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The acid trip behind “Maggot Brain”

Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time
For y’all have knocked her up
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended
For I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit

The first time I heard the title track on Funkadelic’s 1971 album, Maggot Brain, I stopped what I was doing and laid down on the floor. I didn’t know it at the time, but the dark, soaring psychedelia that so quickly caught my attention was the product of an acid trip.

Part of me wishes I hadn’t first heard it through Spotify’s autoplay feature while cleaning my apartment and instead, on an old, crackly vinyl while tripping on mushrooms—the type of inaugural listen the piece of heart-rending music really deserves.

If George Clinton’s echoing opening poetry about drowning in his own proverbial shit doesn’t stop you dead in your tracks, Eddie Hazel’s slow, delicate-yet-deliberate progression on the guitar will at the very least bring the thoughts in your mind to a screeching halt. Even the first note of the solo seems to reel with a sort of existential pain that, on the right days, immediately puts a lump in my throat. And on the wrong days? The song makes me fucking ugly-cry.

If, like me, you have a taste for drug-fuelled analogies about enduring life on this festering yet beautiful planet, and screaming, soul-stirring solos like the 10-minute beast in “Maggot Brain”, you might just come to revere this song as a masterpiece. (Legend has it Clinton is said to have described the term ‘maggot brain’—also allegedly Hazel’s nickname—as a state of transcendence that can only be achieved by “enjoying the expansive freedoms of funk”, and, of course, by taking drugs.)

The members of Funkadelic were, as you may have guessed by their name and the opening lines of the song, huge proponents of psychedelics. Lead singer Clinton described the track in his 2014 memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?, as the product of a massive LSD trip and a powerful request he made to Hazel during a recording session:

“Eddie and I were in the studio, tripping like crazy but also trying to focus on our emotions… I told him to play like his mother had died, to picture that day, what he would feel, how he would make sense of his life, how he would take a measure of everything that was inside him and let it out through his guitar.

“I knew immediately that he understood what I meant. I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web."

Then, he told Hazel to imagine as if his mother had, in fact, not died—like the soundtrack that might accompany a visual of a person imploding with grief, only to have to reel it all back in. (This juxtaposition is illustrated on the album’s cover: the front features a woman screaming, buried in soil with only her head exposed. On the back, her head is replaced with a skull.)

“When he played the solo back, I knew that it was good beyond good, not only a virtuoso display of musicianship but also an almost unprecedented moment of emotion in pop music,” Clinton wrote.

The resulting song takes listeners on a sinuous journey that blocks out every sense but sound. It’s a tragic series of phrasing that forces you (well, me) to close your eyes and get metaphorical; get lost in the crevices of your own maggot-filled brain, examining and removing each one carefully and wondering how you might stack them all up and “rise above” the ever-running river of shit that Clinton so cooly describes.

Hazel’s flawless solo is considered by many to be the pinnacle of his career, and sits at #71 on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos. It also landed Hazel, considered by music critics at the time to be “the next Hendrix” and a favourite of guitarists like John Frusciante, Lenny Kravitz, and Buckethead, a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists.

“During the ‘70s, there were a bunch of bands that were rock but funk, too. There were some serious guitarists in those bands,” Detroit guitarist Randy Jacobs once told Guitar World, “but they all wanted to be Eddie Hazel.”

The 10-minute renowned piece of p-funk—Clinton’s brand of psychedelic funk, or Parliament-Funkadelic, or pure funk, depending on who you ask—was, incredibly, recorded in a single take. Punctuated by fuzz and wah effects, a visceral sadness seems to explode from Hazel's fingertips, and though it lets up here and there for a few brief, hopeful bars, there’s a sort of meditative, pit-in-your-gut pain the entire duration of the song. Hence my penchant for ugly crying.

Not sure what I mean? Smoke a joint and let your ears feast on some timeless, soul-crushing magic.