The greatness of Gil Scott-Heron

For devotees of a particular artist or musician, an obituary is a painful thing – first, for the obvious reason, that it formally records the tragedy of that person’s death; but also because obits tend to codify how a given artist is viewed by a mass audience. And for true fans, that view is often unjust and dissatisfying.

For instance, Bob Dylan’s obit – which has surely been on file at the New York Times for 30 years or more – will invariably mention “The Times Are A-Changin’” in its first sentence, just as Randy Newman’s will mention “Short People.” Each is a small outrage.

Such was the case this week with the death of the great R&B/jazz poet singer/songwriter Gil Scott-Heron whose obits were quick to point to his “signature” song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and his role as an influence in the development of rap and hip-hop.

Back during my college years, I went through a period in which my life could be best summed up as Eat, Sleep and Gil Scott-Heron. So, this week, it was my turn to get rankled at obit reductionism.

Scott-Heron was certainly an influence in the prehistory of hip-hop, but he mostly thought of himself as a jazz man. Yet his socio-political rage burned with such incandesence that by comparison the snotty British punk rockers that came along during Gil’s most fruitful period look like children playing dress-up.

His blend of the relentlessly political with soulful human-scale balladry made him unique in his time and ours. In an industry where nearly everyone sounds like someone else, and every star has imitators, Scott-Heron was without peer.

He came out of New York in the late 1960s as a writer and poet, and his first records mixed spoken-word screeds more in line with 1950s-era beat poetry than today’s rap with gorgeous piano ballads that showcased an expressive baritone. The former famously included his take on the Apollo 11 moon landing, “Whitey on the Moon.” But his piano songs often translated that acid anger into compassion and tenderness. “Did You Hear What They Said?,” to take one example, is probably the most heartfelt response to the street violence of post-MLK ’60s you’ll ever hear.

Throughout the ’70s, Scott-Heron put out one jewel after another, writing about everything from corruption to drugs to nuclear power, mixed in with life-affirming songs of pride and optimism, all on the Arista label, founded by the ultimate music-industry godfather Clive Davis. Even with that mainstream stamp, Scott-Heron somehow found a way to include on his albums long, music-less political diatribes, full of clever invective and wordplay, set off by Watergate and various racism outrages.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Scott-Heron released what may have been his masterpiece, a long spoken-word proto-rap called “B Movie” attacking Reagan’s history as a Hollywood actor, played against a crisp funk beat and a bouncing bass line. Gil fans had every right to believe that the Reagan years would push him to new heights of creativity.

But then a weird thing happened. Instead of burning with new passions, he just burned out. After a tepid follow to “B Movie,” called “Re-Ron,” Scott-Heron essentially vanished. Plagued by drug addictions and arrests – specifically a monstrous dependence on crack cocaine – he stopped recording for a decade. Then, after a listless album in the mid ’90s, he disappeared again, just when we needed him most.
I got to interview Scott-Heron when he came to Santa Cruz around 1993. He was testy and distracted, and I felt he was contemptuous of the job that I had to do. It was a disspiriting experience for someone who had been such an ardent Gil fan.

But the fact is that Scott-Heron’s music does not hold up today. His insistence on being political in his music made his songs topical, and thus they sound hopelessly dated. That, of course, only illuminates his main role in the 1970s, as a kind of commentator to the ongoing drama of living in America in his day. The earlier recordings of Public Enemy and Michael Franti, as close to disciples of Scott-Heron as you’re likely to find, also sound dated. And that is their glory. They sounded immediate in their time.

There is one Gil Scott-Heron song, however, that holds up brilliantly to modern ears. It’s a stately, mournful ballad called “Winter in America,” a beautifully metaphorical cry in the wilderness about the diminishment of the American dream.

It’s a rich, almost desolate hymn that’s taken a step or two past anger into something approaching grief. It is to political despair what John Lennon’s “Imagine” is to idealism.

Powered by an almost rolling, martial-sounding drum beat – the kind you might hear at a military funeral – and a mournful bed of flutes and electric piano, “Winter in America” sees a land in trouble, “cities that stagger on the coastlines” and “a nation that just can’t stand much more.”

It captures what many disillusioned Americans are beginning to feel about their country today in 2011. And it’s that song that would have made the first sentence in Gil Scott-Heron’s obituary, if I were writing it.


One thought on “The greatness of Gil Scott-Heron

  1. Pretty good reflection on GSH from your angle Wallace. I of course, 15-years-old, in high school, living in North Philadelphia in 1970 when “Small Talk at 125th and Lennox” came out, was profoundly affected by it, especially “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

    Over the years I came to like a lot of his other recordings even more. Even the ones that seemed to speak of the personal demons he wrestled with, like “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust.”

    There are just too many tracks, coming from too many moods to pin him in any one spot. You’ve got his outstanding cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” “The Ghetto Code (Dot Dot Dit Dit Dot Dot Dash),” “The H2O Gate Blues,” “Your Daddy Loves You,” and many more soul stirring and heart moving poems and songs that I recommend you look up and listen to on YouTube right away.

    One of my favorite Gil Scott-Heron poems, “Jose Campos Torres” is dedicated to a relative who was killed by police and is still relevant today to us black men whose eyes are caught almost weekly by another news story of another young unarmed African American male meeting that same fate.

    Another favorite that is truly relevant today is “Alien,” about the reality of life for the undocumented worker.

    I know we all call him a singer, a poet, a jazzman, “the grandfather of rap,” etc. But he called himself a “Bluesologist.” I once heard him call himself “the next to the last poet.”

    Don’t feel too bad about his grumpy mood when you interviewed him. He was kind of grumpy when I interviewed him for the radio in the 1980s, but we did share some laughs too.

    Thanks for the great writing and thoughtful tribute to an incredible artist that we both admired.

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