Goodbye Gil: The Life and Death of Gil Scott-Heron

Lukas Clark-Memler

Lukas writes about music for a wide range of international publications and a number of vaguely respected websites. He's music editor here at Chelsey, and hates having an empty inbox, so drop him a line with any questions, comments or music to check out at lukas@getfrank.co.nz

“He who approaches the temple of the Muses without inspiration, in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices, will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of the maniacs.”
-Plato


Gil Scott-Heron died at the age of 62. He is frequently referred to as “the godfather of rap” - an epithet the man does not like. He has also been called “the voice of revolution” and “the black Bob Dylan” – nicknames he has not commented on (but probably enjoys). In a way, Scott-Heron is an artist who will be remembered more for his impact than his actual sound. Credited for pioneering the spoken-word movement, infusing political insight into R&B, and shaping the very fabric of rap lyricism (though he doesn’t like to admit it), Scott-Heron’s influence will far outlive his body. And if you consider the fact that the man spent almost 30 years of his career inactive and struggling with addiction, it makes his potent impact all the more impressive.

Gil Scott-Heron never intended to make music. Instead he had planned to go down the authorial route; a stout devotee of the poet and novelist Langston Hughes. In fact Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University, Hughes’ alma mater. It was here that Gil would not only write two novels, but also meet Brian Jackson – the catalyst behind Gil Scott-Heron’s music career, and a collaborator that would last through to the end.

In 1970, when Gil was twenty one, he recorded a radical spoken-word fugue titled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The track’s overt intellectualism and acerbic social critique made it an instant classic; it introduced the Gil Scott-Heron to the world, and sent the Chicagoan straight to the annals of independent R&B.

Gil Scott-Heron became a reluctant political commentator; the revolutionary and poetic ethos shaped his first three albums. Though sound-wise Scott-Heron’s early recordings are hugely different, and represent the artist at various arcs of his short-lived trajectory. 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox - defined by the aforesaid “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” - delivered Scott-Heron’s unique blend of activism and Beat poetry to an audience of radicals. Like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in particular) became the liner notes to a generation –hyper-alert stream-of-consciousness littered with pop culture anecdotes.

“The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by
John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.”

Pieces of a Man (1971) and Free Will (1972) saw Scott-Heron’s first commercial collaborations with Brian Jackson. The large shadow Gil cast with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was difficult for the artist to shed. He had already solidified himself as the prime purveyor of wit and fearless polemic, and had achieved a cult-like following far surpassing his spoken-word predecessors. But instead of carving a new niche as so many artists do on their sophomore album, Scott-Heron simply repackaged “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into a mordant and lavishly instrumented parcel. On Pieces of Man the track seemed less like a plea for action, and more the lament of the inevitable. The neo-soul blueprint Scott-Heron created on Pieces of Man and Free Will became the template for the rest of his career; a template that would shape contemporary rap and hip hop. Various members of the rap hegemony credit Scott-Heron as their primary influence. Chuck D of Public Enemy fame upon hearing of Gil’s death, took to his Twitter to proclaim: “We do what we do because of you.” (The revolution won’t be televised, but it might be Tweeted).

African American culture critic, Nelson George called Gil Scott-Heron a “keyboardist, poet, singer, rapper, and teller of uncomfortable truths.” It is the latter that best defines the poet – as uncomfortable truths seemed to be a milieu Scott-Heron most comfortably inhabited. These truths ranged from political diatribe, to ghetto existentialism, to musings on the dangers of substance abuse. Oh the irony.

In 1974, Scott-Heron became the first signing on the newly formed Arista Records. This label was the passion project of Columbia Records president, Clive Davis, the man who brought the world Santana, Rod Stewart and Patti Smith. On Gil Scott-Heron, Clive told Rolling Stone Magazine: "Not only is he an excellent poet, musician and performer – three qualities I look for that are rarely combined – but he's a leader of social thought." Scott-Heron would release nine albums with Arista, before leaving the label in the late ‘80s. For the next two decades, Gil Scott-Heron avoided the spotlight.

While the new millennium brought with it hope and promise to most, it was the beginning of the end for Gil Scott-Heron. In the formative years of the aughts, Scott-Heron’s ostensible private struggles with addiction became public; he was arrested in 2001 for possession of cocaine, and then again in 2006 for violating parole. In 2008 it was revealed Gil was HIV positive.

I’m New Here was released in 2010 to critical acclaim. This was Gil Scott-Heron’s thirteenth studio album, and his first original recording in sixteen years. It saw Scott-Heron revert to his initial spoken-word style, but instead of revolution of social justice, this was the fractured sound of a man looking within. I’m New Here, while familiar in sound, marked a departure in lyrical themes. An album of introspection and retrospection – Scott-Heron sounds at death’s door as he looks back on his life; not with regrets, but simple observations.

From a certain standpoint, it would appear that the very forces Gil rallied so hard against became the ones that eventually claimed his life. But it was the struggle that gave Scott-Heron’s work such authenticity. His inspiration came in his martyrdom; what could have been a reinvention (I’m New Here) was instead a goodbye. The mark Scott-Heron has left on music is indelible, and his presence will long transcend his worldly existence. Thank you and goodbye Gil. The temple of the Muses welcomes you with open arms.

 
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  • Rosie says
    I don't normally do rap, but this song (the top link) sounds great to me! Thanks for opening my mind.

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