Can We Get to That

By  |  November 20, 2018
Photo of George Clinton (1977) courtesy of Richard E. Aaron / Redferns / Getty Images Photo of George Clinton (1977) courtesy of Richard E. Aaron / Redferns / Getty Images

KANNAPOLIS 

Hover above the outhouse topography of Kannapolis, North Carolina, pre–sewer and water service. Roofs pitched at a slight nod, a surge of hills dotted with pin oaks and maples. Roads that will one day be named for NASCAR heroes and cotton barons defer to gullied rills, the only running water in town. Trees-of-heaven vie with hog pens for the nose’s attention. Intimately known as “stink trees”—according to Cabarrus County Department of Forestry they smell like burnt popcorn—these hardy plants are resistant to the coal smoke rising from Cannon Mills, the textile company whose absorbent bath towels populated linen closets in the twentieth century. 

Cannon Mills was founded in 1887, deeded from plantations in the area then known as Glass, North Carolina. The remote bathrooms were later built to accommodate the shotgun housing for white sharecroppers and black workers migrating from South Carolina. (Among the plats of land Cannon acquired was Warren Coleman’s mill in Concord, the first black-owned cotton manufacturer in the U.S., which had gone bankrupt by 1904.) Not to discount whatever events took place in the other 1,599 outhouses in Kannapolis at the time, but the one plotted just north of the rooming house on Lowe Avenue calls for historical designation. It already has its own day: July 22, 1941, when George Clinton was born to Julious Clinton and George Clinton Sr. 

“I heard that [outhouse legend], soon as I could remember anything,” says George, now seventy-seven and on his final Parliament-Funkadelic tour. “About the midwives, how they delivered babies. That story is one of my first childhood memories. She was going to the bathroom and had me.” 

I learned of George’s origin story in his autobiography, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? His constituents in Cabarrus County greet this lore with little ceremony and less surprise, elevating outhouse to Mothership as a matter of survival. “I’ve tried to get George to visit Kannapolis,” says Leon Thompson, a retired corrections officer and old family friend who grew up on Lowe Avenue. “I don’t think he’s ever seen the place where he was born. But I did see him at a family reunion in Greensboro. George is an interesting guy.” 

Overton Loyd, the illustrator who designed a pop-up Atlantis for Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair, once described Clinton as a cross between Malcolm X, Rod Serling, and Walt Disney. In a career noted for its anti-Nixon movements (with the contributions of hundreds of musicians), the outhouse legend could be easily flown headlong into Clinton’s P-fantasia, joining a revolution disguised in potty humor: the images of spanked war babies, guitar players in bedsheet diapers (loomed by Cannon?), George’s jumbo rubber chicken feet that Bootsy Collins spotted poking out of a toilet stall in D.C., the “Maggot Brain” prologue about drowning in your own shit/business. It all gets brought down to earth, to a concrete slab at the edge of the woods in a small cotton mill town, where the nearest segregated hospital was miles away but the closest midwife was family. Funk was a condition, a transformative property of existence born from a landscape of human capital. 

In the George Clinton ethos, funk has stood for blackness, change, free expression, sex, family, church, armored sweat, and performing in mechanical seahorse get-ups. With its protean breakdowns and reformations, funk is what writer Greg Tate called a “redemptive deprograming and reprogramming mission,” wiggling through gospel, blues, rock, jazz, and r&b, unconfined. You don’t have to be listening to funk to hear funk, any more than you need Apollo quad thrusters to land the Mothership (P-Funk’s famous half-ton aluminum arena prop). Any P-Funk show could be a Mothership landing, and any landing, a launch. It’s the people there who make it happen, chanting craft into being. 

George’s mother, Julious, once sang her child “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks,” a 1922 Thomas Talley poem that Funkadelic would turn into an Echoplex for equality in 1971. The refrain could’ve been a back-and-forth between eras. As if it were George’s mother urging “Can you get to that?” to hip-hop’s future generations, looped into the already now. No time to sit around admiring a sample for its timeless consequence. 

“I’m dreaming of a new idiom,” says George’s younger cousin Manualynn Stowe Faison, on the phone from Myrtle Beach. “We need to harness that deep down P-Funk energy. Don’t tell him I told you, but George has that Alice in Wonderland mind. Doesn’t take much to get it pumpin’.” 

An educator and collector of rare West African drums, Manualynn grew up in Kannapolis, daughter of a bondsman who proudly beat Dale Earnhardt to a key to the city. As a child, she watched “shoot ’em ups” and atomic insects at the Palace Theatre, just a block up from the Clintons’ house. “George’s grandmother and my grandmother were sisters. It was a lot of those Benson girls from Cherryville and they were all very strong women. They were all entrepreneurs. They raised pigs, made lye soap. They’d make molasses and flower designs in the butter. They emphasized how they could make a way out of nothin’. That’s what she embedded in me. I think that’s what George got his from. The mothership connection.” 

Lowe Avenue slants across a hill below a former hog farm, in the South Kannapolis pocket of New Town. This is just minutes’ walk from Nightown (“Nigh Town”: you have to listen to someone from Kannapolis to get the beat right, a protective measure of oral history), where Aretha’s father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, allegedly preached to the Fire Baptize Church. “It was segregated back then but once you got to Lowe Street, you felt safe,” remembers Leon Thompson. “It was mainly black families from South Carolina. My father drove a cement mixer. He’s the one that got George’s father to come up here from Lancaster in the mid-1930s.” 

George’s great-great-grandfather, the Reverend Isom Caleb Clinton, born into slavery, founded the Mount Carmel AME Zion Church in Lancaster County in 1866. Leon still makes annual visits for “Camp Meetings,” a revival celebration carried on from when slaves were allowed to gather the first week in September. “Our families helped start it,” he says. “George’s ancestors and my ancestors were the folks. You talking about some a cappella! They were raising hymns. George’s musical abilities can be attributed to these roots. His father sang gospel.” 

In 1939, George Clinton Sr. worked in Cannon Mills’ “opening room,” the only job available for black employees, removing cotton from five-hundred-pound bales in extreme dust and heat. By 1945, the family had relocated to D.C., followed by moves to Chase City, Virginia, and Plainfield, New Jersey. Having already left Kannapolis by the age of four, George’s only memories of North Carolina are his mother’s: picking blueberries, stories of her Cherryville hometown, dancing to Louis Jordan. “Those kind of songs that make a young mother that still wanna go out and party. My mother used to make those funky faces when ‘Caldonia’ come on.” 

Funk can be a sense of place, transmigratory memories filtered through the nose. For George Clinton, the smell of pig shit crosses state lines. “I remember feeding them pigs. I was knee deep in pig shit. Cosmic pig slop. That’s why you make the same face when something smells. Funk tickles the same muscle. That Southern vapor. Up in there with the biscuits and bacon. Your mother cooking with that iron stove, especially on Sunday morning. That was that same good smell that make you frown like you hear that funky blues.” 

“My aunt said George was the eatinest rascal she’d ever met,” Manualynn laughs. “Gobblin’ up everything. She said, ‘I never thought that joker would amount to nothin’. And I had to eat my words. There he was on Soul Train!’” 

“Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?” was not on Soul Train, but rather good acid. Recorded in Detroit in 1970, this nine-minute response begins with licking chops on reverb. Through distortion and shimmer, George reflects on leaving “a little town in North Carolina” while headed for the Black Soap Palace, the New Jersey barbershop where the Parliaments formed. Virginia gets bypassed, along with the Philip Morris Plant that manufactured the Parliaments’ namesake, as well as George’s gigs throwing papers and caddying for Ben Hogan. By the fade, Kannapolis has long evaporated into flange and steam, raising suspicions that the song never left Detroit to begin with. 

 

CHARLOTTE 

Dale Earnhardt Boulevard runs near the old Freak Palace space in Kannapolis, across 85 South into Concord, by a clock repair shop/ record store where I bought the Funkadelic 45 “Music for My Mother.” Concord is the former home of WPEG, the station that once kindly broadcast “Atomic Dog” twenty-five miles south to the atomic dogwoods of Charlotte. I grew up in Charlotte and first met George at an in-store at Shazada Records, when I was thirteen. I remember kaleidoscopic braids, long nails, and a ten-minute blind-dog rap called “Dog Talk.” (“If I mistake you for a tree to pee, I hope you understand.”) 

In 1977, the actual Mothership stalled out at the Charlotte Coliseum (roughly three “Maggot Brains” south of Kannapolis, depending on traffic). A checkerboard representing the city’s minor league hockey team hung from the rafters nearby. A Mothership mechanic was dispatched by ladder. This eyewitness report comes from Jeff Mathis, then a student at Concord High, watching from the floor, blown of mind. “It gave off sparks and finally got to the stage. I can still see Dr. Funkenstein coming out. Someone threw a joint on stage and he came back and threw a three times bigger one into the crowd. It was very cloudy on the floor. I’d say it’s been cloudy since ninth grade. You didn’t go to the bathroom at a P-Funk show, not back then. Somebody’ll pass you somethin’ and next day you’ll wake up on the floor somewhere. But if you want to jam, you jam with George.” 

Talking to the Charlotte Post in 1979, George promised to submerge the Coliseum with Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair Tour. He called the show “20,000 Mugs Under the P,” having been inspired by a fishing trip in the Bermuda Triangle. See you in Planktonia. George, who claims he can hear fish, once shot a catfish with a bow and arrow from the shore, advancing the state of leisure sport in tie-dyed pants and Cazals. 

The farm in Michigan where this actually happened is also where George’s little brother James “Jimmy G” Keaton authored the bassline to “Hydraulic Pump” in 1982. That moon-cycle lapping at the shore, post-wake, was actually handclaps, congregated inside a drum machine and processed through reefer. Either way, “Hydraulic Pump” can turn a party into a bodily function. “I wanted it to be syncopated with the lights on a flying saucer,” says Jimmy G, on the phone from Greensboro. “That’s genetics.” 

 

GREENSBORO 

On February 12, 1993, George Clinton threw a family reunion during “Flash Light” and tore down a former Confederate capital while wearing an Aladdin bedsheet. That show at War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro was allegedly P-Funk’s first outing together in a decade. According to the Greensboro News & Record, George said he’d been on a bathroom break. 

“My mother was there,” George remembers today. “There were so many of my family there that night. My sister—she got eight girls and all them got girls. I’ve got so much family living in Greensboro. It’s always a reunion when I play there.” George’s mother would end up residing in Greensboro until her death in 2009. “When his mother passed,” says Manualynn, “he came in one door and looked at her and before they knew it he was out the other door. He couldn’t bear it.” 

I remember very little about the Greensboro show other than that George’s mom got more ovation than “Atomic Dog.” Many of the women present were my own mother’s age and brought every last word with them, chariots to spaceships, chanting “Let me ride,” though they were well already there, standing on the verge of hoping to sit down one of these days. Four and a half hours later, George had even worn out the Deadheads. 

Prince once said that after seeing Parliament he went into the studio the same night and did “Erotic City.” We only managed to hit up a Krispy Kreme in Raleigh. 

But the real question is, who drove back to Kannapolis that night? 

 

NEW TOWN

I’ve called the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Department about the sacred patch of concrete behind Lowe Avenue, hoping for some outhouse forensics. This led me to the utilities department, a plumber and karate black belt in Plainfield, a ninety-six-year-old outhouse historian, WGIV’s “Chatty” Hattie Leeper—who at fourteen became the first black woman on the air in Charlotte—and a couple of George’s fishing buddies. 

My uncle, a licensed dowser who lives in Asheville, offered to psychically divine the spot. “There’s nothing more ordinary than a dadgum outhouse. But this one appears to have cosmic repercussions. You’re going into the ground in your imagination to the beat of a drum.” A former State Department employee who reported to the Bureau of Current Indications (which I couldn’t locate), he said that a UFO landing could expand one’s sacred energy field. 

Thanks to satellite GPS, the former Clinton address is now visible from outer space. I visit on a wet-aired August afternoon and find a guy changing out the locks on the front porch. I ask if I can poke around out back, flashing my copy of “Music for My Mother.” As if that would certify everything. An officer at the Cabarrus County Jail, Scott Cagler first heard “Hydraulic Pump” while posted at a Clear Air Force Station Base in central Alaska. Apparently, MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) kept the missile defense library stocked with P-Funk records. “The Space Command Squadron had a tapedeck in the library—so that’s what I was doing.” 

Scott suggests I contact his cousin in Concord who first heard “Maggot Brain” at a house party in Greensboro when he was fifteen. We then fall into middle-aged reverie, interrupting each other over Charlotte shows we only heard about. Like the time Bootsy allegedly exploded the windows of the Grady Cole Center. Scott’s girlfriend, Lena, appears in the doorway and tells him to stop accidentally ringing the doorbell with his rear end. My glasses fog up. We could be here all day. 

I look up Lowe Avenue, past the corner on E C Street where a pump once supplied George Washington Carver High with drinking water. The Palace barbershop is still operational, but the Palace Theatre, where Manualynn Stowe Faison would go to monster movies and “hug up,” is now a funeral home. 

Her most vivid memories of the block are attached to a bass drum. She served as Carver High’s premier majorette, at age seven. “I could go through the drum major’s long legs and the crowd would just holler. The drums—that was the love of my life. I don’t know how that happened. I never asked. It was a lifesaving event for me. That followed me all my life.” Manualynn would go on to self-publish a statewide curriculum instructing white teachers on how to relate to black students, and organized screenings for Oscar Micheaux, the black silent film avatar who spent his last days in Charlotte. 

The last time Manualynn saw her cousin George, he was gliding across the stage in an office chair in Myrtle Beach. Air-pumped on pneumatic shocks, in a white suit and size-thirteen Gaturs. “George Clinton’s cut his locks,” she laughs. “I didn’t recognize him, and my husband had to point him out. I said, ‘Which one is George?’ He said, ‘Sanford and Son.’ Who would’ve known he would go from locks to Fred G. Sanford? That’s a trip in itself. The second half of the show, he got in his roller derby chair, pumped it up ’til he couldn’t pump no more.” Reflecting on her extended funk genes, she adds, “George’s gettin’ old but don’t let nothing stop him. He just roll right on. I said to myself, ‘Well, that’s where I get it from.’ That makes you feel strong, gives you courage to carry on. It’s a good feeling to have it confirmed in the P-Funk. We need the funk.”


Thanks to Jacqueline Anthony at the Kannapolis Museum of African American Culture (find and support at kaa-macc.org!), Leon Thompson, Parke Puterbaugh, Matt Rogers, Patrick Kelly at the Greensboro Library, and Jason Yates.


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Dave Tompkins's first book is How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks. He is currently working on his second book, a natural history of Miami Bass. Born in Charlotte, he lives in New York.