Review

George Clinton's funk chronicle, 'Brothas Be, Yo Like George'

George Clinton's entertaining memoir is about Parliament/Funkadelic's years-long party, then the come-down

George Clinton's memoir features aliens, spaceships, George W. Bush, grown men wearing diapers and platform shoes, and a wealth of stories about some of the seminal music Clinton and his collaborators in the Parliament-Funkadelic collective have made during the past 30 years. It also features thieving lawyers, shifty managers and crack cocaine. In short, this entertaining book is about the party, then the come-down.

Taking his cue from James Brown's rhythmic innovations but also Jimi Hendrix and British bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin, Clinton forged an entirely new, ecumenical funk. Screaming guitars, intricate horn arrangements, call-and-response vocals and Clinton's savagely witty wordplay all summoned up a utopian Chocolate City, where race is erased, and all are united under the "the one," the emphatic pulse of funk.

"We were too white for black folks and too black for white folks," Clinton writes. "And that's exactly how we wanted it."

It was among the most innovative music of its era, but the P-Funk mythology was more than just a tripped-out lark: Clinton was at heart a prankster-moralist, declaiming the evils of the Corporation, duplicitous politicians, advertising and mindless profiteering using an array of characters across the numerous records produced by his bands, Parliament and Funkadelic. "We were jokesters," Clinton writes, "but there was an undercurrent of philosophy in our music: ideas of self-expression, of rebelling against received norms, that kind of thing."

Clinton owned a barbershop in Plainfield, N.J., in the late 1950s when he started thinking about a life in music. He had a taste for the hustle; obsessed with Berry Gordy's Motown label in Detroit, Clinton worked up some songs with his friends in the neighborhood and wangled an audition at the label. The Parliaments didn't make the cut, but Motown hired Clinton as a songwriter, and he placed a few songs with the Supremes and other acts. The barbershop closed. "Maybe it was temperament and maybe it was delusion," he writes, "but I always thought that we were going to take over the world. I always convinced myself that things were going somewhere good, and as a result, I kept moving all the time."

The Parliaments finally did break through with Clinton's song "Testify," but then Clinton heard Hendrix and dropped acid, and things got buck-wild. Refashioning the Parliaments as a psychedelic rock band with diapers, dashikis and face paint, Clinton created Funkadelic: "White rock groups had done the blues, and we wanted to head back in the other direction, to be a black rock group playing the loudest, funkiest combination of psychedelic rock and thunderous R&B."

Eventually the band bifurcated into two groups, Parliament and Funkadelic. Clinton and his band mates, which included James Brown alumni Bootsy Collins and classically trained keyboardist Bernie Worrell, needed that large canvas; during the bands' commercial and creative peak, the ideas and the hooks came tumbling forth at a furious clip. "Flash Light," "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)," "Do That Stuff," "One Nation Under a Groove" entered the bloodstream of American dance music in the '70s and stayed there. Clinton could do no wrong — he made Bootsy a solo star, wrote the monster hit "More Bounce to the Ounce" for Roger Troutman, and spun off in all kinds of remunerative directions.

Then the wave crested and rolled back. Clinton started hanging out a bit too much with his idol Sly Stone, and they began sharing song ideas and a crack pipe. There are mordantly humorous stories in the book about Sly and Clinton scoring drugs together, such as the time they were busted in front of Denny's in Hollywood, the cops announcing, "well if it isn't Sly Stone and Dr. Funkenstein." All the while, two members of Clinton's managerial inner circle began surreptitiously grabbing pieces of his funk empire.

Thus began bankruptcy proceedings, the loss of his masters and copyrights, and years of lawsuits. The irony was that Clinton should have been basking in his role as funk's éminence grise: In the '90s he had been discovered by young hip-hop artists, who made P-Funk the most sampled band of the genre. But he wasn't seeing any royalties: "Every time I hired a lawyer to look into it, that same lawyer ended up on the other side, waving back at me."

A newly sober Clinton has a long memory and no remorse; this book (written with Ben Greenman) is an extended anecdotal jam. There are perhaps too many pages devoted to various suits and counterclaims, but it's all enthralling stuff.

Weingarten's book, "Thirsty: Los Angeles and the Search for Water," will be published next year.

Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?

George Clinton with Ben Greenman
Atria: 416 pp., $27

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