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George Clinton: Doctor Atomic

The godfather of funk — a musical force for more than five decades — comes clean

George ClintonGeorge Clinton

George Clinton

Pari Dukovic

George Clinton

George Clinton, whenever he’s not on the road, likes to spend at least a portion of each day at his Tallahassee, Florida, recording studio. It’s nothing fancy, a former PC repair shop on an unremarkable commercial strip. In the rehearsal room, padded seats pulled from the backs of vans make do for benches. A framed concert photograph of Clinton, snapped during his Seventies prime, offers a striking profile — fuchsia mohawk, feather boa draped over some kind of unitard. Most arresting, perhaps, is the fact that you can actually see his face (sweaty, intense, but also smiling), which, in most other photos from the period, winds up covered by, say, a pair of oversize shades, or a blond wig. Did any other pop star of the era, with the possible exception of David Bowie, spend so much time hiding in plain sight behind his own elaborate mythology?

The present-day version of George Clinton is sitting a few feet away, watching some singers from his touring band harmonize to a prerecorded backing track. At 73, Clinton looks, unsurprisingly, nothing like the old photos on the wall. He’s stouter, with a round, impish face, a trim, gray beard, eyes tending toward half-mast. Having reached retirement age, he’s also adopted a new style: sharply tailored suits, this one a handsome plaid, accessorized with perfectly folded pocket squares and wide, low-slung neckties, his shirt collars starched and pressed into planks you could chop onions on. He looks like he could have stepped out of a Blue Note album cover from the Fifties. His brown fedora has a little feather in the brim.

Among the album covers Clinton is actually responsible for, the most memorable, Maggot Brain, depicts the howling face of a flamboyantly Afro’d woman buried to her neck in dirt. Those were the kinds of records Clinton was making in Detroit in the Seventies with his two bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, when he essentially created, alongside James Brown and Sly Stone, an entire genre, funk — only Clinton’s version remains so singular, it really stands as its own impossibly cosmic subgenre. Clinton would expand the boundaries of the music to include all of his loves: Star Trek, cartoonish voices, nine-minute guitar solos, underground comics, bawdy jump blues, late-Beatles studio tricks, irreligious snatches of gospel, Moog synthesizers played as bass lines, rap before it had a name. And lots of jokes.

No other major artist during that decade was more prolific than Clinton, who, beginning in 1970, recorded 19 studio albums (11 by Funkadelic, eight by Parliament, a number of them undisputed classics). P-Funk concerts became legend. On any given night, there might be upwards of 30 musicians onstage, black hippie freaks wearing turbans, top hats, sombreros, face paint, S&M gear, fencing masks, space-pimp platform shoes, prosthetic Pinocchio noses, dashikis, chaps, starry-lensed sunglasses and (in the case of guitarist Garry Shider) nothing but a diaper. Clinton himself emerged from a giant flying saucer. They called him Dr. Funkenstein.

By this point, Clinton has survived long enough to see his career approach its 60th anniversary — not only living through, but directly participating in, more musical eras than any one artist should reasonably be allowed. He sang doo-wop in Jersey Boys-era Newark and wrote songs for Motown, embraced psychedelic rock and played shows with the MC5 and the Stooges. Then came the funk. And then, astonishingly, when the funk’s time seemed to have long passed, came the rise of an entire generation of young rappers who’d been weaned on their parents’ copies of Mothership Connection, who worshipped this band of R&B superheroes the same way white suburban kids pledged themselves to the Kiss Army. Thus P-Funk became one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop, the foundation of career-defining records by De La Soul, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.

Clinton also made himself at home in the alternative-rock scene in the Eighties and Nineties (touring with Lollapalooza, producing an album for the Red Hot Chili Peppers), and jam bands love him too (he’s played shows with Phish and has been covered by Widespread Panic). Most recently, it’s been electronic dance music: gigs in Ibiza, collaborations on club remixes with Louie Vega and Soul Clap. Detroit techno, arguably the beginning of today’s rave culture, was hugely influenced by P-Funk’s sound and Afro-futurist sensibility, with techno pioneer Derrick May having famously described the music as “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator.” Perhaps the most hotly anticipated album of 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, prominently features Clinton on the opening track. “Looking down is quite a drop,” he rasps. “Looking good when you’re on top.”

By the late Nineties, Clinton was no longer making popular records, and the Mothership, following countless other vehicles from Michigan piloted by senior citizens, had landed in Florida. Clinton had spent time in Tallahassee some years earlier and liked it, though his return wasn’t entirely by choice. He’d been evicted from his 200-acre farm outside Ann Arbor, which turned out to have been registered in the name of the same music publisher who also held the rights to many of Clinton’s hits. When Carlon Thompson-Clinton, Clinton’s wife, first began working with him as a manager a decade ago — this was before they were romantically involved — he was smoking crack daily and living in a Best Western.

What convinced him to finally stay clean, after nearly three decades, were his legal problems. Clinton insists that he never signed away the rights to his music, that his signature has been forged on legal documents, that he’s owed tens of millions of dollars in royalties. “I was high,” Clinton says, “but I wasn’t that high.”

At the moment, touring, along with paid meet-and-greets, are Clinton’s main revenue stream. He’s preparing for a new P-Funk tour that will keep him on the road in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Japan and New Zealand through June. Hence tonight’s rehearsal. In a concession to modernity, this tour will be the first-ever by P-Funk to employ backing tracks. The older guys in his band hate the idea: It will sound shitty and muffled, they’re convinced. Clinton relays their complaints to me without overtly disagreeing, then shrugs. “That’s the sound of today,” he says. “I don’t care how much you think a band is better. The kids are used to that sound, and that’s the sound they want to hear. Bass forever! You can hear the bass a block away. So we’ve got to learn to do it, without copping out completely.”

Two members of the touring band stand at a microphone: Robert “P-Nut” Johnson, a singer from Baltimore who has performed with Clinton since the late Seventies (the hook of Digital Underground’s 1991 track “Same Song” is P-Nut’s voice, sampled from the Parliament tune “Theme From the Black Hole”) and Thurteen, a young singer and producer from Miami. P-Nut has a grizzled white beard; Thurteen is wearing a leopard-print backpack. They’re running through a new track called “Pole Power,” a weird and funny James Brown parody with the koan-like chorus, “What is a pipe but a pole with a hole in it?” 

George Clinton

On his old records, Clinton was capable of assuming any number of personas, from street-wise trickster to stoned voice of God to sexy Curtis Mayfield falsetto. In real life, though, he’s basically a studio geek who loves nothing better than to rap about music, any music. He engages his keyboard player in a long discussion about the greatness of early Jan Hammer (yes, the guy who wrote the theme to Miami Vice), and admiringly describes the way Tool “sounds like motherfucking jazz musicians playing punk rock.” When “Pole Power” begins, Clinton taps his wingtips and shrugs his shoulders to the music, then turns to face me directly, singing along. From behind round glasses, his eyes widen in theatrical disbelief as the number proceeds: What is happening? How did things suddenly become so impossibly funky in here?

Eventually, we wander into another room to watch a video of the band’s first backing-track performance, an industry show in L.A. At one point, an 11-year-old guitar virtuoso joins the group onstage and furiously shreds. Clinton extracts a slice of turkey from a sandwich on a deli tray, pops it into his mouth, shakes his head. “You’re not supposed to be able to play this way till you’ve got some pussy,” he says.

He gestures for me to follow him into a hallway. He wants to show me another framed photograph. It’s Clinton as a young man again, only this time he’s out in the woods somewhere, grinning and holding a 30-aught-six rifle. Behind him, at least a dozen dead rams hang from their hind legs on a scaffolding. The photo, he says, was taken in 1978, during a hunting trip with P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins at a Tennessee game preserve. “I told Bootsy,” Clinton says, “ ’Imagine each one of them is a record executive.’ We lit those woods up!”

They donated the meat to a hospital, but Clinton still kicks himself for leaving the fur behind. Think of all the coats he could’ve had made!

The day after the rehearsal, Clinton’s driver, an enormous Native American guy named Fatty, takes me to the Boss’ house. Fatty often refers to Clinton as Boss, though sometimes he just says George. They met several years ago, when Fatty was working for RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. Clinton had become close with RZA’s cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “Me and ODB was like that,” Clinton tells me, twining two of his fingers together. “He was just so clever, but could play so out-to-lunch! Just like Sly. He wouldn’t let nobody in on it. And if you’re the only one who knows that joke, that’s funny as hell. Whatever song he was on, he’d go straight to the note that’s wrong, but do it so confidently, it’s right.”

Sly, of course, is Sly Stone, one of Clinton’s closest friends. They met in the late Sixties, when Clinton briefly signed to Sly’s label, Stone Flower. No record ever came out of the deal, but they reconnected a decade later, when Sly moved to Clinton’s farm in Michigan for a year. They spent their days fishing, freebasing and recording music. Back in the Sixties, Clinton says, Sly was a prime influence, a person who showed him the myriad possibilities for R&B, that it could be slick and psychedelic all at once. “It could be anything you needed it to be,” Clinton says. “ ’Hot Fun in the Summertime’ was a knife.” In the studio, Clinton watched Sly do everything backward, recording a high-hat cymbal part first, then a snare drum, then playing bass. “You don’t know what the fuck he’s hearing in his head,” Clinton says. “But in his mind, he already wrote the arrangement, and he knows where everything is.”

Clinton’s own financial situation remains precarious, thanks to his ongoing legal battles with Bridgeport Music Inc., the litigious owner of much of his publishing, known in the music business for suing over minor sampling and copyright infringements. (In 2006, Slate described Bridgeport as “the shady one-man corporation that’s destroying hip-hop.”) One of Bridgeport’s lawyers, Richard Busch, who represented the Marvin Gaye estate in its own copyright dispute over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” responded to a request for comment via e-mail, writing, “Mr. Clinton has litigated these allegations and he lost,” and noting that Bridgeport has “filed a malicious prosecution case against Mr. Clinton, which includes a defamation claim . . . based upon statements he has made publicly and in his autobiography.”

The endless trials have left Clinton’s catalog shamefully untended: Two of the greatest Funkadelic albums — One Nation Under a Groove and Uncle Jam Wants You — are unavailable on Spotify and even iTunes. Like Lenny Bruce reading his trial transcripts onstage during his final years, Clinton has a habit of steering conversations deep into the legal weeds. But unlike Bruce, Clinton rarely displays anger, at least not publicly, where his resting state seems to be one of Buddha-like equanimity. In part, no doubt, this has to do with the clown-prince-bandleader identity he’s spent years cultivating, which necessitates keeping things light. (Louis Jordan and Frank Zappa: both huge influences, he tells me.)

Likewise, he’s not the kind of guy to dwell on the darker aspects of addiction. And yet, the flurry of activity coming out of Tallahassee these days suggests a man making up for lost time. Last year, Clinton released First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, the first album of new Funkadelic material since 1981. It has 33 tracks, one for each year gone by. Simultaneously, he published an autobiography, proving that he hadn’t lost his knack for naming things — seriously, how did the National Book Awards fail to create a new category to honor the title Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? “I don’t know why he’s still alive, or how his mind is still together,” marvels his former bandmate Fred Wesley. “I used to smoke with him, and I quit years ago. I’m sure it would have killed me or an average person. George is amazing.”

Nonetheless, Clinton’s legal troubles have resulted in belt-tightening measures in the P-Funk universe. The band now travels in Sprinter vans instead of more expensive tour buses, and Clinton’s Florida home is lease-to-own. It’s a nice place on the outskirts of town, modest by MTV Cribs standards, but still: Spanish moss, swimming pool, neighbors who own horses. Abstract collaborative paintings by Clinton and Overton Loyd, an artist from Detroit who drew some of the most iconic Parliament album covers, decorate the walls, and the bookshelves include Bill Gates, Glenn Beck, Suze Orman, Keith Richards, Black Americans in Congress 1870-2007, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, and The Purpose Driven Life. The first thing Clinton does each morning is pick up the binoculars at the foot of his bed and gaze out the window at the birds and squirrels.

Clinton’s wife, Carlon, describes herself as “the Goodwill queen.” In the living room, she points out a record player she picked up for 10 bucks. A vinyl copy of Phil Collins’ Face Value sits atop the console. The centerpiece of the room is a gorgeous built-in pipe organ, Bach sheet music lying on the music stand. When Carlon got her future husband out of the Best Western, she rented him a one-bedroom- apartment. Then Loyd moved in, so they upgraded to a three-bedroom condo. Then Fatty and a friend of Carlon’s started staying with them, so she found their current house on the Internet. When Clinton saw it, he said, “Oh, Lord, how much does it cost?” But once he laid eyes on the organ, he said, “Make it happen.”

Carlon is 49 and looks like Halle Berry. She met Clinton at a show in 1985, when she owned a record store in Houston with her husband at the time. Carlon kept in touch afterward, and years later Clinton hired her to work as a tour manager. “He was smoking his life away,” Carlon says. “His only relief was the band, the touring, the music.” Clinton’s legs had swollen grotesquely, she says, thanks to the baking soda used in crack. In 2011, he was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital after partying with Sly. He stayed for a week, Carlon never leaving his side. “God is good — he left the hospital and never touched crack again,” she says.

“Honestly, before that?” she’d told me earlier. “I think a lot of people were just waiting for George to die.”

At the house, Clinton and I sit outside under a little gazebo, not far from the vegetable garden Carlon keeps. He’s wearing another natty suit, along with a long coat that makes him look like a blaxploitation-era don. Carlon brings out a plate of snacks and gently asks George if he’s been drinking enough water today. He nods. He’s holding a weed vaporizer, attached to an oversize silver battery pack the shape and size of a hip flask. Clinton clutches this thing like other people hang onto their smartphones. During our three days together, he’s never without it. “I don’t try and get high,” he says, after inhaling a generous hit. “I just like to nibble on this all day. Hand-to-mouth habit.”

Clinton speaks in a low, scratchy voice, all of the years of smoking crack having left him more or less permanently hoarse. He sounds very different on the first (self-titled) Funkadelic album, which begins with a nine-minute track that doubles as a statement of intent. The song is called “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?” and features Clinton speaking over a reverb-drenched blues vamp. Eerie moans and laughter fade in and out of the mix, alongside a chorus of female backup singers. “If you will suck my soul,” Clinton intones, “I will lick your funky emotions.” About seven minutes into the song, he breaks it down:

I recall when I left a little town in North Carolina, I tried to escape this music

I said it was for the old country folks

I went to New York, got slick, got my hair laid [laughs]

I was cool [more laughter]

I was cool

But I had no groove

The story of how Clinton found his groove, and reconnected with the country blues he tried to escape, is basically the story of P-Funk. Clinton had, in fact, left the little town of Kannapolis, North Carolina, though not by choice: His parents (George and Julious) moved the family north to New Jersey, shortly after his birth. His father was a dockworker who loved church music; his mother cleaned office buildings and favored secular blues singers. “Blues wasn’t that deep to me when I was young,” Clinton says. “That was my mother’s music.” When he was 14, Clinton formed his own doo-wop group with some other kids from the neighborhood, calling themselves the Parliaments, after the cigarette. Clinton didn’t smoke, but he thought it sounded dangerous.

The Parliaments competed in “battle of the bands” contests with vocal groups like the Four Seasons, during which the neighborhood gangs would call brief truces. “You had two hours after the show to get your ass out of there,” Clinton says. The Four Seasons came from the other side of Broad Street, where the Italians ran with a gang called the Barbarians and wore sagging trousers, like hip-hop kids would decades later. The teachers yelled at the white boys to pull their pants up. “We didn’t know how they stayed up,” Clinton says. “They had big belts, with the silver studs on them, which they’d take off and knock the shit out of you with.” The black kids wore their own pants belted high, to look buff. 

The Parliaments

Clinton dropped out of high school in the 12th grade. Around the same time, he married his girlfriend. (Carlon is Clinton’s third wife. He has had seven children over the years, with his first wife and various partners, and a number of his kids and grandkids perform with him on tour and in the studio.) Not long after his first marriage, he began working at a barbershop, cutting and straightening hair. But he never gave up his dreams of one day playing the Apollo. When Motown emerged in the early Sixties, the Parliaments drove out to Detroit for an audition. Martha Reeves broke the news that the label would be passing on the group. (Among other things, they sounded too much like the Temptations.) But Clinton began working for Berry Gordy as a freelance songwriter (while still cutting hair in New Jersey), which was how he met another Detroit entrepreneur, Ed Wingate. “Big, sweet dude,” Clinton says. “Country. But he had the numbers.” Meaning, he was a bookie. Wingate also owned motels and cabs, and when he saw the unprecedented success Gordy was having with Motown, he decided to bankroll his own labels, none of which ever turned into any kind of Hitsville U.S.A. (Edwin Starr’s “Agent Double-O Soul” would be their only major single), but did result in an in-house songwriting gig for Clinton.

Detroit was booming at the time, and Motown operated like another factory. Clinton, working for a scrappy rival, never stopped wanting the Parliaments to become a smooth R&B delivery machine à la the Temptations or the Four Tops. But he also began defining himself in opposition to Motown’s aspirational perfection. Gordy’s charges were sent to finishing school, wore matching suits. Clinton, in contrast, had started hanging out in the Plum Street neighborhood, Detroit’s answer to Haight-Ashbury. “Everybody from Motown was sophisticated,” Clinton says. “The big, pretty wigs and the minks. We knew how to do that, because we came from the barbershop. We called it ‘faking.’ Our concept, by the time of Funkadelic, was trying to be as gross as possible. Having a ball going in the opposite direction.”

Before that, in 1967, the Parliaments had scored their only hit with a love song called “(I Wanna) Testify,” its opening lines, in hindsight, sounding prophetic:

Friends, inquisitive friends, are asking me what’s come over me

A change, there’s been a change, and it’s oh so plain to see. . . . 

The tune could have been on Motown: impeccable arrangement, clever wordplay. But Clinton was beginning to realize the group he really wanted to front was not the Temptations but the Mothers of Invention, or at least some combination of the two. Thanks to new takes on the form by artists like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Clinton began to reconsider his dismissal of his mother’s old blues records. Could he work a similar transformation on the Motown-style R&B he’d spent years perfecting his songwriting craft on? “To me, hearing Hendrix was like, ‘Damn, if I’m leaving the Motown world, this is what I’m leaving for,’ ” Clinton says. “I loved what people like Curtis Mayfield were doing. But I ain’t gonna leave Motown just to go next door.”

At Motown, the house musicians remained in the background. But what if, Clinton wondered, he took the opposite approach? In the rock world, guitarists like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton were becoming stars. Why not put the emphasis on the players, as opposed to the singers? “George put the band up front,” P-Nut says, “got those white-boy amplifiers and cut holes in their pants. And it was different.”

They also began ingesting copious amounts of LSD. Soon the Parliaments had changed their name to Funkadelic, befitting the sharp left turn they’d taken into the psychedelic scene. The band shared management with Detroit-area rock groups like the Stooges and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, and Detroit-based Creem magazine jokingly ran a story that Clinton and Iggy Pop were to be married. Funkadelic recorded their entire second album, Free Your Mind . . . And Your Ass Will Follow, in a matter of days, tripping the whole time. Clinton shaved a penis into the side of his Afro and occasionally performed in the nude. The band’s music was impossible to classify, ranging as it did from “Music for My Mother,” an early single that transformed field hollers into an abstract, deeply funky drone, to the almost entirely instrumental title track of Maggot Brain, which features one of the most soulful guitar solos of all time, courtesy of Eddie Hazel, a Jersey kid who auditioned for Clinton at the barbershop. For the solo, Clinton instructed Hazel to play as if he’d just heard his mother had died.

“We were all trying to push music ahead, to break out of the three-minute pop-song idea and expand it,” says MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. “I remember thinking, ‘Those guys are doing the same thing we’re doing, except we’re coming from a rock background and they’re coming from funk.’ I would put George right there with any of the great bandleaders, Miles or ‘Trane. Songs like ‘I’ll Bet You’ were revolutionary: the approach to the music, the sensibility of the lyrics, the whole sonic dimension, right down to the sound of [drummer Tiki Fulwood’s] snare drum. A lot of people didn’t catch up with that shit for 10 more years.”

Ultimately, Funkadelic, Clinton writes in Brothas Be, Yo Like George, were “too white for black folks and too black for white folks . . . a source of confusion.” When the band finally did make it to the Apollo, comics like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley clowned it: “What the fuck did them niggas took?” As Funkadelic got weirder, a friend at another label suggested Clinton reboot the Parliaments as more of a black-pop act. “Basically,” Clinton says, “we don’t do horns on Funkadelic, and Parliament doesn’t have loud guitars.”

In truth, there would be massive overlap between the bands. Parliament’s first R&B Top 10 hit, “Up for the Down Stroke,” might have been a horn-driven party anthem about fucking, but on the same album, there’s a psychedelic soul song that quotes Bob Dylan and another with an entirely whistled chorus. “They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition,” Clinton announced on the title track of the next album, Chocolate City, setting up the hilarious, celebratory chorus, “Gainin’ on ya!”

From the beginning, P-Funk had included Hazel and Bernie Worrell, a classically trained pianist whose wild, contrapuntal keyboard melodies came straight out of Bach. Over the next few years, they were joined by a trio of refugees from James Brown’s band: bassist Bootsy Collins, who’d either quit or been fired (the story has changed over the years) after doing too much acid; saxophonist Maceo Parker; and trombonist Fred Wesley. Unlike Brown, a notorious taskmaster who fined band members who made mistakes, Clinton thrived on chaos. “I told Bootsy, ‘Don’t try to hide the mistakes,’ ” Clinton says. “Fuck that. This isn’t jazz. This is for kids. They want to hear noises. Once you get corrected, you’re grown up.” 


“It was controlled chaos, was what it was,” recalls Wesley, who showed up for his new gig wearing a suit. “With James Brown, we wore uniforms,” he says. “With George, it was whatever you feel crazy in. He was one of the boys! He just told me that he wanted me to do the horn arrangements, that he wanted me and Maceo to flow. He led in a way that made it feel like everything you did was OK. And then he would take what you did and maybe use part of it, or maybe use none of it.”

Monster hits followed: “Flash Light,” “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Clinton wanted his stage show to compete with Pink Floyd’s, so he hired a Broadway designer who’d worked on Jesus Christ Superstar to create the Mothership. He also began creating wild new characters — Dr. Funkenstein, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, Star Child — and he produced more than a dozen P-Funk spinoff albums.

But as his funk empire expanded, there was trouble on the horizon. Acid had faded from the scene, replaced by cocaine and lazy disco songs like Gloryhallastoopid’s “Party People.” And as the Seventies came to a close, Clinton “started getting pussy and having a good time,” Collins told The Guardian in 2011. “And that killed the magic. . . . If LSD brought us together, cocaine surely split us up.”

The day after my visit to Clinton’s home, I meet him back at the studio. He’s been hired to perform a medley of three songs during halftime of a Dallas Mavericks game. Fatty will be driving us overnight to the gig, 12 hours through the Florida panhandle and Louisiana, then into Texas.

We pile into the Sprinter van along with Thurteen and another young member of the touring band, a rapper from Gary, Indiana, named Bouvier. Clinton has Fatty plug in his smartphone and play a new club remix of the Funkadelic song “In Da Kar.” He’ll be returning to Ibiza in May. He says he tried Ecstasy once, in 1999, while looking for LSD, but it didn’t do much. “If you’re young enough to be chasing pussy, it’s probably really good,” Clinton says. “I’m too old for it, and happily married.”

Glancing out the passenger window, Clinton spots a Marriott hotel. “That’s where I used to stay at,” he says, chuckling.

Before you had the house? I ask.

“No, I had a house back then,” he says. “I’d go to that hotel when I got up to no good — if I was in the mood for staring out that window for 48 hours, some bored girl sitting there next to me going, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

Rehearsals for Lollapalooza 1994 first brought him to Tallahassee. Clinton says he didn’t socialize much with the younger bands on the tour. “Smoking’s not a real social thing,” he explains.

Fatty asks if Jane’s Addiction were on the bill.

“No, that was a few years earlier,” Clinton says.

“You meet Kurt Cobain?” Fatty asks.

“No, he’d passed,” Clinton says. “His wife was around, but she was a little hardcore for me. They had some funny concoctions with them. I’d have loved to hang out, but I was like, ‘Nah. I better not try that.’ Loved grunge. That serious, soulful sound? Cobain reminded me of Eddie Hazel. Soundgarden? Oh, my God. I loved that shit.”

Earlier, in the Eighties, a decade in which Clinton had one of the biggest hits of his career (“Atomic Dog,” later sampled almost wholesale by Snoop Dogg), he also succumbed to a number of quintessentially Eighties temptations (crack, attempting to rap, making a record with Thomas Dolby). Drug and label issues resulted in the suspension of P-Funk after a final Detroit show in 1981. He released a series of solo albums (including two on Prince’s Paisley Park, Prince having been hugely influenced by Clinton), and in 1985, Clinton produced the second Red Hot Chili Peppers album, Freaky Styley. “I had to get them an apartment in Detroit, because I couldn’t have them getting in trouble at my farm,” he says. “It was a small town, and I was doing bad enough myself. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t OD on me, please!’ My friends would bring them back from the hood and say, ‘I know they your boys, man, but I’m-a try to rob ’em myself next time!’ ” In his own memoir, Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis wrote of Clinton, “You wouldn’t know whether he was on a ton of coke or not; he just had a really strong constitution.” According to Kiedis, Clinton’s coke dealer ended up with a spoken-word part on the Peppers song “Yertle the Turtle” because Clinton owed him money.

As sharp as Clinton’s memory can be — Jane’s Addiction played Lollapalooza ’91, not ’94! — his book is remarkable for its elisions. Though Clinton writes frankly about the drugs he used, he seems unwilling or unable to engage with the emotional cost of years of addiction, or, really, to explore any heavier issues whatsoever. Quitting crack is made to sound fairly easy, a matter of willpower. There’s little mention of heartache, of the dissolution of his previous marriages, and no mention of his son, George III, who was found dead of natural causes in his own Tallahassee apartment in 2010, age 50. Difficult questions regarding race never come up, either.

When I ask Clinton about George III, he says the grief and anger he felt in the wake of his son’s death inspired him to write the book in the first place. “That’s all that was on my mind [while working on the book],” he tells me, “but I was probably just too pissed off to talk about it.” When I ask Clinton if he ever went to rehab, he shoots back, “Fuck rehab, no! You just have to have a reason to quit, and my reason was, ‘You not gonna fuck with my music [royalties] like that.’ ”

Clinton had been smoking crack all day, every day, and half of the night, sleeping for only two or three hours. Checking into the hospital after that final run with Sly, he says, provided a welcome rest. That’s all he’d needed: a bit of sleep, time to get his head straight. “I would love to be high, to still do it,” Clinton says. “But I can’t.”

Talk shifts to Sly, who also lost control of much of his publishing over the years. Around the time Clinton got clean, he helped his friend file a lawsuit, and a few days before my arrival in Florida, Stone was awarded $5 million in back royalties and damages. It’s a happy development, though the case is being appealed, so he hasn’t seen any money yet. And, Clinton confirms, those reports about Sly being homeless and living in a van in California? All true. According to Clinton, he lives on his monthly Social Security checks, along with a small musicians’-union pension. 

Sly Stone and George Clinton

I wonder if Clinton’s ability to quit has served as any kind of inspiration for Sly. “To try to make some more music, yeah,” Clinton says. The pair recorded a strange duet for the new Funkadelic album called “If I Didn’t Love You,” which seems to be about the time they were busted for drugs together. “If I didn’t love you,” Sly sings to Clinton, “I wouldn’t like you at all.”

“He knows that he has to quit,” Clinton says. “But it’s hard to even get the energy when you’re still smoking. And I never push nobody.”

Then, still talking about Sly, but also about himself, in a way that undermines his breezier accounts of sobriety, Clinton continues, “People think it’s easy to just stop. But you can’t just . . . it ain’t that fucking easy. That woman in there.” He’s talking about Carlon now. “I just feel lucky as hell that I had a bunch of people helping me do it,” he says.

“Once I stopped, I realized I had so much energy left over, so much money left over. So much of everything left over.”

It’s dark by the time we get on the road to Dallas. Around midnight, we pull into a truck stop attached to an Arby’s. When Clinton returns to the van, he’s carrying several bags of fast food, which he immediately begins riffling through.

“What are these?” he asks Fatty, holding up one of the french fry cartons.

“Hush puppies, I think,” Fatty says.

Clinton puts them onto the dashboard next to several other containers of fried things, shakes his head. “Shouldn’t send me to buy food when I’m smoking weed.”

As the hour grows late and the other passengers drift off to sleep, Clinton fiddles with the satellite radio. Mostly, he settles on the classic-soul station. He can recognize just about any tune after only a couple of notes, and generally knows the lyrics, too. He quietly sings along, occasionally snapping his fingers or doing the horn part with his mouth. It doesn’t seem to be a performance for anyone’s benefit. The rest of us are asleep for all he knows.

Around two in the morning, when the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” comes on, Clinton joins in, then flicks on the overhead light and turns back to me. “You awake? We did our first tour with them, when we were the Parliaments. We got along good.”

The next track happens to be Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” Berry Gordy’s first hit single. Clinton knew Strong back in Detroit. He had a stroke in 2009 and somehow lost the copyright of his song, and millions in royalties, to Gordy. “He’s in that same predicament as Sly, only he’s in an old folks’ home,” Clinton says. “His song was the cornerstone of the whole empire! That’s a weird one, boy. It’s even called ‘Money.’ ”

Clinton flips to a hip-hop station, which is playing “Drinks on Us,” by Mike Will Made It. It’s not clear if he recognizes the song, but after listening for a moment, he chuckles and joins the chorus. Then he switches to “50s on 5.” It’s Burl Ives. Clinton knows this one right away. “Spoiled my act as a clown,” he sings. “A little-bitty tear let me down.”

On it goes, into the night: Joe Tex, Bobby Lewis, the 5th Dimension, a deep Temptations track called “Firefly.” At some point, I doze off. When I wake again, Clinton is singing softly with Barbara George, “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).” Outside the window, massive oil refineries loom in the distance, lit up like miniature cities, smoke and flames conjuring dystopia.

When I wake up again, we’re a half-hour outside Dallas. Clinton has finally fallen asleep. A song called “Witch Doctor” is playing on the radio. As we approach our hotel, Fatty reaches over and taps the Boss’ shoulder. Clinton opens his eyes, straightens up. By the time we pull into the parking lot, even though soundcheck is five hours away, he looks like he’s ready for the gig.

In This Article: George Clinton


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