You’d expect George Clinton‘s autobiography to be funky, meandering, entertaining – and if you read Brothers Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? (written with Ben Greenman), you won’t be disappointed. You might not expect it to be weighed down with epic tales of his legal troubles, like a late-era Lenny Bruce gig, but that turns out to be true as well. Thankfully, before Clinton gets lost in a swamp of lawsuits and cocaine, he’s got some great stories about leading Parliament-Funkadelic and becoming one of the funkiest men on the planet. Here are 10 of our favorites:
Up for the Down Stroke
When Clinton was growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the Fifties, one of his formative influences was mambo. “Mambo was like our disco,” he remembers. He studied how people dressed up for a night of mambo, and how sufficiently good dancers could cross gang lines. One of his unfulfilled musical ambitions: to cut a version of Tito Puente’s “Coco Seco.”
Funky Dollar Bill
While Clinton was leading a doo-wop group called the Parliaments (“vocal groups were, for the most part, named after birds, cars and cigarettes,” he observes) and driving to Detroit to audition for Motown (they liked him, but turned him down), he made his living where he could, assembling hula hoops or working as a hairdresser. He ended up with his own hair salon, which he called the Silk Palace. One day, Clinton says, two nervous kids walked in with a box full of counterfeit money: about $1.2 million in fake 20-dollar bills. Clinton bought it from them for $2,000 and used the money to refurnish the Silk Palace and to pay for recording studio time: “I told the musicians it was counterfeit but instead of $200 I would pay them $1,000. They didn’t seem to mind. Belief in the federal green is strong, even when it’s not real.”
On an early Parliament tour, bassist Billy Bass Nelson was navigating and thought he had found a shortcut to Ohio. Clinton recalls, “We ran a roadblock, went about a mile along the road and came out into a small town where we saw all these fucking creatures walking around, zombies or mummies, hands up in the air and dead looks on their faces. We were scared out of our fucking minds.” When they saw the klieg lights, they realized it was not an actual town of the undead, but a movie set: They had stumbled into the filming of George Romero’s classic horror movie Night of the Living Dead.
Clinton on his favorite pet: “For years in the Sixties I talked about getting a pig or a skunk. I loved farm animals, pigs and rabbits and that kind of thing. Maybe it was because I was a country boy at heart; if I closed my eyes I could still feel the Virginia ground under my bare feet. People around me vetoed the skunk, and because of that I got more and more serious about the pig. Sometime in 1968, Jeffrey Bowen, who was a producer at Motown, bought me one. It was just a little thing, a piglet, and I named it Officer Dibbles, after the character on the Top Cat cartoon. Dibbles went everywhere with us. He was an official band mascot. He would curtsy and show people the diamond bracelet around his neck.”
Hit It and Quit It
One of the classic Funkadelic guitar solos wasn’t cut by the band’s Eddie Hazel but by a strung-out white kid who wandered into the Hollywood Sound studio in L.A. and said he would play on a track if Clinton gave him 25 bucks. Clinton liked his attitude, and let him play on “Get Off Your Ass and Jam”: “We set him up, started the track and he just started to play like he was possessed. He did all the rock & roll that hadn’t been heard for a few years, and he did it for the entirety of the track. Even when the song ended, he didn’t stop.” An astonished Clinton paid him $50, but neglected to get his name, so he was never able to use him again or credit him in the liner notes.
The spaceship on the cover of the 1975 Parliament album Mothership Connection had a show-biz pedigree: It was the actual ship from the classic 1951 sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, borrowed from a Los Angeles prop house. When Clinton decided he wanted a spaceship to use onstage, Neil Bogart (label head at Casablanca) arranged a million-dollar loan – some of which got diverted to buying cars for band members. “I didn’t drive,” Clinton said. “I just wanted my spaceship.” He got one, designed by Broadway pro Jules Fisher: “It looked like some kind of unholy cross between an American car from the late Fifties and early Sixties, a piece of equipment from a children’s playground and a giant insect. It was awesome.”
The most memorable stage crasher in Clinton’s career? The woman in overalls who jumped up while smoking a joint. She dropped her pants, “stuck the joint up her butt and blew three smoke rings. Every time we tried to start the next song, people were laughing so hard that we had to stop.” Clinton got her on the phone about 20 years later to ask her about the incident, and her response was, “Did I really do that?” Clinton dryly notes, “It didn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d forget.”
Sly Stone and George Clinton were two great musicians who sometimes made amazing music together but more often just egged each other on to greater levels of drug consumption. Clinton remembers a note a dope-seeking Stone slipped under his door at a hotel, in handwriting flawless enough for a wedding invitation: “Knock knock, put a rock in a sock and sock it to me, doc. Signed, co-junkie for the funk.”
Paint the White House Black
When Bill Clinton was elected, George Clinton enjoyed the coincidence of having a president with the same last name. When Chelsea Clinton came backstage with a coterie of Secret Service agents, she joked with the funkmaster about having a food fight. He dissuaded her, not wanting to get shot down by an overeager fed. While posing for a photo with Chelsea, George realized at the last moment that he should probably conceal the crack pipe he was holding, so he just made a fist around it: “It was hot as a motherfucker, burning my hand up, but it worked – the picture, without a crack pipe in sight, was in People magazine.”
You Can’t Miss What You Can’t Measure
Some genuine Clinton wisdom on life as a professional musician: “The mere fact of surviving in this industry is a huge victory. But survivors forget that the alternative is annihilation. They think that the choice is between a good career and a great one. They reach for stardom. And those unrealistic expectations are compounded by creative ability, or the lack of ability. People don’t have a clear idea of what they can and can’t do as artists. I knew my limits. I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t play an instrument. I couldn’t sing as well as some and I couldn’t arrange as well as some others. But I could see the whole picture from altitude, and that let me land the planes.”