Lessons for Writers: Dr. Funkenstein

by wjw on March 5, 2015

Brothas+Be,+Yo+Like+George,+Ain't+That+Funkin'+Kinda+Hard+on+You?I’ve been enjoying the autobiography of George Clinton, with its somehow perfect title, Brothas Be, YO Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?

I really didn’t follow Parliament/Funkadelic back in the day, for various reasons.  I liked my rock and roll more straight up.  P-Funk was so prolific, with its various incarnations— Parliament, Funkadelic, P-Funk, the Rubber Band, P-Funk All Stars, Brides of Funkenstein, the Horny Horns, etc.— coming out with on the order of six LPs per year, that it seemed a full-time job just to keep up.  And, as a serious and rather literal-minded youth, I had a hard time separating the message and the music from the hype and show biz and rhinestones and star-shaped glasses and the furry purple sombreros and the Mothership and the Cyrano nose.  (I wouldn’t have that problem today.)

Given Clinton’s reputation as a sort of raving monster of unrefined psychedelia, his book is surprisingly serious.  Not that there aren’t some wonderful anecdotes— the one about snorting coke in the House of Lords lavatory is beyond wonderful— but Clinton wants to tell us where all his songs come from, and he’s willing to track his influences (Motown, Hendrix, Sly, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles), and the raw commercial calculation that went into the creation of his powerhouse musical product.  And while Clinton isn’t exactly a preacher, there are moments when he lays down the truth, right there on the page.

“Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?” took its melody from a church tune.  Inspiration in these cases is unavoidable— there are only seven notes in music— and it’s not even desirable to avoid it.  Every Led Zeppelin song is an old blues.  The Beatles lifted the famous solo in “Revolution” directly from Pee Wee Crayton.  Living things find nourishment where they can.  The point of music is to take what exists and to make it matter again, in your own style, with your own stamp.  To talk about “original” and “unoriginal” is as unoriginal as talking about genres or categories.  You never want to be in a bag, let alone someone else’s bag.  Music is music, and bands become what they are.  They play because they want to, and audiences sense that and listen because they want to.

Replace “music” with “writing,” and “band” with “writer,” and the lesson holds true.  Write what you love, and bring your own insight and voice and truth.  And somebody’s going to want to listen.

(For other lesson for writers from famous bands, check out The Beatles Edition.  And if you think you might want to write your own classic, have a gander at the Taos Toolbox page.)



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