One morning at 5 a.m. on the funky farm: sputter – sputter – zang – boom – crash. Strange sounds are emanating from the hall. A few minutes later George Clinton stands in the living room: “Damn, not even 4000 points! When I’m that bad, I know that it’s time to quit. Good night!” A last disappointed look at the Galaxian video game, and Clinton disappears into the bedroom. In the neighborhood the first cocks are crowing.
A few hours earlier at Detroit airport: When George Clinton picks me up in the arrival hall, quite a few people are turning their heads. Somehow he doesn’t fit in here, into the crowd of bustling briefcase types and suitcase-dragging tourists. What the airport folks think of him doesn’t matter to Clinton. That’s because he doesn’t play a role, he is the way he looks – what you see is what you get.
George Clinton is funk music’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: About 50 miles out of Detroit a metamorphosis happens – Dr. Funkenstein, the workaholic who is busy in three Detroit studios at the same time, changes into George, the playful kid.
He starts to get restless when he thinks about all the adventures that are waiting for him at home on the farm: The Galaxian game invites to thrilling battles with invaders from outer space, races can be held on the floor with a fleet of toy cars, and when it gets too confined in the inside at one in the morning, he can work off his energies on a cross-country ride on the Honda three-wheeler.
“I just have a cartoon brain,” says Clinton who approaches his music with the same witty playfulness. His albums are like Cracker-Jack boxes: You never know what you’ll get, but you can be sure that there are going to be only very few disappointments and all the more nice surprises.
“Inspired madman or complete jackass?”, an English music paper once asked. Does he actually want to be taken seriously? A deep drag from one of the ever-present special cigarettes, and he replies: “I don’t care. If you approach something too seriously people can figure you out too easily, and soon they’re not interested in you anymore. At this point you’re over the hill. I prefer to be a constant creative nuisance!”
Clinton is controversial and commercial at the same time. His current hit album R&B SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET puts a finger on several sore spots of the black music scene. In the title song Clinton turns against certain black crossover artists who take their bleached sounds so far into pop music that they can’t return to their roots any more (“They’re crossing over and can’t get black”).
Which of course will never happen to the heavy funk of our man from Detroit. With suggestive hints at hamburger commercials, freaked-out backwards bass, hot trumpet blasts and a mighty computer beat the recent single “Do Fries Go With That Shake” became a hit in the USA. The result: Clinton is heavily in demand as producer again.
But the record companies and acts who wanted a piece of the ’86 P-Funk pie (“p” as in “pure”) suddenly encountered Dr. Funkenstein – who couldn’t wait to change back into the farmer Mr. Clinton again. One day he just stepped onto a plane and flew back to Detroit.
Back to the farm – which consists of wide-spread lands, some of which Clinton leases to a farmer for corn growing, two fish-ponds which provide dinner from time to time, and a large private wood with a winding cross-country course which is perfect for nightly bike runs. And then there’s the spacious house where Clinton has been living for seven years – together with his wife Stephanie to whom he has been married for ten years, cat Tommy, and lots of stuffed animals.
Nobody can disturb this rural idyll. With the exception of friends like Bootsy Collins, Clinton’s P.Funk pal of many years who drops by one night and plays demo tapes until six in the morning. But apart from a four-track recorder there is no band equipment on the farm, and no phone.
Clinton explains his work philosophy: “If I was in Detroit I’ll see why I need to hurry up and have a hit record. I’d see a pretty car going around on the street or a pretty girl going down the street or somebody who look like they got a lot of money – all those things that look like a commercial all day long bites at you, and you figure out why you have to have another hit record. And consequently you can’t even get it then ’cause you’re worried about it too much!”
Stress fugitive Clinton bought his private oasis in the late seventies when he – with his bands Parliament and Funkadelic – was among the mega-stars of black music. The Parliafunkadelicment Thang is said to have sold ten million albums during its best five years, turnover for Clinton & Co.: about 40 million dollars!
At that time Dr. Funkenstein proved to be a smart tactician who sold the same nucleus of musicians to different record labels, under various band names. He even out-hustled the former Sex Pistols hustler Malcolm McLaren – Clinton probably sold more acts to more record companies than anybody else.
But around 1980 the P-Funk mothership crashed. Everybody sued each other. The labels, lawyers and musicians involved and – last but not least – Clinton himself became entangled in a jungle of lawsuits out of which the master reported back in 1982, slightly groggy but unbroken.
Keeping the farm safe during those troubled times was some kind of elixir of life for him. “Oh my god – was that a fight!”, recalls Clinton at the kitchen window while he is munching his Special K corn flakes for breakfast at 1 p.m. “That’s the thing why I probably like the farm so much. I mean I am basically funky for real, I could be just as happy in a hotel. But then, what would happen, I would have nothing to fight for! I was forced to earn money and to continue making music. That is also why the record companies took me seriously again – because I made them believe that losing the house would be the end of the world for me!”
Clinton sums it up: “The best way for people to know that you wanna make money is: Get a house and a car, and fight for it. All factories will give you a loan for a house and a car – ’cause they know you’re gonna be to work Monday to pay for that!”
For him, too, the Monday is approaching when Dr. Funkenstein takes the helm again. Two months before a tour with the Thang successor The Mob, he has to conjure up three albums for different colleagues, finish at least one video and make sure that the long-finished new Parliament and Funkadelic albums can be released. Business as usual on the Mothership!
[I posted this under the influence of P-Funk songs at Last.FM.]