black barnstormers


The Atomic Dog: George Clinton is hustler, preacher, poet, and pimp of the congregation of funky bloods whose doos are always laid, whose rhythms are always mashing and whose stage rags range from sci-fi to birthday suits. Splib hustlers and hip ofays, it’s funk time again.

Where it all began is a barbershop in Plainfield, New Jersey, back in the early ‘60s. Before he was cutting vinyl, George Clinton was cutting hair; before he got involved with the recording process, my man was chemically processing hair-mixing down wave, curl, and conk jobs for all the slick splib hustlers that ran the streets of Plainfield. We know now that this cat had a lot more on his mind than snipping naps and knotting up doo-rags for the rest of his natural born life.

Along with a couple other barbers and a few high school chums, Clinton organized a doo-wop group named Parliament. Modeling themselves after groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops, they gigged around until Clinton one day got the bold idea to head for Detroit and try to bogart his way into a Motown recording deal. So Clinton and crew wind up in '65 with a minor hit, “I Wanna Testify,” on Motown subsidiary Revilot. For whatever reason, Berry Gordy decided he had enough male vocal combos in his stable, and Parliament languished on the label until Clinton decided to strike out on his own. Problem was, Motown owned the name Parliament, and so Funkadelic was born–out of desperation, the Parliament back-up band, and Clinton’s warped notion of fusing the hippie counterculture with parodies of black pop, pimp, and prayer culture.

Between 1968 and 1975, you opened up a Funkadelic record and you couldn’t guess what was coming next — a straight-faced take on the Fifth Dimension, like “Can You Get to That,” or a heavy-metal hydrogen bomb test like “Super Stupid.” And go figure Cosmic Slop, where the title track, about a welfare mother who pimps for the devil, is followed by a country-swing ditty, “No Compute (Spit Don’t Make Babies),” about a hard dick on the prowl who raps like a poolhall version of Jimi Hendrix and waxes philosophic the morning after about being turned out by a transvestite. If that’s not enough there’s “March to the Witch’s Castle.” A fairyland goof? Nope, a holy-roller preacher’s benediction for soldiers returning from Vietnam—and maybe the only song of the period that embraced the Vets as wounded mortals rather than as babykillers.

Get the picture? If so, you’re doing better than the mass record-buying public of the period, black and white. Because in the main, Funkadelic was too wacky for the souled-out splibs and too black for the spazz whiteys who believed hard rock only came in caucasoid and got nothing to do with bloods getting happy feet besides.

Then Clinton struck the mama lode with 1975’s Mothership Connection. This one was the turning point, alright. Not only did it give Clinton his first gold album and launch P-Funk as damn near a musical genre in its own right, but most important, it provided the impetus for the Mothership tour, which in turn begat the Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome “flashlight” tour, which begat the Clones of Dr Funkenstein tour, which gave rise to the One Nation under a Groove anti-tour–all barnstorming black guerrilla theater extravaganzas that between roughly 1977 and 1980 made P-Funk seem a cross between the old Apollo and the circus.

Having written off Clinton as a has-been in 1981, few expected the success he found upon the release of 1983’s Atomic Dog. Those few who weren’t surprised weren’t just diehards, they were folk who knew that if nothing else, George Clinton was a longtime survivor of the vicissitudes of the American music business. George Clinton is as cagey a ringmaster and self-promoter as P.T. Barnum, as charming a stage ham as Fats Waller, as charismatic a bandleader as Duke Ellington, as hardworking a showman as anybody else this side of James Brown.

Listen to Clinton’s lyrics and you find him playing plenty roles: hustler, preacher, poet, pimp, professor, psychoanalyst, student of politics and sexual manners, carny barker, soulman, swingmeister, bebopper, doo-wopper, druggy, subliminal seducer, free spirit. And the band he leads is the best rock band in America.

Like some folk live for Sunday morning prayer meeting, I live for the gestalt achieved by these virtuosi. And for the image of Clinton—his living death-head’s grin spreading across his Nubian mug like the stitchings on the Frankenstein monster’s neck, teeth strung cadaverously from jawbone to jawbone, his limbs and torso madly whipping the crowd’s emotions until they’re all feeling the funk as much to the fullness as he is. Ain’t nobody got fans that know as much about pure musical possession as funkateers, unless we talking disciples of vodun, juju, or hoodoo. We are a tribe unto ourselves, y'all, with our own language, lore, rites of passage, and articles of faith. One nation under a groove.

If George’s rap is the positive side of P-Funk, the down side is what you’ll find in the margins from the mouths of the men who’ve propped up Clinton’s thang for lo these many years and are now crying the blues of unpaid-for dues, misspent youths, and sacrificed creative muses. You’re gonna ask yourself why, if this cat seems so righteous, has he treated these bloods so badly, and why, even more outrageously, they keep hanging in for more abuse. Ahh, but I told you we’re talking church here, family even, as well as coldblooded business. And as much as George took from these guys he gave back. And dem’s da facts. Now, here’s the funkies.