“Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.”
—William S. Burroughs
Last week Gil Scott-Heron’s death came and went, and then his name disappeared into the internet abyss. He seemed vaguely familiar to a lot of people, but aside from his song poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his work was really known by few. As it turns out, the ones who knew the most about him were not the consumers of music so much as artists and performers and writers and people who make things. Gil Scott-Heron was what people call an “artists’ artist.” It is a designation given only to the rare few who make art with a high degree of integrity despite whatever difficulties might plague them — poverty & racism to name a few.
It is no exaggeration that his first album, A New Black Poet — Small Talk at 125th Street and Lenox, exploded onto the music and poetry scene of 1970, tapping directly into the collective unconscious of the country. It was just two years after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. All the pain, anger, and loss, and all of the unfulfilled promise of the 1960s, could be felt in his lyrics. Gil Scott-Heron, the complicated poet, singer, musician, activist, and performer died at a young 62. He was HIV-positive. He had been a drug addict. He had also been locked up in prison. He had long creative dry spells. But, hey, Abraham Lincoln died when he was only 56. Jimi Hendrix died at 27. The mark you make in the world is what it’s all about. That was one of his key messages, so maybe 62 wasn’t so bad then?
His music was storytelling in the tradition of Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and August Wilson, to name a few. But the way he combined poems with catchy phrases and soulful, simple-sounding-but-complex music behind his words, well, he managed to create a whole new category on his own. That, in turn, had a powerful influence on what is known today as spoken word and hip-hop. Since his first albums came out, countless poets, musicians, DJs, rappers, and artists have been influenced by him, often without realizing it. I asked around to get a sense of how people remembered him and his work:
In the ’90s, when the spoken-word scene was getting really popular and there were suddenly poets on MTV and the Lollapalooza tour, everybody made sure everybody else knew who Gil Scott-Heron was. And the Last Poets. That was a really cool thing about Bob Holman and Miguel Algarin of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Here were all these young people writing and rhyming and performing pieces about identity, government, hypocrisy, social and cultural issues, and it was like, “OK, cool, but make sure you check out the shit this guy’s been doing since 1970.” They wanted the people coming up to know the history and know the work. I did a show with him once, and he was one of those performers who just channeled. So powerful.
What Ant Farm might have shared with Gil Scott-Heron is what we were up against — politicians who lied about Vietnam, a cultural monolith, Media America, and three dominant TV networks that always mirrored each other. He wrote “Revolution” in 1970. Five years later we gave the “artist-president” these words to speak at Media Burn: “What has gone wrong with America is not a random visitation of fate. It is a result of forces which have seized control of the American spirit. These forces are: militarism, monopoly, and the mass media.” Then we drove the Phantom Dream car through a wall of burning TV sets. RIP, Gil Scott-Heron.
“The Beautiful Gil That You Are”
The last time I saw Gil was at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco in 2009. Before he appeared onstage, a sister behind me pleaded: “Oh pleease, Gil, be healthy. Be the beautiful Gil that you are.” I think everyone in the audience was hoping the same thing. As if on cue, Gil sauntered onstage, thin and weathered but healthy-looking and dapper in a sport coat and wool cap covering his snowy hair. With perfect comic timing he declared: “Well, for those of you who bet against me even being here … y’all lose!” He and his band eased into a slow-burnin’ “We Almost Lost Detroit,” his baritone aching with even more soulful gravitas than in previous years, a voice that jazz critic Neil Tesser once described as a mixture of “mahogany, sunshine, and tears.”
Gil called himself a Bluesologist. Damn straight he was. He was a troubadour of turbulent indigos and raw truths, a reporter with great moral beauty. He wrote about the harrowing junkie self-loathing in “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” (in which he seems to peer into his own future of unrelenting drug abuse), but he was also the illuminated beacon of light who longed to “take myself a piece of sunshine and paint it all over my sky” in “I Think I’ll Call It Morning.” He bristled with righteous renegade anger in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was dripping with derision on “Whitey on the Moon,” wistful and self-critical in the romantic lament “Give Her a Call,” filled with joyous reverence and empathy in “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” and scathing but still idealistic in “Work for Peace.” All of the pieces of this brilliant and complicated and uncompromising Bluesologist will be sorely missed.
Michael Young, freelance writer and music critic
My mother turned me on to Gil Scott-Heron. Reflections played often in her circle. It was the year of Survival and Hotter Than July. But Reflections, when it was on people listened in a different way, and I noticed.
The normal get-down-boogie-stop-shuffle-bounce would be accompanied by the affirmative nodding, uh-huh, right-on, and tell it, of people acknowledging truth being spoken. There is a freedom there, when truth is heard, a freedom we long for. Gil Scott had that gift.
Right away I started borrowing that record into my room. Listening to it repeatedly, in my own time, trying to make his rap mine. At school Gil Scott’s couplets, metaphors, and rhymes started making their way into my own. I memorized classics like “B-Movie” and the poem from “Inner City Blues.” From behind the words I watched with secret joy the power words could reveal and disclose.
That was 30 years ago, and tonight Gil Scott is gone. On to the ancestors, as we say. But the music, the poetry, lives on in our blood, our lives, our breath with his. You, me, and others.
Back then I had no idea that I was being initiated into a world of art and culture and that I would dedicate my life to it. That would become my life’s work, as it has. Gil Scott is the reason I chose to be who I am today.
Gil Scott was an exemplar of black literature.
Simple-minded critics have called him the Godfather of Rap, a title he refused, directing them to his primary sources of inspiration, Langston Hughes, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar‘s “Lyrics of the Lowly Life.” As Amiri Baraka said, jazz without the blues is a music without memory; it can be equally said of hip-hop without Gil Scott. (And hip-hop needs its memory very badly now, wouldn’t you say?)
There is a general prohibition against speaking the truth about the lives of black men in America. Gil Scott broke through that prohibition, every chance he had, telling our stories, our peoples’ stories, our peoples’ lives. With extraordinary empathy, with gentleness, with violence, bitterness, and love. With heartache, passion, and tenderness. Also joy. His music contained the full panorama of our black experience in America. He rejected none of us, and held us all close, even the most hurtful and backward among us, in song. He loved us.
It was through Gil Scott that I found the courage to seek my own voice, speak my own truth, first imitating him, as a child. He helped cut through the demonic clamor of racism and sickness that surrounded. He still does.
I first heard of Gil Scott-Heron while I was attending the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, around 1996. My friend and fellow poet Jeni Olin (now Truck Darling) brought up “Whitey on the Moon,” remembering her initial shock and long satisfaction of its refrain. She was a little disappointed that I was unfamiliar with this song and its writer, so I went out that day and picked up his Greatest Hits. What occurred to me immediately about the style of Gil Scott-Heron was the ease with which he laid his lyrics over the arrangement, his phrasing was deft, the words were never placed awkwardly within the measure, squeezed in suddenly or broken off to fit the form. He took his time, which is so often the first rule of poetry, knowing when to fight the words and when to let yourself give in to their effects. It’s a friction that soon builds to absolute precision. This level of difficulty often goes unacknowledged until you try and execute it within your own voice. Often what is made to sound effortless is that which is truly beyond duplication. Gil Scott-Heron’s little drifts and lines and his bridges got stuck in my head. His bass lines always establish an immediate warmth, an intimacy that I have only encountered in the best of Pharaoh Sanders. As I get older I come to realize and to appreciate those artists who have set out to heal us; seldom are you faced with the terrifying facts of life and simultaneously offered an escape through the music set around them.
Heron’s thoughts on Bluesology are here.
Cedar Sigo, San Francisco poet
What a great thing to talk about. I heard him on several occasions at concerts and in clubs around the bay back in the 1970s and early 1980s. He was at the height of popularity among left-thinking people of the day. Unfortunately, he became his own worst enemy — addiction is a horrible thing. It is “Winter in America” even though it is nearly summer.
Well before hip-hoppers reinvented the coined term “the revolution shall not be televised,” there was Gil Scott-Heron appearing solo and sometimes with the Last Poets shouting it out in true poetic form with determination and insight with an innovative way of talking about sensitive issues in trying times.
Mildred Howard, Bay Area artist and teacher
First time: underage in a bar, in a city far from home. Music in the background that refused to stay in the background, that lifted me from the booth in the corner and walked me across the room to find an album called Pieces of a Man and the face of that poet on the cover. Hearing the news last week brought me back to that bar, and all the times I’ve heard that poetry since. Last year, on I’m New Here, he told us (on the track “Running“) “if I knew where cover was / I would stay there and never have to run for it.” All of that — the open pain, the lack of cover, all the running — leaves us still, here, overwhelmed with beauty and heartbreak.