Last summer Gil Scott-Heron played a free show in Central Park. It was broiling hot, but I was not going to miss that show because, despite having been a fan since the late '70s, I had not seen him "live" since the MUSE (No Nukes) concerts in 1979, and I suspected there might not be many more chances. Sadly, I was right. Gil Scott-Heron is dead at age 62. The man who was our best at proclaiming uncomfortable truths, and at finding the black humor (in several senses) in those situations, has left us.
There's a holy trinity of proto-rap: The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets, and Gil Scott-Heron. They were rapping before rap was a genre. Of them, Gil had the broadest base and presented his compassionate and sensitive side the most. He also evolved the most and soon transcended rap, taking up crooning and developing a soulful sound that drew on jazz and blues and funk.
And of the three of them, Gil Scott-Heron was the easiest for me to relate to, on many levels. His music was more musical. He was a piano player (despite his self-deprecating comments about his chops) whose warm, chord-heavy Fender-Rhodes sound is immediately evocative. Unlike most rappers who sang, he sang well (much better than frequent '70s collaborator Brian Jackson, who had a tendency to sing excruciatingly flat.) Because GSH covered not just politics but also personal matters, his political message came across within a realistic life context rather than just being an activist pushing a program.
He understood, before it was a cliché, the idea that all politics is local -- or as he put it in his liner notes for The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron, "The focus of the struggle has shifted in the '70s, become more aware of Pan Africanism and international responsibilities. If we recognize that it's all part of the same battle more will be accomplished. Different fronts, the same battle. But it's really about cleaning up your own neighborhood before you try to clean up the city, the state or the world."
I also felt, eventually, after I'd gotten a bunch of his LPs and heard more than the hits, that maybe he addressed all aspects of life because what he most seemed to want for everyone was that they be able to have full, rich lives. That made the program more human, and made his albums less strident. (Which is not to say that the stridency of The Last Poets wasn't effective in its own way, or fully justified by what it was a reaction to.) And, to be honest, for a middle-class white boy on Long Island, that made a big difference. By the time I got around to thinking about Gil's politics, I saw him not as a black man with a black agenda, which is, I admit, still how I receive The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets (perhaps even how they wanted to be received) -- GSH was a human with a human agenda, a smart and articulate guy who had a knack for going beyond the superficial in breaking down complex issues so they were understandable without being oversimplified, and simultaneously making me laugh.
Of course, the reason I heard this self-proclaimed "bluesologist" on the radio -- whereas I only sought out the others, after their time, out of historical interest -- was that many other people felt the same way. WBLS may have played The Last Poets, perhaps even The Watts Poets, but if so I didn't notice. It was hard to miss GSH, though, and WBLS even played such blatantly political and partisan fare as "'B' Movie." (And I know I heard "Angel Dust" on the airwaves before I'd discovered WBLS, so they weren't alone.)
Consider, for instance, "The Bottle," probably his most popular track if not, by a long shot, his most famous (which is, of course, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"). The point of "The Bottle" was that too many people in the black community were drowning their sorrows in alcohol, creating problems for themselves and those around them (with the unspoken undercurrents being that capitalism promotes the alcohol at the same time it creates root causes of many of the sorrows), but he put that in an upbeat song, a party song. He knew (all too well) all the angles on substance abuse, so he didn't give us a one-dimensional bit of preaching, but instead a portrayal of the problem that subtly reminded us that it's a seductive temptation, and not a problem to be harshly condemned but rather to be sympathetically addressed. The biting wit of many of his best raps was balanced by the tender empathy of many other songs.
Consider, as well, the album that "The Bottle" was first heard on: Winter in America (Strata-East, recorded in 1973, most recently on CD from Rumal-Gia/TVT but apparently out of print in the U.S. -- although still available on vinyl!). The title of Winter in America is highly political. The songs, however, are often not highly political, and they frequently have a wistful tone: "A Very Precious Time" seems to be about lost love, or at least separation; "Your Daddy Loves You" is a father musing to his sleeping daughter about not only the sentiment of its title but also his strained relationship with her mother. There are political strands running through "Peace Go with You, Brother" and "Song for Bobby Smith," and of course the rap "H20Gate Blues" (the only track GSH raps rather than sings on the LP) is uproariously political, but on balance it's mostly an emotionally touching look at a bunch of difficult situations that everyone can relate to, with mellow or funky music giving it a welcoming vibe.
Had I heard Gil's first LP, Small Talk at 125thand Lenox (Flying Dutchman, 1970) in my youth, I wouldn't have been ready for it. I had no knowledge of the things he was reacting to. I still believed the things I saw on the TV news. He would have just sounded angry to me. The cliché of the angry black man is vastly over-reductive, usually invoked dismissively -- but sometimes anger is justified. So yes, sometimes GSH sounded angry, especially early in his career. But that was not a constant stance for him, just an occasional and honest reaction to the most outrageous injustices, and let's face it, if lynchings don't make you angry, the problem lies with you, not the person who's angry. When somebody such as GSH is accused of being angry (accused more often than he really is), what's really happened is that somebody shilling for Authority is upset that injustice has been noticed and brought to our attention. It's an ad hominem attack designed to distract us from what's made the person angry. And frankly, if someone with the acuity of Gil Scott-Heron is angry, my reaction is no longer to think "he's an angry guy," but to think "if he's angry, I'd better listen and find out what's gotten him mad, because it must be some fucked up shit."
So far I've looked at GSH from a largely personal point of view. I should get some facts in here. He was the first artist signed to Arista Records (after Clive Davis had been forced out by Columbia and started his own label). He was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live. After Arista dropped him in 1985, he wasn't picked up by another label until nine years later. He only recorded two proper studio albums in the last quarter century of his life, and spent much of his last decade in prison on drug charges.
Not exactly a fact (if you want more of those, his Wikipedia article's pretty good), but widely agreed on by most reviews I've seen, is that his last comeback, I'm New Here (XL, 2010), was superb. Yes, it was only 28 minutes (though a bonus track version padded the length), but it was such a harrowingly personal work that any more might have seemed unbearable. He knew he'd messed up his life, knew that it would be ending soon (yes, that's speculation, but with him reprising his early lyric "So if you see the vulture coming/Flying circles in your mind/Remember there is no escaping/For he will follow close behind/Only promise me a battle/For your soul, and mine," it's hard not to think he knew his days were numbered). It gave him a well-deserved last hurrah.
Here are the GSH albums you must have. Too bad so few of them are on iTunes or CD in the U.S., but vinyl fans are better served.
His second album, where he expanded his musical backing and began singing. Yes, it includes "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It's not even close to the best song on the album; the title track and "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" are gut-wrenching.
Winter in America (Strata-East, 1973)
To what I wrote above, I will add that this album (co-billed, like most of his '70s work from here on, with Brian Jackson) is a musical delight, and solid from start to finish without a single slack track.
The First Minute of a New Day (Arista, 1974)
There was no song entitled "Winter in America" on the LP of that name (though on the CD, a live version is included in the bonus tracks); it's here. It's a masterpiece. There's also an excellent solo version from 1978 here in the bonus tracks; a similar solo version was a highlight of his Central Park concert last year.
From South Africa to South Carolina (Arista, 1976)
My very favorite GSH album (despite Jackson's most prominent vocals). Its best-known song is "Johannesburg," which he performed on SNL; this is also where he first showed his anti-nuke stance with "South Carolina (Barnwell)." One of the greatest political albums of the '70s, but also featuring two lovely, mellow favorites, "Beginnings (First Minute of a New Day)" and "A Lovely Day."
Secrets (Arista, 1978)
The last great GSH/BJ collaboration. "Angel Dust" is a brilliant anti-drug song.
Reflections (Arista, 1981)
This album has its ups and downs, but is crucial for the full-length (12 minutes) version of his best rap, "'B' Movie." He dissects Ronald Reagan's first Presidential election victory (in 1984 would come a Bill Laswell-produced sequel, "Re-Ron," found on Arista's The Best of Gil Scott-Heron), not just criticizing Reagan but analyzing the American mindset that produced him and those who voted him into office. And the musical backing is one of his funkiest grooves.
In one way this brought him up to date musically, what with the modern production and a Bill Callahan song; in another, it found him returning to the blues with a recasting of a Robert Johnson song on "Me and the Devil" that was the most amazing track of the year -- unless that distinction is instead granted to another song here, "New York Is Killing Me." Both will chill you to the bone. This is not nearly as comfortable listening as his mid-'70s work, either lyrically or musically, but it packs quite a punch. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.