Friday, June 10, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron died last week at the age of 62. Friends who have known my musical tastes for several decades have been contacting me with the news. Most people under 40 have never even heard of him, because he stopped recording from 1982 through 1994 and again until his release from jail last year (2010) on cocaine possession charges. Even in his prime, he was not a mainstream recording artist, and only a few of his songs ever received significant air play.

Back when he started recording, no one knew how to classify his music. It was generally listed as jazz because he was backed primarily by jazz musicians, most notably Brian Jackson, who played the keyboards and flute. But in truth, Gil Scott-Heron was inventing an entirely new form of music which is now known as rap/hip-hop. He did so by taking the cadences of beat poetry and combining them with the musical riffs common to jazz and R&B. Like modern rap, he spoke for the underprivileged and the downtrodden, but unlike today’s rap artists, he didn’t dwell on sex, and he was never derogatory toward women, gays, or anyone other than those who wielded power unjustly. As such, he is now known by many as the “godfather of rap.”

However, as with hip-hop, most of his songs were sung rather than spoken, and Gil’s voice was clear and melodic. He sang runs (stretching a syllable over several, distinct notes) long before Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, or American Idol. In fact, he was the first person I ever heard singing runs on a consistent basis.

But all of this is irrelevant without an appreciation for the incredible words of Gil Scott-Heron, so rather than writing about them, I’ll let Gil speak for himself from a few of his hundreds of songs:

On media coverage of civil rights (his first song on his first album):

There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving for just the right occasion.
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so god damned relevant,
and women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

On children and the future:

We’ve got to do something to save the children.
Soon it will be their turn to try and save the world.
Right now they seem to play such a small part of
The things that they soon be right at the heart of.

“Save the Children”

On drug addiction:

A junkie walking through the twilight, I’m on my way home
I left three days ago, but no one seems to know I’m gone
Home is where the hatred is.
Home is filled with pain,
and it might not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home again.

Stand as far away from me as you can and ask me why.
Hang on to your rosary beads,
close your eyes to watch me die.
You keep saying, kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it,
God, but did you ever try
to turn your sick soul inside out
so that the world, so that the world can watch you die.

“Home is Where the Hatred Is”

On hope:

Why should I survive on sadness,
and tell myself I got to be alone?
Why should I subscribe to this world’s madness,
knowing that I’ve got to live on?
Yeah I think I’ll call it morning from now on.

“I Think I’ll Call It Morning”

On alcoholism:

See that sister, sure was fine before she started drinking wine from the bottle.
Said her old man committed a crime, and he’s doing time, so now she’s in the bottle.
She’s out there on the avenue, all by herself, sure needs help from the bottle.
Preacherman tried to help her out, she cussed him out and hit him in the head with a bottle.
And don’t you think it’s a crime
when time after time, people in the bottle.

“The Bottle”

On marital problems:

Sweet little old brown eyed girl,
Now that you’re sleeping,
I’ve got a confession to make
of secrets that I’ve been keeping.
Me and your mama have had some problems,
there’s been a whole lot of things on our mind.
but lately, girl, we’ve been thinking that we were wasting time
nearly all the time.

“Your Daddy Loves You”

On Watergate:

And the silent White House with the James Brothers once in command
see the sauerkraut Mafia men deserting the sinking White House ship,
and their main, mindless, megalomaniac Ahab.

McCord has blown, Mitchell has blown, no tap on my telephone.
McCord has blown, Mitchell has blown, no tap on my telephone.
Halderman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean,
it follows a pattern if you dig what I mean.
Halderman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean,
it follows a pattern if you dig what I mean.

“H2O Gate Blues”

On self-assuredness:

You alone consider mercy after it seems like all you get is pain.
It seems to me that you have found the courage that others could not find.
You alone have the wisdom to take this world and make it what it needs to be, wants to be, will be, someday you’ll see the day, the day you understand
That there ain’t no such thing as a superman.

“There Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman”

On President Ford pardoning Nixon:

We beg your pardon America.
We beg your pardon because somehow the pardon did not sit correctly.
What were the causes for this pardon?
Well now, they had phlebitis.
Rats bite us, no pardon in the ghetto.
They had national security, but do you feel secure with the man who tried to steal America back on the streets again?
What are the results of this pardon though? Because remember, when there are causes, there are results, and the results are always deeper still.

“We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)”

On the erosion of democracy:

The Constitution—a noble piece of paper,
with free society, struggled but it died in vain.
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner, hoping for some rain.

And I see the robins, perched on barren treetops
watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor.
But just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams,
never had a chance to grow.

And now it’s winter.
It’s winter in America.
And all of the healers have been killed or betrayed.
Yeah, but the people know, people know it’s winter,
Lord knows it’s winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting,
‘cause nobody knows what to say.

“Winter in America”

On South African apartheid:

They tell me that our brothers over there are defying the man.
But we don’t know for sure because the news we get is unreliable, man.
Well, I hate it when the blood starts flowing,
but I’m glad to see resistance growing.
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard from Johannesburg?


On appreciation of beauty:

The flowers woke up blooming and put on a color show just for me
The shadows dark and gloomy, I told them all to keep the hell away from me,
because I don’t feel like believing everything I do is gonna turn out wrong
when vibrations I’m receiving say, “hold on, brother, just you be strong.”

Yes and all I really wanna say
is that the problems come and go,but the sunshine seems to stay, hey.
Just look around.
I think we’ve found a lovely day.

"Lovely Day"


On nuclear power:

Just thirty miles from Detroit stands a giant power station.
It ticks each night as the city sleeps, seconds from annihilation.
But no one stopped to think about the people or how they would survive,
and we almost lost Detroit this time.
How would we ever get over losing our minds?

“We Almost Lost Detroit”

On civil rights:

I was raised up in a small town in a country down South,
so I’ve been close enough to know what oppression’s about.
Placed on this mountain with a rare chance to see
dreams once envisioned by folks much braver than me.
And since their lives got me to the middle of a mountain,
well, I can’t stop and give up on them,
‘Cause their lights that shine on inspire me to climb on
from all of the places we’ve been.

“95 South (All of the Places We’ve Been)”

On rampant commercialism:

Make it all commercial.
There ain’t nothing folks won’t buy
New fuel to fire up the monsters of Free Enterprise.
Gizmos and gadgets, batteries to make them run.
Just give your check up at the first of every month.

And don’t wake up to the uselessness
‘til your whole life is overdue.
‘Cause if it’s so Goddamn incredible
you can’t believe it’s true,
it’s Madison Avenue.

“Madison Avenue”

On illegal immigration:

Midnight near the border trying to cross the Rio Grande,
running with coyotes to where the streets are paved with gold.
You’re diving underwater when you hear the helicopters,
knowing it’s all been less than worthless if you run into patrols
Hiding in the shadows, so scared you want to scream,
but you dare not make a sound if you want to hold on to your dream.

Hold on, though it may not be a lot,
You got to hold on, ‘cause you know it’s all you’ve got
No matter the consequences or the fear that grips your senses,
you have got to hold on to your dream.

“Alien (Hold On to Your Dream)”

On the election of Ronal Reagan:

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia.
They want to go back as far as they can—even if it’s only as far as last week.
Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards.
And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse,
or the man who always came to save America at the last moment.
Someone always came to save America at the last moment, especially in “B” movies.
And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future,
they looked for people like John Wayne.
But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan,
and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at, like a “B” movie.

“B Movie”

On international racism:

And still we are victims of word games,
semantics is always a bitch:
places once referred to as under-developed
are now called “mineral rich.”
And the game goes on eternally,
unity kept just beyond reach
Egypt and Libya used to be in Africa,
they’ve been moved to the Middle East.
There are examples galore I assure you,
but if interpreting were left up to me
I’d be sure every time folks knew this version wasn’t mine,
which is why it is called “His story.”

“Black History/The World”

On moving forward with your life:

Ain’t no way overnight to turn your life around,
and this ain’t the conversation of someone that never falls back down,
but no matter how long you’ve been on trial,
with the days and weeks of self denial,
and no matter how many times you’ve tried to make it
and found out that right then you just couldn’t take it.
If you are looking for a loser who found strength and success,
remember the spirit of brother Malcolm X,
and know that you can leave all your mistakes behind
the day that you “really make up your mind”
Come on brother… come on up
Stand on up and say don’t give up
Yes it’s time to stop your falling.
You’ve been down long enough.
Can’t you hear the spirits calling?

“Don’t Give Up”

On living in New York (from his last album):

And the gangs in New York are like wolves in sheep clothing.
Navy men off the ships in sidewalks strolling.
Ladies watching shopping stressing hard
with maxed out credit cards and her depressing job.
Grey skies, anekatips winter’s cold.
US Open Tennis, charity dinners for the rich and old.
Giving nothing to the poor to strengthen their soul.
I can see why some get up and go, and move where it’s slow.

Lord have mercy, mercy on me.
Yeah Lord, have mercy, have mercy on me.
Tell him to bury my body back home in Jackson, Tennessee.
Yeah Lord have mercy, have mercy on me

Yeah I need to be back home, need to be back home,
Born in Chicago but I go home to Tennessee.
Yeah I was born in Chicago but I...

“New York is Killing Me”