PARLIAMENT-FUNKADELIC/THE GRATEFUL DEAD:
R-N-B Skeletons from the closet
COSMIC COLLUSION AT THE CROSSROADSSeptember 19th, 1992. It’s a lovely, warm night at summer’s end. I, like hundreds of other P-Funk fans are waiting patiently in the audience ready for our super funky heroes (along with Mothership co-pilot Bootsy Collins and, in one of his last appearances with the Funk mob before his death three months later, guitar anti-hero Eddie Hazel) to stomp the stage at The Ritz in midtown Manhattan. The level of anticipation in the air is as thick as quick-dried cement. For we all know this will be a true voyage to the bottom of the P.
by Tim Kinley
But on this particular night, the atmosphere in the audience quite different than at previous gigs. I look around the hall to see if I will find any familiar faces in the crowd, as I do at all of the shows. To my surprise, there is a physical entity present at this gig that was previously absent at other shows: young white hippies. One of them offers me a little “Mary Jane” in the spirit of brotherhood. I politely decline but thank him for his generosity. We get to talking and he tells me about how this was his first P-Funk gig and how he recently discovered the redemptive powers of the Mothership Connection thru a friend of his. I tell him about how I’ve been soldier in Uncle Jam’s army for 14 years. He responds in awe. Then he tells me about how he was a faithful follower of the Grateful Dead for around the same period, but for various reasons, wasn’t digging on their vibe as much anymore. I respond by asking him to give me his honest opinion about this gig after show. He assures me that he will. We’ll get to that response a little later.
Twelve years later, this situation has multiplied itself ten-fold as more and more Deadheads are swelling the already huge P-Funk fan base. I remain fascinated by this peculiar phenomenon and how it actually came together. My fascination is fueled by the once-exclusive nature that surrounded the P-Funk mystique up to that point. Prior to the mid-eighties, Parliament-Funkadelic represented the type of stature in African-American culture that in many ways even James Brown and Sly Stone hadn’t achieved, meaning their popularity attracted record numbers of black fans yet they received virtually no love outside the 'hood. They never scored a top ten album or single on Billboard’s top 100 single/album charts, a criteria that every mover and shaker in black music over the past 50 years has met at some point in their careers.
During the years 1969 to 1973, P-Funk would attract a decent sized underground following that included black college kids, young white hippies in heavy parental rebellious mode, and other hangers in search of the next musical thrust. That would all change in 1974 with the release of Up For The Down Stroke, Parliament’s first album for the Casablanca label and to a lesser extent, Standing on the Verge Of Getting It On which their alter egos Funkadelic would release on the Westbound label a month earlier. The former would reach number ten on the Billboard soul charts and would help to solidify their standing in the black music market. This situation would only get bigger as they would tour with Funk groups (War, Graham Central Station, the Ohio Players) who would already earn huge respect in the various Chocolate Cities all over the U.S.
This situation went into “urge overdrive” with release of Parliament’s Mothership Connection in early 1976. This landmark Funk masterpiece would earn P-Funk their first platinum album as well as their first million selling single “Tear The Roof Off The Sucker.” Within two years, they would become the biggest black touring attraction in the U.S.. In an almost unprecedented turn of events, P-Funk now courted a fan base that was, by conservative estimates, at least 95% black. The anti-crossover nature present in their albums and hit singles during this period only helped to cement their title as Black America’s favorite band.
At the same time, the Grateful Dead were enjoying similar success as a top concert draw in the psychedelic rock arena. Their audiences were as white as P-Funk’s was black. The two worlds seemed totally distant and separate yet equally powerful in their individual goals of presenting alternative musical journeys to their audiences. A merging of the two ideals seemed unthinkable at this time. The re-segregation of FM rock radio a half a decade after the passing of Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t help matters either.
While the presence of Deadheads at P-Funk shows in the nineties were slow in growth, it was undeniably bolstered by the untimely passing of Jerry Garcia in 1995. The search for a new musical messiah would point squarely in the direction of George Cinton, P-Funk’s center axis and it’s Maggot Overlord. It also didn’t hurt that GC and his P-Funk All Stars had already cultivated a musical history that harked back to the days of doo-wop and early rock and roll (their first official release, the single “Poor Willie/Party Boys" was released in 1958) and they had an extensive catalog of album releases by various spin offs in the P-Funk canon.
What effect it would have if both P-Funk and surviving members of the Grateful Dead collaborated on a project is the subject of great speculation. One can only imagine what would be the end result of collaborations between creative musical figures like the aforementioned Bootsy, keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart, along with various members of both troups, with GC overseeing the joyful process. Both fan bases have everything to gain musically, socially and emotionally from such a union.
On that warm September night in 1992, after the festivities of evening have faded into my personal data bank, I turn to the Deadhead to ask him his opinion of what he’d just witnessed. “Dude… absolutely awesome!! Where was this band all of my life?!” Afterwards, I think to myself… "maybe the utopian ideal expressed in the 1978 Funkadelic anthem One Nation Under A Groove ain’t so utopian after all." I guess it’ll happen one Deadhead at a time.
ONE TO ONE WITH MIXED EMOTIONS
There are obvious and not so obvious benefits with regards to this cross- pollination of the P-Funk and Deadhead nether worlds. Yet at this time the pollination isn’t open for equal time. P-Funk fans, so long as George Clinton is living and jiving and digging the skin he’s in, aren’t about to make a mass exodus to shows by Rat Dog, Mickey Hart and the other bands that have sprung up in the wake of Garcia passing.
These fans have grown up under the musical and political might of James Brown, Issac Hayes, Sly, Aretha, Hendrix (Band of Gypsies era), Mandrill, Malcolm X, Ali, and the Black Panthers. Entities that have reaffirmed a people’s sense of self in terms of determination and identification, something the Grateful Dead experience, however well meaning, can’t provide.
On the other side of the funky dollar bill, many Deadheads attending P-Funk shows will experience something quite similar to what young white civil rights workers experienced attending Baptist churches in the south, meaning the spiritual genesis of the black experience. Since most of these Deadheads will never see the inside of a Baptist church, P-Funk maybe the next best incorporated thang.
As mentioned earlier, many of the P-Funk hits, even crossover singles like “Flash Light,” never made deep inroads in white communities in the late seventies. Many Deadheads attending these shows will hear near gospel renditions of these hits, which can only result in a life altering experience for the listener. The band’s earlier work, rooted in the innovations of Sly and Jimi is what initially attracts Deadheads to the music. And since P-Funk has redefined themselves numerous times during their career, Deadheads become acquainted with an evolution of musical styles emanating from one band. From doo-wop to Detroit soul to acid-funk to street funk to industrial techno-funk and beyond.
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