No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around.
—performed by Gil Scott-Heron on I'm New Here, written by Bill Callahan
It's all about redemption. Gil Scott-Heron, the philosopher, poet, musician, author and rapper prototype, turned his incisive, uncompromising vision to himself for his last album, last year's I'm New Here. For all the bigness of theme and scope that seemed to encompass much of the work he is known for — "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," "Whitey on the Moon," "From South Africa to South Carolina" — INH reads like a 12-step confessional. It's brutal in its personal honesty, particularly the ominous reading of bluesman Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil" that rides on an electronic dirge as he recites: Me and the devil, walking side by side. The video is just as ominous, shot in black and white and reminiscent of the great film Black Orpheus, with its deathly figures roaming the urban landscape.
Gil Scott-Heron died May 27 at age 62 in a New York City hospital after a flight from England. No cause of death has been officially released, but his body was ravaged from decades of alcohol and drug abuse, and in 2008 Scott-Heron said that he had been HIV positive for years. He was born in Chicago in 1949 and raised from age 2 by his grandmother in Tennessee after his parents separated. He seemed to predict his own death on INH, saying: Yeah the doctors don't know, but New York was killing me/ Bunch of doctors coming 'round, they don't know/ That New York is killing me/ Yeah, I need to go home and take it slow in Jackson, Tennessee.
He should have taken his own advice as he indeed met his end in New York. And INH seemed a preparation for that end. On the recording he says with a laugh: If you've got to pay for things that you've done wrong, I've got a big bill coming.
Everything about him seemed big when he burst onto the scene in 1970 with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a screed railing against the intersection of mass media and the black power movement, voicing mistrust of the motives of any establishment figure and turning away from the American establishment. The revolution will be no re-run brothers; the revolution will be live, he concludes. It rode on a bed of African drumbeats and was delivered with an accusative, proselytizing voice.
The piece was on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and branded Scott-Heron as a "new black poet." I was entranced by his work. It was far different from anything I'd heard before, and soon I was crouched in college dorm rooms listening to it with my friends, including future MT editor W. Kim Heron, a cousin of Scott-Heron's. The next few albums, Pieces of a Man, Free Will and Winter in America were onour playlist as Scott-Heron's work became more and more musically inclined, and although he was working with top jazz musicians such as bassist Ron Carter and drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, he never lost that three-chords-and-the-truth sensibility. Singles such as "The Bottle" and "Angel Dust" rose up the R&B charts, and singer Esther Phillips covered his "Home is Where the Hatred Is." He played Saturday Night Live with Richard Pryor, and the über divas of Labelle covered "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It seemed that Scott-Heron could have been a rock star with his intense lyrics, deep bluesy voice and an ability to create hooks inside songs that went to uneasy places in our psyches.
But Scott-Heron never seemed to come to peace with the musical end of his work. He had an unsettled relationship with keyboardist-flutist Brian Jackson, who was a musical collaborator through the 1970s. Although his earliest work was a sort of prototype for the rap music that followed, and rappers have sampled his work extensively, he never truly accepted the "Godfather of Rap" label that others bestowed upon him. Ultimately Scott-Heron saw himself as a writer, a poet and a freedom fighter, even as he descended into the ravages of his addictions. He addressed the pop stardom issue on his 1978 Secrets album in the song "Show Business": Sing the blues and pay your dues and not know who you are/ ... Do you really want to be in show business/ The instant high the constant come-and-go business/ Got you hanging out in places you got no business.
It wasn't one of his more popular records, but I was entranced by Secrets. One song, "Cane," culls from two stories in writer Jean Toomer's 1923 luscious Southern novel of the same name. Another, "Madison Avenue," rails against the advertising industry, saying: They sell sand to a man living in the desert/ They sell tuna to the Chicken of the Sea ... If it's so goddamned incredible that you can't believe it's true/ Must be Madison Avenue.
Scott-Heron wasn't always angry. He had an equally wicked sense of humor. In "We Beg Your Pardon, America," he reacted to President Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon for Watergate-related crimes, which cited in part that Nixon suffered from phlebitis. Flea bite us, riffed Scott-Heron. Rats bite us, no pardon in the ghetto. In "Angola, Louisiana," he rails about the notorious prison: The blues is sho 'nuff news down there.
I saw him perform live a couple of times. The first time was in Seattle in 1977, when he did a solo show accompanying himself on piano, and years later at Chene Park, where he played with a full band. I'd have seen him a couple more times if he had showed up for the shows. Scott-Heron was notorious for missing gigs as he inflicted the effects of his addictions on ardent fans.
In the end he knew he had been wrong to be like that and talked about redemption. On INH he laments personal characteristics that he calls "eccentric ... obnoxious ... arrogant ... aggressive ... selfish." It sounds like someone who has taken a deep and honest look at himself that few artists in America are willing to display publicly.
INH is a stripped-down recording, sometimes sounding like an old man musing into a microphone. At the beginning he talks about having grown up in a broken home. At the end he returns to the theme, to deny that brokenness: Unless the homes of soldiers — stationed overseas/ Or lost in battles are broken/ Unless the homes of firemen, policemen, construction workers, seamen, railroad men, truckers, pilots/ Who lost their lives — but not what their lives stood for ... I came from what they 'called' a broken home/ But if they ever really called at our house/ They would have known how wrong they were.
Gil Scott-Heron was another tragic hero in a long line littering the cultural landscape. Most of the tributes and obituaries dwell on and on about "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and that is the work that is inexorably pinned to his star. But I believe there are more important lessons being taught on INH where Scott-Heron gets so very personal in examining the soul of a man.
His bill is paid in full.