When I began writing this, the adventure in my life had become confined to pointless weekend shenanigans, many of which slid from my memory into a bog of hangovers and regret. I found myself wading into a familiar cocktail of anxiety, depression, and avoidance, without any way to process it. Even the private words in my journal had become subject to my cynicism. On a dreary Chicago evening at the Belmont station, in an attempt to shake this stalling sensation, I put on my headphones and shuffled my Spotify playlist. The first song that came on was "Maggot Brain," a ten-minute psychedelic saga of anguish, anxiety, and volatility, written and recorded by Eddie Hazel and George Clinton of Funkadelic. Clinton's voice resonates over the intro like an extraterrestrial caution, before Hazel lays into his Fender Strat, producing what is widely regarded as one of the most explosive and emotive guitar solos of all time. Someone I knew once told me that his entire solo was improvised, plucked from thin air.
In his memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You (2014), George Clinton recounts the circumstances of Hazel's impassioned brilliance on "Maggot Brain": "I told [Hazel] 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 felt a pang of jealousy at Hazel's raw talent and stunning ability to capture the nauseating complexity of heartache and uncertainty. I watched a cemetery slide by in the train window as I listened to Clinton’s opening monologue: “For I knew I had to rise above it all, or drown in my own shit.” I leaned my head against the cold, sordid vinyl of the seat, watched the city cascade into a haze, and I took stock of the sheer magnitude of human experience. I realized that the catalyst for my waning sense of impulsive freedom was the fact that I'd failed to write anything outside of class in over a month. Writing was once freedom. It offered escape, adventure, and challenge. Then I found my life gesturing towards the Icarian, betrayed by the very thing that enthralled me. What had first been selfish pleasure soon became about the necessity to impress others, to prove myself to others, to dictate my own worth. Then I wallowed. I realized when I stepped off the train that if I failed to rediscover the freedom in my voice, then I would drown in the shit-sacked wasteland of forgotten and unrealized potential. The urge to break this wearied cycle of self-consciousness and criticism became a question of free will. If I didn’t at least attempt to explore the idea of freedom, I would risk losing the concept entirely.
Shortly after, I came across a definition of free will that only amplified the immediacy I perceived in Clinton's hollow warning. Free will—this most enthralling specter, this concept which has served as fodder for some of the most decisive rifts in religious and philosophical thought, capable of inciting the most nauseating of existential crises—was simply defined to be the ability to do otherwise. Somewhere in this simple definition I found security. There are so few moments in which we truly take advantage of this ability to do otherwise, allowing ourselves to depart from the scripted, and to exist in possibility. We relinquish ourselves to the narcotic warmth of conformity, mediocrity, and predictability, though we pretend to detest their mindlessness.
At a party where my friend was performing a stand-up set, I staggered through the crowd to refill my drink, attempting to distance myself from my mind, to distract it through social interaction. I took a look back at the makeshift stage to watch my friend break from his rehearsed routine and take charge of the possibility in the moment. I watched his face relax, poised and natural while he exercised every sarcastic synapse in his brain. The energy of the room gnawed insatiably on the risk of the unknown, the audacity of my friend to wander so blindly into the realm of judgment. It dawned on me as a slurred notion as I stumbled home that night, that spontaneity could be the ultimate expression of freedom—that free will is not only ‘the ability to do otherwise,’ it is the capacity to improvise.
There is a level of comfort involved with improvisation that astounds me—where the artist recognizes the vulnerability in themselves and in the endeavor of creation, yet still manages to use it as a platform, fashioning something new and honest out of this vulnerability. When I look at dancers, I, too, wish to seem as unaffected by the weight of my own body and the endless contemplations swarming in the head above it. Yet as I shuffle through my life, I often feel as if, rather than landing lightly, I clatter to the floor like a building demolition. Most often, however, I find myself immobile—the load of thought shackling my arms, planting my feet, and locking my knees. When I cannot even bring myself to be present in moments, it is no wonder that I find myself enthralled by those who command them, who steal them from under the weight, who move in balance, who improvise.
Overwhelmed with the recognition of my acquiescence, I got high and watched National Geographic (another blissfully mindless routine that I had begun to fall into). There was a scene of mountain goats climbing a nearly vertical dam in search of mineral salt, set dramatically against the wind, effortlessly clinging to the sheer face of the wall. I watched again and again, mesmerized by their grace amidst the absurd. One particularly frenzied goat reached too far for a lick of the nutrient-rich rock, almost forgetting the necessity of keeping its balance in the process. It was too consumed by the pledged fruits of its labor. Its back-left hoof buckled, inciting a spectacular dash across crumbling terrain. It pirouetted its 300-pound body in marvelous exaggeration with every new obstacle. It corrected wildly, yet precisely, as each step was threatened by the perilous landscape. As I watched, I felt the familiar sense of envy that often accompanies the awestruck—similar to that which overcame me while listening to "Maggot Brain" on the train. I realized that I ache to be the mountain goat, a master of improvisation. I want to correct wildly, flamboyantly and accurately, managing to thrive on the steep cliff I view looming over my every morning. I want to find a balance that has been slipping away. I want to find freedom without lobotomy.
In a dark apartment, heavy with humidity and cigarette smoke, I watch my friends jam for a while. At first, they stumble a few times, stopping, cursing, smoking, laughing, before they settle into a groove.
Jamming requires a beat, a foundation to give the improviser both a platform to stand on, and a rhythmic expectation to shatter. The beat creates a sense of mocking normalcy waiting to be broken. In life, this beat is the set of societal norms you choose to ascribe to, adhere to, and confine yourself to on a daily basis, and it’s the steady sense of routine that provides comfort up until the moment it chokes you. Suddenly, Jack dives into a violin solo, designing a complex arrangement of plucking and bowing out of pure extemporization. I raise my head in disbelief as he rests his violin, laughing. His laughter fades to a few fragile moments, and the room is filled with combustible silence, like that of a wine glass as it slices the air before shattering to the floor. A tiny sliver of serenity in the deafening cascade between cause and effect, performance and applause.
I wake up every day and I go to class, then work, then class again, followed by an hour or so of convincing myself I’ll be more productive if I relax for a while. Dinner falls invariably between 5:30 and 6:15, always with the same people in the same dining hall. Then, I do homework, get high, go to bed, wake up, go to class, work, class, relax, dinner, homework, get high, sleep. Wake, work, smoke, sleep. Life settles too easily into this droning 4/4 tempo, and I don’t yet have the skills to improvise over it. In many ways, I feel as if I am still sitting on the train, awestruck in the resounding genius of Eddie Hazel—still motionless amidst my catalogue of fears and uncertainty. I feel like Jack without a violin, a dancer in the town from Footloose, a mountain goat with pig hooves. If I don't force myself off this train soon, I might drown.- Xavier Vilar-Brasser
Xavier Vilar-Brasser is a Junior at Northwestern University from Nashville, TN studying Philosophy and Creative Nonfiction.