Through a door in the wall opened by Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, I arrive to the Chicago Surrealist Group. (Kelley had recommended Paul Garon’s book Blues & the Poetic Spirit. “Look, too,” he’d said, “for an edited collection called Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. And don’t forget special issues of Living Blues and Race Traitor.”) Instructions received, I descend the stairs and work the stacks, knowing that my attention is the one thing that might save me. Sources arrange themselves on the shelves of the memory palace shouting “Read me, read me!” So I do.
After a nap in a park under a sunny blue January sky, Parliament helps me loosen up and release stress I’ve been carrying in my shoulders, neck, and upper back. Time to blow the cobwebs from my mind with the Mothership Connection. That is where I’m at and it feels good.
P-Funk had its own mythology. George Clinton performed at times as his messianic alien alter-ego, Star Child. My first encounters with “Mothership Connection” came by way of Dr. Dre’s sample of it on “Let Me Ride” from his debut solo album The Chronic, released the year of my fourteenth birthday. Robin D.G. Kelley discusses artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist brand of hippie modernism in his book Freedom Dreams. These were artists who “looked backward to look forward, finding the cosmos by way of ancient Egypt.” I love the idea of a revolution you join by putting “a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip,” projecting one’s body here and now into a 3-D realtime utopian Afrofuturist “world within the world” known as the Mothership. The P-Funk song’s reference to the famous spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” used by members of the Underground Railroad as a coded form of communication to help people escape, reminds me of the Trystero group’s use of the posthorn symbol in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Other P-Funk tracks are also worthy of analysis and comment. The early Funkadelic song “Can You Get To That,” for instance, alludes to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech with its metaphor of the bounced check.
“America has given the negro people a bad check,” King intoned, “a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” This stuff definitely ought to find its way into my course this semester — as should the work of jazz poet Ted Joans and illustrator Pedro Bell. The latter created the liner art for several key P-Funk releases. As George Clinton notes on his official website, “What Pedro Bell had done was invert psychedelia through the ghetto. Like an urban Hieronymus Bosch, he cross-sected the sublime and the hideous to jarring effect. Insect pimps, distorted minxes, alien gladiators, sexual perversions. It was a thrill, it was disturbing. Like a florid virus, his markered mutations spilled around the inside and outside covers in sordid details that had to be breaking at least seven state laws. […]. He single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society and the cosmos.”