Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron: A Remembrance

"Say not in grief that 'he is no more' but say in thankfulness that he was."

Gil Scott-Heron is dead.

I've always dreaded that I would have to write those words one day, but still, part of me has always expected it, nearly every day for the last ten years or so. No flame can burn as brightly as Gil's did, and expect to last too long. And it *has* been a long time, although I suspect that it's only going forward from these moments that we'll be able to appreciate how very special was the time that we had Gil with us.

Gil Scott-Heron is dead. A man whose words and music were some of the major influences in my life has now passed into eternity. As I write this memorial, I remember the first time I heard Gil, his song "Home Is Where The Hatred Is" making a cold New England night a little brighter for me, knowing that someone else understood some of the feelings inside me. I was unhappy, and hearing Gil's song lifted some of the darkness for me.

Gil Scott-Heron is dead, and I remember hearing "The Bottle" everywhere in New York City the summer of 1974, hearing it echoing out of club doorways, car windows and open storefronts. Not bad, I thought, for an album that was only released in three cities on the Eastern Seaboard. I spent that summer digging up all the older albums in his catalog, and connecting with other fans of his.

Gil Scott-Heron is dead: so when I first came to Minnesota that fall, I quickly discovered that I possessed one of only three copies of "Winter In America" on campus. "This," I said to myself, "has got to change." And so began a four-year-long campaign to bring his poetry and music to as many people out here on the Frozen Tundra as I could. I saturated my show on the campus radio station with his music. Even near the end, when it hurt, I was still able to say, and spin, "Peace Go With You, Brother."

Gil Scott-Heron is dead, and I can still see with my mind's eye the first time I met Gil, before his first set at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. I told him I wanted to bring him to Minnesota for his first concert here. "Minnesota?" he said. "It's cold there, ain't it?" We all laughed, but I persuaded him, and he gave me some phone numbers to call. I got to work on it the very next day, and, after similarly persuading many others, I brought him to Carleton College in February for Black History Month. The hall was packed to the rafters, and I was happy to see my efforts come to joyous fruition. Gil, Brian Jackson, and the Midnight Band played for over two hours. That night is still one of the high points of my life.

Gil Scott-Heron is dead. His music was never made for Top 40 radio, and those of us who were his devoted fans didn't care about that, didn't care that the only way we could hear his music was to search for and buy his albums, record them on fragile magnetic tape and share them amongst ourselves, and go to see him perform in concert. (The internet and advancing technology makes all of that seem so quaint now!) But the record company wanted to sell more GSH albums than we paltry few could buy, sell more concert seats than we alone could fill; and Gil himself had written "you're only as important to them as your latest hit." Did he not see or care what was coming? Or did he know, and cared and despaired at what was happening in our country and our world, as well as to his career? Did the pain from his clarity of vision create the despair, and made him look for an escape? Or did the escape overtake his vision, and the role he had assumed in our world? It must be hard to be a prophet with few listeners, a storyteller whose stories spoke with intelligence, passion, and insight, but one whose words fell on ears deafened by greed and selfishness.  

Gil Scott-Heron is dead!--I think it was his despair that ultimately killed him, knowing something of him, and sharing with him some of that vision and pain. Gil had written of and looked for the Revolution that he hoped would come. A revolution brought about, not through violence, but by the spirit, by awareness, by empowerment. His daughter and some of his band members have said Gil fell into despair in that decade as he looked at the greed-obsessed culture we'd become, and as his hopes for that revolution died. Because it was also in the Eighties that Gil began his long, drug-fueled, downward slide, becoming a sad character from one of his own songs. Gil had never been too prompt about starting his shows, and now he began to rival Sly Stone in the category of "Most Shows Missed Due to Drugs & Alcohol." He continued to tour, but his increasing unreliability made his appearances become scarcer and scarcer.

Gil Scott-Heron is dead, and although I think he started to clean himself up in the mid-Nineties, dropping "Spirits" in 1994, it wasn't to last. While the release of "Spirits" saw Gil proclaimed - rightfully -  as the "Godfather of Rap," it also included a heart- and gut-wrenching revamp of "Home Is Where The Hatred Is," retitled and performed in three parts as "The Other Side." While many hailed the album as a return of the words and songs of Gil, I could hear within "The Other Side" the thoughts and feelings of a man who's just popping his head above ground for a fast glance, making a quick look-see before resuming his downward descent. Gil subsequently had several drug convictions, contracted HIV, and spent time in prison on at least two different occasions. 

Gil Scott-Heron is dead, even as he made a triumphant comeback last year with "I'm New Here." He seemed more introspective than ever on this album, and he had become painfully thin, no doubt due to his continued drug use. Nonetheless, he seemed to burn with a fire within, an unspoken vow that he had more stories tell, more social and political observations to make And oh, how we missed his voice the last fifteen years! Perhaps, just perhaps, Gil could resume his role as our griot, and teach another generation.

Gil Scott-Heron is dead, and today I read all the obituaries and quotations from other musicians paying tribute to his influence and his genius. And I see that nearly every news source references "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and I know that they don't know a damn thing about him. They don't realize that he was more than just that one song-poem, that he had much more to say than that. I see his obit in the New York Times, and I wonder if Gil would have been pleasantly surprised, or would he have laughed upon seeing it. I see his fans come together on line to mourn together, and I think that some of Gil's revolution, at least, is happening.

Gil Scott-Heron is dead. But in even in death, as he did in life, Gil Scott-Heron makes us look at ourselves and the world we live in, and ask "Why?" and "How did this happen?" and "What can we each do to mend and rebuild our world as it should be?" As I seek my own answers to these questions, I remember that the answers can only happen one at a time. "Each one, teach one," Gil said. Because we only have each other, because so many have come before us to light the way, because, as Gil wrote, "of all of the places we've been." 

Gil Scott-Heron died today, but he lives on in each of us. 

My condolences to the Scott-Heron family.

1 comment:

FreeSprirtedRuminations said...

One of the most beautifully written tributes I've read. The memories he provoked will always be there and his music will live on. But, the world is now short an amazing artist whose flame died too soon.