George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars shook the 9:30 Club stage for a sold-out four-hour marathon Saturday night, returning to a city that looms mythic in the annals of funk. “There’s nothing like hearing P-Funk in D.C.,” a New Yorker told me as the dance-weary patrons streamed out into the street. This is true. Nowhere on the planet do mayhem and music mingle better than when P-Funk plays Washington. Chocolate City, after all, isn’t just another stop on the tour for Clinton and his battalion of funk-slingers—it’s a big stanky homecoming pageant.
At various times over the years, several P-Funk members have lived in the D.C. area. Diaper-wearing lead guitarist/vocalist Garry Shider currently lives in Mitchellville, Md., with his wife, Linda, and their two sons. There, aside from his involvement in Clinton’s conspiracy to move butts, he dwells within the respectable parameters of suburban success. Former trombonist Greg Boyer also resides in P.G. County. But even before members of the group planted stakes in the D.C. area, there was a zealous fan base here offering an attractive second home for a band whose roots are in Plainfield, N.J.
She calls herself “Space Lady,” and she has been making wearable art for Clinton and his cohorts for nearly 30 years. When pressed for her real profession, the grandmother bristles: “I’m a caregiver. I am guardian over my 86-year-old aunt who has Alzheimer’s. I am guardian over my 15-year-old nephew. I’m guardian over a 53-year-old schizophrenic cousin.” The basement of her home in upper Northwest is strewn with the tools of her tailoring trade and outfits in various stages of completion. A pair of outstretched jeans, a sheet hanging on a body form, a pair of cutoffs—all shamelessly splattered with rhinestones, glitter, and raised paint to depict icons from P-Funk lore. “I listened to the lyrics, and I liked the lyrics. I thought they were just kinky and cute. Of course, everybody else told me I was crazy,” recalls Space. “They appeared on The Buddy Dean Show [on WJZ-TV in the late ’60s], and I caught them and I called all my friends in the neighborhood [Brookland].”
“I didn’t go to the DUFF [Dimensions Unlimited Family Festival]. It was just too many groups was going to be in the stadium at one time,” Space recalls. Dimensions Unlimited was the first in a series of local promoters to push the envelope of scale of black concerts. 1972’s Family Festival was a massive multiband affair—and the first rock concert at RFK Stadium since the Beatles. “After that concert, my sister wanted to meet the guys in Mandrill. We went to the old Holiday Inn that used to be on New York Avenue looking for the guitar player in Mandrill, and instead we met Ray [Davis] and Grady [Thomas],” she says, referring to band members who traced their relationships with P-Funk back to the original Parliaments and Clinton’s Plainfield, N.J., barbershop. “They came over and sat on the car and started talking to us, and from that a relationship just sprang up.” That chance encounter put Space Lady in the P-Funk civil service. “I started doing stagewear, repairing stagewear—the whole nine yards—and even went so far as to travel with them from time to time up and down the Eastern seacoast, carrying my sewing machine to keep their stuff together.”
In the mid-’70s, when P-Funk was generating its defining work, Davis and Thomas were the first of several core funkers to give their rock ‘n’ roll transience a temporary D.C. address. When not on the road, they rented a room in a house on Kearney Street NE that was owned by Space Lady’s brother. Other members of that seminal ensemble also found brief sanctuary within the Beltway, including drummer Tiki Fulwood and guitar virtuoso Eddie Hazel. “Various members of the group found girlfriends here and set up housekeeping,” Space Lady says. “Eddie had about three.”
Before I leave, she insists that I see a bedspread that she decorated for Clinton. She claims to have repossessed it from its owner due to abuse and neglect. “It was a tie-dyed bedspread I found in the Salvation Army. I paid something like $2 for it. It had a big black ink spot on it, and it was white with this rust color. I envisioned George wearing it the minute I saw it.” The piece is a beautiful thing—a relief map charting the improbable flight of the Mothership and its crew. The ink spot is hidden under heavy, textured paint. “You can’t dry-clean this. Any piece that I’ve done for George, I’ve given them written care instructions. Look at how it’s all washed-out here. It’s still funky, but it’s not correct.”
Larry Alexander is an illustrator and writer living in Hyattsville, Md. He attended High Point High School in Beltsville. We met in the late ’80s fighting over a copy of P-Funk Live at the Beverly Theatre in Vinyl Ink Records in Silver Spring. He introduced me to David Mills (now a screenwriter living in L.A., then a writer for the Washington Post), who in his spare time published a fanzine called Uncut Funk. Out of that relationship, Mills, Alexander, and I joined to author George Clinton and P-Funk: An Oral History.
Alexander sees the P-Funk-D.C. nexus in terms of converging media forces unique to Washington. “When you consider the fact that most black music was broken by the stations in the D.C.-Baltimore region, like WOL [1450 AM], and you consider the fact that The Quiet Storm was born here…” The Quiet Storm was launched in the ’70s by the late Melvin Lindsey as a smooth, album-based FM show on Howard University’s WHUR 96.3 FM. Its success spawned numerous copycat Storms and even stations’ entire formats. “In a city where all that kind of stuff was happening,” Alexander continues, “P-Funk was just that dominant. I have memories of P-Funk [only] getting airplay late at night in the years before the Mothership [Connection]. But when the Mothership hit in ’75, for the next five years they just dominated black radio.”
From 1968 to 1980, Bobby Bennett lit up the airwaves at WOL as the “Mighty Burner”; he can now be heard on WPFW 89.3 FM every Saturday playing soul music from the ’60s and ’70s. “For whatever reason, D.C. embraced P-Funk like no other city,” he says. “They could have played [the] Capital Center every month and sold out each time. That’s 22,000 seats. With D.C. and P-Funk it was a love-love situation from the beginning.”
At the show, I’m reminded how much has changed since the days when Clinton & Co. rocked venues like Cramton Auditorium, the Cap Center, and RFK Stadium. What used to be an underground black thang has stubbornly yielded to a white college vibe. I wanted to interview some old-timers, but when the show let out at 2:15 a.m., I couldn’t find any. But some things remain unchanged. P-Funk in concert is still a passionate ritual of syncopation, body heat, and body odor. Clinton continues to be the ultimate MC, directing his audience with the same comic facility with which he leads his troops. And, although the audience members still come dressed like the band, they really could try harder. I spotted one glitter-faced young woman with a pair of cheesy plastic wings taped to her back. There was even a young white guy walking around wearing a ridiculous Buckwheat-style Afro wig. Try that shit back in the day? I don’t think so.
My past complaints with P-Funk live have had to do with where Clinton splits his trademark alchemy of danceable groove and rock guitar. There’s generally been an abundance of the latter, and not enough of the former. With Shider, Michael Hampton, and Blackbyrd McKnight overlapping and rotating leads Saturday night, I had my share of six-string crunch. Highlights would have to be the group’s exultant segue out of “Cosmic Slop” and into the chunky opening chords of Frank Zappa’s “Zomby Woof” and the nine-and-a-half-minute Blackbyrd solo that capped off Clinton’s recital of “Booty.” One thing that has changed for the better is the group’s raw sound. Saturday’s show was the best live mix I’ve heard from a band that often devoured the feeble sound systems of the ’70s. Black rock iconoclasts or glorified oldies review, Clinton and P-Funk still deserve to be seen, especially if you can catch them in Chocolate City. CP