For Fans

For Fans
Reviewer: JoshuaBBuhs
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George Clinton:
The Cosmic Odyssey of Dr Funkenstein
376 pages
July 01, 2014
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

The first in-depth biography of one of music’s most fascinating, colorful and innovative characters.

This is a book by a fan--for better and worse.

For me, the most acute thing ever said about popular music came from Kim Gordon ("Sonic Youth"), back in the 1980s: "People pay to see others believe in themselves." Music is where unselfconscious belief--faith--is acted out, and authorized for the listener.

George Clinton (among others) showed Kris Needs belief in action. It touched him: it was raw. And he wants to celebrate that. He just isn't sure how to do it. The book mostly consists of republished snippets from interviews interweaved with Needs's own experiences and his reactions to the various albums that Clinton produced.

Clinton deserves better than this--his life is mythic in many ways, and he both synthesized various strands of music while laying the foundation for the popular music of the next twenty years. Attempts to historicize and contextualize Clinton and his work are amateurish--Needs focuses on general trends (of the Sixties and Seventies, so-called)--and loses tracks of the narrative: better to have focused on Clinton and explore the trends as they touched on or didn't him. But this is standard practice for popular biographies and histories.

The book can be amateurish in other ways, too, with one page completely reprinted, and repeated phrases sprinkled elsewhere.

Most problematic, is that Needs isn't sure what he wants to say about Clinton. He really likes him, and really likes his music. Which is great! But he doesn't always reckon with what funk was. (Although, refreshingly, and unlike many critics, he admits it and disco mutually influenced each other.) He connects it to the social movements of the time, which is fair enough, and later--rightly--makes the case that Clinton's brand of funk was pure silliness, without regret: that's the belief again, Clinton so sure of himself, even knowing he was ridiculous, going out and doing what he did.

But he really seems to resist the earthier, sexier notions of funk. The music's connection with sweat and, especially, vaginas. "If you suck my soul, I will lick your funky emotions," is how "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?," starts. "More Power to the Pussy" is how "Apocalypse" ends. Needs is into rebellion, but seems scared of sex.

Having said all that, the book can be great fun. It's enjoyable, for the fan, to go through the P-Funk catalog song by song and listen to what another fan has to say. (He rightly says "Cosmic Slop" is under-rated, but spends too much space--almost two pages--on the embarrassing "Uncle Jam Wants You!") He draws some nice connections with Sly, is diligent in tracing Clinton's manifold influences, and deals competently with some of the record-industry politics. He avoids the pitfall stepped into by so many biographies of spending too much time on the subject's early life--but probably does spend too much time on Clinton's later years.

He also does a plausible job sketching the P-Funk theology--there's that belief again--a mixture of Sun-Ra, Ishmael Reid, Smokey Robinson, and the Summer of Love.

But it is only a plausible job because, as Needs says--again and again--there were a lot of drugs involved, mostly LSD. And so while one might be tempted to spin all sorts of reasons why Clinton, in the late 1960s, would start singing about the ocean and the religiosity of swimming, ya gotta keep in mind that he said the reason he did so was because he got high on a yacht and thought that the dolphins needed to hear the funk, too.

Clinton was a smart dude, who managed hair salons when he was a teenager and several acts on several different record companies in the 1970s--even if he usually overreached--but that explanation for records such as "Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)" is less about intellect and more about belief.