It’s half-past midnight on Tuesday (48 hours before deadline), and I’ve just spent the last three-plus hours intermittently speaking with two harried desk clerks and one vaguely flustered public-relations person at the Vacation Village Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The reason? I want to talk to the Prez. To Dr. Funkenstein. To the Grand Master of Funk.
Yes, the Funkiest of All Funksters is in the building, I’m assured for about the 10th time by one of the by-now-vaguely-hostile desk clerks, who suddenly feels compelled to add, “Good luck finding him.”
And yes, we did have a telephone interview tentatively scheduled for several hours ago. But the key word here is tentative (as everything surely is speculative with this colorfully coiffed music icon). Take a look at the photo on the right, and then ask yourself: Could you keep tabs on this man?
In case you’ve been orbiting planet Earth — with no meaningful contact — for the past 40 years, I’m talking about George Clinton, the intergalactic force behind Parliament, Funkadelic and both bands’ present-day sonic offspring, the P-Funk All Stars. Funk, of course, is that practically indescribable polyrhythmic marriage of tribal beats, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and cosmic cacophonies seemingly derived from another planet — music you have to feel to believe.
Clinton — born in Kannapolis, N.C. in the 1940s (his mother and sister still live in Greensboro) and transplanted to New Jersey when he was one year old — began singing in sixth grade and began his official musical career, as a doo-wop singer for a band called the Parliaments, while working as a hairdresser in a New Jersey barbershop. By the late 1950s, Clinton had found his raunchy, funkified voice and founded Parliament (no “s”), and then Funkadelic in the late ’60s. The ’70s trumpeted the heyday of Clinton & Company, with such albums (under both the Parliament and Funkadelic banners) as One Nation Under a Groove, The Mothership Connection and Up for the Down Stroke and such hit singles as “Atomic Dog,” “Maggot Brain” and “The Mothership Connection.” Clinton went on to become the driving force behind Bootsy’s [as in Collins] Rubber Band, the Horny Horns, the Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet and, finally, the P-Funk All Stars. In 1976, Clinton launched his famous Mothership Tour — replete with a gargantuan spaceship (which P-Funk has recently resurrected for a few select dates), a wacky cast of mythological characters such as “Starchild” and “Dr. Nose,” and myriad elaborate special effects. In 1996, Clinton released The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership, on the 20th anniversary of The Mothership Connection, to critical acclaim.
So it’s Wednesday at approximately 8 p.m. (a little over 24 hours before deadline), and I receive a phone call from Clinton’s p.r. person, Marcy Guiragossian, fresh off a plane from Vegas. The Prez, she says, will speak to me in an hour from his Orlando hotel room –though according to Guiragossian, he vaguely recollects being interviewed by a woman from Asheville last night, “although he may have been hallucinating.”
On that decidedly Clintonesque note, what follows are some highlights from a long conversation with a man whose personal motto is, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow” — a surprisingly sweet man who also likes to fish and hang out with his grandkids, and who expresses surprise that he’s still a sex symbol at age 56.
MX: I want to start out by asking you what question you’re most tired of journalists asking you?
GC: Believe it or not, I don’t get tired of being asked any questions, because when you don’t have a hit record out at the moment, it’s your only means of communication with the public. I’m real good at explaining the funk, and I don’t get tired of it. … And there’s enough new people interested in it that it’s worth letting everyone know how the songs were first done, because the hip-hoppers done made it popular again in a different way.
MX: Speaking of that, how do you feel about Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice-T, all those hip-hop guys, just blatantly using your music in their recordings?
GC: I like it, because it means there’s a fresh set of people interested in it, and then I get a chance to explain the music. … The hardest question, though, the one I have to be on my toes about most, is “What is funk?”
MX: So what is funk, to you?
GC: I say it’s a state of mind that will save your life. That’s what funk is. If you want to commit suicide, whatever, I think funk will save you. It’s about letting go of the things that bog you down. You do the best you can, and you just let go. That’s true in life and true in music. … And funk — or even blues or rock ‘n’ roll — sure, they can be intricate and deep, but if you don’t look at it that way, you can just let go. Like with jazz musicians, they can be in different keys in the same song, and it works. It can be totally wrong musically, but as long as the rhythm’s there, it works.
MX: Maybe that’s part of what makes funk so universally appealing. I mean, you feel it viscerally. It goes beyond what the actual songs are or how well they’re played. Do you think that’s the biggest appeal?
GC: Yeah. I mean, you can look at it as kind of simple, real simple music. But you can’t overthink it. You just need to feel it. It’s sort of like makin’ love. You have to get your mind out of the way and just go with the groove. I mean, you can’t completely discount intellect, you can’t just be totally instinctive, because you get in trouble that way, too. … But it can sure take you part of the way, and you have to help yourself with the other part. Funk is one of the cheapest ways to get your head together. It’s a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist. … You talk it out through the music.
MX: What do you think of all these young white boys who, in the last five years or so, have suddenly jumped on the funk bandwagon. It seems like every other young band bills itself as funk-oriented, and they usually don’t cut it at all.
GC: That’s always been happening, though. I mean, rock ‘n’ roll is just fast funk. Blues is slow funk. It’s an earthy way to communicate. Hell, I don’t have a problem with anybody who wants to play it. … It’s an earthy vibe with musicians hanging loose and improvising and not being too slick, but being free enough to be as slick as you want to be. Don’t let intellect get in the way of it. It’s like I always say, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” I call funk “philosloppical.”
MX: Philosloppical: Ilike that. Didn’t you start out doing doo-wop type stuff?
GC: Oh, yeah. Doo-wop was always big with the girls. Doo-wop songs are the best love songs in the world.
MX: Well, how did you make the jump from that kind of slick harmony to the more edgy stuff?
GC: Well, [slick R&B and the Motown sounds] were everywhere in the late ’50s, when I was starting out. White groups were copying black groups’ versions of white music. … Anyway, I wanted to come up with something different, something that didn’t have so much competition.
MX: So what kind of music, or which groups, influenced you most in the early days of Parliament and Funkadelic?
GC: Kind of the Detroit sound — MC5, Iggy Pop, the Amboy Dukes. … Then we just moved into futuristic, psychedelic, nonsensical stuff. The Beatles — we loved the Beatles. The Beatles and Sly, those were the most definite influences of mine. Sly especially. And when I got to New York, I kind of picked from everybody’s concepts. Street music. Phil Spector-type stuff. Everything.
MX: It’s so cool that your granddaughter, Shonda Clinton, is playing with you guys. What’s that like for you?
GC: I love it. She’s up on what’s happening with the new hip-hoppers, and that way, I can keep up with what’s going on in that realm.
MX: Well, I’m sure she grew up listening to your music, but at the same time, she brings in all these fresh influences.
GC: It’s kind of funny. She’d never listened our music until here lately. She’d learned our music from hearing the hip-hoppers do samplings of it. One thing about my kids and my grandkids is, to them, it was just dad’s or granddad’s work. They didn’t get all into the music.
MX: How many kids do you have, by the way?
GC: [Laughs] Oh, we don’t need to get into that. But like I said, my kids never were excited about my music until my daughter, she was in college, and her girlfriends would say, “Mmmm, girl. Your dad is hot.” So she started to pay attention. Same with my grandkids.
MX: I have to say, I have a really hard time imagining you as a granddad.
GC: I think my grandkids do, too. They call me “Grand-dude.”
MX: That kind of brings me to another question about your whole stage persona and where the real you is in all that. I mean, everybody pretty much thinks of you as this really wild person — to say the least. I want to know how close that crazy stage persona is to George Clinton, the man.
GC: Well, I’m lazy as hell. I love to go fishin’. I’d do it every day, if I could. I get bored as hell around the house, except when I’m playing music. But I overdo the stage character so far — go so far overboard — that I get enough of a charge onstage that I can leave it there and go live my life. Keep my life private.
MX: What do you think would surprise people most about the real you?
GC: Everything. See, people don’t know nothin’ about me, really. I mean the real close fans understand what the stage stuff is all about, and the differences between me and it, but somebody new to my music is not going to get it. I think a lot of people think I still do all the drugs in the world, have all the sex in the world. But I’m 56 years old. There’s only so much of any of it that I can do at this point in my life. [Laughs]
MX: Where did your fascination with the whole spaceship/alien stuff come from? I read somewhere that you and Bootsy [Collins] actually saw a UFO one time.
GC: Yeah, we did, but that was after the record that really set the space stuff in motion [1976’s The Mothership Connection]. I originally got interested in the space stuff because I thought, where’s a place you wouldn’t expect to find a black person? Then I thought: on a spaceship. … Anyway, Bootsy and I were in Canada, and we were driving along and we both saw this weird light coming towards us. But I didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything to me at the time. And then we kept driving a little ways, and I said, “Did you see that, too?” And he was like, “Yeah. What was it?” Then later, we were driving on the same block on the other side of the street, and that light came right down through the trees and hit the car we was in. It seemed like mercury from a thermometer, and it just rolled over and off the car. It was bright gold. The street lights were blinking on and off, and we didn’t see any lights for 10 or 15 blocks ahead, and there were no more cars anywhere on the street. And we didn’t talk about it. We just got out of there. But a few years later, I started hearing people talk about missing time — you know having blocks of time that just kind of disappeared. And I remembered the weirdest thing about seeing that light for the very first time was that it was in the daylight and after the light went over the car and we were driving away it was dark and it was only about a 5 minutes distance.
MX: Do you think you were abducted?
GC: Who knows? It was a weird thing. And it was really weird because we’d just finished that album, The Mothership Connection. We’d literally finished it two or three weeks before, and we was goin’ fishing to celebrate.
MX: I think it’s pretty funny that you guys are picking up a lot of the Grateful Dead following. Aren’t Deadheads all over the place at your shows? What do you think they find in your music?
GC: I think it’s the fact that we do those long-ass shows, 3 or 4 hours, and go into those long, long improvisational jams, like the Dead used to do. Anybody who’s into kind of doing the cult following thing has always been attracted to us. The Deadheads are really hungry for someone to follow now and dance around to. … I think people all like to dance. And that’s what we’re about. Hell, we ain’t got no aversion to playing disco, even, if it’ll get people to dance.
MX: What kind of music do you listen to at home?
GC: Anything and everything. But what I listen to most is public radio, ’cause they’ll play anything at any given time. And I get influenced by all that I hear. I don’t copy it — I just appreciate it, and it finds its way into my stuff. … We can learn from every kind of music. Don’t rule anything out. More, to me, is always better. And the more musical sounds you learn to appreciate, the more the sounds of the real world don’t get on your nerves, you know. Because the more that noise can be made something to appreciate, instead of getting mad about, the better off you are living in this world.
MX: Why did you decide to take on all these characters — Dr. Funkenstein, whatever — instead of just straight-out playing music as yourself?
GC: Oh, once I realized that you get old and un-sexy. [But] characters don’t get old — Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck — you know what I’m saying. What’s really funny is now I’m kind of still a sex symbol to 18- and 19-year-old people, and I’m 56. They think of me as sexy, because I represent a good time, you know. And I think it’s because I do the larger-than-life characters, instead of just me gettin’ up there.
MX: You don’t think people would find you sexy if you were just yourself onstage? I’m not so sure about that.
GC: No, it’s the freak factor. And a good time is to be had whenever we come around. All of that makes for people sayin’, “Hey, they’re pretty cool. I’d like to party with them.” It’s funny as hell. I ain’t gonna get out there and believe all that s••t about myself, the sex symbol s••t. It’s funny, though.
MX: You said you like to fish. What other hobbies do you have? What do you like to do when you have some time on your hands?