(Originally published June 1st, 2011 on my old blog.)
Gil Scott-Heron died last Friday — which, in our no-attention-span, endless-news-cycle present, means that I'm way late to the funeral party. Everybody's already onto the next big piece of news, like the NBA finals, or that Facebook spam video thang wherein some woman "gives birth" to a grown man's head. A few folks, like Greg Tate of the Village Voice, have already penned some wonderful eulogies for a man who was one of the great poets and prophets of our time; countless others have hung two-paragraph obits upon such easily-digestible (if profoundly limiting) phrases like "godfather of rap" and "spoken-word artist." Why add one more voice to the chatter, this "late" in the game? Well, Gil Scott-Heron's music and message touched me deeply, and I've got a few things of my own to say about him.
But let's start with something someone else has already said. As Tate points out in his fine piece, "Gil knew he wasn't bigger than hip-hop—he knew he was just better. Like Jimi was better than heavy metal, Coltrane better than bebop, Malcolm better than the Nation of Islam, Marley better than the King James Bible. Better as in deeper—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, politically, ancestrally, hell, probably even genetically."
Which is why it tastes like spoiled milk every time I read some obit that calls Gil Scott-Heron a "spoken-word artist"; yes, the man had a gift for words, and he often delivered them with a profoundly resonant speaking voice, but he was also an incredibly soulful singer, songwriter and keyboard player, not to mention an (Tate again) "oracle, troubadour, poet, gadfly, muckraker, and grassroots shit-talker." Yeah, he's the guy who did the brilliantly incisive "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Whitey On The Moon," but to consign Gil Scott-Heron to the "spoken-word artist" box is like calling Curtis Mayfield a "soundtrack composer" — it was truly only one small facet of who he was and what he did.
To me, Gil's greatest gift — and perhaps ultimately his Achilles heel — was his humanity, his empathy for other human beings. For all his righteous anger, for all his intimidatingly sharp intellect, for all his deft wordplay, for all his loose-limbed funk grooves, an open heart was his most important tool. Songs like "Home is Where the Hatred Is," "The Bottle" and "Angel Dust" stared unflinchingly at addiction, just like "No Knock," "Winter in America" and "Johannesburg" faced down The Man, but they were anything but dispassionate journalistic missives. You knew that Gil gave a shit about what was going down, on an emotional level as well as intellectual, and that it hurt him severely to see other people hurting, being exploited, being oppressed.
But when you feel that much, when you care that deeply about the fate of your fellow man, when you make your art and your living by communicating those feelings and concerns to the rest of the world — and creating such nakedly emotional songs as "Save the Children," "Your Daddy Loves You" and "I Think I'll Call It Morning" — and you don't have a filter to shut off the hurt and despair...well, the process comes with an eventual price. Who can really blame him for his tragic, decades-long romance with the crack pipe? “Ten to fifteen minutes of this, I don’t have pain,” he said in last year's upsetting New Yorker profile, referring to his crack smoking. The pain he spoke of was from a spinal issue, but there had to be a great deal of psychic pain going on within him, as well.
Still, it's that same open-heartedness — as well as his clear-eyed anger — that has repeatedly drawn me back to Gil Scott-Heron's records over the years. I recall hearing his stuff for the first time in the late 70s, probably through one of my Mom's friends, and I seem to remember that 1984's "Re-Ron" — a typically scathing indictment of Ronald Reagan and those who wanted to re-elect him — got some decent airplay in Chicago at the time. But it wasn't until 1990, when I was a college grad trying to make sense of the world I'd graduated into, that I really started exploring his work, which thankfully started being reissued on CD in the early '90s. And in late 2000, when George W. Bush was handed the keys to the White House in the same way he'd been handed everything else in his life, I spent countless hours curled up with 1971's Pieces of a Man LP; though it was nearly three decades old, it was still the only album I could find at the time that fully articulated and validated my depression and anger, while simultaneously reminding me to live and love life to the fullest, as opposed to becoming fatally consumed by the despair I felt and the bad times that I knew were on the way.
Which is, unfortunately, much more than I can say about 2010's I'm New Here, his final studio album. A haunted, haphazard affair recorded after he was released from his second prison stint, the album lasts only 28 minutes and contains far more of Gil's parched-voiced reminiscences than actual new songs. While XL Recordings head honcho Richard Russell is to be commended for trying to get Gil back into the studio, the results are hard to listen to; though many buckets of critical jizz have been spilled over I'm New Here, Gil frankly sounds like a reluctant guest on his own album. “This is Richard’s CD,” he told the New Yorker. “My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”
The Gil Scott-Heron who shows up in my dreams is the one of "Lady Day & John Coltrane," a song from Pieces of a Man that I have put on countless mix tapes for friends over the years. Quite possibly the best song ever written about the transcendent, transformative, healing and uplifting power of music, "Lady Day & John Coltrane" also manages to be remarkably healing and uplifting in its own right. It's a song that will stay with me for the rest of my life, both as a reminder of why I care so much about music, and as a reminder (and a means) to "let the sun shine through" and keep my heart open during those times when living all of my days in darkness seems an easier option. It's a complicated, maddening, fucked-up world we live in, and Gil saw that clearer than most; but he also communicated its beauty (and the beauty of existence) more effectively than most, and for that I will always be grateful.
Peace go with you, Brother. Thank you for helping to wash my troubles away.