Ironically, the first time I heard it I was in a state of altered consciousness. I had just laid down on my little futon couch, in my little shoebox apartment. In those days I kept the incense blazing constantly, so the air was heavy with sandalwood. I had forgotten to cut off my stereo, and hadn't really noticed until George Clinton boomed from the speakers, announcing in a solemn voice that Mother Earth was pregnant for the THIRD time. As if that wasn't bad enough: Because y'all have knocked her up.
Groggy or not, I knew I needed to hear what kind of song could uphold an intro like that.
And boy did it. I think the song is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. I love Jimmy Hendrix, but he never got the chance to play that song. Neither did Chuck Berry nor Bo Diddley nor Muddy Waters nor Wes Montgomery nor Ernie Isley nor Bootsy Collins. It was Eddie Hazel who got to play the best guitar solo ever. That doesn't mean he's the best all time, but I've never heard an instrumental render a narrative in that way. First beautiful, then painful, then redemptive.
And although there is a lot to appreciate about the album, lately I've been thinking quite a bit about how funk looks, and especially considering the work of Pedro Bell, Overton Loyd, and all the great funk artists of the period, (particularly the ones featured in Indiana Review's Funk Feature) I took a closer look at the Maggot Brain album cover.
Of course you have to start with the front cover. What can you say about it? A woman's head sits in a mound of dirt. Her eyes are pitched, her forehead ripples with exertion, and her mouth is in full scream. The back side has a skull posed in the same position. Evocative images, to say the least. The cover is even more shocking when you consider that Funkadelic was a group still trying to cater to Black musical tastes. But you can ask Redman and Erykah Badu about its enduring influence. Joel Brodsky, a legend in rock photography, who worked with everyone from Jim Morrison, Carly Simon, Gladys Knight and the Pips, KISS, Isaac Hayes, and B.B. King, took the cover shot.
On the inside left jacket there is, naturally, a huge maggot framing the top of the liner notes. Not an unfriendly maggot, mind you, but a maggot nonetheless. Beneath the maggot is an excerpt of "Process Number Five on Fear" from the Process Church of the Final Judgment.
Fear is at the root of man's destruction of himself. Without fear there is no blame. Without blame there is no conflict. Without conflict there is no destruction.
But there is fear. Deep within the core of every human being it lurks like a monster: dark and intangible. It's outward effects are unmistakable. Its source is hidden...
But to a greater or lesser degree, and manifesting one way or another, all human beings are afraid. And some of us are so afraid that we dare not show our fear. Sometimes we dare not know our fear. For fear is itself a terrifying concept to behold.
Sometimes we dare not know our fear. For fear is itself a terrifying concept to behold. Sorry, I thought that bared repeating.
For those that don't know, the Process Church of the Final Judgment, got famous in the '60s for deifying both Jesus and the Devil. Tangentially related to both L. Ron Hubbard and Charlie Manson, the church could be classified as flying the freak flag at more than half staff.
Although it's unclear how deep into the Process church Funkadelic was, their selection of this particular quote was not incidental. This album is not only about fear and death, but the process o transcending both. The epic title track came from a session where George Clinton asked Eddie Hazel to think about his greatest fear. Hazel played about the death of his mother, and the rest was history.
And as a special treat, here's Eddie Hazel performing Maggot Brain live. Make sure to light your incense before viewing.