FUNKADELIC / “Maggot Brain”
The story on Maggot Brain is that George Clinton, out of his mind on Yellow Sunshine, told Hazel to play the first half of the song as if he had just heard that his own mother was dead, and then the second half as if he had found out she was alive. The result is beyond “astonishing” or “powerful” or anything else critics usually say; it’s an improvised composition, of both deep blues purity and cold, hard, futuristic vision. There is a band backing it, but it fades out (reputedly because they sounded shitty next to Hazel), and it’s pretty much just one man showing us what he’s made of. If you’ve heard it, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well, the record store is open and you just got paid.
—Matt Cibula, from Inkblot.com
Most people who’ve heard “Maggot Brain” (the song, not the album) can tell you where they were and what they were doing the first time they heard it. It’s that kind of record.
As my story goes, I was in my early twenties, working at Tower Records in the French Quarter. I bought the Maggot Brain CD on the recommendation of Dave, the store’s blues and R&B buyer. Dave was a chain-smoking, forty-ish white dude who resembled the film director Jim Jarmusch (tall, lanky, weather-beaten) and was a wealth of information on any form of American music that featured guitars. But only before noon. Dave drank too much and too often, and after returning from his ‘lunch break,’ Dave was always either a little wasted or completely wasted. He was a happy drunk (thank God), but once he was sauced up, talking to him was useless.
Having grown up in an all-black neighborhood, sans television and on a steady diet of black music, I’d never even heard rock music before working at Tower Records. To the great amusement of my co-workers, I thought Pink Floyd was a person, Van Morrison was a band and the Beatles were a trio. (The last because of Run of Run-DMC’s famously flubbed line, “There’s three of us, but we’re not the Beatles.”) So one morning at the record store, someone put on a copy of The Wall. I listened intently to the oddly slowed tempos, the subversive lyrics and particularly to the sweeping, epic feel of the guitar solos. Having never heard music like that and thinking I’d just scored some very cool inside information (and, of course, having no idea that The Wall had already sold something like 20 million copies worldwide), I headed upstairs to tell Dave how impressed I was by Dave Gilmour’s guitar solo on “Comfortably Numb.”
“Fuck Pink Floyd,” Dave sneered through his omnipresent nicotine cloud. (We weren’t supposed to smoke on the sales floor; then again, we weren’t supposed to curse, sit on the checkout counter or come back from lunch drunk either.) Dave jumped down from the counter. “Follow me,” he said. When we got downstairs, he said, “Vinyl or CD?”
Of course, I knew vinyl was better, but at the time, I was enamored with the Sony Corporation’s still-new compact disc technology. It was all so space age to me: the shiny silver of the discs, the cool way the drawer opened and closed, the way the machine counted down the minutes and seconds. It was new. It was futuristic. Hell, it was damn near space-age, I figured. “CD,” I said.
Dave gave me an extended technology-hating look. “Fucking Sony,” he muttered, and off we went towards the CD section. He walked straight to the F’s, flipped through a few title cards and pulled out a longbox CD. (If you don’t know what that is, click here.) On the cover of the CD, I saw a screaming black woman buried up to her neck in dirt. Either that, or it was her decapitated head sitting on the dirt. I couldn’t tell which. Over the woman’s head, the cover read “Funkadelic” and below, “Maggot Brain.”
“Funkadelic?” I asked Dave. “There’s a guitar solo on this?” I knew Funkadelic, of course. “Knee Deep,” “One Nation Under A Groove,” “Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On” – those were funk classics, the type of thing I was used to hearing on FM 98 WYLD, New Orleans’ #1 R&B station. But there weren’t any notable guitar solos on any Funkadelic records I remembered hearing. As their named implied, Funkadelic was strictly a funk band…or so I thought. (I guess I’d completely disregarded the ‘-adelic’ part of their name.)
Dave turned the CD to the back and pointed to the first song in the track listing. “Eddie Hazel,” he said. “Best guitar solo in the history of fucking guitar solos.” I must’ve looked doubtful. “Buy it,” he told me, then left me standing there holding a $20 imported CD copy of a twenty-year-old album by a Detroit funk band that supposedly contained the ‘best guitar solo in the history of guitar solos.’
I might be guilty of romanticizing the moment a bit, but I can still remember walking up the steps to our second-floor apartment. Still remember pressing play on the CD player. Still remember George Clinton’s bizarre, brief monologue (“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time…”) leading into that foreboding bassline (which sounds like it’s played on a guitar, not a bass). And most of all, I still remember the way Eddie Hazel’s guitar – from the very first note – seemed to pierce right through me. I remember my roommate Leonard coming home and standing there in the doorway, asking me, “What the fuck are you listening to?”
“Maggot Brain,” I told him. I sat there on the couch listening to “Maggot Brain” on repeat (another marvel of CD technology – the repeat function) the rest of that day. I remember we had a party that night and when the party got started, I was still listening to “Maggot Brain.” To me, it seemed like the song contained whole worlds. I couldn’t stop listening, because I couldn’t find my way out.
Eventually, I must’ve gotten sleepy or something, although I couldn’t actually fall asleep. I remember laying on my mattress in the back of the apartment, hip-hop bass pounding through the walls as the party went on. Right on the other side of my bedroom wall, there were girls and music and smoking and drinking and everybody was having a good time, but I couldn’t do it that night. I felt like I was barely even there. Most of me was still lost somewhere inside the best guitar solo in the history of fucking guitar solos: “Maggot Brain.”
—Mtume ya Salaam
I dig your story and all, and I understand how you thinking, and I ain’t saying Eddie wasn’t playing his ass off, but best guitar solo ever? Really? You know what my response is.
No contest. Like right here I’m going to drop a relatively less popular cut from Jimi: “Machine Gun.” Not the famous Band of Gypsys version but rather one taken from a concert in Berkeley that was only recently officially issued (Live At Berkeley – 2003). From the opening when Jimi drops that descending chord pattern beneath what seems to be a throwaway opening as he tunes up, you can tell my man was feeling it and about to casually toss off lines that other guitarists spend a lifetime trying to perfect.
Who else could simultaneously play both lead and rhythm? Nobody. Who else’s guitar vocabulary was at once both innovatively forward looking in his use of electronic effects and penetratingly traditional in his use of the blues? Nobody. Who else had total artistic control of creative chaos? Nobody.
“Maggot Brain” is a masterpiece. No doubt.
But Eddie ain’t Jimi. And then again, nobody is Jimi. Not before, then or since has there been any guitarist who could stand up next to his mountain.
I’ve heard a lot of guitarist both recorded and live, have heard some amazing playing, some astounding technique but when all is said, ain’t nobody done what Jimi did. I remain, hopelessly and happily, a voodoo chile.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Baba, I was talking about guitar solos, about great one-time performances, not about guitar players in general. Neither I nor anyone else who knows much about music would try to argue that Eddie Hazel was a better guitar player than Jimi Hendrix. Hell, I don’t think Eddie Hazel himself (RIP) would’ve tried to make that argument.
I think about it sort of like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. I don’t think anyone is ready to say Kobe Bryant is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan was. But that night last January when Kobe dropped 81 on the Raptors was the greatest single game performance in the history of the NBA. (And yeah, I know about Wilt’s 100 points, but with Jordan and Kobe we’re talking about guards, not centers: about guys who aren’t even the tallest or biggest players on the floor.)
So with that in mind, I’m thinking about Jimi’s best performances. Off the top of my head, we’re probably talking “The Star Spangled Banner” from Woodstock, “Machine Gun” from the Band of Gypsys album, either one of the “Voodoo Chile” versions (both the long blues and the ‘slight return’ are amazing) or maybe that great solo from “All Along The Watchtower.” Those are some of the greatest guitar performances I’ve ever heard. And for me, the long version of “Voodoo Chile” does come close to the mind-bending greatness that is Eddie’s solo on “Maggot Brain.” And really, looking at the list I just made, it’s incredible that one man did all that and so much more. Jimi’s body of work stands up to that of any guitarists – especially when you consider how briefly he was here. Bottom line: Jimi is the best guitar player I know of.
But if you like electric guitar at all, I want you to listen to Eddie’s psychedelic blues on “Maggot Brain,” and tell me what compares to that. And I mean every aspect of a solo. Not just virtuosity, because half the time, what Eddie’s playing isn’t even necessarily complex. It’s like everything came together at just the right moment and pure beauty – raw and uncut – came pouring right out of Eddie’s soul.
—Mtume ya Salaam
If you put it that way…
…you’ve got a decent argument. I can see where you’re coming from. You’re right “Maggot Brain” is pure beauty of the raw and uncut kind. HOW-SO-EVER, I still don’t rate it as THE greatest. ONE of the greatest: definitely. THE greatest: not quite.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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