Music

Funk's Death Trip

Yuval Taylor

But for a brief moment in the early '70s, a band captured the odor of the age, the stench of death and corruption, the weary exhalation of America at its lowest. And it smelled very, very funky.

It was 1971, and death was changing shape. For centuries it had been feared, reviled, or simply swept under the rug. But now it was being celebrated.

Lieutenant William Calley was on trial for murdering 102 Vietnamese civilians in cold blood at My Lai, and the fan letters were pouring in -- 10,000 of them by February. Legislators from Jimmy Carter to George Wallace condemned Calley's conviction, and more than 200,000 copies of “The Battle Hymn of William Calley” were sold. At the same time, Charles Manson's trial was prompting adoring testimony from his lovers and acolytes; “Charlie was a father who knew that it is good to make love, and makes love with love, but not with evil and guilt,” gushed Squeaky Fromme.

In a study of near-death experiences in Omega magazine, Dr. Russell Noyes Jr. reported that they were a lot like the mystical states of consciousness brought on by LSD and recommended that scientists should study people on drugs if they wanted to know more about what it was like to die.

Detroit, which boasted the country’s highest murder rate, also boasted no fewer than four extremely loud bands with screaming guitars and wild stage shows, and at least one of these was taking plenty of LSD, immersed in thoughts of death. When that band, Funkadelic, released its third album, Maggot Brain, in July, it captured the mood of the era perfectly -- not just druggy, but toxic.

Check out the cover. A woman's head is poking out of the dirt, but she’s not dirty. She’s screaming -- or is she laughing? -- mouth wide open, eyes shut tight, afro glistening, teeth gleaming and perfect. The dirt looks good too -- some straw, some pebbles, but nothing crawling. The rest of her body is invisible -- buried.

Inside the album's gatefold, under an 11-inch image of a maggot, is a long screed about fear lifted from the Satan-worshipping Process-Church of the Final Judgement, which ends as follows:

As long as human beings fail to see THEIR fear reflected in these and a hundred other manifestations of Fear, then they will fail to see their part in the relentless tide of hatred and violence, destruction and devastation, that sweeps the earth. And the tide will not ebb until all is destroyed.

On the right is a blurry, faded photograph of the band, black men mostly in their early 20s, posed casually in front of a crumbling brick wall. On the back cover, in place of the beautiful black woman’s screaming head, is a shining clean skull with its eye sockets aglow.

Now put the record on.

It opens with an emotionally draining guitar solo called “Maggot Brain'. According to some accounts, the title was a phrase Clinton came up with after his brother died and nobody knew; maggots were crawling out of his skull when he was finally found. Before the song’s recording, Clinton told Hazel to imagine his mother had just died. The result, in Chuck Eddy’s words, is “10 weaving and swelling minutes of . . . disorder that may well express the saddest emotion I’ve ever heard wrenched from a mere musical instrument.”

The album ends with another 10-minute guitar excursion, a burning hot prefiguring of what Miles Davis would do on Agharta, called “Wars of Armageddon.” In between it asks if you can “get to” the fact that you’re really dead (“I once had a life, or rather it had me”) (in “Can You Get to That”), pleas for peace with screamed lyrics like “You know that hate is gonna keep on multiplying and you know that man is gonna keep right on dying” (in “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks”), and, in the fiercest song on the record, “Super Stupid,” tells a story about someone who mistakes heroin for cocaine and kicks the bucket.

Maggot Brain is one of the loudest, darkest, most intense records ever made. The funk is undeniable -- “Hit It and Quit It” is the apotheosis of everything funk was about, and “Super Stupid” takes it to the point of no return -- but so is the madness and anger, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that Eddie Hazel’s guitar seems to personify. Ronald “Stozo” Edwards, who would later provide cover art for P-Funk albums, testifies, “Niggas have always been scared of Funkadelic.... That Maggot Brain album was the scariest shit I had ever heard.”

Yet underlying it all is a madcap sort of humor, exemplified by the end of “Wars of Armageddon,” where over piercing shrieks a voice intones, “More power to the people, more pussy to the power, more pussy to the people, more power to the pussy.” As George Clinton, Funkadelic's producer and mastermind, says, “I didn’t never want to be pretentious about shit, so I would always make sure I was being funny.”

Maggot Brain is no concept album; it’s simply a collection of seven songs, some short, some very long. But as a whole, it opens up a vision of the world completely unlike that suggested by any previous record -- a world of darkness, death, and destruction that actually seems like a terrific place to be.

*

Another record from the period, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, a loud, slow, record which had gone to number one on the UK charts and number 12 in the U.S. in late 1970, had also centered around death. But as the title suggested, Sabbath feared death as intrinsically evil; their view of the universe was Manichaean; good and evil were not mixed.

But for Funkadelic, death was to be celebrated. With its biting, defiant, overwhelmingly funky music, Funkadelic welcomed death as one of its motley crew. You can hear this in “Eulogy and Light,” from the band's previous record, Free Your Mind . . . And Your Ass Will Follow: Over the song “Open Your Eyes” played backwards, Clinton yells a twisted version of the Lord’s Prayer and 23rd Psalm, culminating in a dramatic reversal of the usual illumination. He runs away from the light at the end, his voice rising as the tape unspools too fast—“I run, I back away, to hide, from what? From fear? The truth? The light?”

On Maggot Brain, fear has been conquered, and there is no light left. And perhaps this was because of George Clinton’s immersion in the literature of the Process Church.

Founded in 1964 by a British Scientologist named Robert de Grimston, the Process Church of the Final Judgment worshipped God while loving Satan -- on one wall of their churches was a Christian cross and on the opposite was a goat’s head in a pentagram. It urged followers to choose between Jehovah (the ascetic life), Lucifer (the sensual life), Satan (the violent life), and Christ (who unified all three), and then to follow one’s chosen path to its extreme. The unification would take place in an apocalypse, which was coming soon.

The cult's magazine, The Process -- from which Funkadelic quoted at length not just on Maggot Brain but on their next record, America Eats Its Young -- was heavily into Hitler, Satan, blood, and doom. It devoted an issue to freedom of expression, featuring Mick Jagger on the cover; another to fear, filled with disturbing images and printed in purple, red, and silver ink; and another to death, including an article by Charles Manson celebrating death as “peace from this world’s madness and paradise in my own self.”

The Process Church was not very active in Detroit, and neither Clinton nor anyone in his band underwent its arduous initiation procedure. Clinton would soon develop an elaborate and dauntingly original cosmology of his own, borrowing from sci-fi movies and comic strips. Clinton's P-Funk empire would become a kind of radical organization sporting its very own eschatology, aesthetics, and pantheon of minor gods. Funkadelic albums would become vehicles for a peculiar kind of evangelism, with mystical pronouncements sharing grooves with bathroom humor. But the Process Church proved an important source for him, for it gave Clinton moral permission to embrace and celebrate the dark side of human nature.

Another ingredient was Black Power. Funkadelic wasn’t as explicit about this as, say, the Last Poets, but the racial harmony of Sly and the Family Stone was clearly not in their vocabulary. Funkadelic was always a purely black thang.

To embrace and celebrate blackness was one of the central goals of the Black Power and Black Arts movements; this meant rejecting the association of blackness with evil that had been more or less built into the English language. Langston Hughes had written about this identification back in the 1940s, in “That Word Black.” In this story, Hughes’s protagonist wonders why every word or phrase containing “black” is negative -- black cats, blacklist, black-balled, blackmail, the eight-ball, the Black Hand Society, black sheep, black magic, black mark, black as hell, black heart. “Wait till my day comes!” he exclaims. “In my language, bad will be white. Blackmail will be white mail. Black cats will be good luck, and white cats will be bad."

The phrase “Black is beautiful” has become such a cliché that it’s easy to forget its revolutionary import, which was, as Rickey Vincent puts it in his history of funk, that “the demeaning language of European culture was finally, ultimately, being dissolved. Inverting the meanings of the term black was a monumental task.”

Larry Neal, in his 1968 manifesto, “The Black Arts Movement,” wrote about “the need to develop a Black aesthetic,” and posited that “the Western aesthetic has run its course: it is impossible to construct anything meaningful within its decaying structure.” In this he was echoing Don L. Lee, Etheridge Knight, and LeRoi Jones, who had written, in his “State/meant” of 1965,

The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. . . .

The fair are

fair, and death

ly white.

The day will not save them

and we own

the night.

Inspired by Jones and Malcolm X, the Black Power and Black Arts movements went so far as to call for violence, associating that violence directly with blackness. In “Black Art,” from his 1969 book Black Magic, Jones wrote,

We want “poems that kill.”

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead

Funkadelic played a variation on this theme. For them, everything dark was beautiful, whether it be blackness, dirt, or death. Clinton started on this idea as early as the first Funkadelic album, a record of deep-fried blues. During the song, “What Is Soul?” after a cry of “All that is good is nasty,” he compares soul to a ham hock in your corn flakes, the ring around your bathtub, a joint rolled in toilet paper, and chitlins foo yung -- in other words, a mix of the nasty with the good. Clinton wasn’t simply reversing the English language, as Hughes and the “black is beautiful” people did. He was taking blackness’s negative associations and making them positive. In the new slang of the era, bad meant good.

And things got progressively funkier from there. The word funk originally meant body odor; the music was therefore dirty and sexy, intimate and hot. It involved people playing closely together, figuratively rubbing up against one another. Funk embraced heavily distorted electric guitars, bent notes and pulled strings, basses that popped rather than hummed, irregular drumming that split the difference between swing and straight time. Funk vocalists grunted and moaned, shrieked and sobbed, slurred their words and stretched them out.

Under George Clinton, funk embraced not just stink and dirt but went far beyond that, embracing death, war, and even the apocalypse. Yes, other funk artists shared this tendency -- one funk band called themselves War, and James Brown released albums entitled Superbad and Hell. But War espoused peace and love, Brown self-reliance. Funkadelic, especially on Maggot Brain, reveled in decay.

For Clinton, funk was the answer to Hughes's conundrum of how one could celebrate blackness while rejecting its meaning in the white world. Funk was a celebration of both blackness and its meaning in the white world—darkness, death, destruction. The process of reclaiming blackness had just been taken one step farther -- and as far as it could possibly go.

*

Funkadelic had initially come together as the backing band for the Parliaments, a vocal quintet led by George Clinton since 1955. The name Funkadelic was suggested by Billy “Bass” Nelson, who was all of 17 years old. It was Nelson who recruited the other four instrumentalists in the band, and who, with Hazel, was largely responsible for their sound and image. “Cream, Blue Cheer, Sgt. Pepper’s, Sly, Vanilla Fudge: That’s what we were listening to constantly,” Nelson remembered. “And once Eddie started listening to Jimi Hendrix, he found his niche. Immediately, he was like, ‘Damn, Bill, I can do that! Can you play that bass shit, muthafucka?’ I was like, ‘Hey, man, I guess I’m gonna have to.”

The band was formed in Detroit in 1967, the time and place of the country’s most destructive urban riot, soon to be labeled “The Great Rebellion.” Forty-one people died, 347 were injured, 3,800 arrested, 5,000 rendered homeless. More than a thousand buildings were destroyed, 2,700 businesses were looted, and damage estimates reached half a billion dollars. Clinton, Nelson, Clarence Haskins, and the rest of the Parliaments were holed up in the Twenty Grand Motel, where, as Haskins explained, “people [were] getting their fingers, arms, wrists cut off for their jewelry. National Guard had us all pinned up against the wall. Took our uniforms out of the car, stomping on them, lookin’ for weapons. We were just afraid of being shot.”

In the early 1970s, Detroit was the fifth-largest American city (now it is 11th), and it was, by almost any measure, the worst. Even the chairman of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce admitted that “Detroit is the city of problems. If they exist, we’ve probably got them.” Because of labor conditions, unrest was at its peak: In 1970, one quarter of Ford’s assembly-line workers quit, and on any given day, a full five percent of General Motors’ workers would be missing without an excuse, a figure that would rise to 10 percent on Mondays and Fridays. Public transit was practically nonexistent, the school system was on the verge of bankruptcy, thousands of homes were deserted because of corruption in lending institutions, the police department resisted segregation and created secret elite units, racism pervaded all aspects of life, and Motor City became Murder City.

But at the same time, Detroit was the site of one of the nation’s most revolutionary black liberation movements. In response to the riots, a group of black workers combined Black Power with the more radical elements of the labor movement to formulate a new vision and a new social movement, one that directly confronted the establishment. At the vanguard were three revolutionary organizations: the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which organized wildcat strikes and published widely read newspapers; the Black United Front, which encompassed sixty organizations ranging from black churches to a black policemen’s group to DRUM itself; and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, whose name speaks for itself.

Funkadelic quickly established itself as a fixture on the Detroit rock scene, sharing management and performance venues with three white bands: the Stooges, the MC5, and the Amboy Dukes, led by Ted Nugent. An onstage marriage between Clinton and Stooges leader Iggy Pop, both of whom would regularly display their penises during their shows, was once staged by their publicist.

And along with rock bands, of course, were the Motown bands, of which the Temptations came closest to the Funkadelic style. (Clinton actually wrote some of the Temptations’ songs, and called Funkadelic “the loudest black band in the world, Temptations on acid”.) What all these bands had in common was a balls-to-the-walls aesthetic -- loud guitars; fierce and steady rhythms; shouted-out lyrics about sex, drugs, and rebellion; songs that could go on for half an hour; flamboyant and violent onstage gestures; and an implicit menace, an unstated -- or occasionally baldly stated -- threat.

By the time Funkadelic recorded Maggot Brain, Hazel and Nelson had been playing together for nine years, with drummer Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood joining them in 1967. The trio had developed a solid rapport and, together with newer members Tawl Ross and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, recorded two albums which reached the R&B top 20 (as would Maggot Brain). Although Fulwood’s drumming was steady and forceful, there was an layer underneath of complex, mercurial rhythms that seemed to coexist uneasily with the central beat. Nelson’s playing was propulsive, inventive, and stylish; Ross’s guitar was solid; Worrell’s keyboard solos were both blues- and outer-space based. But what really made the band stand out was Eddie Hazel’s axe.

Jimi Hendrix had died on September 18, 1970, shortly before the recording of Maggot Brain began, and it’s possible that “Maggot Brain” was meant as a sort of requiem. For the white community, Hendrix’s death hardly mattered at the time: Time magazine’s contemptuous obituary read, in its entirety, “Died. Jimi Hendrix, 27, Seattle-born rock superstar whose grating, bluesy voice, screechy, pulsating guitar solos and pelvis-pumping stage antics conveyed both a turned-on, fetid sense of eroticism and, at best, a reverberated musical equivalent of the urban black’s anguished spirit; apparently of an overdose of drugs; in London.”

To Funkadelic, though, Hendrix mattered. Hazel was widely considered his successor. It’s easy to compare the two guitarists -- both were blues-based and heavily electric, both embraced the psychedelic aesthetic while keeping it grounded in rhythm-and-blues, both displayed amazing proficiency with jaw-dropping ease. But while Hendrix was eager to experiment and grandstand, Hazel was no show-off. Moreover, he was an indissoluble member of the P-Funk family -- he needed them as much as they needed him.

On their previous two albums, Funkadelic had been loose, sloppy, and ragged -- in fact, the one before Maggot Brain, Free Your Mind, had been recorded in its entirety in one LSD-fueled day. But on Maggot Brain, they focused their energies so that every note counted. Clinton now says that he produced the record while on acid: “I just got in there and turned the knobs. It was such a vibe. I didn’t know any better -- you can only do that stuff when you don’t know any better.” But he’s being disingenuous. Rather than in one day, Maggot Brain was recorded over a period of several months. It featured a number of guest musicians, including Gary Shider from the band United Soul, some female vocalists from Isaac Hayes’ backing group, and McKinley Jackson, trombonist for the Politicians.

Funkadelic was essentially a riven band at this point. The five instrumentalists were functioning as a sold unit creating the music; George Clinton was functioning not only as their producer but as their saboteur. He mixed Nelson and Worrell’s playing out of the released version of the song “Maggot Brain”, which Nelson still resents. He has called the cover and liner notes “bullshit, satanical to say the least…. That’s George sabotaging us again.

“It’s okay to be the bad guys of rock and roll, but look at how much class the Stones had with it. Then there’s the other point of, Wait, don’t go too far with it; we’re not white. There are things we cannot get away with because we’re black. But George didn’t care about none of that, at our expense…. Funkadelic was straight-up X-rated. He wanted to keep Funkadelic dirty.” Clearly, Clinton wanted Maggot Brain to be as extreme as he could make it.

*

After the release of Maggot Brain, Funkadelic essentially disbanded. Within a year, Worrell would be the only original member left. Clinton fired Fulwood for his heroin addiction, though he would later rejoin the band. Hazel, who was also addicted to heroin, spent a year in jail, convicted of smoking angel dust and assaulting a stewardess; he rejoined the band for a few later records, but his career then went into rapid decline, and he died in 1992. Nelson quit over financial matters (he claimed Clinton was keeping all the money and getting rid of the band made doing so easier), and went on to play with the Commodores, Chairmen of the Board, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, Fishbone, and the Temptations. Tawl Ross barely survived an overdose of LSD and speed, and suffered irreversible brain damage.

The band was no longer the same. Clinton replaced the entire rhythm section, hiring players who had defected from James Brown’s JBs. Funkadelic’s next two records, America Eats Its Young and Cosmic Slop, were unfocused, ineffective, and in parts unlistenable. The heavy blues-based funk sound was almost completely abandoned in favor of a string section and a variety of off-the-wall parodic approaches, none of which had sticking power. By the time the band found its groove again -- on 1974’s Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, essentially a George Clinton-Eddie Hazel record that attempted to do for sex what Maggot Brain had done for death -- they were no longer as focused or ambitious.

As for funk itself, it soldiered on, producing many indelible hits and delectable obscurities. Even if it never got as heavy as Maggot Brain again, it remained a tremendously creative force, and it supplied the soundtrack for black America for the remainder of the decade. Eddie Hazel and Maggot Brain were essentially forgotten; Clinton’s P-Funk empire grew so huge that between his various bands and spin-offs they were releasing as many as eight records a year, all but burying Maggot Brain under subsequent product.

But for a brief moment in the early '70s, a band captured the odor of the age, the stench of death and corruption, the weary exhalation of America at its lowest. And it smelled very, very funky.

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