Monday, January 21, 2008
We Need The Funk
The first big-time interview I ever did was with George Clinton (the progenitor of funk, along with James Brown and a few others. He of the Technicolor Dreadlocks fronted Parliament and Funkadelic, later combining the two in into P Funk. His Wikipedia article rocks.). At interview time, I had to work through a network of handlers to get to Clinton: Hairy J, Big Benny, MMO, etc. The interview, once I reached Clinton, should have been filmed.
He talked in a drug-addled drawl, and most of what he said was completely unintelligible. Think Ozzy Osbourne, but worse. He openly professed his insatiable appetite for intoxicants of all flavors, women of all colors, and parties of all magnitudes. When asked why he still plays music after more than 50 years, he responded, “Pussy.” He chortled and wheezed. “No…wait…[cough]…drugs…and pussy.” He ate acid in elevators and trashed hotel rooms in cities he doesn’t even remember. He claims that aliens abducted him and longtime bassist Bootsy Collins.
Since my article was slated to precede a show, I asked him if I could come backstage and see him after the concert.
“Sure. Bring some girls.” I asked him if he liked Jewish girls.
“Sure, I like girls.”
“So I’ll come backstage and bring you some Jewish girls?”
“Sure, it’s going to be a party.”
He didn’t care if what he said was on the record, off the record, or just part of some elaborate hallucinogenic episode. A few days after the interview, a friend told me that he’d seen George Clinton smoking crack in a club in Florida, which nicely complemented what another friend had told me—namely, that Clinton holds a perpetual party on his Tallahassee property, and is largely ignored by the cops. The police know they shouldn’t even bother.
Music has been connected to theater since Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini teamed up in the sixteenth century to write “Daphne,” the world’s first opera. The ancient love story of Apollo and the nymph, Daphne, portended subsequent centuries of music with plot. Plays, lieder, concept operas, and later soundtracks and rock ‘n roll grabbed the mantle from earlier dramatic works. The last 50 years saw an epic distillation of music and mirage, from the phantasmagoria of Einstein on the Beach to the deadpan doltishness of Spinal Tap. Rock bands became more dramatic, forsaking sartorial restraint for leather, denim, and spandex.
Most mediums adopted the dramatic in tongue-in-cheek silence—KISS knew they looked ridiculous, but inherent in the gag was that nobody called them out. Hair bands came packaged with the tacit understanding that their showmanship was absurd, but talking about it too much would have broken the ice.
This caricature type of musical theater fell into the classic rubric of opera and literature: the willing suspension of disbelief. Did you really believe Gene Simmons went home with his face-paint on, lashing out his tongue in the mirror and conjuring the demonic? (He probably did, but still). We weren’t asked to believe that rock musicians were really as crazy as they seemed, and we didn’t—despite their indulgences, we knew that rock stars were normal folks, with mortgages, health issues, and diseases.
Not so for funk music. Nary does a funk song fail to mention that, a) it’s a funk song, b) we’re all having a real good time, and, c) these funketeers party all the time. Funk is not just the most self-aware genre (narrowly beating out rap, wherein only 99.9% of the songs mention something about rapping itself, the rap lifestyle, and how talented the given rapper happens to be), but it also asks of us that which no other music does: to believe that everything we see is real. George Clinton claims his life is every bit as absurd and dissimilar to the rest of mankind as his stage show indicates. James Brown seemed to be from Planet Funk, a distant polyester planet sustained on narcotics, hip flexor stretches, and subversive interview tactics.
Funk is theater, yes, but a step beyond. It’s not premised on the willing suspension of disbelief—unlike opera or plays or rock, it doesn’t demand our complicity in accepting a temporary, theatrical reality. In fact, it does the opposite: funk claims that the performers live their daily lives exactly as they appear on stage. They mow their lawns while wearing crystal belt buckles. They tie their shoes holding a champagne flute and a blunt. Renew their licenses sheathed ‘neath a velvet cape and a phallus-branded crown. They’re too busy having intercourse to have other intercourse. Funk requests, as a genre, that we, the audience, fully and unequivocally believe that the party never ends, that the excess is the reality.
Evidently, nobody believes that the poignancy of an opera is genuine—feelings fade. Nobody believes that the heave-ho of rock ballads and burners have any connection to everyday existence. But funk music asks us to believe that you could build a real life of vice and revelry—and we comply. George Clinton probably doesn’t know his own last name, but I trust him implicitly. Every story—true. Every claim and allegation—fact.
Do I believe he was abducted by aliens?
If James Brown came from another world, then why couldn’t George Clinton pass through for a few days?
Stay Cynical, Funk Doubters