One of the most significant deaths in the arts community this summer was the poet-singer-songwriter-activist Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron died several weeks ago at this point, but I wanted to wait to pay tribute to him until I could get it right.
Gil’s death was not unexpected — he had battled drug addiction and various other health crises (including, most recently, HIV) for several decades, but to make matters more poignant, he left us after having a low-key but triumphant comeback in 2010 with the haunting album I’m New Here. His talent as a writer and a musician can’t be overstated — he remained true to his principles and brought a searing intelligence and deep passion for his fellow man to the world of “popular music.”
What strikes one when listening to all of his recorded work in a short span of time is not only how radical his poems and lyrics were, but also how he clung to the small joys found in daily life. Those who know him only from works like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” will be surprised to hear the pretty and extremely serene jazz ballads he wrote and performed during the same period.
In addition to his writing and musical talent, he also was an engaging performer, as is evidenced by the films and videos of his concerts, where he did both poems and comedy routines in between songs.
So GSH was a “militant” artist who could also be extremely funny; a polemicist who also crafted mellow music that is relaxing and refreshing; and a gifted, literary (that is a compliment, not an insult) writer who never lost the common touch in his “voice.”
His obits celebrated his achievements, but also naturally focused on the tragedy of his drug use. It’s clear that, like many artists, he saw all too clearly what the world is like and needed to dull his senses so that he wouldn’t be sucked in too deeply. The fact that he produced precise and unsparing accounts of addiction (“Home is Where the Hatred Is,” “The Bottle”) when he himself was presumably only beginning to fall victim to it reflects how deeply he understood the mindset of the addict and the allure of the “escape hatch.”
The other aspect of Gil’s legacy that was spoken about in every obit and tribute on the Internet was his status as one of the principal “godfathers of rap.” The quote of his that was most repeated was “don’t blame me for that," but the more important statement he made about contemporary hiphop in general was his reminder that he had worked on becoming a honed musician before he became a performer.
His main collaborator, Brian Jackson, is rightly given credit for the sound of Gil’s best albums, up to and including 1980; in many cases the records were credited to both of them. But Gil was himself a musician who knew his craft and took no easy ways out — thus the fact that he cultivated a dedicated following in America and was widely appreciated in Europe and the UK, where jazz is much more warmly received.
How did Scott-Heron differ from the mainstream rap stars of today, many of who claim him as an influence?
—His compositions were always his own original material. He covered songs by Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers, among others, but he didn’t lay his lyrics on the “bed” of another artist’s melody.
—His looks. He was a good looking guy when he was younger, but was never a heartthrob.
—He was a poet, first and foremost. His concentration as a writer was not strictly on the rhymes (although he produced some gems), but on the message being communicated and the tone of the words.
—He was, above all, a moralist (a streetsmart one) who wrote with a sense of purpose and was, in fact, very hard on himself in his writing. No self-aggrandizing “gangsta” behavior for him.
-And, yes, the musicianship. Though they contain some topical lyrics, his best albums are evocative and timeless jazz records.
In the British TV series All Back to Mine (see below), when asked to pick his favorite music he made certain to put Chuck D/Public Enemy and Michael Franti in the company of John Coltrane (his hero) and Marvin Gaye. He definitely knew the good stuff when he heard it.
The details of his life and the geographical moves that shaped his worldview were also quickly reviewed in his obits. Born in Chicago to a librarian and a Jamaican soccer star who was a key player for a Scottish team (!), he was cared for as a child by his grandmother in Tennessee. In adolescence he was moved to the Bronx. He interrupted his college undergrad studies to write and publish a novel (The Vulture), then wound up getting a master’s in literature from John Hopkins when he was already a recording artist in the early Seventies.
He described himself as a “bluesologist,” since he remained fascinated by the roots of African-American popular music throughout his life. The drug addiction that wrecked his health apparently kicked in badly in the mid-Eighties, as his productivity as a singer-songwriter pretty much ceased at that point, with only two studio albums and certain select tours after that.
His last 25 years were fallow in terms of work, but the concentration of genius he betrayed in his prolific period, plus the brilliance of the two “comeback” albums, qualify him as a major artist who, true to the American way of entertainment, was better known and more beloved overseas than he was over here….
On a related note, Gil did live through two years of the Obama presidency (the two years squandered on the quest for “bipartisanship”), but I haven’t seen or read any comments from him about the President. Since Obama has kept America’s military commitment ramped up (while the country is falling apart at home), one can only assume that the artist whose motto was “Work for Peace” (see below) would not be pleased with another U.S. President with unnecessary blood on his hands.
I can rhapsodize about Scott-Heron’s work, but he should always have the last word. Let me start off the clips with the best GSH interviews, all done by British fans/journalists. First an interview done for the BBC when he was preparing his last album, and then a really terrific documentary, a GSH “101” called The Revolution Will Not Televised:
Then the British show All Back to Mine in 2000. Gil speaks about his musical influences and those who followed him [RECOMMENDED]:
Scott-Heron’s first album is a potent collection of spoken word pieces with musical backing called Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (he does sing “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul?”). This piece was resurrected by Kanye West and inserted into a new piece he called “Who Will Survive in America?” (which is basically Gil’s vocal with a new musical backing).
A song that wound up having a lot of personal meaning to Gil was “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” off his second album Pieces of a Man (1971). The song talks about drug addiction, and he later reworked it for his first comeback album in 1994, after he had had been having drug problems for a while. It’s a no-nonsense song that isn’t preachy, it just provides a first-person perspective:
The thing that impresses me about the most about GSH is his versatility. Above you have a political poem and a “cry from the heart” as they call it. And here, from some intrepid YT poster, are three of his most beautiful vocals, with the first two being particular favorites of mine, “Save the Children” and “I Think I’ll Call It Morning” (from Pieces…). The third song is “Peace Go With You, Brother” from his album with Brian Jackson, Winter in America [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED]:
Yet another truly mellow tune that reflected GSH’s upbeat side is his ode to two of his greatest influences, “Lady Day and John Coltrane.” I also love his spoken word piece “The Ghetto Code (Dot Dot Dit Dit Dot Dot Dash)” that functions as both a cautionary tale and a standup routine; the most interesting thing is his note that “there’s something wrong with February,” which, of course, was later chosen to be Black History month, despite its being the shortest month in the year.
For a visual example of his comfortable stage presence, here is a great bit taken from the Robert Mugge’s terrific GSH documentary Black Wax (1983):
Three-quarters of Black Wax can be found on YT currently. The first section, in which Gil discusses his being a “bluesologist,” is here. A large, 40-minute chunk of the film, starting with Scott-Heron doing an awesome version of his poem “Whitey on the Moon,” is here [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED]:
A nod to Brian Jackson, Gil’s finest collaborator. Their albums together are among Scott-Heron’s best, and songs like “First Minute of a New Day” (1976) underscore Jackson’s terrific arranging and production. Their album Winter in America (1974) is considered the high point of their collaboration (along with their group, "the Midnight Band”):
Gil’s biggest hit on “the charts” was this awesome blend of a serious message and a very catchy melody, “The Bottle” [RECOMMENDED]:
The first time I saw Gil was on Saturday Night Live singing his anthemic "Johannesburg," which predated the whole Sun City by a decade. It’s still a killer song:
Scott-Heron was on the right side of a lot of issues in the Seventies and early Eighties. He opposed the use of nuclear energy with the unforgettable “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Here is a live version from 1990:
Gil’s satirical pieces on “the Great Communicator,” Ronald Raygun (as Scott-Heron called him), were nothing short of brilliant. Here is the first one, which serves as a great history lesson about what was really going on at the turn of the Eighties [RECOMMENDED]:
As if “B-Movie” wasn’t brutal enough, the funkified “Re-Ron” lays down the case for the danger and stupidity of Reagan in an even clearer fashion:
Gil’s personal problems consumed him after the early Eighties, but in 1994 he came back with his first dynamite “comeback” album, Spirits. He was profiled as “the godfather of rap” in interview segments like this one and crafted a brilliant “Message to the Messengers” to speak to the new generation of hiphop stars:
The Spirits album is terrific on the whole, but one of its spoken-word pieces still hits home today. “Work for Peace” is Gil’s recognition that the “military and the monetary” run America. Here he performs the piece on the MTV Unplugged poetry special. This piece, again, should be mandatory listening for the President. It probably wouldn’t change anything he’s currently thinking, but it would so sweet if it could [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED]:
Sadly, following Spirits, Gil’s drug problems increased. He did continue to do live gigs and expressed himself eloquently as always in interviews like this one. His second “comeback” occurred last year with the excellent album I’m New Here. The haunting and deeply menacing song “Me and the Devil” (which was perhaps his most deeply personal, most anguished composition) was illustrated by a suitably menacing menacing music video (check out the amazing spoken-word piece at the close).
The album has some great tunes, including the superb “New York Is Killing Me,” but the most valuable piece of video to emerge from the production was a live, acoustic version of the title tune. Here Gil finally did become a bluesman — he had spoken of his love for the blues since the early Seventies, but his music had never sounded as bluesy as here [RECOMMENDED]:
There is an undeniable majesty to Scott-Heron on the I’m New Here (his knowledge and experience seeps out of every track), but the song I have to close this entry out with is his most famous, the one that has been copied endlessly and still packs a punch 41 years after he first recorded it (as a spoken word piece on Small Talk…) and 40 years after he recorded this indelible musical version (the whole thing is perfect, but the flute has always made it for me).
Here is an interview in which Gil discusses the song. If you’re going to have one creation to be remembered by, this is one hell of an achievement. I wish all rap (and rock and even “fast folk”) sounded more like this, and betrayed this level of intelligence. Rest well, poet.