Finding Gil Scott-Heron
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.” – Langston Hughes
When I discover, as I often do, all of the glaring omissions in my awareness of the long roster of baby boomer-era musicians, I always wonder how I missed these things. There were only just so many ways to hear music back in the day, so the question is usually one with no answer except I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.
So in the case of Gil Scott-Heron, I can’t really say why I was oblivious to him in his heyday; I would have been a fan had I known. He was technically a spoken word artist so that made him something of a rarity, I never heard him on the radio stations I was listening to, no one else I knew was listening to him either, and given the subject matter and presentation of his often scathing social commentary there were probably efforts to marginalize him in the music industry itself.
The New Yorker did a profile on him a year ago that I hung onto and only just read today, even though I intended to back in May when he died. At that time it was obvious how much he meant to many people, both as an influence for other performers – his work’s often seen as the forerunner of hip hop, a distinction he had no use for and disagreed with – and just generally to a certain segment of the music-consuming public.
Scott-Heron, who loved to write, was intellectually and creatively precocious, and bored out of his gourd at the public school he attended in New York City. His English teacher, once she got her hands on some of his writings, approached a private school in a tony section of the Bronx about possible enrollment. They were very interested in him, but since he would be one of just five blacks in the student population and hailing from a vastly different socioeconomic status, he was asked by a school official how he would feel if he saw a classmate go by in a limo while he trudged up the hill from the subway. An irrepressible wit and no-bullshitter all his life, he replied, “Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?”
After graduating from high school he got a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, an institution founded in 1854 to educate blacks who would never be admitted to other colleges in segregated America. Among Lincoln’s alumni was the poet Langston Hughes, who Scott-Heron always claimed had influenced him mightily. There he also met his long-time collaborator Brian Jackson, who composed and arranged the music for Scott-Heron’s spoken words through 1980. What’s so striking about those words is the staggering number of cultural and political references in so many of them – he had a granular awareness of what was going on in the world around him. And he was having none of it.
He raised his deep, rich voice in so many memorable songs, but he is probably best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. There were two versions of it, a live one with just percussion and another with a full band. The first came out on his album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and was rerecorded with the band for the B-side of his single Home Is Where The Hatred Is. There’s so much going on in this and so many ways it can be interpreted (here’s Scott-Heron himself explaining) and the cadence of the words reminds me a lot of another poet that I often read aloud in those days, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
As time went on, Scott-Heron’s life became mostly a horrible mess, ravaged by a powerful drug addiction, health problems and prison sentences. “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around,” Scott-Heron sang in his 2010 release, I’m New Here. Not as true when you’ve got a crack cocaine habit as he did. We’re all the poorer for his demise.