STRANGER: BERNIE WORRELL ON EARTH

 
When you talk about putting Bernie in a genre, he's really one of the few musicians that transcend language. You really can't put him in a genre or classify his playing with words. He'll sabotage that and purposely make you sit there and really think about what he's doing, instead of trying to talk about it. It is very difficult.

-Philip Di Fiore

 

Speaking about your music, Bernie, in the beginning of the 80s, you joined forces with Talking Heads.

"Talking Heads kind of reflected, in the studio, how early Funkadelic worked in the studio," said Worrell. "Just start off by jamming, and things would come together naturally. Then, finishing touches were put on later."

What is your favorite aspect of playing live music?


Bernie Worrell
"Complete freedom — it's no holds barred," responded Worrell. "I like to play in many different groups with different musicians. Sometimes with less people in a group, you can play more variety."

Philip, was it easy to get these high profile names to talk with you on camera?

"The difficult thing was that Bernie and his wife Judie lost touch with a lot of people. They're in touch with a lot of the people in the movie, but some people are just like anyone else. Someone changes their phone number or e-mail, and the connection is gone. I had to take the ball and reestablish connections. It wasn't hard to reach out to people. Once people found out that there was a film being made, 99% of the people were very enthusiastic about being interviewed and participating. Really, actually, they were thanking me for doing the project. At the same time, because they're musicians and they live such a hectic lifestyle, it took a long time to set up the interviews. I was kind of at the mercy of the subject's schedules. I decided just to go with it and to not set up random artificial deadlines and to try to get as many people to participate as possible."

Any interview subjects that totally knocked you out?


Bootsy Collins
"Any time you have a chance to talk with David Byrne, it's a special time," said Di Fiore. "I'm a huge fan of all of his work. I had a little bit of an out-of-body experience in that interview just watching myself interviewing him. I got a little bit star struck there. He was just such a nice, warm, friendly guy. He put me at ease and did a wonderful job. He was a great guy to talk to outside the interview. We bought our bicycles at the same shop in Manhattan. Mos Def was one of the most articulate people. There's probably about a half-hour to 45 minutes of extra interview footage of him that I didn't use, but it's all so incredible. I had to pick and choose. Everything he said was absolutely brilliant and articulated the things I was thinking better than I could have. Plus, you know, you can't take a bad picture of him. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth — I went to their house in Connecticut. Bootsy Collins — I drove to his house in Cincinnati. It was a family atmosphere as everyone just welcomed me into their home and took time out to talk about Bernie. I interviewed Warren Haynes while he was recording his most recent Gov't Mule album (Deja Voodoo) at the studio. I also interviewed Bill Laswell at a Spanish restaurant in Greenwich Village. Every interview has a little story, and I'll always remember each one of them. Nowadays, you can be a musician who just focuses on the music if you surround yourself with the right team of people, and you're only susceptible to those people taking advantage of you. These days, most musicians have found the right teams. Bernie, Bootsy, and George and that era — it was the Wild West."

In one segment, former Talking Head Tina Weymouth said that Bernie drinks and smokes too much. Can you blame him? When people ask me about my writing technique, I reply, "Write on coffee. Edit on whiskey." Why? Because it feeds the monkey and separates the solid from the bullshit really fast.

"You can't separate these elements," says Di Fiore. "It's a product of his profession. His office is a bar — that's where he works. Not all musicians are big drinkers, but if you have a proclivity to that stuff, and it's surrounding you... You know, from talking with his family, the real problem came when Bernie found that he had nothing from all of his publishing from Parliament Funkadelic. He went into a downward spiral after that. Like you said, it's sad so you can't blame him, in a way. It is sad for me because he's a friend of mine."

How is your current relationship with Bernie?

"I see Bernie a lot lately on the film festival circuit. A wonderful, unique thing about film festivals is that a movie can be just part of the overall experience, and if you can have the subject there, or in Bernie's case, have a performance, it really rounds out the experience. I've been seeing him quite a bit, and I've been trying to get some of his solo projects recorded. He hasn't been able to do that in over twelve years. I'm trying to use any connections I've made through the movie to help him. We've become pretty close since I took on the project."

BURNIN' DOWN THE HOUSE

You've got the Bill Laswell camp that says that Bernie's legacy may equate to nothing. You've got the Tina Weymouth camp that says that he may end up like Andy Warhol, and suddenly, he's appreciated when he's dead. Warren Haynes compares him to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Bootsy Collins links him to Beethoven. The camera is turned around to face you. What will be Bernie's legacy according to Philip Di Fiore?


Benie Worrell
"Wow — that's interesting," said Di Fiore. "Well, first off, the thread between all of us is that we all hope that he has the legacy that he deserves, that he's created with his music. That would be a no-brainer. My personal take on it — I'm trying to answer directly while thinking out loud. I think it might take people some time to reflect to determine Bernie's influence. I'm starting to see a lot more writing about him now, not necessarily because of the movie, but if the movie helps, that would be wonderful. Maybe his kind of innovation and creation are coming back into vogue. I kind of view his music as timeless and not like a thing that is trendy or belongs in a time capsule from a certain era. Sadly, I think he might be really re-discovered when he's gone. It might take some real music aficionado who says: "Hey - we've discovered this great guy!" Meanwhile, he was here the whole time making this great music his whole life. I don't know why it takes an artist's death to bring notoriety or respect. I think it might take that in Bernie's case."

The sun was there the whole time, but it super novas and suddenly people pay attention.


Benie Worrell
"Exactly," said Di Fiore. "Maybe, when he passes away, someone will do re-issues of his work. It's in the writers' hands, too. Musicians know what his legacy should be, but they don't know what the written word will be — that really dictates the legacy. People read about him and re-discover his work. It's probably in the hands of the writers. My film might play a part."

How's the distribution going for the film?

"We're really close. We're talking to a couple of pretty large companies that are interested in distributing the movie on DVD, which will have a lot of great bonus material on it, a lot more performance stuff, a lot more straight music, which I know people wanted more of in the movie. I think this will satisfy straight Bernie fans and music fans that just want to watch straight Bernie performances; plus a ton of extra interviews that weren't featured in the movie. For example, I have the David Byrne story about how he got the idea for "Burnin' Down the House" when he was at a P-Funk show in L.A. So it looks like it will have a pretty good home on DVD, and we've approached a few different cable television stations as well."

FUNKIEST CLAVINET PLAYER ON THE PLANET

Bernie, in your work, do you draw from your classical conservatory education or perhaps from the current methods of sampling and producing funk music?

"I draw from my classical education as a child prodigy," said Worrell, "and everything I've learned and heard since then — the sounds of birds, animals, children, the wind, machines."

You are revered as one of the prime architects of funk. Do you feel appreciated by modern hip-hop artists who sample your music?

"I guess so. Sampling is a form of appreciation," concluded Worrell. "I see them as both apprentices and colleagues. I can teach them a lot, but I can learn from them too."

P-Funk, Talking Heads, Pretenders, Les Claypool — it's all so different.

"I guess a lot of people have wanted to play with Bernie because he's the Funkiest Clavinet Player on the Planet," said Di Fiore. "They are taking him because of his musical personality, and they know that he's going to figure out something special. It might not be on the keyboard they imagined or the genre that they signed him up for, but they know that he's got a great musical sensibility."

He continues to educate in all ten dimensions, exploring alternate universes while spinning intriguing audio webs — multi-phased notes echoing intergalactic tapestries that burden the writer with a worthless Roget's Thesaurus that will not help define the Man or his Music. Then again, definition kills, and sometimes the dark passages of someone's beauty are revealed through patient observation, careful listening, and a sweet little masterpiece like STRANGER: Bernie Worrell on Earth.

JamBase | Planet Earth
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http://www.strangermovie.com

[Published on: 9/8/05]

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Comments

echoedearth starstarstarstarstar Thu 9/8/2005 04:57PM
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I am so exited to find that Bernie is getting the recognition he deserves. wonderful job on the article. i can't wait to see the film!

nastymofo starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/9/2005 06:52AM
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Great article, intense and improvisational! Just like the style of music you guys write about!

Bfunk1620 starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/9/2005 11:23AM
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Great article... the best thing about Bernie is that he is the nicest man you will ever meet. I have been to about 10 Bernie Worrell related shows... I have personally met and had experiences with him 7 times... whether he has hugged me in the bathroom 5 minutes before showtime, bought my friends and I drinks hours before the show, slapping me a high five as he leaves the stage... he is pure hugs, smiles, love... a great person in general... and a fantastic musician as well. I don't know about you, but I want the FUNK!!!

Monica Way starstarstarstarstar Wed 9/14/2005 04:13PM
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Monica Way

awesome read. can't wait for the film.

disco4ever starstarstarstarstar Thu 9/15/2005 04:23PM
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The man is a genius.

peace007 starstarstarstarstar Mon 9/26/2005 11:55AM
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The Wizard of Woo is one of the great living musicians -- I want to buy the DVD RIGHT NOW! I've only seen Bernie a few times, but he NEVER lets the audience down! ROCK ON BERNIE!