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George Clinton

by William C Leikam


George Clinton


Journey to the Mother Ship:

On the Road with George Clinton and The P-Funk All Stars

Assured that there would be a limousine awaiting us at Newark International in New Jersey, certain that we would be fully paid to make the journey from the West to the East Coast, on Friday evening, June 28, 1996, drummer and percussionist Muruga Booker and I landed with expectations, but uncertain as to the details of what would follow. We were on another of our somewhat legendary journeys together.

I called George Clinton's number to check in and let them know that we were at the airport. We were told that the limo should be outside but time dragged on and on and no limo appeared. Muruga and I hunkered down on the sidewalk in the heat of the late afternoon. The drums lay against a wall. As an endless stream of cars, taxis, limos and trucks of various sizes swept past, we waited. Worry set in. We strode the walkway, searching. Nothing. More phone calls. Why?

Why were we there, stressed out and tired from a long flight? The landing of the legendary P-Funk Mothership was scheduled to take place in Central Park in New York City on July 4th. That's why we were there. I had all kinds of unsettling fantasies as to why we were not on the move.

I asked Muruga, "How would anyone except Louis or Gary or George even know what we look like? They're the only ones." We watched limos passing, signs in their windows, names of people they were to pick up, drivers barking. Nothing. We waited. An hour and a half. I decided it was time to make another call and check in. Chaos. After a third call, after waiting endlessly, after frustration and anger, George's wife Stephanie came on the phone and said, "Go out there and get yourselves a limo and come on up here. We'll pay when you get here. Guaranteed."

"Where are you and how do I find you?" I asked.

"OK, here's how it goes...," and she lay down the directions to someplace 150 miles away in Up State New York, somewhere that began with a "P." It sounded like Poke-ep-see. As I walked away from the phone booth, ahead of me a limo driver walked around, went back to his car's trunk as though searching for something. I stopped his search. I tapped him on the shoulder. "Can you take us to Poughkeepsie in Upstate?" I thought, "Rehearsal's in upstate?" I couldn't at that point even pronounce the name of the place—Poughkeepsie; "Two and a half hours from here?" I asked myself.

"Where?"

"Poughkeepsie. I've no idea where it's at," I said. "Come here." I pointed toward his driver's door. "We need a limo to take us there. We're musicians and we have a big show to do with George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars. Can you take us?"

"I don't know. Let me take a look." He dug into his briefcase and pulled forth a map and began to scramble for this place called Poke-ep-see. "Yes, it's here," he said and traced his finger across the page. It was obvious that he knew nothing of the P-Funk but he was a set of wheels.

"How much?" I counted dollar signs.

"A hundred fifty-five but before it's all over it'll be more like a hundred 'n seventy-five. Tolls and all, you know?"

"I don't care what it'll cost. I just have to get there sometime tonight with my man." I led him to Muruga who paced, sweating, and I explained to him what was happening.

I turned to the driver. "Well, can you take us there?" I asked.

Again he checked the maps and his company booklet and found Poughkeepsie listed down under the P's. I read the numbers in the book. I felt like negotiating and said, "OK, let's make the trip for a flat-out $150. You get paid when we arrive, and I will tip you." He agreed, and soon I was lost in the depths of New Jersey, peeking at the City across the Hudson River, riding in a limo headed for the Mothership. For me it was a legendary view that I'd seen before, but only as a picture. It was my first look at the Big Apple and we were going to perform there with George and the P-Funk. "My God," I felt, "what a journey this one is."

The driver was Indian and as usual, but especially with Indian people, Muruga launched into his Yoga spiritual rap. I'd heard it so many times before. He was so far ahead of anyone he talked with that he pushed Murugaisms into their face so fast you had no time to respond, and somehow in that rap he got people to believe everything he said. Sometimes when he first came on, he frightened people. The driver listened, presently talking, and I sat back wondering whether we were ever going to find George and Stephanie Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars and a hotel to get some sleep in. I was bushed. Somewhere out there in the green forests of New York State, I leaned over the front seat and said, "Driver, driver. Can we find a gas station so I can make another call? I think I'd better call."

"Sure, sure," he replied, his voice flat. A small town emerged. A gas station. I called.

Stephanie confirmed the directions. We were on course, "...but be sure to go all the way through Poughkeepsie," she reiterated. "We're on the outskirts."

Night came on. I just kept on track, kicking back quietly as they talked of Yoga, Hinduism, gurus, reality, energy, spirit—all couched in Eastern terms. The driver took it all very well and was, thankfully, able to say something in return. Hours passed, or so it seemed.

"Here, here, the turnoff's coming up," I shouted over the seat. We went through a toll road. "There's the turn off—Poughkeepsie. There!"

"I know. I see it," the driver said back over his shoulder. He was keeping track. Muruga was in meditation.

It was 10:15 as we turned off the freeway, down into Fish something-or-another; a small town just off the freeway ramp. Our limo swung left and on up toward Poughkeepsie. Shopping centers passed us until I caught some signs along the way. "Slow down," I called, "we're getting close."

"That's it over there," he called over his shoulder. "We'll make the turn here." It was the hotel.

Exhausted, Muruga went up to George and Stephanie's room while I remained hostage to our luggage and the driver. It was somewhere around 11:00pm. We'd traveled far. So had the driver but after everything was said and done, he was even willing to take us just down the street to our private hotel room. Stephanie paid him $173.00. He had to drive all the way back to New York City or Newark, or home, I was never sure, and I felt sorry for him but at the same time happy that there are people out there who will go that extra mile, even in The Big Apple.

The following morning in our room we awaited George's call, asking us to come on over to his hotel room so that Muruga could give him the Yoga health advice that only Muruga could give and his famous Muruga Massage. When you got that massage, Muruga shook every bone in your body and passed on heat through his hands. He lay you on the floor. He shook every muscle and nerve and cell. He finished you off with a bolt of electricity directly into your closed eyelids. He did it with his hands. Everyone wanted Muruga to massage them.

It was an exciting time; a time when I thought that Muruga would have the chance to go out with his friend George, do the Mothership Tour as George had said on the phone when we were still in California, go out with the P-Funk and enjoy the rigors of the road and be paid well for his efforts. After all, Muruga was a legendary, back-roads-scrambler musician in the funk-family. He had his own recording company, Musart, his own patented Nada drum, his own music, his own publishing company and his own network.

The word came down, "Meet at 11:30 before George has to go to rehearsal."

We had a couple of hours to kill and so Muruga and I ate breakfast, then walked and talked our way down to the broad, muddy Hudson River under a misty rain. Crows followed us all the way. It was Grandfather Spirit as Medicine man Black Crow up on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana had told us. "He will give you good fortune," he'd said back then when Muruga, his wife Shakti, daughter Rani and I had traveled to the reservation. But on this day, good fortune was off in the foggy mist.

We made our way back. Muruga massaged George, talking all the while about recording gigs while I talked with Stephanie about the business and how we were to be paid. Disagreements arose. "Yes, Muruga will be paid for New York but you are on your own," or so Stephanie said. "Back in California Muruga told me that this trip was fully paid, including me."

"But we didn't expect you. You're not in the budget."

"Better put me in because I was told that I was a part of the package to have him here at all. He knows that and so does George."

"Well, I don't know. We'll have to make arrangements," she said and turned to the kitchen.

I went out on the deck and had a cigarette. George's grandkids followed with one of the teenagers. I knew that it was going to be tough. One of the kids killed a spider. I told him about the spirit in all living things. He was far too young to understand. The tall teenager chuckled. He knew.

Early that afternoon George left in a frenzy and we remained without much more than, "You'll all get together tomorrow," Stephanie told us. "Meet at the motel down the road about 12 miles at 9:00 in the morning and go out to rehearsal with the band." She gave us phone numbers and directions.

Meanwhile, we'd been on the phone with Louis "Babblin'" Kabbabie, the P-Funk rapper who'd spread word that Muruga and his manger Bill had finally arrived from California. I hurried Muruga from the shower that morning so that we'd be ready when the All Stars departed from their motel out to rehearsal. We had to catch that ride too. As it turned out, as often happens with musicians and other artists, the complete show was in disarray and no one knew when the van would be there to pick anyone up, nor even whether the van would arrive at all. There had been hints along the way that trouble brewed, but right then in the motel it hit me in the face. People whispered, "The van company that was hired has gone on vacation." Others said, "There's one van that'll pick us up. She's taking a group out right now." "Only one who stayed on with us." And all the while I'm thinking, "How in God's name did we get ourselves into all of this?"

That morning in the motel's main entrance Muruga and I met with the band members who hung out with their instruments parked along the hallway, all of whom were friends and P-Funk family. It was good to meet and give them all a good California Hug: Louis "Babblin" Kabbabie who'd been our escort a few years earlier in Detroit, singer Grady Thomas, my good buddy Gary Shider, keyboardist Clip and guitarist Michael Hampton who, when Muruga began to show up at gigs because George had asked him to, felt as though there was an outsider coming in. Michael became friends on that trip together. And one guy who I'd not seen for a long time was there: Billy "Bass" Nelson, who seldom traveled with the P-Funk. He is however one of the original members, back from the time that George had his barber shop in Plainfield, New Jersey. And of course there were many others on this show who I'd never met but who were part of the family.

Back off in a corner rapping his words of health and Yoga, Muruga began a massage routine on each P-Funk All Stars. Before long, Muruga had around 20 members of the P-Funk All Stars basking in the warmth of his massage, ready to go out to rehearsal. Once Muruga finished with one, he'd jump over to Michael Hampton, or Clip, or Billy "Bass" or whoever happened to be there, give him or, occasionally, her a rap about massage and Yoga and then plant them in the chair and before they knew what had happened, they'd been massaged by Muruga.

PART II
REHEARSAL & DOWN TO NEW YORK CITY

From then on, time raced. We were headed out for rehearsal at Stewart International Airport, a converted Air Force Base, in one of its hangers. (Rather ironic that the Mothership, a large stainless steel flying saucer/UFO, should begin its new journey there on a US Air Force base.) All the way out, the cassette player boomed, "Take a Summer Swim" and Belita Woods, lead vocal on that tune, sat beside me singing with several of the other women. We were a marker pen laying down what everyone believed to be an historical event. This was the "launch" of the new Mothership. Not since 1976, when the First Mothership Tour went out, had it been seen. Old-timers going all the way back to the Parliament days paid attention to this one.

The P-Funk family was gathered and had been together for nearly a month of rehearsals before we arrived. As we assembled the tenor of the greetings were, "Well, ya finally got here." "Good to see ya, bro'." "How ya been?" Talk, talk and more talk; resetting old friendships and bonds that we'd made with the band years before. As we chatted, it became obvious that everything was not moving well with the P-Funk family: Late salary payments, not the per diem that was promised, a hard rehearsal schedule and "George has been ripped off."

The stories were somewhat conflicting, but essentially they said that George's manager had "stolen" nearly $30,000. One story was that George had fired him but then only put him on probation and sent him home. None of it made much sense. The actual story never became clear. It was clear, however, that the booking for the complete Mothership Tour was in disarray. I asked Stephanie and one other person the same question about how booking for the future shows was coming. The answer: "Everything's being worked on but, yes, the tour is not happening at the moment."

As we approached the airbase, I became more and more excited to see this legendary ship. When I stepped into the huge hanger, stage smoke drifted through, giving everything a subdued, eerie feeling. Through the dim light I saw the Mothership hanging there on the far side of the building, gleaming and shiny in the foggy air. It hovered above two other legends: Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Bootsie Collins on bass. We went over and with hugs and smiles we greeted our two old friends, caught up on the latest news, oriented ourselves and then drifted off to see other members of the P-Funk family.

Because the technicians were working on the Mothership's computer, the rest of the band had slipped off into the production offices. When we entered, there was Louie, Mud Bone -- one of the drummers and a very deep human being -- Clip, Michael Hampton, and my buddy from elsewhere on the road with the P-Funk, Sir Nose, the dancer, and all of our other friends. We hugged, bumped fists, gave our funky handshakes, talked and Muruga began giving more massages. They were excited that Muruga and I were finally there from California since he had not been on the road traveling with the P-Funk since Detroit a couple of years before. Muruga had recorded with George on nearly every album from the early '80s and had played with him live, both in Detroit when Muruga's own band was on tour and on the West Coast when George was on the road. I began to get that road feel. That's something that only people who've been on the road can know. Sunday, we met back at the motel to catch the ride to rehearsal but the van was late. The groove begins. The young woman who drove was dedicated to the P-Funk and although she would not let anything slide, she had a boyfriend. On the way out, Belita Woods, one of the P-Funk's great singers who had rejoined for the Mothership Tour and on special occasion, sat beside me and sang. I sat squished between some of the P-Funk women.

Rehearsal went until 2:00 AM Monday morning and George wanted everyone back at the hanger by noon. The pressure magnified. This was On The Road. We were into the flow and that means that you enter a timeless space where anything can and often does happen. You merge with the present and ordinary things like being really hungry, tired and sleepy mean nothing until you crash like a small child. We did not get back to our hotel until 3:00am Monday morning, with the next rehearsal again beginning at noon, just hours away. We had to be up by 8:00 AM.

George Clinton

Final dress rehearsal was 8:00 AM on Tuesday. We were scheduled to leave the airbase around noon when the big busses would be there to take us down to New York City. Our entire luggage was there along with all of the other P-Funk's personal ware. The huge semi-trucks—60-footers—pulled in, crews scrambled to put everything in the trucks and get the equipment down to New York City and set up. Everyone's suitcases and belongings were piled at the hanger's door, ready for the bus to take us down into New York City and the Lucerne Hotel in uptown Manhattan, just a few blocks from Central Park. This was my very first introduction to New York City and it more than lived up to its reputation. People couldn't quite believe that I'd never been in the City. I fell in love with a piece of it. Manhattan.

As the P-Funk family checked into their hotel rooms, it became evident that there was a problem for Muruga and myself. The road manager had not made room reservations for us, as Stephanie had promised. I was disturbed at such an oversight but Belita stood just behind me, overheard what had happened, and hustled Muruga and me aside.

She salvaged us as she said, "Hey, get your things together and follow me. I have a room that's not being used because my record company set aside a suite for me and that's where I will be staying. You guys can have my room." Belita was just that kind of a person. The next day we got our own room on the ninth floor. It cost me. George said he'd pay for it.

That first night in the city, Muruga was scheduled to play a club called Paddy Reilly's Music Bar with a house band along with our good friend Buzzy Linhart from California, keyboard and vibes player for Jimi Hendrix, song writer for Bette Middler and Carley Simon, but we did not expect the rest of what happened that night.

When we emerged from the car driven by producer and director David Kramer, people swarmed us. Out of the crowd stepped one of Muruga's old friends, a person who I'd heard about for years and years; legendary David Peel, one of the true characters and creative forces of New York City. Belita came along with us because she wanted to sing and hang out with the legend Muruga Booker. Did that woman ever sing her heart out that night. At Paddy's new friends were made, legends sat in with the band and we blew the bar down. When it was over, early the following morning and we walked toward the door, the owner said, "Reilly's will never be the same after this." Everyone was happy, tired and hungry and so we drove to a diner for an early morning breakfast. Musicians on the road.  Wednesday was an open day and so Muruga showed me around a bit of the city. That afternoon David Kramer took us down to Garfield, New Jersey, to pick up a new set of conga drums and a Nada Drum from Latin Percussion, who Muruga endorsed and who manufactured and released the Nada Drum onto the world market.

That night Perry Robinson, seven-time International Downbeat Award winner, had arranged another event for Muruga. Musicians from all over the New York/New Jersey area came in just to play with Muruga. The party, the music, the dancing, meeting new friends consumed the night and flowed into the early morning of the Fourth of July; the day we were to be out in Central Park to bring down the Mothership.

When we arrived back at the Lucerne, word was that the band needed to load out of the hotel by 11:30 AM. The bus would be there leaving for Central Park. It was already daylight. We crashed. We were clearly on a musician's schedule. When we awoke and went down into the lobby, it was obvious to me that the complete and intense focus by absolutely everyone in the P-Funk family was on nothing other than heading out there to Central Park and giving the people the finest possible in funk music. They were ready to bring down this historical Mothership event.

It began to rain as Ken, a young drummer and recording engineer for Meatball and Buddy Miles, picked us up and personally drove us up to the park.

CENTRAL PARK

As we had private transportation, we arrived early and began to understand what major security a la New York was all about. We dove into Central Park not knowing where we were headed but somehow we wound our way around, found a gate, told security who we were, showed passes and were let through. But that was only Stage One. We unloaded the gear and packed it toward backstage. Security #2 stood there, huge, hefty guys, one booming, "Where the hell ya think yer goin' with all that shit?"

So, as manager of this element of the gig, I said, "We're with George and this is Muruga Booker."

He said, "I don't give a fuck who he is. You got the proper passes?"

It streaked through my head, "Of course we do." I said, "Passes? Guys show him your passes."

All but one had the requisite pass and so he was rejected right there. My buddy David Kramer was cut. He said that it was OK, he'd get there and later in the day he showed up.

Security said as we passed, "By noon you all have to have the red sticker on that badge before I'll let you back in."

Meanwhile, Grady, Michael Hampton, Clip, all members of the core P-Funk band, arrived at the gate without their passes. They'd assumed that since they were The P-Funk and on that historic tour that they didn't need laminates (all-access passes], but security held them at the gate until George arrived a couple of hours later. It began to rain.

So it was backstage, setting up, the rain, drumheads needing to be protected, hustling from George's backstage room to the main stage as it began to come together like some monstrous jigsaw puzzle. The crew from Upstate was there and they were used to doing very large shows for very large bands.

I found out that Darcy had the red dots. I needed them for my people. She ran about like quicksilver. I somehow could not corner her. Finally, out by the fence I asked her for the red dots. I pushed. She resisted, showing her power. I was determined that she would give all of our people who were backstage the magic spot. Darcy was one hell of a hard woman. It was back in San Francisco when we'd first met. She'd taken some pictures of Muruga on stage and I'd bought them. We'd been friends in business but now, being on tour with George Clinton, she was playing the hellion who held her power. She finally gave them to me.

As I scrambled about making sure that our part of the show was covered, Muruga sat back in George's dressing room, just waiting for him to arrive. In situations like this word comes down backstage that so and so will be coming in within five minutes. That includes George. I went out front and joined the escort. As he approached, Muruga came from the trailer and met him. We all did. He was The Star. He, in all of his color, his funkadelic clothes, was the inspiration for everything that was happening and by then there were already thousands of people beginning to come in for the show some three hours later. This was George as himself. His colored dreads were put in later by his hairdresser.

The July 4th and 5th shows were sold out within hours of the release of the tickets. That evening at 6:00 PM, as the music got underway, there were some 30,000 people in the audience -- seating tickets went for $50 and standing room went for $25. (An aside: Anyone who pays to have a seat at a P-Funk show doesn't understand that they will be up and dancing within a very short time and more than likely they will never be seated again.) On the outside of the fenced area there were thousands upon thousands of others, listening from the lawns, peeking in through the fence to get a glimpse. I walked that parameter a couple of times just to see the scope of our audience.

George Clinton c William C Leikam/Artist Publications

George Clinton
photo © William C Leikam/Artist Publications

That night several hours of Mothership funk rained down on a soggy audience. The intensity of the music grew and grew toward a climax. I stood on stage in the rain taking photographs of everything that was happening as the huge stage shook under the onslaught of Bootsie Collins' bass, Bernie Worrell's keyboards and Michael Hampton's guitar. Just above me a light fixture hung. It streamed endless water down on me until I was forced to move.

George disappeared from the stage. The Mothership's lights began to shower down. The pounding funk came on hard. The veil that had kept the audience from seeing it lifted, as billowing, hissing jets of smoke poured from beneath and it began its slow descent. The audience roared. This was what they had come to see and many had waited twenty years for this single event. Once it was down, George emerged from the smoke and lights, his red/green/yellow hair a perfect match for his multi-colored clothing. The band went into the song "Flashlight." The audience roared and danced through it all and I doubt whether any of the thousands of people who witnessed it were seated. The music, the scene, the people and the event was irresistible. As we left the park, we gave a ride to Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's music director. The Nada drum fascinated him. Muruga gave him the new one.

The audience on the following night was even more intense than on Thursday and maybe that was because it was a clear, warm day in New York City. When we climbed upon the bus after the show, we found out that we were headed for a large club in the Big Apple. The two busses snaked through the city and as Times Square emerged we were informed that we were near. A stranger stood at the head of the bus beside the driver and called out to be quiet. "We're getting close to the club," he shouted. "When we get there, I have some instructions for you." He sat down in the seat behind the driver. He was on a phone chattering to someone. I gazed out onto the streets. I noticed that there were more and more people on the sidewalk and it was already nearing midnight.

The bus slowed because of the wall-to-wall traffic ahead. The sidewalk was filled with people. No one moved. I wondered why. As the bus slowed, the guy in the front stood and shouted again for quiet. "When we pull up to the club here just ahead, we open the doors and every one of you head directly for the open door in that building. As fast as you can. Do not stop to speak with anyone. Security will create a path for you. Do not stop for any reason. Look straight ahead and go for that door. When you get inside, there will be other security and you follow their directions." He sat back down.

Muruga and I had to run the gauntlet between the bus and that door. Everyone, it seemed surged for the door all at the same time. And then beneath my foot was the sidewalk, hard down and I heard people shouting and begging for favors. We plunged in downstairs and it was wide open for us. Anything we wanted was there. I went for a glass of red wine. The opening band was still on stage. "We aren't ready to go on," George said. "We'll get there when we get there. Not time right now."

Meanwhile, I ran my own gauntlet, those New Yorkers who knew Muruga, had hung with him and offered their studio. They wanted backstage and I was expected to get them there but I didn't have the power they thought I had on the inner circle of George Clinton and the Mothership Tour. As I walked back and forth meeting people here and there, others tugged at me as I passed. My head spun. I was able to get Kramer backstage but not Ken and his crew.

Suddenly, in that waylay, the band began to take the stage. It became an evolution in the music as it began to emerge with Michael on guitar stepping forward and Muruga right up there with his Nada Drum behind the funk-guitar. And the audience cheered and gave their hand signs as the music pumped itself into a full-blown funk tune. It got crowded downstairs. People were looking for me and I was looking for other people and so sometimes we crossed paths. Musicians, promotional people, the press all want to know. By the time that was over, I was asleep until they woke me at around 5:00 AM and said that we had to go. "Come on," someone's voice urge and I got up.

On Saturday we checked out of our hotel to hang out at producer/director David Kramer's house on the Hudson River to wait for Buddy Miles to arrive from Nebraska. We had a recording session set for that evening with Buddy, Muruga, Buzzy Linhart and several other musicians at Ken's studio. The night and the music grew very deep and didn't wrap up until around 5:00 AM Sunday.

We needed to catch our plane by 8:30. We made it with only three minutes to spare. California sure looked good.

George Clinton: The Father of Funk next

  

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