Gil Scott-Heron, 1 April 1 1949 – 27 May 2011
It must have been in 1982 or 1983 when I first heard Gil Scott-Heron, although it would only be years later that I figured out that it was him I had heard back then. A friend who was a young anti-apartheid activist and involved in a small organisation operating outside of the ANC’s ideology, would come and visit with tapes of Nation of Islam speeches and what were, I realised years later, selected tracks off Gil Scott-Heron’s debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970). To us then, the performers were some anonymous poets producing raps aligned to the black nationalism we were exploring. The wit and stridency of “The revolution will not be televised” and “Whitey on the moon” appealed to us as rapidly politicising teenagers in early 1980s South Africa.
Somewhere along the way I picked up the reworked version of “The revolution will not be televised” (as it appears as title-track to his 1974 album), recorded tape to tape several times already before I dubbed it from tape, and therefore not a clean copy. Resources were slim; whatever I had I spent on cigarettes and blank tapes, so music collections were patchy and my network was still small.
Somewhere along the way I picked up “B movie”, on tape. I cannot find a reliable discography for this song, but it would appear on The Best of Gil Scott-Heron of 1984. It’s in the tradition of “The revolution will not be televised” but also so much more. It’s spoken, but it’s not a rap proper. It’s an oral pamphlet, a screed peppered with incisive analysis of Reaganite USA. And it’s witty, providing an organic intellectual’s analysis of what Guy Debord calls a ‘society of the spectacle’. It opens with an analysis of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election to the presidency, over Jimmy Carter, the incumbent:
Well, the first thing I want to say is…”Mandate my ass!”
Because it seems as though we’ve been convinced that 26% of the registered voters, not even 26% of the American people, but 26% of the registered voters form a mandate – or a landslide. 21% voted for Skippy and 3, 4% voted for somebody else who might have been running.
And then, the society of the spectacle:
But, oh yeah, I remember. In this year that we have now declared the year from Shogun to Reagan, I remember what I said about Reagan…meant it. Acted like an actor…Hollyweird. Acted like a liberal. Acted like General Franco when he acted like governor of California, then he acted like a republican. Then he acted like somebody was going to vote for him for president. And now we act like 26% of the registered voters is actually a mandate. We’re all actors in this I suppose.
“B movie” is a spoken essay and almost every line is a nugget of analysis:
“We used to be a producer – very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand.”
Here’s another chunk:
[T]his country wants nostalgia… 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.”
“But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan…”
In 1993 I was introduced to Gil Scott-Heron and His Amnesia Express, a live album recorded in Germany and released in 1990. This album soon became a favourite and it is highly recommended as a good introduction to his music, his politics and his wit. There’s the political wit of songs like “Washington D.C.” and “Three miles down” (about the exploitation of coal miners in the USA), and there’s the elegiac “Winter in America”:
And from the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffaloes who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain, looking for the rain;
Just like the cities staggered on the coastline
In a nation that just can’t stand much more
Like the forest buried beneath the highway
Never had a chance to grow, never had a chance to grow.
And now it’s winter, winter in America
Yes and all of the healers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the people know, the people know
It’s winter, winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to say
Save your soul, Lord knows, from winter in America.
The constitution, a noble piece of paper
With free society, it struggled but it died in vain
And now democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Looks like it’s hoping, hoping for some rain.
And I see the robins perched in 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, never had a chance to grow
And now it’s winter, winter in America
And all of the healers have been killed
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
Save your souls from Winter in America.
Poetry. And a great song. Political art from a writer and singer who felt it all in his bones.
I would soon supplement my collection with other compilations, discovering via an excellent cover by Esther Phillips another great song, “Home is where the hatred is”, about his battles with drugs: “You keep on saying ‘Kick it, quit it’ but god, have you ever tried to turn your sick soul inside out so the world can watch you die.”
The opening of the song stands for me figuratively also as a description of all sorts of wandering and homelessness:
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 went home again.
Here’s the Esther Phillips cover:
Somewhere in 1994 I found myself in a small town close to Cleveland, Ohio. Dissolute in a very small town on the eastern rim of the midwest, I had the opportunity to see Gil Scott-Heron live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I was living with a jazz guitarist, Roshan Samtani, both of us graduate students at Bowling Green State University. On heavy rotation in our apartment thanks to DJ Samtani: Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, often also Coltrane and Antonio Carlos Jobim. We would get home from class and the music would be put on. Roshan would knock together a quick chicken curry; we’d eat and drink, smoke, with ever-present music. All the time there was music (this is where my love of Mingus and Miles comes from, as well as, to a lesser extent, Coltrane and Jobim). Nights sometimes, a student from Brazil, Maria, joined. After dinner Roshan would reach for his guitar – always at hand – and him and Maria would sing Jobim songs.
It was Roshan’s stereo and he didn’t have much time for the folk/country, hip-hop and indie I was listening to. But sometimes I commandeered the portable stereo and slipped in whatever I had carried with me. And so I introduced Roshan to Gil Scott-Heron’s “B movie”.
Fun times, but in the main Bowling Green, Ohio was a depressing town. (Although, I managed to miss George Clinton performing on campus there.)
“Kozain!”, Roshan came home one day, “We gotta go to Ann Arbor, man. Your man’s playing there, Gil-Scott.” (He pronounced Gil Scott as if it was hyphenated, with emphasis on “Scott”, in the kind of tones and rhythms of 1970s US slang – Roshan used words like “cats” and “broads”: “Man, have you seen that cat?”)
I oohed and aahed in my dissolute manner.
“No man, we gotta go! Gil-Scott, man.”
That Saturday we made the 1-hour plus drive to Ann Arbor, a woman Roshan was pursuing accompanying us (I forget her name).
We didn’t have any tickets and took our chances, arriving a few hours before the concert would start.
The box office was closed. Roshan and his friend went off to a coffee shop or something and I decided to wait in the early Autumn chill for the box office to open. They could whisper sweet nothings to each other. I would smoke a few cigarettes, shielded in the portico while I waited for ticket sales to open.
At some point a scrawny roadie came out for a smoke break, a man in a trucker’s cap, shabby jeans and only a t-shirt. I was also smoking, didn’t make eye contact and turned back to the road.
A few minutes later, a woman approached the man.
“Brother Gil! I’ve been a fan of your work since…” and she proceeded to tell him how desperate she was for tickets and the box office wasn’t open.
He looked at her, nodded in sympathy, then said: “I tell you what… what’s your name? Just tell me your name. I’ll put you on the guest list…”
! I thought. It is Gil Scott-Heron. I want to see him play. How to get bloody tickets?
So, yes, I made a fool of myself, hoping to exploit an opportunity. The box office was closed and I was desperate.
I approached him.
“Gil Scott-Heron? I am a big fan of your music. I came all the way from South Africa to see you.” (Yes, that’s what I said; I know, but I did mean it as half a joke. I mean, he had written an anti-apartheid song, “Johannesburg”. And, no, I didn’t address him as Brother Gil.)
He looked at me.
“Yeah, South Africa? Thas’ cool man,” and he turned around and disappeared into the building.
We did manage to get tickets. The concert was packed and, for us coming from a form of cultural seclusion in anodyne Bowling Green, it was like being on a new planet and being back home: the venue was packed with black people.
Towards the end I shouted out a request, “Winter in America”. I have a loud voice, but I can’t remember whether he heard it, whether he played it. I had been enraptured.
Thank you for the music, Brother Gil… I won’t believe the rumours that you are dead.