Radical Records Revisted: Gil Scott-Heron

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
but it may be podcast and blogged

I recently learned that Gil Scott-Heron apparently has a serious crack problem.  Given his past, his fierce advocacy of a black radicalism and critiques of addictions of various kinds, there’s a bitter irony to this coda to a career that was an inspiration to a generation of poets, musicians and radicals.

Gil Scott-Heron is a writer, poet and performer best known for his socially conscious music, including most famously “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” as well as “Whitey on the Moon,” “Sex Education Ghetto-Style,” “Home is Where the Hatred Is” (memorably recorded by Esther Phillips) and his scathing critique of Ronald Reagan’s presidential candidacy, “B Movie.”  He is considered by many to be the grandfather of rap and had a particularly powerful influence on music fusing jazz with funk, and later hip hop.

Gil Scott-Heron in 2001

Gil Scott-Heron in 2001

The Village Voice reported on his first arrest in 2001 [here]. He was picked up by undercover officers after being seen making a buy and was found to have 1.2 grams of powder cocaine and two crack pipes in his pockets.  He has subsequently been in and out of jail and rehab, and been arrested on cocaine-related charges a couple more times, most recently in October 2007, just prior to a performance. He also has revealed that he is HIV-positive.

Wikipedia has a good synopsis of his life and career, which briefly – the appropriate length – covers his recent drug problems [here].

Scott-Heron’s arrests, his return to the public eye, and his attempts to get clean seem to have led to a revitalization of his musical career and of interest in him. In 2006, a documentary on him was aired on the BBC and elsewhere.  He is trying to finish his long-delayed book, The Last Holiday, on the effort to get Martin Luther King’s birthday made a national holiday.  And he has performed a number of times, often with musicians who have been inspired and influenced by him, such as Mos Def. New York magazine published an article on his recent activities in June of this year.

An interview with Gil Scott-Heron, accompanied by his music, was recorded by New York City radio station WFUV on December 11, 2007, and is available through NPR Radio [here].

It seems to be the done thing to talk about when one first heard or saw Gil Scott-Heron, so…  When I was a child my parents took me to see Gil Scott-Heron at the community center in the small hippie enclave of Bolinas, California, where we lived at the time. Despite my slender years and untrained ears, that evening has stayed with me since – a vivid memory of Gil Scott-Heron’s power and charisma more than any specific memory of a song or line of poetry. This would have been between the release of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and Pieces of a Man and it is the image of Scott-Heron that you see on those albums – skinny, big Afro, warm, funny and intensely driven – that sticks in my mind.

Much as I love and am amused, outraged and inspired still by songs such as “Revolution” and “Whitey on the Moon,” perhaps my favorite Gil Scott-Heron song is “Winter in America” from the 1975 album The First Minute of a New Day, a quieter tune, almost an elegy [lyrics here].

It’s tempting to read into the trajectory from the angry, humorous and utopian polemic of “Revolution” to this tune, five years later, the loss of hope that characterized the mid-70s, the fading of radical dreams.  The loss is palpable when Scott-Heron sings “and all of the healers have been killed / Or sent away.”  Martin and Malcolm killed. Black Panthers Fred Hampton – of whom Scott-Heron sings in “No Knock” – and George Jackson killed.  Bobby Seale (“H2Ogate Blues”), Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and so many others sent away – to jail or into exile.

And the song ends with a bitter lament for the loss of the hope of the 60s: “And ain’t nobody fighting / Cause nobody knows what to save.”

It’s difficult I think to imagine the kind of emotional and moral whiplash caused by the changes and reversals of that era, from the radical hopes and utopian dreams of the late 60s to despair and defeat in 1974 and 75.  When Gen-X and Y’ers complain about Baby Boomers surrendering their ideals, they should look back on this time and consider how a generation could have come so quickly, so vertiginously, from “the revolution will be live” to “nobody knows what to save.”

There’s a lot more that could be said about “Winter in America” – such as its combining of politics and ecology – but… go listen. Be moved.

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