#276: Parliament, "Mothership Connection" (1975)

  1. P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)

Often before we’d start dancing, during the prelaunch of Mothership Connection, the boys would roam Main Street to the huge electrical hub that lit the neighborhood—they called it the Pillbox. It hummed, pulsing with energy, like a baby rocket. I’d often stay behind, listening to the album’s first track from the kitchen counter, waiting.

Now this is what I want you all to do: If you got faults, defects or shortcomings, you know, like arthritis, rheumatism or migraines, whatever part of your body it is, I want you to lay it on your radio, let the vibes flow through. Funk not only moves, it can re-move, dig?

It was a really good sound, the rev-up of Mothership and hearing them climb the stairs with the different pitches of their laughter. I imagine that anticipation sounds different for everyone—the moment before something you want to happen happens. “P-Funk” and hearing them near was that for me. The color of the apartment in deep night buzzed for us: a purple glow I imagine is the color of electricity’s blood.

During this summer, seven years ago, Andrew and I lived atop the bridal salon my mother owned. I’d stay up all night dancing with the boys and once they fell asleep, I’d whisper softly to the one who became my best friend. Dane would stay up with me, and in the morning I’d sneak back into my bedroom where Andrew slept alone, peel off nightgown and robe, and drag myself into work clothes. All day I’d sell and steam wedding gowns, forcing myself awake, wondering about what it took to make lifelong commitments in all those yards of Alencon lace. All I concretely knew that I’d want in the future: the feeling I had this summer. But all along I knew that I wouldn’t. Even when we danced, I was aware that summer was rolling too quickly into another season.

Once upon a time called Right Now.


          2.   Mothership Connection (Star Child)

This is how I remember it: every night we shuffled wildly on the carpet. As instructed, we laid our faults, defects, and shortcomings on the radio, though I’m not sure we knew that we were. A few of us literally were pre-diagnosis, unsure about the strange things our bodies did and wanted to do.

We turned the music up. We shouted over it, but didn’t say anything.

If you hear any noise, it’s just me and the boys.

We were a ragtag crew. Here are our names: Elise, Andrew, Dane, Alex, David—sometimes Bobby, Aria, and Scott.

This is how I remember them: Alex smiled and laughed more than anyone else I’ve ever seen. He was always ready to participate in whatever fun anyone else wanted to have; he was generous that way—a way I am not. David was solid, pillar-like—even inebriated he was stoic and I always trusted him. Bobby danced like he didn’t have bones; he was uncomplicatedly fun. Aria and I rode the bus together in middle school and she was willing to tolerate me, all those years later—to validate my desires, to dance when called to—she was a friend. Scott felt like my brother, in that I always wanted him there but I had to suffer watching him live parallel to me, sometimes dipping in. Dane was like my phantom limb, my touchstone person, my telepath. Andrew—my boyfriend—was the reason we were all together. He was a mad flame everyone wanted to watch jump. He was constant and we all wanted, constantly, to please him. Fierce, fiercely devoted, and loud, he captivated and eluded us all.

After we’d dance, we’d fall into different pockets of the apartment or the neighborhood. I’d read upside down, put Band-Aids on skinned elbows, argue about the intention of ‘it is what it is’ (a phrase I’m still wary of), make six boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese, lower the lights, and tell the boys to listen to the lyrics of harp songs. On many of these nights I’d faint and then wake up beside my blurry boyfriend asking, instead, for Dane.

Ain't nothing but a party, y'all.

I feel like we were always falling. Like gravity had gotten aggressive that summer—throwing us down, or forcefully towards each other. We were tripping down the stairs, passing out on the asphalt beside cars—we were all hitting the ground in one way or another. I’d drop often from these fainting spells, the root of which I didn’t yet understand. Dane, with his cataplexy, would go into a sort of seizure-like state from hard laughter, crumpling and twitching. I’d always race to his side and shove my finger in his mouth. Though he always bit down hard on my knuckle, I sometimes wonder if it was just so I felt needed.

One night while everyone was dancing, I snuck into the bridal salon and tried on a wedding gown. I felt Mothership rattling the ceiling—all the feet of my friends shook the chandelier. I sat on the floor in a heap of silk and listened for the proof of them, staring at the mirror. I looked so off in that shade of white. I remember wondering if one day we would all be dancing to these songs, with me in this kind of dress. I put a veil on and pulled the netting over my face.

Face it, even your memory banks have forgotten this funk.

If every other memory is seen through the veil, I remember this in total clarity: Sneaking back in and hovering at the back of the apartment, I watched Dane see me, open my cabinet, pour me a glass of water and glide through everyone else, still dancing, unaware of me. He handed me the cup and asked: “Where did you go?”


          3.  Unfunky UFO

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think we were all sleep-deprived—at least we were all something-deprived. I didn’t feel belonging, in the traditional sense, but I think we were triumphantly comfortable being together. We united in music, loud enough to cover up our own quiet, independent grief. Mine was less private and less quiet, maybe. I regularly concerned them all by slipping into the scorching hot, overflowing bathtub in my clothes. I did strange things sober.

Sometimes they’d enter day-long fevered hangovers that no amount of Tums or Tylenol or big breakfasts could cure. None of us were aware of our limits yet, or maybe were not interested in obeying them. This isn’t meant a criticism— even without liquor, without smoke, I imbibed the most.

All this to say that we all hurt and some of us were hurting each other. But it didn’t stop us from dancing, from sharing, from going to sleep in sick piles, from needing each other in this strange moment, before takeoff.

Early in the summer, Dane went to Honduras to work in a clinic where he gave eye exams; I remember glasses spilling out of his trunk before he left.

You've got all that is really needed to save a dying world from its funkless hell.

Not long after he got there, there was a military coup—the president was ousted and exiled. Dane sent emails about gunfire and burning tires—being less than a mile from the presidential house—but mostly that he hoped that everyone in the states was aware of the political implications. He wanted us to know what was happening and why it mattered. I sent back self-involved emails about the nightmares I was having about him, buffered by stories of what we did on the nights he wasn’t there. How much we missed him—loved him.

Soon after the coup, Dane got sent back to the states. I was overjoyed—we all were—but knew he wouldn’t be. He had this project in mind, to collect poems from children at the clinic. I put a Welcome Home party together where we filled a piñata with candy and poems that I made everyone write that we then translated, poorly, into Spanish. I scoured the party store for other relevant objects and found a bin of eye patches, surely for pirate costumes, but I bought those, too, so we’d appear eye-troubled and in need of him.

I sometimes think of this party as among the most loving gestures of my life. But when framed differently, it was maybe among the most careless. We were twenty-year-olds, so clumsy already with love—how on Earth could I convince anyone, including myself, that it could be divided?

We’re unfunky and we’re obsolete and out of time.

We’re out of time.


4.  Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication (The Bumps Bump)

My crew made music. They all made music. Everything we did orbited their creation or appreciation of sound. I didn’t make music, though I was encouraged by Dane to sing, which I did only because he made me feel like I made beautiful noise. Though truly I didn’t, I still felt a certain kind of ecstatic frenzy singing along.

I was called to write—I knew even then that words were my lifeblood. Their sharp, musical quality when arranged right on the page and in mouths, caused me to salivate and sweat.

Everyone knew that this work was the work of my life, but that I’d hardly begun. I’d hide in the dressing rooms at work and scribble narrative poems, stupid, ephemeral blocks of text. I had this enormous catalogue of literary journals, agents, publishers that one afternoon, as the boys peeled themselves out of sleep and got ready to teach their music lessons, I opened. Out of it fell all these sheets of paper—words.

I knelt on the floor and tried to piece together their intended order, glancing between them to try and figure out who’d done it. I asked Andrew. I asked Dane. Alex and David, too. No one fessed up, even when I puzzled them together: DON’T GIVE UP. ONE DAY YOUR TRUEST DREAMS WILL REALIZE.

Eventually Dane admitted he’d been the one who snuck the pages in my book; in case I hadn’t known, he believed in me.

But it was hard to know what to do with love that activates like this. That rumbles, wanting to rocket. It’s hard not to want to let it take off.

Give people what they want when they want and they wants it all the time.


5.  Handcuffs

If I ever slowed down, took a breath or break, I’d pick back up for “Handcuffs.” I never thought of it as my favorite, but it was the one I wanted to dance to—this was the song I was always waiting for.

Every one of these tracks is meant to get wild to, but this one had a sharp gravity. It pulled me up and jerked me back to reality, too. No matter how loud we’d turn it up, it never let me disengage.

Oh, do I have to put my handcuffs on you, mama? Do I have to keep under lock and key?

Every day at work, the brides would cry so joyfully—so eager and in love and sure. I always eyed them in the mirror as I zipped up the gowns, searching their faces for the uncertainty I imagined unavoidable, despite any amount of love. I’d look hard, suspiciously, never finding any glint of doubt.

When I danced to “Handcuffs,” I wondered if anyone else noticed the parallel. I felt akin to the subject of the song. I felt my creature-like lovin’ was to blame—susceptible, too, to flattery and game. But, would I really submit to other humans that called my name? The thing was that the person who you’d expect to call my name didn’t. As much as I felt like her, needing to be handcuffed to stay put, to stay chaste, I often didn’t feel a hand even grab, or even graze, my wrist.

Now we both know that's not how it should be.

At a certain point, it was clear to our whole small tribe—I mean, nothing was clear, even to me. But everyone knew that there was something between Dane and I that was palpable and significant and happening. But don’t misunderstand what I mean by happening.

We’d sneak out of the apartment and go to the park down the road. We’d talk about our histories and futures, wedged in the plastic tunnels of the jungle gym. I hardly remember what we’d say, but I think we both felt maybe we were just hopeful, fleshy tragedies. Once he tried to open a glass bottle on the cement curb and it shattered. I sobbed, all our friends circling us there in the street, glass everywhere, my hand trying to hold his blood in. I can only imagine what they thought.

So little really happened between in action or even in words, but I loved him powerfully and reached into the inaccessible place and I wanted to be allowed to be his champion. And he did that for me, too. The loving, the reaching, the wanting.

Don’t you know that would be uncouth?

We had this glass marble that we found wedged in the pull-out sofa’s mattress that summer. We’d pass it back and forth. He’d press it secretly against my palm and I’d stare at the little licks of green and orange glass cast in the sphere like maybe that’s where his voice was hidden, telling me what was true. We’d never say anything about what it meant, but I think it was something like:

I that hope you will understand.


6.  Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)

When summer came close to ending, we were all readying for different changes. We went to bed earlier—we saw less of each other. We didn’t listen to Mothership as much. We saw each other in shifts.

Andrew was getting ready to leave to start school in Baltimore. I was getting ready to say goodbye to him, to all of them as they scattered into different pockets of the northeast. I stayed in the little apartment for months, listening to their echoes dim. Every day I’d wake up in my bed, knowing they were all elsewhere, making music, hearing music. I’d stay up late on the sofa under a pile of beat-up veils, sewing the barely-fabric back to the combs.

One of the last times I saw Dane, we played Monopoly with our others. I just remember thinking he was so frustrating as he passed out all his colorful dollars to everyone else who was struggling to pay up. I couldn’t stand watching him give so much away.

I guess every season has an arc, like every album. There’s always something innately sad to me about the second-to-last anything—more so even than the last track, last moment, last line. That awareness of the almost-over is even more painful.

Give up the funk.


7.  Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples

Most of us became anecdotes to each other. I cringe to write that because my blood pumps with every person I’ve ever loved, every one of these people, but we became dormant and inactive in other’s lives.

Eventually I got to Baltimore to study writing. Andrew and I stayed together, but were always haunted by what we hardly acknowledged out loud but both knew about that summer. It’s strange how we provide feelings their own bodies, their own way of taking up space, wedging themselves between things.

Though that summer became a part of our pasts, it was always very much alive in our bond to each other. To be fair, how couldn’t it be? Framed on every desk I’ve written at since that time, Dane’s voice has screamed “DON’T GIVE UP”—something I have to believe Andrew felt, too, but wasn’t saying.

Somehow I am back in the business of weddings—now I fluff their trains and send them down the grand staircase of an art museum to make their vows. All these years later, I am still searching couples’ faces for a flicker of uncertainty without ever finding any. I trust that this means that one day, a whole lifetime is something I too will be able to happily, undoubtedly, give.

When we danced all those years ago, I don’t think I was engaged with the story of Mothership Connection—just the sounds. It seemed like it was about trying to access something—the funk—which was, if not the cure, a certain kind of medicine.

I thought we were space-travelers in the purple glow of the apartment, unable to speak through our spacesuits, searching for that interplanetary dose of funk. Though I am not sure what the rest of them would say, I think I failed to really get it.

But I’ve been listening close lately, and I realize that Mothership Connection isn’t just about a season, it’s about a lifetime—it’s an epic—it’s a series of journeys, not just the one. The funk has to be obtained, experienced, but also lost. But then, of course, it is to be pursued and taken back.

It used to frustrate me that the album ended with so few words. The gaa-gaa-goo-gah, gaa-gaa-goo-gah, gaa-gaa-goo-gah-gah at the end of “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples” though, I think, is supposed to be baby sounds—newborn language—preverbal effort to externalize a feeling. It’s so clumsy and indiscernible, these first attempts.

But what better way to leave anything—with the first of many worthwhile tries we make in a lifetime.

—Elise Burke