Arizona is Arizona. Cockfighting was legal. So was Parliament-Funkadelic bringing down the Mothership with 12,000 people chanting “Shit! Goddamn! Get off yo’ ass and jam!” Arizona’s an awfully libertarian state that way. You know — Live And Let Me Go Get My Gun. Even so, once the Mothership landed, the Afronautic funkateers split for the border before any fresh laws took effect. I witnessed that quick departure too. Along with the cockfighting.
Arizona always enforces a special brand of law-and-order. Witness that messy OK Corral business; witness banning Martin Luther King Day; witness the pragmatic truth that you can carry a concealed firearm without a permit everywhere but inside a topless bar. Some things are sacred.
There was this big old cockfighting derby at a ranch in the scrubby desert out west of Phoenix — let’s call it chaparral, to class things up a bit. Cockfighting, it turned out, was dangerous: The media got wind of the derby, and every local TV station was trying for dramatic chicken-fight footage by doing their damnedest to crash competing news-copters right over the ranch. There was a low-flying flock of TV reporters with their clucking crews and producers looking after them, all held back by the ranch gate, which was held back in turn by the pistol-packing chicken rancher. I’d come out and met him a couple days before, talked my way into witnessing the derby, and I’d been hanging out ever since. Cockfighting was every bit as bloody and violent as the struggle for access to the make-up-mirror in the moments before a local TV newscast, and the betting was fierce, though not as fierce as those red-eyed roosters when they saw the other guy they wanted to kill. A lot of the TV reporters looked at me that same way when the rancher swung the gate open to let me in.
Even though I had a total reporting exclusive on this hot news cockfight story, I couldn’t stick around. It was Friday night, and the official cockfight derby launched tonight… but Shit! Goddamn! So did the Mothership. Parliament-Funkadelic was playing the Coliseum, and there was no way I wasn’t there too. If you ain’t gonna get it on, take yo’ dead ass home! I’d come back again tomorrow, first thing, and stick around to cover the Saturday night poultry massacre. Where taking your dead ass home would have blood and feathers on it.
Truth is, I’d already seen Parliament at the Coliseum the year before — precisely why I was cutting the cockfighting loose in time to go see ‘em again. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had any experience that lines up anywhere near equally with being in a Parliament show in those mothershippin’ years. That’s it, exactly: You were in the show. Everybody was. Everybody in the arena, every single body, was dancing and chanting together. There were nine or 10 thousand black folks, two or three thousand Chicanos (term of the day; like it, lump it, or slap an X on it), and me and my girlfriend.
There was a tradition to those big summertime R&B shows at the Coliseum in Phoenix Fahrenheit Arizona. James Brown would play, or Parliament, and everybody would have a glorious time, then they’d storm out to the parking lot, where it was still radiating solid waves of glowing heat at midnight, so they could have a massive windshield-crashing cascading series of escalating fights, like one of those bar-room saloon brawls from a Western movie, but outside in the roasting gravel parking lot, right where Joie Chitwood’s Chevy-driving demons always did their thrilling auto daredevil stunt shows during the Arizona State Fair, another of those traditional-type annual things. (Those fights, the auto-thrill-devil fights, tended to be white-on-white rube versus carney affairs.) My personal tradition was ducking beneath the dashboard while the worst fighting blew past.
Next day, up with the roosters early Saturday morning, I’m dragging my dead ass back out to the cockfights at what feels way too early, because Parliament was badder than ever, which means transcendent, Afro-atmospheric, perhaps Plutonian — even though when the Mothership landed, the front door was temporarily screwed up. It was the year that “Flash Light” was a huge hit, so when Garry Shider swung on a cable out over the audience wearing his silver diaper, this year he wasn’t playing his guitar, he was waving a five-foot blinking flashlight. The customary parking lot riot took forever to finish up, so I was slow and sleepy today. When I hit Tolleson (pronounced “bumfuck with dust”), I pulled over at a Circle K — Circle K’s were what Arizona had until the shocking discovery of the 7-Eleven — for some styrofoam coffee and those terrible little mini-donuts with the waxy chocolate sweating in the heat. (For you darn kids out there, coffee in America those days was quite similar to coffee nowadays, in that it was frequently hot, and often somewhat brown-ish. Sometimes it was even black, if they left it on the burner too long, and then the flavor had that crispy burnt Starbucks tang to it, with a more chewy texture.)
There was nothing else for a mile or two but desert and two-lane and maybe a sheriff’s office in a trailer, but that last part was probably wishful thinking for the Circle K clerk. I was in pursuit of deep thoughts on the tailgate of my truck when the big tan-and-brown Silver Eagle tour bus pulled in, diesel stained and dusty. The front door of this particular Mothership worked just fine. It swung open, and out jumped an extremely fine-looking black lady composed mostly of legs and a small silver bikini, but with fuzzy slippers, too. She was on a mission that had something to do with Circle K. Out came first one, and then two, and then dozens upon dozens of drowsy Afro-nauts — seemed like dozens, anyway — looking even sleepier than I was, wearing little bits and bobs’ worth of silver lamé and silver platform boots and doo-rags and not that much else. Put it this way: There was some shiny silver spandex-y stuff in strategic spots, and there was a whole lot of black skin showing. Especially for Tolleson, Arizona. Or Buckeye, even.
It was probably fairly odd by typical Circle K in Tolleson standards, but I’d just spent the night dancing and chanting with these very same silver and black folks only a few hours ago, so they were like old friends from outer space, back already, and in great need of coffee and a clean restroom. I felt a little like the newly-appointed Ambassador from Earth — or at least Arizona.
It was June, but early morning still, so it was probably only about 98 degrees. Arizona was a lot cooler back in those days, before they completed the impressive project of paving everything that didn’t get out of the way, so the entire state could be a spacious black asphalt parking lot. Arguably, the perfect outfit for the deep-frying weather was a silver bikini — sensible, striking, reflective of heat and light and leers alike. Me, I was dressed in cockfight derby camouflage, which was pretty much what I would’ve been wearing anyway — cowboy boots, jeans, Western shirt with pearl snaps — so I probably did seem like the Ambassador from Arizona, the crazy blond peckerwood who was so damn happy to welcome P-Funk to Circle K.
I wish, I wish I could tell you about George Clinton and all, but he must’ve been riding some other starship. This was the bus with a full platoon of Parliament foot-soldiers crammed in, and I may have been distracted by the Brides of Funkenstein, by Lynn Mabry and Dawn Silva, in their silver-shiny sleepy morning magnificence. One thing I can totally confirm about Afronauts from the Planet P-Funk: They don’t all look the same. Actually, you’ve hardly ever seen anybody look so different.
“You can buy beer on Sunday here, right?” somebody asked. This confused me pretty thoroughly, partly because it was Saturday, not Sunday, but mainly because I’d never had to deal with such a barbaric custom as not being able to buy beer whenever the hell you wanted a beer. It’s Arizona! You can bring a six-pack to church. Or to Sunday school, if you’re a little kid. If you’re both smart and church-inclined, you’re probably attending a church that has a package liquor store and a gun shop. It’s Arizona! We’ve got all the beer and guns and cockfighting you need! You’re at a Circle K in Tolleson! You’re practically in Paradise! In fact, Paradise Valley is just a few miles that-a-way — you should swing by! They need the funk too!
So you can see — I was my usual helpful self. I was grateful for their mere intergalactic existence under ordinary circumstances, and given the miraculous nature of them landing here, disembarking, and hanging out with me at Circle K, I thought it was only only right to share Arizona’s cultural richness. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the P-Funkateers had ever been to a cockfighting derby before? I wasn’t perfectly sure I could squeeze them all in, but I’d built that rapport with the rancher who was running it, and I figured it was worth a shot. Plus, I was suddenly fond of the thought of
bootlegging the entire busload of Parliament-Funkadelic past those goofy TV news crews at the gate, with the helicopters taking it all in from on high. The mere thought of how well the chants would work, cheerleading the hell out of those roused-up roosters: “Shit! Goddamn! Get off yo’ ass and jam! If you ain’t gonna get it on, take yo’ dead ass home!” That last one would have special resonance after the blood and feathers flew, all bets paid.
It wasn’t meant to be. Everybody on the bus had explored the delights of the Circle K — yes, of course you can buy ammo! — or its restroom, and down the road they went, another planet to funkify. Down the road I went as well, to spend the day and night considering the nuances of chicken carnage.
And now, tonight, looking over a list of Parliament-Funkadelic shows from that era, there’s not a sign that P-Funk ever played Arizona. Something about that appeals to me, actually. It’s like they never happened, when I know for a fact they did. I was there. I saw the Mothership land, twice. Shit! Goddamn! No, I take that back — I saw the Mothership land three times. And once it pulled out of the Circle K, took off again and headed west.