George Clinton, Institutionalized: The Mothership Lands in Chocolate City
In the 1970s, on behalf of his bands Parliament and Funkadelic, as well as all their spinoff satellites and solo stars, George Clinton created a cosmological mythology so dense and elaborate and wonderful, it’d take a Joseph Campbell to properly cross-index and contextualize. But no matter how you manipulate its meanings–its myriad metaphors merged with musical virtuosity–at the symbolic and sometimes literal center of the P-Funk universe is the stage-set Mothership that used to descend in the midst of concerts, a 1,200-pound life-sized landing craft constructed, collectively, in the name of the P-Funk ideal. Clinton as Dr. Funkenstein would emerge and strut down its stairs to the opening bars of Funkenstein’s eponymous song, this otherworldly presence with his otherworldly sound, secure enough in his band’s own excellence to indulge such a clownishly contrived conceit.
These past couple weeks, the Mothership has landed in America in a big way, and I’m just glad its primary mastermind, 70 years old and still counting, has lived to see it occur. One of the songs he made, with Parliament in the seventies, was this thing called “Chocolate City,” on an album of the same name. And when that one dropped in ’75, the idea of a black man in the White House was so unthinkable, Clinton turned it into cosmo-comic sci-fi just by reciting, in spoken word over a swamped-out, slow-stepping funk groove, his fantasy’s mere premise:
What’s up, CC. They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition too—can you dig it, CC? […] Uh, blood to blood, players to ladies, the last percentage count was eighty. You don’t need the bullet when you got the ballot. Are you up for the down stroke, CC? Chocolate City, are you with me out there? And when they come to march on ya, make sure they got their James Brown pass. And don’t be surprised if Ali is in the White House. Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure. Richard Pryor, Minister of Education. Stevie Wonder, Secretary of Fine Arts. And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady.
We know what happened thirty-three years later—not just a direct descendant of slaves becoming the actual first lady but Aretha Franklin singing at the ceremony that inaugurated her husband, who is also black. And no less than Stevie Wonder his own self was among the first to be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the new black president. The appeal of Clinton’s zany fantasy is timeless. Just this past weekend, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch very similar to Clinton’s political premise, with a bunch of candidates vying to become mayor of “Funkytown.” When one of the candidates, Will Ferrell as Captain Catfish, introduces his Clintonesque ideal cabinet, the city comptroller is a black man, someone called Diaper Jones as played by Jay Pharoah, and goddamn it if he isn’t wearing nothing but a fucking diaper, just like Clinton’s own late rhythm guitarist Garry Shider.
There are other P-Funk parallels in the sketch, but you get the idea. And anyway, fleshing them all out here would mean leaving no space for the real news from out of Chocolate City last week, that week that saw Chocolate City’s very own head of state publicly concur with his vice president on the issue of gay marriage. So on this week that saw the country take a giant stride toward becoming more hospitable to those who dare own up to their own differentness–a rising tide in support of eccentricity and idiosyncrasy that promises to lift all motherships–it’s only appropriate that the Mothership itself, Clinton’s Mothership, finally came to occupy the place it had been vaguely navigating toward for nearly four decades: the Smithsonian Institution, right in the officially sanctioned cultural heart of Chocolate City.
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