I first heard the music of Gil Scott-Heron when I was 10 or 11 years old on the seminal, NY area based ’70s PBS variety show SOUL, the one hour afro-centric, arts and variety program, that gave a young kid a peek at the playas in the emerging Black counter culture explosion, that was sweeping America in the post King era. Scott-Heron was featured performing, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the essential hip hop predecessor that paved the way for Public Enemy, X-Clan, Common and too many others to name. The master Bluesician blended jazz, soul, funk, poetry with activist rhetoric, and captured the militant spirit of the era perhaps better than any of his other contemporaries. There were singers, and writers of protest music who rocked when he did, and who were more famous, such as; James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, the Last Poets, and the great Marvin Gaye. But none were as pointed nor as biting as Scott-Heron.
Without any obvious regard for commercial consideration, he was free to pretty much do, and say as he pleased. He documented the struggles of progressive activists, working people and people of color against; government oppression, unchecked policing, complacency, apathy and addiction. He also connected the dots on those and other fronts with events concerning the indigenous people of South Africa and their fight against apartheid, and did it all in a melodic, groovy, satirical and soulful way.
His early work was recorded on small independently distributed labels, and after his breakout anti alcoholism classic, “The Bottle,” a single taken from “Winter In America,” rocked Black FM outlets, and house parties alike, Clive Davis decided to sign him as the first artist to his fledgling startup Arista imprint. Where Scot-Heron, and his collaborator, Brian Jackson’s Midnight Band, recorded the album “From South Carolina to South Africa,” and hit again with the anti apartheid themed, “Johannesburg.”
I’d never asked a girl to dance to anything as overtly political as the music of Gil Scott-Heron before, but when you heard the famous Spanish count off to the beginning of “The Bottle” at a house party, or the wildly infectious “Johannesburg” it was difficult to sit that one out for any reason. Gil had a raspy, hip and funky vocal style that involved you in his tales, whether they were spoken or sung. And he had a lyrical ability to convey imagery in an almost cinematic way.
In addition to the radio hits, there were the album cuts that revealed his love of family, and community. The ballads and mid-tempos that evoked deep connection with his artistry; “Your Daddy Loves You;” “95 South”; “Winter In America”; “We Almost Lost Detroit”; “Better Days Ahead” and others. He recorded several poems that were more political than the songs, and they too became classics.
He questioned the priorities of federal spending in “Whitey On The Moon,” and the folly of the Nixonian White House in, “The H2Ogate Blues.” In his quest to shed light on injustice, indifference and insensitivity through his music, he was relentless.
There were good and heady times throughout the rest of the ’70’s. He met and married the blaxploitation era screen siren, Brenda Sykes. The brown sugar coated cutie with the huge eyes who was featured in “The Liberation of LB Jones”; “Mandingo” and “Drum.” I crashed a pair of Scott-Heron sets during my time as a college radio dj at Northeastern’s WRBB-Fm in Boston. I finagled entrance to the backstage area, and met the master on both nights of his engagement. He introduced me to Miss Sykes on the second night. A highlight of my college radio career.
The prolific outpouring of politically directed poetry, jazz, soul and blues that the 70s inspired began to slow to a drip. The eighties only inspired 4 releases, and the 90’s only one. Subsequently, Scott-Heron became better known for his run ins with the law, and he began a revolving door of incarceration, addiction and rumored returns to the studio. Like Sly Stone, his fan base hoped for a return to the studio, and his few performances became legend.
He played New York’s SOB’s frequently, and had a standing date there every King Holiday. Shortly after the Los Angeles Rebellion in ’92, I caught one of his SOB’s gigs in the hopes that I could sign him to EMI. My reasoning was this: with all of the residual frustration that a dozen years of Reagonomics had caused, still freshly on the minds and spirits of the people, it would have been a perfect time for a new offering from one of the greatest political thinkers the music had ever produced.
Unfortunately, what I saw was someone who had been ravaged by addiction, and the passage of time. To his credit, when he sang “Winter In America,” he brought tears to the eyes of several patrons in the audience. I was devastated to see the great man so broken.
Before the show started, I caught him entering the gig from the front door, and we chatted briefly. I was uncertain if he remembered me from having met me from the previous decade, or if he just spent time chatting up a fan, or if he felt my music business vibe, and wanted to get his network on. Whichever his deal, he seemed medicated and slightly out of it, even though he was extremely gregarious.
I caught several more shows throughout the ’90s, and saw him play SOB’s one last time in the summer of 2000. With the exception of 1994s “Spirits” CD, and a few featured guest collaborations, there was no new music from him. Until this year. In February he ended his 16 years of silence, and returned with a new collection of recordings on Britain’s XL Recordings entitled “I’m New Here.” If the road to wisdom is paved with excess, these new recordings are proof that this is so.
As it is with many great artists, the subject matter is deeply personal, and the project gives a long time listener a look back over the years through Scott-Heron’s gruff, and withered persona and his defiant spirit. It also gives the uninitiated an introduction through it’s crisp state of the art sonics. He’s cast himself as a burnout on his last go round, and it serves to remind us of Jeff Bridges Oscar winning turn as a faded country & western star in last year’s “Crazy Heart.” In fact all of the pain, suffering and regret informs every note of the country & western influenced title track. He looks back at being raised by his maternal grandmother in the poem “On Being From A Broken Home,” his struggle with addiction on the single, “Me And The Devil.” and the standout track, “I’ll Take Care Of You,” is a classic begging jawn where the old lion growls his intentions. Gil is back. Get on it.
mad shouts to Jay Dixon, Kevin Trotman, Darius Walker, Karen A. Williams, RIP Momma