Like many people, I have a vivid, almost visceral memory of the first time I heard Parliament-Funkadelic, known to its votaries as P-Funk. The setting, profoundly unfunky, is the Upper East Side mansion of a world-renowned media icon. I’m sprawled on the carpet of an upstairs bedroom, savoring the acrid hospitality of his stoner son, my back braced against the bed as the blast from his floor-to-ceiling speakers really does tear the roof off the sucker—and, I feel certain, the attic and the servants’ quarters, too. More to the point, it tears the roof off my mind.
In the vast, sunlit vacancy thus created, something new is springing up. Ecological succession, fast-forwarded. It’s a thrumming, sentient forest. It’s an Afro-futurist dopamine machine. It’s a fugue at once gross and sublime: a living, burgeoning edifice of beats and beams, of riffs and hooks, of interlocking girders and entwined lianas, of words twirling absurdly on trapezes, blithely defying the depths of unmeaning below.
An acid-addled “Ode to Joy,” it clasps all humanity—and then some—in its sweaty embrace, from the polymorphous personas of the band (Sir Lollipop Man, Starchild, the Thumpasorus Peoples) and the vast congregation they invoke (Recording Angels, Citizens of the Universe) right down to the beings scattered around me on the rug: the network anchor’s fleetingly unmoored son, and his prep-school buddy, and that buddy’s big sister, who happens to be my college squeeze.
The record on the high-end turntable might be an object, a mere thing, but the music is a thang. As I would write a few years later in The Recording Angel, “A thing is what you possess, a thang is what possesses you. A thing occupies space, a thang occupies time and preoccupies people. A thing, above all, is private, a thang can be shared. As thang, music is again communal and celebratory.”
Since the 1960s, when George Clinton’s doo-wop group, the Parliaments, sang, shot the breeze, and sold weed in his barbershop, in Plainfield, New Jersey, his music has been a deeply social, wildly collective creation. Neither a hard-assed bandleader like James Brown nor an auteur of phonography like Frank Zappa, nor yet a lone supernova like Jimi Hendrix—to name three of his prime influences—Clinton has been, instead, the ringmaster of an anarchic, bigger-than-big-top circus whose rings have kept proliferating: Parliament, Funkadelic, the Brides of Funkenstein, the Horny Horns, United Soul, Parlet, the P-Funk All Stars, Bootsy’s Rubber Band.
In the glory days of the mid-70s, 30 players, singers, and jongleurs might grace a single stage; 50 friends and fellow travelers, drifting through the studio, might make their mark on a single record. When the big top collapsed amid royalty squabbles, Clinton—as singer, songwriter, and producer—expanded his revels to embrace new acts: Snoop Dogg and Digital Underground, Ice Cube and David Toop, Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, OutKast and Wu-Tang Clan, Living Colour and Kendrick Lamar.
What better way, then, to celebrate the long-delayed reopening of New York’s outdoor-concert season than with a rare appearance by Clinton and P-Funk? Don’t expect George to disport himself in a diaper or a bedsheet; these days he favors loosely tailored suits. And don’t expect the Mothership to land; that over-the-top, once airborne prop is now docked at the Smithsonian. Plainfield homeys Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel, and Garry “Starchild” Shider have moved on to the next galaxy, Bootsy Collins to a solo career. Now Clinton’s own grandchildren, flanked by the offspring of other P-Funk elders, fill out the band. And his voice, after decades of chemical abuse, can be favorably compared only to the croak of a vivisected beast.
But funk it—I’m psyched. The good Lord willing and the virus don’t rise, this will be my first full-scale concert experience in more than a year. When the band plays “One Nation Under a Groove,” my pod (a foursome different from the one on that East Side carpet, and even more congenial) will sing along. So, too, will the rest of the crowd spaced out—and, yes, spaced out—in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield. And for a moment, a precious moment, we’ll believe.
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic will perform at SummerStage, in New York City’s Central Park, on June 27
Evan Eisenberg is an upstate New York–based writer and the author of The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa and, most recently, The Trumpiad