Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron R.I.P.

When Gil Scott-Heron died last week at age 62, he left behind a planet on which revolutions inevitably will be televised. They’re already being televised, you-tubed, texted, Facebooked and Tweeted in places like Iran, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. To freedom-seeking residents of the Middle East and North Africa, information carried by the media and every social network brings comfort in the knowledge that the whole world is watching. 

 Gil Scott-Heron in 1974

But even though the whole world was watching Chicago police beat up unarmed protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, perhaps TV seemed like an enemy without much redeeming value back in 1971. That’s the the year the singer-songwriter released his most famous composition, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The spoken-word piece, from his debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox album, targeted the distractions and manipulations of advertising that promised to “put a tiger in your tank” or “fight germs that may cause bad breath.” He also ridiculed what passed for entertainment four decades ago. But nightly news coverage of the Vietnam War, the black liberation movement, inner city turmoil and the villainous Nixon administration presented additional fodder for his withering scrutiny.

In a more melodic though still very topical vein, Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” was a cut from Bridges in December 1977. He borrowed the title from a 1975 book by John G. Fuller about a nuclear accident, which had happened nine years earlier, that threatened not just the Motor City 30 miles away, but also Toledo in neighboring Ohio and especially Windsor, Ontario. All three metropolitan areas were within easy spitting distance of Fermi 1 on the shores of Lake Erie, the first commercial “liquid metal fast breeder reactor” in the U.S.

During that era, before the catastrophes of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima, few in the general public knew about the hidden history of mishaps at nuclear plants around the globe: The 1957 disaster that resulted in contamination of the rural community surrounding England’s Windscale reactor. A 1975 fire at Browns Ferry in Alabama that burned unchecked for six hours. The 83,000 gallons of radioactive material that Vermont Yankee discharged into the Connecticut River in 1976.

The Fermi 1 incident, in October 1966, was a partial meltdown. Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” lyrics underscored the otherworldliness of the structure: “It stands out on a highway/ like a Creature from another time ... ” The tune emerged at the end of 1977 so his description did not resonate for me until eight months after I had covered a spring occupation of the planned Seabrook power plant by 1,800 no-nukes activists.

When a few fellow reporters and I drove up to the main gate of the construction site, the first startling thing was an innocuous signpost that read “Seabrook Station,” as if it designated nothing more sinister than a train depot. The car radio was playing Al Stewart: “I think I see down in the street/ the spirit of the century,/ telling us that we’re all standing on the border ... ”

The second startling thing: this place where atoms would be split, rendering those already energetic particles hyperactive, was in people’s backyards. On one side, the gigantic structure even overshadows an adjacent nursing home. I had expected to find the plant on the outskirts of this small hamlet along the New Hampshire seacoast, not where the town common should be. Not dead center. Beyond the high chain-link fence topped with razor wire, I could see nothing but trees yet the specter of Seabrook was spooky. Scott-Heron’s observation about the potential peril facing Detroit was destined to eventually ring true in this Northeast locale:  “It ticks each night as the city sleeps/ seconds from annihilation ... ”

Performing in New York’s Central Park, 2010
Although dubbed the Godfather of Rap by contemporary fans, Scott-Heron always demurred. The man thought of himself as more of a jazz artist, with a strong social conscience. His biggest influence as a youngster was Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet who predicted brighter days ahead: ”O, yes, I say it plain,/ America never was America to me,/ And yet I swear this oath – America will be!” The musician’s perspective was bleaker, as made clear by “Winter in America,” his 1975 indictment of racism: “The Constitution/ A noble piece of paper/ With free society/ Struggled but it died in vain/ And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner/ Hoping for some rain.”

In “Johannesburg,” on 1976‘s From South Africa to South Carolina, Scott-Heron tackled apartheid but revealed his preference for a less violent form of revolution: ”Well, I hate it when the blood starts flowin’/ but I’m gad to see resistance growin’ ... ” He had begun to succumb to the lure of drugs, followed in the last ten years with arrests, jail time, rehab and HIV. Haunted by personal and sociopolitical demons, he had already expressed his anguish in “A Sign of the Ages,” a 1971 lament: “So you cry like a baby, a baby/ or you go out and get high./ But there ain’t no peace on Earth, man./ Maybe peace when you die, yeah.” The sense of purpose in his work nevertheless continued until the end, including the completion of I’m New Here in 2010. One line from the title tune may have indicated an ultimate embrace of that Langston Hughes notion about optimism against all odds: “No matter how far away you’ve gone/ You can always turn around ... ”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.


Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections (1981)
I had the unique pleasure of seeing Gil Scott-Heron and the Amnesia Express at a Toronto club in 1984. At the time, Ronald Reagan was a shoe-in for his second term as President of the United States and Scott-Heron had just released the 12-inch single called, "Re-Ron" which took a poignant opening shot at Reagan's policies. Scott-Heron was in great form that evening; by then, he'd cleaned up his life by staying off drugs and got back to work as the urban poet of black America. Nothing during the show was wasted; it was his platform to speak and he sang with a clear sense of profundity.

Scott-Heron wasn't always preaching to the converted. Fans of his music were multi-racial so you didn't have to be a person of colour to appreciate what he said. His music was a blend of jazz, r&b and the blues: a beautiful mix of three forms that seemed to best support his poetry. Two of his albums still stick with me today: Winter In America (Strata-East, 1974) and Reflections (Arista, 1981). On Winter In America, you not only got the political statemen
t "Winter in America" and "H2O Watergate Blues," you also heard the beautifully realized urban experience of a troubled black America on “The Bottle.” In addition, he revealed a more personal side on the song “Your Daddy Loves You” which was written for Scott-Heron's daughter. Reflections was Gil Scott-Heron's strongest album. It featured original compositions including his first statement about Ronald Reagan, "B Movie," plus his tribute to the great African-Americans in jazz, "Is That Jazz?" The album celebrated the urban experience by using an extensive horn section in the mix and offering up a couple of important covers of two artists who had more commercial success than him.
Scott-Heron's take on Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands" offeres a strong vocal backed by a forceful horn arrangement. The band cut loose on this track as Scott-Heron sang about the familial ties that connect us all. The other cover featured was Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." Originally released in 1970 on the album, What's Going On, Gaye was the pseudo-urban poet to the disenfranchised in black America. For Gil Scott-Heron, the song wasn't strong enough on its own terms, so he added a poem in the middle of the piece called, “The Siege of New Orleans.” This verse updates Gaye's original polemic on high unemployment, violence, crime and oppression when he writes... "make you want to holler and hold up both your hands and say Liberation." What's remarkable about this version is Scott-Heron's consistent call to arms, politically speaking. While Gaye laments the frustration, Scott-Heron’s version says “take action.” "Gun" is the next track and in four minutes Scott-Heron tells the story of one man and how a weapon empowers him. Enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the bearing of arms is striped away by Scott-Heron capturing the street violence of the inner city, as he sadly admits, "the philosophy seems to be, at least it is to me, that if everybody gives up theirs, I'll give up mine."

But nothing hits you over the head better than
"B Movie," quite possibly Gil Scott-Heron's best poem/song. It's a beautifully rendered composition that captures America in all its messy history. Not willing to accept Reagan as the new "hero" of America (Reagan was first elected in 1980), Scott-Heron puts into perspective history the United States before "the free press went down to full court press." He covers every aspect of American society and closes singing..."this ain't really your life...ain’t really your life…ain't nothing but a movie," but he sings it like a voice that repeats in your head without resolution. It's as horrific an impression of the torpor of an era as it is liberating. It's that aspect of Scott-Heron’s sense of the horrors of civilization perhaps that he balanced best by love, respect and a call to political action.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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