Interview with George Clinton (1996)

What’s in a title? The essence of legend.

Think Aretha Franklin: the First Lady of Soul. Or her counterpart, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul. Or Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song. Or even George Clinton: The Grandfather of Funk . . .

The Grandfather of Funk?

“Yeh, I got one of my grand-daughters goin’ up there with me on stage now,” the legendary 56-year old groovemaster admits with a chuckle during a recent phone interview. “Plus I got three sons in the business now, too. Makes it even more like a family affair now than it ever has been.”

Which is saying a lot, given the knotty musical family tree required to document Clinton’s incestuous funk mob over its forty year history. The current cast of survivors will be making a stop at the Palace Theatre Saturday night under the moniker “P-Funk All Stars”–but Clinton and cohorts have also worked groovy as Parliament, freed their minds as Funkadelic, made the music go bounce as Bootsy’s Rubber Band, explored their feminine sides as the Brides of Funkenstein, blown nasty as the Horny Horns and touched literally thousands of recordings as session-men, producers, singers, songwriters and (most of all) inspirations.

And way, way back in 1955, they even sang soulful doo-wop. That was the year the young George Clinton founded his first singing group, the Parliaments, in an attempt to fill the time between his commitments to the Outlaws (a street gang) and Newark, New Jersey’s Uptown Tonsorial Parlor (the barbershop where he worked). While the Parliaments recorded their first single in 1958, it was not until 1967 that the Motown-clone “(I Just Wanna) Testify” earned Clinton and fellow singers Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas and Ray Davis their first minor chart action.

“Testify” was also the last recording credited to the Parliaments. When a conflict with Revilot Records precluded the ensemble from using that name, Clinton and company adopted the name of their live backing band (Funkadelic) and set out to get their “new” act signed to another label. The ploy worked: Funkadelic earned themselves a contract with Armen Boladian’s Westbound Records shortly before they won back the rights to the Parliaments name. Never ones to pass on a business opportunity, Clinton’s singers dropped their “s” and signed to Holland- Dozier-Holland’s Invictus label as Parliament, beginning a decade long dual existence for the same core group of performers.

“When people used to ask us what the difference was between the groups, we’d always tell them that Funkadelic was the guitar and rock side of the house and Parliament was for the singers and the horns,” recalls Clinton. “But stuff was always crawlin’ over into the other side–and it was really about just makin’ sure we had two paychecks comin’ in the early days.”

Interestingly, the sounds produced during those early days of the Parliament-Funkadelic empire couldn’t have been further from the smooth soul of “Testify”. “Everybody in the group had different stuff that they wanted to do,” Clinton explains. “An’ they all got to play it, ’cause we developed a style that was basic in some ways but really deep in others. I mean, we saw Jimi Hendrix playin’ the blues, just puttin’ a lotta effects on it. We saw James Brown vampin’ and groovin’ and takin’ it to the bridge an’ back. We saw all the Motown stuff that was just as sophisticated as it could possibly get. An’ then there was Traffic and King Crimson an’ groups that played jazz an’ classical things a rock setting. An’ the singers was into, like, gospel while I was into tight vocals an’ parts that I pushed that to the max. [Guitarist] Tawl [Ross], he was into Iggy Pop and all that stuff that turned into punk.

“So I’d just always remember to throw all of that stuff into the mix to confuse people, so they’d say ‘Well, they really must know what they doin” when all we was tryin’ to do was to get all our talent to come out in the middle of all that chaos,” Clinton continues. “An’ when we got chaotic, we really got chaotic, like on [Funkadelic’s 1970 album] Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, man, it’s like lunatic on there! I mean, we did that album in like one and half days, we just jammed it and put all kinda goofy shit in it and mixed it. And that was that!”

While Clinton and crew were certainly keeping their ears open for new sounds in the early ’70s, they were also taking their own advice to “Free Your Mind” to heart. “I think I’m lucky to have survived that time,” Clinton admits. “I don’t remember a lot about it, but I survived. An’ y’know, we were all like the most unlikely people to take acid an’ all that stuff, ’cause we were like from Newark, in the barber shop, an’ we was older an’ we thought we was just too cool for all of that.

“So we figured we’d just take advantage of the good situation the younger ones had with all their free love and no guilt and heavy drugs–but we ended up pretty much like that ourselves!” Clinton laughs before continuing. “An’ it’s a good thing, too, ’cause we was really lame like a motherfucker before then. I mean, we really hated to be corny around all those real young kids back then, so we snuck out of the corny shit and just kinda creeped into the cool shit–an’ they thought we was cool all the while!”

In time, those mind-blowing exercises took their inevitable toll on the ever-growing funk mob: guitarists Eddie Hazel and Glen Goins and drummers Tiki Fulwood and Tyrone Lampkin all ultimately died of lifestyle complications while guitarist Tawl Ross became the Syd Barrett of funk after ingesting a near-lethal cocktail of acid and speed. By the early ’80s, the funk mothership seemed to have finally crashed to the ground under the weight of its own excesses and the growing acrimony among the charter funkateers over rights and royalties.

“Most people think it was over then,” Clinton recalls. “But the ’80s was just the time for us to rest anyway in accordance with the planned obsolescence theory. An’ I know plenty of people put their interpretations on what happened then, but the band was never really at each others’ throats or anything. I mean, we went to court a couple a times with different fellah and it was like we’d meet in the bathroom an’ I’d say to Grady and Fuzzy an’ them ‘Man, y’all up there lying your asses off!’ an’ they was like ‘So give us a joint, man, huh? We know you can afford it.’

“An’ the truth was that didn’t surprise me at all. I mean, I grew up with these guys–so at the end of the trial when the judge say ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no partnership in the ownership of the mothership’, they busted out fuckin’ laughin’! Y’know, so the money I spent on the lawyers, I coulda given that to them an’ been done with it that way.” Clinton spent most of the ’80s expanding his legend via intermittent solo albums and production jobs before finally reassembling the funk mob as the P-Funk All Stars and taking the groove out on the road again to share their three- and four-hour long sets with a new generation of audiences. The All Stars have also finally gotten around to issuing some new recorded product: a collaborative single with the Dazz Band called “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Jam” provided a sneak preview of the forthcoming album Live and Kickin’, which is scheduled for release the week after the Palace show.

This past spring, the extended Parliament-Funkadelic family also gathered in Cleveland for a particularly special gig: their mass induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Y’know, as sweet as that gig was, it was even sweeter for us to be backstage singin’ doo-wop with the Rascals,” Clinton marvels. “That was the shit, ’cause we all grew up in the same projects an’ we was back there goin’ ‘Remember that? Remember that? Remember this?’ I mean, that was probably one of the highlights of my career, ’cause back when we was doin’ our music the first time, we was doin’ it between gang fights! Which was cool, ’cause when we had a show, the fights was called off an’ everybody remembered that.”

So did Clinton ever dream back in those street-fighting, barbershop singing days that he’d still be everybody’s Uncle Jam all these years later? “Oh yeah,” he answers without a pause. “I had planned to stay here before I ever got here!”

Blue Öyster Cult, Blotto (Corning Preserve, Albany, New York, July 18, 1996)

Dinosaur bands are often most effective when their members are self-aware enough to know that they’re playing dinosaur music — but are also smart enough to not let you know that they know it. ’70’s vets Blue Öyster Cult began to achieve dinosaur self-actualization around 1980-81, when they issued the aptly titled Cultosaurus Erectus, embarked on the Black and Blue Tour with the freshly de-Ozzied Black Sabbath, had “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” featured in Heavy Metal, and worked “Burnin’ for You” into the Top 40. The Cult then groped for awhile (losing their original rhythm section in the process) before issuing their “twenty years in the making” concept album, Imaginos, and hitting the Heavy Metal Preservation Society circuit — without ever letting on that they knew they were pimping black-leather nostalgia.

BOC’s play-anywhere ethos brought them to the Corning Preserve last Thursday for what Mayor Jennings lauded as the best attended show in Alive at Five history; a truly staggering number of people turned out to eat fried dough and hear what the Cult had to play and say. (The “say” part is nominally significant as many of BOC’s lyrical horror-shows were penned by “serious” outsiders, including journalists Richard Meltzer and Sandy Pearlman, Jim Carroll and Patti Smith). The Cult didn’t disappoint. They played their AOR staples, tossed out a new song to keep nostalgia-pointers at bay, and generally worked their metal-blues-stomp thing just as it needed to be worked.

Buck Dharma’s stun guitar remains BOC’s center-piece. His keening presto-pizzicato lead lines vivisected Allan Lanier’s slush-tone barrelhouse organ on “Buck’s Boogie”, while a brain-lesion-inducing guitar-harmonica duet (with Willie Nelson-sideman Mickey Raphael) during “Dr. Music” could have caused a major fish-kill had the PA been pointed toward the Hudson. Lanier also donned an axe to make intermittent three-guitar stew with Dharma and vocalist-guitarist Eric Bloom; the twitch-inducing 18-string “OD’ed on Life Itself” provided the afternoon’s heaviness high point. Overall, seeing BOC live in 1996 was akin to swimming with a coelocanth: Both are weird as hell, but it’s strangely thrilling to go face-to-face with a fully-functional living fossil in its own environment.

Blotto’s sorta-annual get-together recreated 1983’s Blot and Blue tour (coda to the aforementioned Black and Blue . . . heck, wouldn’t you want to hang out with Blotto too, after a year on the bus with the Sabs?). Blotto’s set rollicked and reeled from Lee Harvey Blotto’s boss opening Maui-beats on “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” all the way through the never-ending-jerk-off false fadeouts during closer “Metalhead”. The filling was just as tasty as the cookies: Bowtie Blotto belted “It’s Not You (It’s Your Family I Can’t Stand)”, Sarge Blotto provided a great dramatic reading of “My Baby’s the Star of a Driver’s Ed Movie”, Broadway Blotto lent a creeping-surf lead to “The Munsters” and Cheese Blotto held down the bottom end with energetic elan throughout. It was fun. It sounded great. It should happen more often.

Concert Review: Madball, Dying Breed, Politics of Contraband, Dissolve (1996)

Madball, Dying Breed, Politics of Contraband, Dissolve
Bogie’s (Albany, New York), July 13, 1996

Page from a tattered notebook found floating at the mouth of a backed-up Albany sewer:

Storm Chaser Log Book, Saturday, July 13, 7:30 PM: As the last dregs of Hurricane Bertha scuttle through Albany, an isolated pocket of turbulence segregates itself from the ambient rankness and begins to organize on Ontario Street.

8:30 PM: Bogie’s opens its door, creating a strong inversion that sucks the turbulent pocket through a narrow frontal boundary, thereby increasing both its temperature and its pressure. As the saturated turbulent force vectors into the lower pressure region beyond Bogie’s portal, it expands rapidly, throwing off thunder and moisture. The surging mass crashes into Bogie’s back wall, folds upon itself and begins to spin. Heavy weather brewing.

9:30 PM: Upgrade this strong system to Urban Depression status and name it: Hardcore. Dissolve (who lost a van to Bertha while chasing that storm up from Poughkeepsie) begin to test Bogie’s waters. Their hiccup-rhythm Metalli-core is filled with unresolved chord structures that add to the ozone-ripe air of unease. As Dissolve wraps up, a strong storm surge flows from the sweltering pit to the better ventilated area near the bar. There must be a water shortage, as the frenzied locals are resorting to more expensive grain-based beverages. Poor souls. This will only enhance their dehydration.

10:30 PM: The thrill-seeking Politics of Contraband haul their gear into the maelstrom, just as the crowd-surfers and stage divers arrive to challenge fate by blindly flinging themselves through the pilings, piers and lighting structures surrounding the ever-deepening pit. Hardcore (now clearly an Urban Storm) begins to howl back at Politics of Contraband as microphones are turned toward the spinning mass, capturing its relentless freight-train rumble.

11:30 PM: Dying Breed offer a beacon through the smoky mire: A bright purple bass guitar, played with enough post-grind precision and fervor to send Slayer’s Tom Araya back to his tablature charts, puzzled. Definitely Hurricane Hardcore now; the air is thick and soupy, barely breathable, rancid. Dying Breed relish and cultivate the chaos before them, exhorting the storm upward, outward, forward. The storm responds to their necromancy by flinging objects (mainly bodies) over the security sandbags separating Dying Breed from oblivion. Dying Breed choose oblivion. Storm surge. Blackout.

12:30 AM, Sunday: Madball prove themselves masters of the elements by demonstrating their style before the now Category-Four Hurricane. Substitute drummer Walter Ryan sits in for regular Will Shepler, who’s weathered-in at New York City; Ryan and bassist Hoya click like a pair of Siamese rhythm twins, laying down a thunderous bottom that singer Freddy Cricien and guitarist Matt Henderson decorate with gale-force high-end roar. Between head-first dives into the abyss, Cricien stomps and rants through the tempest like a tattooed Old Testament prophet–preaching racial tolerance, love for family (biological and otherwise) and self-respect to the hard-luck locals. It’s emotionally energizing to hear such strong positive messages being offered to people who may not have the opportunity to hear them anywhere else. Moments like this make storm-chasing worthwhile; blue sky Chablis events just don’t vibrate the soul as effectively. I step out to follow Cricien into the eye of Hurricane Hardcore. I am ready . . .

Furthur Festival ’96

The Furthur Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center (Saratoga Springs, New York)
July 6, 1996
(Originally published in Metroland).

When I arrived at SPAC Saturday, I received a fly-bill that plotted the Furthur Festival’s scheduled events. I didn’t pay it much mind, assuming “structure” would be an optional menu item at this outgrowth from the Grateful Dead’s amorphous tribal gatherings — but give the Festival’s logisticians some tie-dyed kudos, because Furthur’s acts swept along in perfect consonance with the written schedule’s apparently immutable sidereal tick-marks. (Too bad the same couldn’t be said of the automotive melting pot on Route 9.)

Samba Nova (a conga-bonking line with dancers) warmed the early crowd with their Brazilian hip-swivel-lubricating music. Hot Tuna then hit the stage with their whaling electric blues- based offerings: Material ranged from traditional country-gospel numbers through songs from singer/guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s solo albums and then back to Kaukonen’s and bassist Jack Casady’s days with Jefferson Airplane via an ardent rip on “Embryonic Journey”. And call me crazy, but the rounding, greying, sunglasses-wearing Kaukonen looked eerily like a certain late, nine-and-a-half-fingered guitarist when you squinted with smoke in your eyes. Or at least ardent audients around me seemed to think so.

John Wesley Harding was doomed to failure-by-contrast when he hit the still Tuna-stinky stage; the pavilion audience fled for the Vending Village during his set. Los Lobos were next on the bill with a blend of blues, rock, folk and whatever else struck their fancy. The crowd remained low-key (still anaesthetized by Harding?) until Los Lobos got the day’s first full-scale stand-and-shout response by closing with the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha”. It was unsettling to see their originals get short-shrift in favor of that cover, but give them credit for doing a transcendent job on a song so closely associated with that dead Dead guy.

Alvin Youngblood Hart took the next solo acoustic set; his blues were more interesting than Harding’s Billy Bragg Lite (i.e. only half of the pavilion audience vanished). Bruce Hornsby followed Hart onstage with his massive piano and a guitar-free backing band. You could still hear Hornsby’s lounge roots: he writes and works hooks like nobody’s business, has a great penchant for pushing audiences’ pleasure buttons and is a tremendous interpretive improviser. He could have really worked some magic with a nimble-fingered (if not nimble-footed) chunk-style lead guitarist on his team. Didn’t the Grateful Dead have a guy like that once?

And speaking of the Grateful Dead: drummer Mickey Hart and guitarist Bob Weir offered the evening’s final sets (interspersed with performances by the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers) with two very different spins on how to go Furthur beyond their prior Long Strange Gig. Hart’s Mystery Box featured a “Who’s Who in Drums” line-up augmented by the (usually) a capella vocal sextet, Mint Juleps. The band sounded like Sweet Honey in the Rock fronting Tangerine Dream until Hart moved into front-man land with spoken-word delivery of some Robert Hunter poesy. (Hart won Mystery Box’s biggest audience response when he rapped about seeing some dead guys named Jack and John and Jerry. Wonder what that was all about?) Hart’s vocals annoyed at first blush, but his enthusiastic delivery won me over by the time Mystery Box’s set ended with a Weir-fortified “Fire on the Mountain.” Go, Mickey! Go!

Weir’s new gig is standard-blues-delivery-unit Ratdog, with bassist Rob Wasserman, ex-Primus drummer Jay Lane, piano legend Johnnie Johnson and harmonicat Matthew Kelly. It looked great on paper, but the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts; the only fireworks came during “Cassidy” (with Hornsby subbing for Johnson) and Wasserman’s solo run through “St. Stephen”, “Amazing Grace” and “The Star Spangled Banner”. Ratdog’s nostalgia revue segued into a jam outro where all-star permutations of the Festival’s acts beat-up stock bar-band favorites like “Gloria”, “The Weight” and “Satisfaction”. This probably would have been a fine ending for a regional blues fest — but it disappointed when you were expecting one last stab at invoking the restless hairy ghost who seemed to provide focus for prior sets. Oh well . . . at least the jam session ended right at the scheduled time.