guardian.co.uk Bootsy Collins. Photograph: Alias Imaging
If you have ever suspected that, just perhaps, modern popular music has lost a little of its former gloriously devil-may-care attitude, that today’s bands are, on the whole, only minutely more free-spirited than, say, Michael Gove on New Year’s Eve, you might want to confirm your suspicions by listening to the legendary bassist William “Bootsy” Collins, he of the star-shaped guitar’n’glasses combo, describe a typical day as a member of Funkadelic in 1972.
Bootsy Collins :: Tha Funk Capital of the World ~ Mascot ~ Released: 25 April 2011
“Well, you have to imagine kind of like an orgy scene,” Bootsy says in a soft, midwestern lilt that gives no hint of his stage persona. “Imagine a lot of chicks and people walking around naked – people doing the wild thing everywhere. Everyone’s taking LSD, smoking weed, no one is scared of doing anything. Whatever you can think of, do it! And it was like that before the gig, on the way to the gig, during the gig and after the gig. Truly, the freak show never ended. I took LSD every day for at least two years, right up until the point I began feeling like I was living in another world.”
He laughs, as well he might. Many of his contemporaries are dead, mad, or washed up, yet Bootsy Collins is still here. There’s no grey in his moustache or lines on his face. Dressed in the colours of his favourite American baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, he could be 25. In fact, he’s 59. What’s more, he not only has a new record – Tha Funk Capital of the World – with guest spots covering the emotional spectrum from Snoop Dogg to Rev Al Sharpton, but it’s rather good.
Collins’s ranch, Bootzilla, is large enough (it’s set in 22 acres of Ohio woodland, half an hour outside Cincinnati) to warrant its own Google Maps tag – there’s another house beyond the lake where his mother used to live. It’s a fantastically peaceful place, not far from the feet of the Appalachians. Inside it’s dark. Nightclub dark. There is an abundance of wood panelling and leopard skin, very softly lit. Every inch of wall space is covered with gold and platinum discs, framed photos (the Beatles, James Brown, Malcolm X) and more. In the basement there’s a studio, with vocal booths, drum corner, the lot. And there’s tons more stuff. Old stage costumes, antediluvian synthesisers, ancient drum machines, a neon “Bates Motel” sign, a framed Funkadelic flag, a Ray Charles figurine, a Black History Month boardgame, faux road signs (“Danger! Mothership Parking Only”) and a purple velvet bag inscribed with the words “I Believe”. You have no concept of what “stuff” can encompass until you’ve seen Bootsy Collins’s. Most strikingly, everywhere you look, there is Jimi Hendrix memorabilia – rugs, posters, photographs, and a picture disc of Jimi posing between two topless young women.
“Hendrix was God,” says Collins, who was asked by the Hendrix family to provide the guitarist’s voice on the DVD included in last year’s wonderful West Coast Seattle Boy box set. “In fact, he still is.”
Born in Cincinnati in 1951, Collins grew up without a father but with a mother who worked multiple jobs to get him and his older brother Phelps (known as Catfish because, well, “he looked like one”) whatever they wanted. What both brothers wanted by the time they were approaching their teens was guitars. And before Hendrix, Collins idolised Indiana-born guitarist Lonnie Mack, whose records were largely instrumental.
“It’s from him that we got the idea of bands wanting to be up front,” Collins says. “Forget the singer! We wanted to be the stars – and we wanted all the chicks.”
While still in his early teens, Collins joined his brother’s band, the Pacemakers. They would hang out and play at Cincinnati’s King Records, which began as a specialist country label in the early 1940s and, thanks to James Brown was, by the mid-60s, the sixth biggest label in America. Brown had a seriously fractious relationship with his band, the Famous Flames and one night they upped and left him en masse. The next day the Pacemakers – who’d recently cut a demo called, rather wonderfully, More Mess on My Thing – were put on a private plane to Columbus, Georgia, and told they were Brown’s new band. Collins was just 17 and would spend most of the next year touring as part of what was then, arguably, the greatest band in the world, while making records such as Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine and Soul Power that, 40 years later, have lost not one drop of their of their kinetic energy.
“I was just a snotty kid,” Collins says. “I would spend my time smoking weed and taking LSD at the back of the bus while listening to Jimi, and no one ever played anyone else’s music on James Brown’s bus. But the deep thing is, every crazy thing I pulled I got away with because I could hold my own with my axe.”
It was Brown who taught Bootsy the concept of “the One”: the technique where a song’s rhythm is anchored around the crucial first beat in the bar. The One is what funk – and through that, of course, hip-hop – was built on.
“When you got it right it was such a strong foundation, you could do anything else you liked,” Bootsy says. “So I gave James the One and then played what I felt in between. He was on top of it all, he knew it felt good and fresh.”
Collins was with Brown’s band for only 11 months. Famously, he left soon after running off stage, hallucinating wildly. It was a state he would grow used to when, after a stint with the Brit-rock- and Sun Ra-influenced House Guests, he joined George Clinton’s Funkadelic outfit for their fourth album, America Eats Its Young. Clinton – inspired by the theatrics of Alice Cooper, the power of the MC5 and the apocalyptic religious cult of the Process Church of the Final Judgment – was the flipside to Brown, someone intent on discovering whether great art could be made from chaos, whatever the psychic cost. In Funkadelic there were no rules, only a desire to experiment more, thrill more, terrify more. Collins’s face actually lights up when he talks about the band.
“George never smiled,” he says. “That was his thing at first. He had the moon and stars shaved into his hair. He looked crazy, he’d run through the crowd crawling up chick’s skirts and scaring people. I told him: ‘Don’t ever lose that power.’ One night this chick gave us all Purple Haze acid, and everyone on stage was turning into giants and butterflies, it was so beautiful! We were playing so well that we didn’t notice that the lights had come on and everyone had gone home. We were playing to an empty room.”
By the late 1970s, Collins was a huge star with his own side-project,Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Funkadelic were creating hit records, and everyone was making serious money. Clinton started smiling. “It was wrong,” Collins insists. “He started getting pussy and having a good time, and that killed the magic. He was the bad guy and I was the good guy – that was our power, but it became showbiz. Then that powder came into play. If LSD brought us together, cocaine surely split us up.”
Across from Collins’s house is a converted barn with a full stage set-up (leopardskin congas included). A pair of gold leather, thigh-high platform boots with flames up the back take pride of place on top of a pile of amplifiers. The walls are lined with exotic guitars, and there are life-sized Bootsy and Snoop Dogg mannequins dotted between large paintings of Miles Davis, John Lennon, Brown, Tina Turner and even Metallica.
“They are the special people,” Bootsy nods. “Most people can’t do what they did.”
These days Collins has an ambassadorial air. He guests with big names, most recently Snoop Dogg and his live band, who are eager for a dash of his vintage, unquenchable sparkle. He has his online Funk Universityand campaigns to get musical instruments into the hands of disadvantaged kids. He clearly longs to see some musicianship, some bands, spring from young black America. “I came up playing with people,” he says. “We depended on each other and that encouraged unity, togetherness. We learned to play with what we had – that’s what funk is.”
Collins seems unspoiled by a life spent largely at the coalface of the global record industry. When he says, slowly and quietly, that “everyone in the world needs someone who’s concerned about them”, you can’t help but think a little bit of Collins would help almost anyone.
“I feel like this is my time to do something good,” he says, his heavy jewellery clattering on the table. “Catfish was taken last year, Garry[Shider, Funkadelic’s guitarist], too. Before anyone else is taken, I want to set the blueprint, acknowledge the ones who came before us. You should always pass it on – that’s what Jimi said. Jimi couldn’t hang as they made him play the same stuff over and over again. He had to leave us. The flesh [he scrunches up the skin on his hand] was holding him back. He was so ahead, the world couldn’t keep up. But Jimi left me behind to carry on his work, so that’s what I’m going to do. I just hope I’m making him proud.”