Trickster Makes The World

Trickster Makes The World
Reviewer: JoshuaBBuhs
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Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?:
A Memoir
416 pages
October 21, 2014
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Long-awaited memoir from one of the greatest bandleaders, hit makers, and most influential pop artists of our time — George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic.

Better than it had any right to be. Maybe.

Clinton's biography had been advertised for a while, under different titles. The published version eventually came from a track off Funkadelic's comeback album. (Supposedly, there's a Parliament comeback in the works, too.) And it's intent is clearly to settle some legal scores and get Clinton payment for and access to music he created forty years ago. All of that would seem suggest that the book wouldn't be very good. But the first 250 pages or so are fascinating.

The bulk of that part of the book covers Clinton's childhood, entrance into the musical industry, learning the ropes, and becoming the force behind Parliament, Funkadelic, and a number of off-shoot bands. The story touches on some of his personal issues--his romantic entanglements, personality conflicts, drugs--but focuses mostly on the music. Clinton doesn't really play an instrument, ad he has no formal training in music. He's a lyricist and producer, and the book sounds like something from a producer.

Clinton here is constantly thinking in terms of music and musical acts--everything is compared to some other musician. It's the substance of his thought. One gets an excellent insight into what Clinton was thinking as he created his profoundly influential bands. Grown up admiring Motown and hoping to break through their--he failed because his band had too much humanity, a foible which would become a selling point for P-Funk--Clinton was influenced by British blues, especially Eric Clapton and the Beatles, and American folk, especially Bob Dylan, wanting to expand the Motown sound and allow it to find a groove.

He was also influenced by LSD, which seems to have been his everyday accompaniment through the late 1960s and much of the 1970s. He wanted to make funk music, as created by James Brown and Sly Stone--Clinton seems to have something of a grudge against Brown, not explored here--more psychedelic. Hence, Funkadelic. It's the second band everyone thinks of in relation to Clinton, but seems to have been the one he really loved. Parliament was an off-shoot, exploring some of the same musical ideas, but returning the songs to a (more) conventional R&B structure.

For the bulk of the book, it seems as though Clinton and his ghostwriter Ben Greenman went through a vast trove of records and memorabilia,jogging Clinton's memory and getting him to tell stories. Greenman does an excellent job of keeping the story organized and focused.  (All too many musical autobiographies are so loosely structured as to be stream-of-consciousness.) The story of the 1980s are not so interesting--Clinton by then was a slave to crack. The 1990s regain some of the same vitality of the story from the '90s, as Clinton merges with the hip-hop community. Clearly, though, crack remained an albatross well into the 2000s.

But with Clinton, there's always a question. He's a trickster, Clinton is, as he admits. The book starts with lots of "if you can believe it"s, which is the sure sign one is in the presence of a con artist, even if an entertaining one, in the tradition of P.T. Barnum. Greenman does a good job of hinting at Clinton's voice, but it's never fully there. The scatology which is one of Clinton's trademarks is mostly sidelined. Whose choice was that? It makes the book more readable, though less funny than it could be.

One also begins to wonder about Clinton's memory, especially given the amount of drugs he's been on. How many of the stories he tells are remembered, how many recreated? And how many of the stories are told to make his whole life seem to make more sense than it actually did. Everything here unfolds so perfectly logically. Is this true, or is Clinton putting a thumb on the scale as he makes a case for his legal actions? What is left out? (I noticed there's no discussion of Sun Ra or Ishmael Reed. Clinton attributes his ideas to science fiction and Erich von Daniken.) The book seems god--but it raises so many questions.

Three men, more than any other, are responsible for the vast majority of the music played on radios today: James Brown, Sly Stone, and George Clinton, the impressario behind Parliament and Funkadelic. Yet they don't get 1/10th the recognition of a niche musician like Eric Clapton. (Which is not a shot at Clapton: he's great at what he does; it's just narrow.) Even with this autobiography, though, there is much more to be said about the three men, their networks, and funk music in general. The best book on funk remains Ricky Vincent's fan history.

I look forward to more investigation of this vital musical form.