George Clinton with Ben Greenman
Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’
Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir
(Atria Books, 2014)
“Funk is its own reward,” George Clinton announced in an authoritative baritone on the opening track to his album The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. It was a promise of fulfillment through music, immediately followed by a foreboding request: “May I frighten you?”
Clones was released by Clinton’s band Parliament in 1976, as he was approaching the apogee of his not-inconsiderable industry powers. That same year Funkadelic, his other primary vehicle, released two albums. He also collaborated on his bassist Bootsy Collins’s first solo album while mounting the massive P-Funk Earth Tour, during which he would emerge onstage from a smoke-and-mirrors spaceship.
Over the next couple of years, he would fully stake his claim with more albums, more bands, and a tour that changed the scene from outer space to the ocean floor. With the help of an ever-growing “funk mob” of fantastically talented, inventive, and freaky musicians, Clinton updated R&B for the post-psychedelic ’70s and reupholstered it again when disco and later hip-hop emerged, crafting new, rewarding, and sometimes frightening music. This remarkable career is detailed in Clinton’s enjoyable if self-serving 416-page monologue Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, from singing doo-wop and owning a barbershop in Newark to the eventual crumbling of his empire through drug abuse and financial mismanagement.
It’s a fast and fun read, and Clinton is a charismatic narrator. He dispenses barbershop wisdom (“Music and books and films flowed to us through the same channels as sex and drugs”) and humor (“I had holes in the holes in my shoes”) with a keen eye for the parallel developments of white and African-American popular music. There are bits of forgotten history—keyboardist Bernie Worrell’s early membership in a band called Chubby and the Turnpikes, for example, which changed its name to Tavares (“Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” “Never Had a Love Like This Before”) after drummer Joey Kramer left to join Boston rockers Aerosmith. There’s also plenty of secret P-Funk lore: Officer Dibbles, the pet pig that toured with Funkadelic in the early days; Logic, the stuffed animal that served as a mascot on later tours; and finally a large rock of crack cocaine Clinton carried on the road, superstitiously refusing to break and smoke it—though he certainly found other avenues of supply.
The flip-side to barbershop wisdom is barbershop boasting, and Clinton’s story seems at times self-serving. He paints himself as the puppet-master, and while he no doubt deserves much of the credit for creating the “Parliafunkadelicmentthang,” the tellings don’t always ring true. Elsewhere, for example, Collins has given Clinton far less credit for the creation of his Starchild persona than Clinton affords himself. The same goes for the financial differences that came between Clinton and some of his longtime associates, who would likely describe them differently than Clinton does here. He seems at times to damn his musicians with high praise, tagging them as geniuses but writing little about the making of the music, which certainly couldn’t have happened without the incredible pool of talent he assembled. (Clinton himself doesn’t play a musical instrument.) Loss of memory and inflation of ego might be unsurprising given his history with drugs, and whether or not years of crack addiction colored his recall, he makes no secret about his past use. Speaking at the Museum of the Moving Image on October 27, in one of a quick run of promotional appearances around town, he quipped, “If it wasn’t for flashbacks I wouldn’t have no memory at all.”
Just as he mugged to the museum audience, he doesn’t seem to shoot straight with his readers, which can be frustrating when he talks about the addiction that clearly seems to have hurt his later career. He wants the glory of the pop-star lifestyle, but barely owns up to the cost. “I don’t like stories where people melodramatically announce that they have hit bottom, as if that somehow suspends or justifies the rest of the choices that they have to make, as if it erases the other characters and the very idea of consequence,” he writes, going on to detail his own bottoming-out. But the main problem drugs caused him, he seems to think, was his not noticing when labels and managers were ripping him off. Speaking at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library on October 29 as part of the “LIVE From the NYPL” interview series, he was more forthcoming. After waxing nostalgic for the glory days of free drugs and free love, he said he spent 25 years trying to find a positive drug experience again but ended up addicted. “It takes a long time to get off crack,” he said. “That’s what this whole book is about.”
That’s not what the whole book is about, no more than it’s about the need for musicians to control their own copyrights, a claim he made later that evening. The book is about a lifetime of forging musical hybrids, culminating in a forthcoming album, for which the book delivers a fair bit of hype. Ultimately, if the telling is one-sided, it’s from the side of one of the visionaries of 20th-century popular music. It’s a shame he didn’t think enough of his own story to scale back the grievances and hype, but while funk may be its own reward, you can’t cash it at the bank.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes fiction and about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.