Gil Scott-Heron in the 1970s

Gil Scott-Heron in the 1970s

Good to see that one of my musical heroes is back in operation after a rough two decades. Gil Scott-Heron is the subject of an excellent feature in today’s Observer, marking the release of only his second album in twenty-eight years.  With his musical collaborator, Brian Jackson, he produced some of the finest, most incisive lyrics on the state of America  for a decade from the early 70s.

Often his songs described the way in which the energies and resourcefulness of black youths were sapped, and families destroyed,  by drugs. Tragically, after observing these issues, Gil Scott-Heron became trapped in the self-same snares he had railed against. Sometime in the mid-to-late 80s, he developed a cocaine habit that apparently spiralled out of control into full-blown addiction to crack. He served time for drug-possession charges and appeared lost to music.

Gil Scott-Heron in performance at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club, August 2009

Gil Scott-Heron in performance at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club, August 2009

Now he has a new album out which, it’s good to hear, is the result of support and friendship on the part of two young Brits – Jamie Byng , director of Canongate Books, and Richard Russell of XL Recordings. The full story is in the Observer piece.

I look forward to hearing the new album, but let’s just remind ourselves of just some of the great lyrics that Gil Scott-Heron produced 40-odd years ago.  First, the great trio of songs coruscating drug addiction and its effects on black America, beginning with ‘The Bottle‘:

See that black boy over there, runnin’ scared
his ol’ man’s in a bottle.
He done quit his 9 to 5 to drink full time
so now he’s livin’ in the bottle.

See that Black boy over there, runnin’ scared
his ol’ man got a problem
Pawned off damn near everything, his ol’
woman’s weddin’ ring for a bottle.
And don’t you think it’s a crime
when time after time, people in the bottle.

Next up, ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is‘:

A junkie walking through the twilight
I’m on my way home
I left three days ago, but noone seems to know i’m gone
Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain and it,
might not be such a bad idea if i never, never went home again

Stand as far away from me as you can and ask me why
hang on to your rosary beads
close your eyes to watch me die
you keep saying, kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it
God, but did you ever try
to turn your sick soul inside out
so that the world, so that the world
can watch you die

Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams
home was once an empty vacuum that’s filled now with my silent screams

home is where the needle marks
try to heal my broken heart
and it might not be such a bad idea if i never, if i never went home again

Finally, ‘Angel Dust’:

He was groovin’
and that was when he coulda sworn
the room was movin’
But that was only in his mind
He was sailin’
he never really seemed to notice
vision failin’
’cause that was all part of the high
Sweat was pourin’ –
he couldn’t take it
The room was exploding –
he might not make it.

Angel Dust: Please, children would you listen
Angel Dust: Just ain’t where it’s at.
Angel Dust: You won’t remember what you’re
missin’, but down some dead end streets
there ain’t no turnin’ back.

One of his greatest lyrics is ‘Winter in America’, a eulogy for lost America:

From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
To the buffalos who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds looking for the rain
Looking for the rain
Just like the cities stagger on the coastline
In a nation that just cant stand much more
Like the forest buried beneath the highway, never had a chance to grow
Never had a chance to grow

And now its winter, winter in America

In ‘Almost Lost Detroit’, he warned of the dangers of nuclear power:

It stands out on a highway
like a Creature from another time.
It inspires the babies’ questions,
“What’s that?”
or their mothers as they ride.
But no one stopped to think about the babies
or how they would survive,
and we almost lost Detroit
this time
How would we ever get over
losing our minds?

Just thirty miles from Detroit
stands a giant power station.
It ticks each night as the city sleeps
seconds from anniahlation.
But no one stopped to think about the people
or how they would survive,
and we almost lost Detroit
this time
How would we ever get over
over losing our minds?

The sheriff of Monroe county had,
sure enough disasters on his mind,
and what would Karen Silkwood say
if she was still alive?
That when it comes to people’s safety
money wins out every time.
and we almost lost Detroit
this time, this time
How would we ever get over
over losing our minds?

In ‘Johannesburg‘ he insisted on the common cause of black Americans and South Africans:

Now sometimes distance brings
misunderstanding,
but deep in my heart I’m demanding;
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Sister – woman have you heard
’bout Johannesburg?
I know that their strugglin’ over there
ain’t gonna free me,
but we all need to be strugglin’
if we’re gonna be free
Don’t you wanna be free?

At the end of the Observer piece, Gil Scott-Heron quotes Robert Louis Stevenson:

There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, that it behoves all of us not to talk about the rest of us.

I'm New Here cover

There’s a positive review for the new album at the Independent:

The sleevenotes to this wryly titled album begin, “Buying a CD is an investment. To get the maximum you must listen to it for the first time under optimum conditions. Turn off your cellphone. Turn off everything that rings or beeps or rattles or whistles. Make yourself comfortable. Play your CD. Listen all the way through. Think about what you got. Think about who would appreciate this investment. Decide if there is someone to share this with. Turn it on again. Enjoy yourself.”

Almost impossible demands in the hi-tech age, and coming from most artists, they’d sound unbelievably pompous. In the case of the new album from Gil Scott-Heron, however, they’re just about right. (Indeed, at just 28 minutes long, you ought to make time for two back-to-back listens.) The 60-year-old jazz man, who can rightly claim to be a godfather of rap music (along with The Last Poets and Iceberg Slim), has been around since the days when missives such as “Whitey on the Moon” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” were bitterly relevant social commentary on a divided America, and hearing his bourbon-soaked voice again in the era of the first black president is a strange blast-from-the-past sensation.

I’m New Here is as welcome an old guy comeback as that of Leonard Cohen, but it has more to offer than mere nostalgia. On opening track “On Coming from a Broken Home (Part 1)”, Scott-Heron pays a heartfelt tribute to the grandmother who raised him in Chicago, and ponders the absence of male figures in his life, notably his footballing father Gil Heron who was away in Scotland playing for Celtic (the club’s first-ever black player).

It’s just as personal throughout. And he’s in self-excoriating mood, describing himself as “obnoxious, arrogant and selfish” and confessing to an“ego the size of Texas”. Midway through, in a spoken-word interlude, he says, with a chuckle, “If you’ve gotta pay for all the bad things you’ve done? I’ve got a big bill coming.” The confessional blues of “I’ll Take Care of You” and “Me and the Devil”, both of which have a flavour of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole”, are the highlights of an album which is the ripe and delicious fruit of, as he puts it, “sticking around longer than a bunch of people thought you would”.

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