gonna move it into the sixth dimension!” 

You believe him. Keep in mind that sanity, especially his version of it, is relative. 

Clinton — a gent who sports many colors of hair, few of them natural, is a solo artist and the brain behind all sorts of groups including Parliament, Funkadelic, and the P-Funk All-Stars. Parliament began in the mid- ’50s as a doo-wop harmony vocal group; Funkadelic was a funk-rock machine kicked up in the late ’60s. Over time, they’ve also performed as Parliament-Funkadelic — think of them as an African-American Clark Kent/Superman act. 

Clinton has been touring for years with the P-Funk All-Stars comprised of Parliament-Funkadelic players. In his bio of the time, Clinton listed his job title thus: Lead vocals, band referee, galaxy traffic cop. In concert, his band generally would play three to four hours. During some of that time, Clinton is onstage, the ringleader. Other times, he says, “I go out in the audience and check it out for myself. Then, I go `Damn, it’s fun being up there,’ and then I go back on stage.”

 

VIDEO: Parliament-Funkadelic Live in Houston, TX 1976

He also goes off-stage to rest or watch, whatever. There was one show I saw at big club in Boston where I had side-stage access, so I watched some of it there. There was, as always, lots of action on stage, but I couldn’t spot Clinton. Not that it mattered. His mates were. Clinton came up and stood for a spell, talked to me, leaving the merry mayhem to his mates. 

“I figure 1 1/2 hours is pretty much what anybody else would give you, we give you the basic stuff, stuff you know,” Clinton said, of concert length. “That is for the people. Then we play another two hours, like George Clinton bonus tracks, and we are going to do whatever we want here. That is for us. We sing anything we feel like singing. almost like a newspaper trying to get the news out.” 

A big positive factor at a Clinton show is the way the audience tends to come together. There is often a near-equal mix of blacks and whites, and the vibe on the dance floor is warm. “That is the reason we do what we do,” says Clinton, “to make it one nation under a groove.” 

His music has been a favorite source of sampling by hip-hoppers; his funk style is the blueprint for virtually anyone out there playing in that field. His songs can be silly; they can be profound; they can be a mix of the two. 

“It has to be funny,” Clinton said. “If it was not funny, you would go crazy for real and you would end up as fucked up as the people you’re singing about. You would be so pissed off, you would end up as bad as they are.” 

We got to talking about Dope Dogs, an album from 1998. 

There were a lot of nefarious characters on Dope Dogs, where most of the songs use dogs both as central characters and metaphors for the human condition. Why dogs? 

“Because we basically are animals ourselves,” said Clinton, “and we tend to think that [being human] separates us from that. Dogs are supposed to be our best friends, but we also use them as the epitome of what you wanna do to somebody when you don’t like ’em — you dog ’em out. It’s a weird relationship we have with dogs. Some people love ’em to death, spend a fortune on ’em to keep ’em alive, and bury them richly. Some people eat ’em, a weird thing to do with man’s best friend. When I saw people use them as drug dogs, after they’re done using them. . .. they’re so strung out from their habits. They have dogs in laboratories where they test chemicals.” 

For all the nasty situations worked through in the songs, Clinton leaves you feeling uplifted. “To me,” he says, “everything will be all right by Thursday. That’s what I always tell myself.” 

 

 

 

Coda: Let me take you back in time, 1989, a Boston rock club called The Channel, home to bands of multiple genres from punk to reggae to rap to hard rock to hardcore to funk to metal to, hell, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.

On this particular night, George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars were playing. I was covering it for the Boston Globe and there was, to be honest, a bit of trepidation in the air. See, last time Clinton and company played the area, at a venue north of Boston a few years prior, I was not there, but my Globe colleague Steve Morse was and reported on it. 

Steve recalls: “It was at the Danvers Ice Arena. It was a Frank Russo-promoted concert back in the days when he met a lot of resistance bringing in any shows in Don Law’s Boston region, so Frank mostly booked black acts in Providence. [Don Law was Boston’s major concert promoter; Frank Russo his main rival. There was no love lost.] The show was way oversold and I was mugged on the floor by some black kids who held me down and ripped my wallet right out of my pants. Also, a local resident who was upset with people parking on his property up the street came into the lobby brandishing a gun, but he fortunately left. It all ended up being a front-page story.”

There was, evidently, some rampant running amok about the neighborhood, as I recall.

 

VIDEO: George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic Detroit, MI August 26, 1989

Here I was in 1989, taking a look around the club, and, yes, the audience composition was indeed about 50-50 black-white. Boston’s racial rep, ever a mixed-bag and in the national eye, often negative, was in play. This was the first P-Funk gig since they played since that incident. This night, there was a friendly vibe, but people seemed a bit nervous too, at least before the band started and we realized we were all one nation under a groove.

The situation: I was standing in line at a back bar, not far from the loo. Tightly packed crowd. A guy aggressively pushed past, knocking me into the man in front of me who happened to be black. He quickly spun around. Because I thought he might think I had jostled him on purpose, I let loose with a string of off-the-cuff mea culpas and, simultaneously, he did the same thing, thinking somehow maybe he was at fault. We paused, realizing how ultra-sensitive and ultra-polite we were both trying to be, so careful not to touch off any racial conflict, between us, or heaven forbid, to spark something between others. And then we had the biggest laugh and high five. One nation, y’all.

 

VIDEO: P-Funk–One Nation Under A Groove (documentary)

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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