Since the Smithsonian announced that it had acquired the Mothership replica used by Parliament-Funkadelic for its permanent music exhibition at the Museum of African-American History and Culture, we’ve heard from some people who had a hand in helping it land there. They — along with scholar and funk fan Cornel West — are interviewed below.
Bernie Walden was one of the Washington-based promoters who abandoned the Mothership in a Seat Pleasant junkyard in 1982. Nearly thirty years later, Walden helped Smithsonian track down the Mothership replica. We spoke to Walden over the phone from Orlando where he now runs a concert promotion company called Nymburu.
Tell me how you helped get the Mothership to the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Well, [Kevin Strait, project historian for the museum] wasn’t going to find the original but he reached out to me through a friend, Adorna Williams... We did a conference call and I told them a little about my background. They were very enthused. They sent me a package explaining their intents on putting these props [in the museum].
Clinton had the Mothership replica in his Tallahassee studio at the time. Did you put the two parties in touch?
Actually, they didn’t know there was a [Mothership] replica, so I let them know, “You know George has a replica in his studio.” ... [Clinton]’s management at the time was Archie Ivy, who had been with him for 35 years. He said, “Well, you know George is thinking about giving [the Mothership replica] to the city of Tallahassee, who were going to turn his studio into a museum.” ... I called him again and said, “George, this is going to be a lot bigger than that. They’re going to immortalize you and [the Mothership].”
And you were persistent.
I felt bad. I felt bad when we got rid of the Mothership... What I was trying to do is make a wrong right. And hey, this isn’t the [original] one. But this is as close as you’re gonna get it. And it did fly. It did perform. It did all the things that George wanted it to do. And he really didn’t want to let it go. It was like you took a toy from a child. He was crying. He really got emotional... But I told him, “Trust me. You’re going to be immortalized. This is bigger than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
In the mid-’90s, California-based set designer David George was commissioned to build a second Mothership. We spoke to him over the phone from England where he was building a set for an upcoming Neil Diamond tour.
How did you get involved in the construction of the Mothership 2.0?
[Clinton]’s manager at the time approached us. I don’t remember what year it was, but he was doing a show at [New York’s] Central Park. So they wanted to recreate the Mothership for that one particular show. Well, they were going to tour with it, but they couldn’t find the original. It was destroyed from what I understand... So we created a duplicate of it, basically, based on one sketch and a bunch of photographs... We created it based on looking at photographs and guesstimating dimensions.
How faithful do you believe it was to the original?
Was it the same size?
The only difference between the original and the one that we built was that we had better electronics. And better smoke [machines]. All of the components, the working components, were higher quality.
Some fans said the second Mothership wasn’t as impressive as the first one. Were there any huge differences?
It was the same thing. The whole point was to make it as identical as possible so you couldn’t tell the difference between them. Once you got inside you could tell the lights and electronics were newer. But from the outside, they looked identical.
And how did it feel to hear that one of your creations is headed to the Smithsonian?
We got a kick out of it!
During the reporting of our May 18 story, we reached out to Dr. Cornel West for some larger cultural context. The scholar (and recent Bootsy Collins collaborator) returned our call after deadline, but was excited to hear about the Mothership’s future home.
How important is funk music to African-American history writ large?
There’s a funk idiom that spills far outside of black music or even American music... It's painful to be honest, it's difficult to be candid, but you can't be funky if you're not honest and candid.