Released 50 years ago, Maggot Brain gave a psychedelic groove to psychic pain
What better surgeon than a Maggot?
– Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open
ONCE UPON A TIME CALLED THEN
In Plainfield, New Jersey (a ‘bedroom suburb’ of New York), pure, uncut funk was born in the mid-50s in the form of a barbershop-based doo wop group that first called itself the Parliaments and would later be known to the enlightened as P-Funk.
In this Union County city, another related piece of music history was happening in the ensuing decade as a young man from Brooklyn came to the same NJ town to later join jam sessions, impressing listeners with his wigged out version of surf music. An Aires by birth, possessing the Zodiac sign’s traits of courage, passion, confidence and determination, guitarist Eddie Hazel would hook up with Billy ‘Bass’ Nelson and others to form the Wonders, which tread the ground of Motown, which P-Funk leader/mastermind George Clinton would become a part of briefly. When Nelson joined up with the Parliaments to capitalize on their hit “I Wanna Testify,” he got the teenage Hazel to join the band.
As the group went through the first of a long series of legal battles with contracts and names, the band itself morphed into Funkadelic, a rock-based version of the already huge troop, with Hazel’s guitar as an attraction.
By the time of their third album in 1971 (following two other albums within a year, plus Parliament’s debut), Hazel was all of 20 years old when Clinton gave him a bizarre piece of inspiration: imagine that your mother was dead and make a song out of it. As heavy as it sounds on the face of it, there was more to it than even Clinton could imagine, hence the intense reaction he would get out of his guitarist. Grace Cook relocated the family out of Brooklyn to keep her son away from drugs (which he would land in regardless) and would have to be convinced to let the young Eddie join the Clinton empire.
Later, to avoid his own copyright issues, Hazel would use his mother’s name (as ‘G. Cook’) for songwriting co-credits on 6 out of the 7 songs on 1974’s Standing On the Verge of Getting It On as well as well as subsequent Funkadelic albums. All of which helps to explain the tight connection to his mom and the searing pain of her imaginary death that you can hear on the song “Maggot Brain,” the opening track and centerpiece of the album of the same name, which came out half a century ago.
AUDIO: Funkadelic “Maggot Brain”
WHAT IS SOUL?
While conflicting interpretations almost always come down on song lyrics, particularly from white guys, other than in jazz (see Max Roach and Charlie Haden’s political work) or classical, rarely is an instrumental track dissected for meaning. “Maggot Brain” is a worthy exception.
The ‘mother’ story is accepted as the most likely inspiration but it’s hardly the final word. Another story has it that Clinton’s brother died, rotting away with maggots, which he vehemently denies. There’s also speculation that the song was inspired by the death of one of Hazel’s heroes shortly before the track was recorded- one James Marshall Hendrix. If so, it’s certainly a worthy tribute but may actually be a case where the student surpasses the master, as we’ll see. Considering the uneasy, tumultuous time that the song was done, it could also be seen as a requiem for the many murdered and jailed Civil Rights leaders and Black Panthers, the carnage of Vietnam that hit the black population especially hard or the O/D of the hippie dream after Altamont and Kent State.
Whether Hazel or Clinton intended it that way, the song is so broad and all-encompassing that it could be all of the above. Or it could just be a premature farewell to a mother who would actually outlive her son.
Though it’s known as one of the greatest guitar solos and instrumentals in rock, technically, “Maggot Brain” ain’t entirely an instrumental. The song and album starts with Clinton alone, intoning some heavy thoughts on ecology and self-realization through a haze of echo:
Isn’t it like Uncle George to drop some heavy knowledge and qualify it with a vivid, horrifying image and some fun at his own expense?
MOMMY, WHAT’S A MAGGOT?
Let’s pause for some fun facts about maggots, shall we? They’re fly larvae and we usually think of the disgusting part about them- how they infest livestock and human wounds (which I’ve seen with my own eyes and it ain’t pretty) or they’ll be hanging out in garbage or rotten food. Hey, they can even be used to determine time of someone’s death. But maggots can also be used for fishing bait and be used to debride wounds and kill bacteria (they feed on dead tissue only). For the truly brave, they’ve even been part of a ‘delicacy’ of Italian cheese. So when Clinton embraces the supposed lowliest and most horrible creature we can think of, what are we to think? Does it come back to the ecology metaphor for recycling of flesh and matter? Maybe a comment on how the black race is seen outside of itself? Though the ‘maggot brain’ moniker was one for Hazel, Clinton would later crown himself ‘Maggot Overlord,’ showing that he had a deep connection to the idea, the image and the song too.
(The second word here, ‘brain,’ is important to Clinton also. He valued intelligence. Some proof is seen on his next/2nd P-Funk album (Up For the Down Stroke) with the song “Presence of A Brain” and in 1978, he unleashed “Lunchmeataphobia (Think! It Ain’t Illegal Yet!)”)
After Clinton is finished with his speech, we actually don’t hear Hazel next, but the band’s other guitarist, Tawl Ross, playing a quiet, repeating six note cadence that we hear throughout the rest of the song. “Maggot Brain” was originally recorded with the full band playing, but Clinton decided that either the band sounded like shit otherwise or it would be ‘eerie’ to focus mainly on Hazel. As such, we do hear ghostly echoes of drums occasionally but mostly the guitars. Ross’ part seems like a minor and a simple backing but it’s actually rich with importance. As Hazel goes to town and tears up (crying) and tears up (ripping), Ross provides a counterpoint and accompaniment, by turns, showing the gentle sadness at the heart of the song and anchoring it with subtle grief whenever Hazel soars into the atmosphere. Without Ross’ guitar, “Maggot Brain” wouldn’t be the powerful aural eulogy that it is.
MUSIC FOR MY MOTHER
One year before the Maggot Brain album was recorded, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross laid out the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Hazel manages to check all boxes in the title track but as the doc warns us, we don’t necessarily go through the stages in order. One thing is for sure- the song shows that Hazel must have really loved his mom.
After Ross cycles through his bit a few times and we hear echoed thrack’s from drummer Tiki Fullwood, we first hear Hazel at the 1:16 mark of the song, plucking out an elongated two-note cry at first, as if he’s in deep denial. This is followed by a series of other drawn out, piercing guitar yelps and a short quick succession of notes charge forward, as if to say “WHY????” At two minutes in, the guitar cries get even louder, more emphatic and angrier before slowing to shorter clusters of notes as if Hazel was choking on sobs now. By now, his wah wah pedal is working overtime, making his pain even more real and vivid. At about 2:33, a series of four note cries repeat themselves as if he can’t accept the horrible truth and agonizes again and again. His whammy bar extends the notes, juicing them for maximum anguish, pulling out the stops to make the music more expressive.
By now, Clinton washes the guitar in waves of echo as Hazel whirls around in a slow, maddened dance of despair. As the echo deepens, we feel that Hazel is further away somehow, sinking into a pit, trying to claw his way out as he unleashes harsher and clamorous tones to fight back somehow and face his gloom But then, at the 4:20 mark, he’s wailing thunderously as if there was no way out- there’s only agony. His screaming becomes and louder and louder but is anyone really hearing him? As listeners, we’re exhilarated but part of us might feel bad for his seemingly endless torment – maybe best not to think about how we’re getting some kind of perverse buzz from all his hopelessness.
Finally at around 4:57, he’s ready to collapse and has tired himself out, briefly. He fades out momentarily, only to come roaring back briefly on a tide of feedback and echo before trailing off again. Hazel enters again in a bluesy ramble which sounds like a calmer dialog, as if he’s entered the bargaining stage. But after about two minutes, the notes turn into the extended, more blaring, slower cries which we’re familiar with, as he slowly gains speed and soars into the atmosphere with echo. Eight minutes in, he goes into overload drive in a stunning display of anger, plucking off notes at a ferocious speed before easing into a fuzz drenched howl only 10-15 seconds later and then trailing off briefly. He then enters and exits off two and three note riffs as if he’s getting his bearings . At around the 9:20 mark, his guitar starts to shimmer through another sweet bluesy patch which bursts into a series of emphatic chords before receding into a voluminous echo where he angrily charges forward and pulls back in confusion and fury, finishing off with a flurry of notes and ending with the heartbreaking cry we heard him enter with, before he fades out and leaves us. Maybe we heard some form of acceptance at the end but it’s mostly agony. Did Hazel reach the acceptance stage? We’re left hanging at the end but wowed by his stunning display of pyrotechnics.
Just to be clear and state the obvious, no Jimi, no Eddie. Both of them were colossal Fender benders (as in Stratocasters). Hendrix redefined the electric guitar and provided fireworks like no one had heard before on it but rarely did he put together an extended, graphic narrative like “Maggot Brain”- he did on “Machine Gun” and “1983” but even then, I’d make the argument that the sonic rollercoaster that Hazel takes us on is more graphicly bloody and maybe even more profound than most of what Hendrix unleashed otherwise, in his lifetime at least. Indeed, Hazel and “Maggot Brain” keep popping up on lists of guitar greats, plus Mike Watt, Ween and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante have all paid tribute to him, so there are boosters out there who recognize his unique style and dedication to his instrument.
AUDIO: Mike Warren with J. Mascis and Bernie Worrell “Maggot Brain”
Clinton’s choice to lead off the album of the same name with such an audacious 10-minute-plus tune shows true chutzpah and represents an unique, alternative vision of psychedelic music. If Donovan was the epitome of flower power then “Maggot Brain” represents the ‘bad trip’ brand of pysch music also heard on “I Am The Walrus,” “Season of the Witch,” the Doors’ “The End,” and some German kosmiche music (Can, both Amon Duul groups) where otherworldly music takes us to uncomfortable places. You could even say that “Maggot Brain” also includes elements of ambient and metal, along with funk, blues and soul. How many other tunes can make the same claim?
The rest of the Maggot Brain album shows off Uncle George’s amazing combinations of his roots and styles, including doo-wop and folk wisdom (“Can You Get To That”), rampaging, apocalyptic madness with sound effects borrowed from the Chambers Brothers (“Wars of Armageddon”), country bumpkins (“Back in Our Minds”), soul and black power (“You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks”), metal thumping (“Super Stupid”) and soul sloganeering (“Hit It And Quit It”). That’s not even mentioning the unforgettable, frightening (and decidedly uncommercial) image of the black women buried up to her head, with her screaming skull on the back cover or the eerie, paranoid liner notes from the Process Church religious cult. But even among this astounding display of virtuosity that matches and even beats the Fabs’ “White Album,” it’s still the unforgettable opener/title track that cuts the deepest and leaves the longest impression on you. When you’re faced with loss, I suggest that you grab a pair of headphones, blast the song and let Hazel commiserate with you.
EULOGY AND LIGHT
By the end of ’71, the same year that Maggot Brain came out, Hazel and most of the band had split on Uncle George mostly due to financial bickering. Hazel would appear on and off with assorted Funkadelic records, go through a ‘74 drug bust and do a not-so-memorable solo album (Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs, 1977). “Maggot Brain” would be reprised in a live version as an add-on single to Funkadelic’s colossal 1978 album One Nation Under A Groove though without Hazel on guitar there. After a mid-70s commercial peak with the rise of Parliament (Funkadelic’s horn and chant filled, grooveful twin), P-Funk would collapse under finances and lawsuits that dogged Clinton for years until he launched a successful solo career in the 80s and became a regular featured artist for all the rappers who worshipped and sampled him (“Maggot Brain” itself was so unique that it was rarely sampled- by underground rapper Murs and DJ/producer Butch).
VIDEO: P-Funk in New York City 1991
On June 25, 1991, I caught Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars for a show at the famed NYC venue, the Palladium. The band had just taped an appearance on the David Letterman Show (where they performed “(Not Just) Knee Deep”) earlier in the day, with the show’s music director (and P-Funk fan) Paul Schaffer making a guest appearance at the concert. About an hour into the show, Clinton did an extended ecology monologue, segueing into “Maggot Brain” and then left the same for a piss break (or as he said, to get him ‘some pussy’). For this 6-7 minute version, the stage turned blue and purple as the band took over but something was wrong. Hazel stood at the left side of the stage but the gripping solos seem to come instead from right side and one of the band’s other mainstay guitarists, DeWayne ‘Blackbird’ McKnight. The drums and string synth would occasionally overpower the sad, blistering guitar for this version that night and Hazel’s name would be called out at the end of the song but it seemed to be more of a nod to his original vision of the song.
Hazel would tour with the All-Stars through 1992 but would succumb to the ravages of liver damage at the end of that year. A week later, for a New Year’s Eve concert in Kansas City, the band would play “Maggot Brain.” Instead of honoring his mother, this time the song was played to honor Hazel himself. Supposedly, the song was also heard at his funeral.
SOURCES AND RECOMMENDED READING:
- George Clinton Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?: A Memoir (Atria, 2014)
- Kris Needs George Clinton & The Cosmic Odyssey of the P-Funk Empire (Omnibus Press, 2014)
- Dave Thompson Funk:Third Ear – The Essential Listening Companion (Backbeat, 2001)
AUDIO: Funkadelic Maggot Brain (full album)