Gil Scott Heron checked himself into St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital on 30 April 2011. He’d had a tumble at home, smashing his elbow and breaking his glasses. Thirty years of freebasing crack cocaine and a possible HIV infection had wrought havoc on his body. He was unmanageable in hospital, haranguing nurses, pulling out his IV drip. Within a month, he’d gone, heart failure being the final straw. One of the voices that articulated life on the other side of Nixon and Reagan’s America had been silenced.
In truth. it had largely gone quiet already. Two albums in the last 28 years was the extent of Gil’s recorded output. The musical landscape had changed. He was being described as the godfather of hip-hop. The gangsta rap scene, the east coast/west coast battles left him cold. He called it “flash and dash”. It wasn’t until the likes of Common, Michael Franti and Arrested Development arrived on the scene that he saw the link between their and his music. They were speaking a similar language, one that didn’t fetishise violence and demean women. It spoke truth to power – don’t we need some of that at the moment?
Gil’s place was on the streets. He didn’t really enjoy the studio at the best of times, but the higher he got, the less reliable he became. He often went walkabout, leaving his band waiting for him. Advances on concerts were spent on crack. It was a sorry and sad tale for a man who had overcome so many disruptions and dislocations to become a writer, a poet and a singer. He even got a Masters in creative writing from John Hopkins in 1972 despite ducking out of his degree course to pursue his music career and maintained a lecturing post in the early seventies.
Why isn’t Gil given the dues that he deserves?
Marcus Baram’s excellent 2014 biography, Pieces of A Man, suggests that it was down to his drug of choice. There is a perceived rock’n’roll glamour to cocaine and heroin. Gil was too old for the 27 club, there was the visceral bitter thrill of what might have been. Keith Richard and Ozzy Osbourne caning it and ultimately coming clean. Crack is seen as a loser’s drug, something to be ashamed of. People don’t come back from freebasing.
I think the other point is the lack of an obvious classic album. His high points are individual songs – The Bottle, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Winter In America, Almost Lost Detroit.
It may also down to be the dislike for the studio environment. His contemporaries Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder all managed to combine the black perspective with an album length focus. Whilst all of Gil’s work has merit, it doesn’t have the defining 40 plus minute focus that “Curtis”, “What’s Going On” or “Innervisions” provided, benefitting from months working in the studio. Scott-Heron’s albums were delivered in the moment, live with each song laid down with minimal takes. He didn’t have the desire or patience to finesse his work as his peers did. Maybe his musical partner Brian Jackson could have done that but Gil wanted to hit the road as soon as he could. Ultimately this led to a split with Jackson.
This served to emphasise Gil’s sense of displacement. Born in Chicago, raised by his grandmother in Tennessee and being forced to move to the Bronx when he was twelve, he was a restless soul. The road offered refuge but ultimately not the kind that served Gil best. He couldn’t hold down a relationship, especially as the drugs took hold. He was initially dismissive of the use of hard drugs which made his descent into addiction, all the more sad.
The clarity of vision, the ability to deliver razor sharp discourse was diluted so at the end, his children battled for his estate, splitting his ashes four ways, unable to agree upon a common resting place. Gil never had anywhere to call home and that hasn’t changed.
Baram’s biography is concise, insightful, based on over 200 interviews and covers ground that is even more relevant in 2020, six years after it was published. It belies his background of working for the New Yorker magazine and the the Wall Street Journal. Whilst it is the work of a fan, it is by no means hagiographic.
The only thing that is missing is the man himself, the voice that is gone.
All that is left is the pieces of a man.
Here’s a trailer from Channel 4’s Black Wax documentary, showing Gil and his three year old daughter Gia wandering around the White House. The documentary was commissioned just as the channel was launched. Director Robert Mugge and commissioing editor Andy Parks thought the shake up the somewhat staid outlook of competing channels BBC and ITV.
The film attempts to portray Gil as a griot, the equivalent of a Malian story teller who hands down tales of generations past, brought up for today’s relevancy.
There is one quote that Baram hits upon which seems as relevant today as it did in 1981.
You know the protests that are launched in this country are not launched necessarily against this government. They are launched in terms of the fact that this country has rarely lived up to its advance publicity. This is supposed to be the land of justice, liberty and equality, and that’s what everyone over here is looking for.
The same seems to apply to greater and lesser extents on both sides of the Atlantic in 2020. I’m sure Gil would have had something to say on the matter.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed the post. I wrote about a London gig featuring Gil’s music back in 2016. Click here to have a read.