Saturday, May 28, 2011

Music: Gil Scott-Heron, RIP

Introduction:  I'm mourning the loss of Gil Scott-Heron, the influential singer and writer, who passed away yesterday at 62.  I saw him perform in late November of last year, and was blown away by his humor and the power of his words and music.  This account of that memorable show appeared on this blog a few days afterward; I'm reposting it today as a tribute to a troubled man and compelling artist.  Sadly, the miracle I hoped for in the last paragraph was not to be.

Gil Scott-Heron at B.B. King Blues Club--
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Tuesday I told a friend of mine, another cop, that I was going to a concert that night.  Who was I going to see?  I thought for a moment how to explain an artist whose name I wasn't sure he would recognize, and on whom I'm no expert myself.

"His name is Gil Scott-Heron," I said.  "He's kind of an old-time soul singer, who also did some sort of rap."

He pondered briefly, then remembered.  "Oh, 'The Revolution Will Not be Televised'" he said triumphantly.  "Bet you didn't expect me to know that."

Perhaps due to that very song--his most well-known, which has been featured in commercials--more people have indeed heard of Gil Scott-Heron than one might expect.  But few actually know much about him--partly because his work is so hard to categorize, and partly because his checkered personal life has kept him from the level of fame his talent might otherwise have earned.

I remember Howard Stern years ago doing a hilarious dissection of Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon."  "Are we supposed to take the NASA budget and pay his sister's rent?" Stern asked rhetorically.

And I'd see Scott-Heron mentioned periodically in the papers, often because he had been arrested in upper Manhattan, the police having come across him in a crack house or observed him buying drugs.

But I knew little about his work--which was seldom presented on radio or television--other than that it sometimes involved spoken-word pieces set to music.  Still, that alone was intriguing; to see how powerful such a recipe can be, check out this clip of Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road over Steve Allen's jazz piano (the best part starts at the three-minute mark).

A fine New Yorker profile in August gave a saddening overview of Scott-Heron's life and art, the art having all but dried up as crack addiction took control of the life.  His current scene, as I recall the piece, is a squalid one of relative isolation, financial woes, poor health and long disappearances that end with him being tracked down by friends in SRO hotels, sleeping off a high.

Yet he had gotten himself together enough this year to put out a new album, I'm New Here, and to schedule some appearances.  I got tickets to his planned October concert at B.B. King's, the great club on 42nd Street, only to learn upon arriving that it had been postponed "due to artist illness."  Enough said.  The gig was rescheduled for Tuesday, November 30, and I again bought tickets, wondering if he'd show up for that one.

Did he ever.

When Scott-Heron took the stage--at only 61 a gaunt, ravaged, white-haired scarecrow of a man--everything you ever needed to know about the results of drug addiction was on display.  His gaze was unfocused; he seemed weak and unsteady on his feet.  And his mouth worked continually, as if he were chewing on something; when he began to speak, his words were muffled and unclear.  "I think his false teeth don't fit right," my date whispered sadly.

It was easy to see why several announcements had been made to the audience, prior to his coming out, that photography during the show would not be tolerated--to photograph him as he was would have been too great a violation of his dignity.  The next time I hear a liberal whinging about the unjust severity of the Rockefeller drug laws, I will picture this talented man on that stage, brought to ruin by drug dealers' poison.

And yet...

Whatever makes Gil Scott-Heron himself is apparently still there, despite all damage to his body and spirit, if this brilliant performance was any gauge.

He opened with a long monologue that combined Borscht Belt humor with wry observations that were sometimes political, his voice becoming clearer and stronger as he went on.

An example of the former:  "A Jewish lady is waiting at the airport for her daughter to get off the plane with her new husband, who the lady has never met.  She sees the daughter walking toward her with an 8-foot-tall brother.  The lady yells, 'I said a rich doctor.'"  (Get it?  She wanted her daughter to marry a rich doctor, not a witch doctor, but perhaps the daughter misheard her...well, if you have to explain it...)

An example of the latter, riffing on U.S. foreign policy: "I just got back from Europe."  Pause.  "The Europeans are worried about you."  Pause.  "See, they in-between us and whoever we gonna be f---in' with."

Yes, Scott-Heron's worldview, from what I know of his writing and what he said at this show, is some amalgam of Black militancy and plain old leftism.  And yes, I think about as highly of that philosophy as any other White cop would.  But in Scott-Heron's hands, leavened with humor and music and wordplay, it becomes powerful, nuanced and worth hearing.

I won't try to provide a setlist, not being familiar with many of the songs, but the music was a rich mixture of blues, R-and-B and jazz.  He played keyboards most of the time or just sang, backed by a small band that included a guitarist, a bassist, a riveting harmonica player, and a female keyboardist/singer.  Especially memorable was a song called "Is That Jazz?," preceded by a monologue purporting to explain how jazz was invented (seems there had been something called "jizm music," which originated in brothels, and something else called "ass music"--and, well, "You know how folks in America always be squeezin' shit together?...").

Then, I guess, Gil Scott-Heron left the B.B. King Blues Club and headed north, back to the streets, back to his crack life.  And we who like his work and admire his gifts, witnesses to a tragedy we're powerless to stop, could do nothing but pray for a miracle that might lead to his liberation, to his recovery, and to many more years of music and poetry.

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At May 29, 2011 at 11:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must admit that I have never heard of Gil Scott-Heron. But I saw all the RIP posts on FaceBook and figured I was missing out on something great. So after a Google search...I learned of his artistry as well as his crack addiction. And it turns out that we frequented the same crack hotel on West 112th Street. I too am a recovering addict. I know the struggle, the pain, and misery that comes with active addiction. I have been going to AA, NA, CA meetings for almost ten years and have managed to reduce my using...but have not been able to stop altogether. But I keep trying.


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