Bluesology: Evolution and Flashback
Truth be told, some of us had been expecting to receive the news for some time. Hearing what we'd heard, knowing what we knew, we figured that the word would come any day now, and it had been like that for a good many years. And then finally, word arrived.
I don't know if there's much I can say about Gil Scott-Heron's music or his passing that won't prove redundant to what's already been said elsewhere. While there was a point in his life where his work almost faded into obscurity, that certainly hasn't been the case for some years now. It is (thankfully) very much the stuff of an ackowledged history by now.
Gil Scott-Heron had a tremendous run in the 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s that I encountered his music, about the time that his public profile had begun to dwindle and fade. Dropping off the register, dropped by his label, continuing to tour and play live but less and less often as the years wore on, and then all but disappearing somewhere in the back streets of New York during the 1990s. The explanation, we would later learn, was on account of his having succumb to a particular fate.
As narratives go, the story seemed too numbingly banal, lent itself a little too predictably and conveniently to the insidiousness of a shrugging cynicism. But cynicism was the order of the day, one reckons, especially considering the decade when all of this began to unravel – amidst the shallow, self-serving cultural tide of the Reagan era. Sure, he probably didn't do himself any favors by letting egotism and "creative differences" poison his relationship with his longterm creative partner. But the whole enterprise might've already been doomed, perhaps, because it went so wildly against the temper of the times. For some, such words and music seemed like little more that a peculiar remnant from another era.
Almost, but not quite. It wasn't too much later that a new generation of artists took up the banner, and in doing so helped place the music of Gil Scott-Heron in the cultural canon. The artist himself, admittedly, was never wholly comfortable with his newfound status as the "Godfather of Rap." Partly this was due to aesthetic reasons, but also because he saw himself a merely one among many upholding a long line of discursive and artistic traditions. And what do such designations amount to, anyway? In the end, one could argue that he as much the offspring of Nina Simone as he was of -- say -- Langston Hughes or Amiri Baraka.1
As far as what happened to him in his later years – yeah, it was shocking, tragic, disheartening to learn. Still, I can't say that I ever felt it tarnished or eroded his legacy. If anything, the fact that he eventually fell victim to very same things that he'd previously warned and written about only served to underscore the urgency of his original message. He may have started out with literary aspirations, but what he chose to write about wasn't the stuff of mere myth or fable. It was, and remains still, just a little too real.
But about the music. Everyone has their favorites, often they're the same handful of tunes -- the ones that shook them or smacked them upside the head the first time they heard it. No need to mention them by name, I suppose, because chances are they're the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of Gil Scott-Heron. But the discography runs deep. Wading through that discography, despite its unevenness, I always found there were a good many other tracks that stood out, that shone brightly, but seemed to have been often overlooked or undercited. Were I to compile a collection of personal favorites, it would easily fill four discs, perhaps five.
So here's a few favorites of my own...
"Pardon our analysis, America..." These later spoken-word/monologue pieces constitute a category all their own in the way that they framed the events of the era, the way they put things into perspective. As such, many of them rank among my favorites. "H20 Gate Blues," "Bicentennial Blues," "The Ghetto Code," etc.
Aside from the words, there's that voice -- especially when it slides into speaking mode. The grain of the voice, plus the prosody and cadences and tone -- the delivery. Sharp in the early days, mind you; but once he put all the barking and proclamating aside, his voice took on a more direct and personable quality. Casual and offhanded, friendly and direct, warm even in the way the speaker leans in -- with a slight, wry smile and a bemusedly arched eyebrow -- and intimates to the audience/listener in an among-friends lowered register, "I'm sharing this with you, because you and I both know that all of this is bullshit." Part standup comedy, part street-corner punditry, part agitprop, always killingly on-target.
The two-parter that bookends Winter in America. "You're my father, you're my uncle, and my cousin, and my son. / But sometimes I wish you were not." Part lament, part tribute, the song's a testament to the frailty and fallibility of human nature. As the years would play out, this one took on additional layers of meaning; as it seems that Scott-Heron might as well have been writing to his later self -- rebuking the demons and personal failures that were as much his own as anyone else's.
But all of that aside, it shows Scott-Heron and Jackson slipping into a rare "celestial," "cosmic," invocational mode. While part of the tune is rooted in a bluesy here-and-now, the stunningly lovely backing vocal on the chorus opens the song up, stretches out into a more expansive domain.
Perhaps one of the most ambivalent songs of praise I can think of, written as a response to the famous "Drop Dead" verdict of 1976. America's long had a love-hate relationship with its cultural capitol. Judging from the variety of comments circulating in the public domain in the days following the attacks of September 11, I'd say that this is no less the case now than it ever was. Which is probably what prompted this song to spring to my mind at the time.
It's of no small significance that Gil Scott includes gay rights among the litany of fundamental equal rights in the lead-in monologue of "B Movie." What, considering that it amounted to him turning his back on his own previously and altogether different position on the matter a few years earlier. That in many ways represents what those peak years of development and productivity were for the artist -- broadening the frame, connecting the dots, discovering how things aligned and diverged to form the bigger picture, a more universal and fundamental struggle. An extended and open critique that was prone to self-correction and revision.
Which brings us to this song, from an album that often got short shrift over the years. Yeah sure, the anti-nuke stance of "Shut 'Em Down" wasn't such a controversial one to hold in the days following the Three Mile Island incident. Considering the political climate of the day, this can hardly be said of the album's pro-immigration anthem "Alien." And in terms of taking unpopular positions, this applies triply so to the song above, written in honor of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Putting it in the context of a larger, global struggle of "power to the people," it offered:
My name is what's your name / I am the voice of same,
Remembering things that I told me yesterday.
My name is what's your name / I am inside your frame.
We knew the devils, had to make them go away.
Soon followed by the chorus...
You only take it as a symbol.
But look closely, tell me who does it resemble?
Which now seems all-too-prescient as we sort through the conflicted and inherently contradictory rah-rah discussions of the events of the so-called Arab Spring.
At any rate, I could go on at great length. And I suppose I could do a lot more to make all of this more comprehensive and coherent, if not a more fitting tribute. Having spent the better part of three decades seeking out the man's music, wading through it, it's a difficult task to impose order on, to attempt with any hopes of doing thoroughly or properly.2
Gil Scott-Heron often spoke of the blues, usually situating and emphasizing his own music as being firmly of that continuum. To my mind this brings LeRoi's Jones's 1966 critical essay, "The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music)." In the course of discussing the relationship between "avant-garde" jazz and more traditional or colloquial blues-based music, Jones wrote:
"The Blues, its 'kinds' and diversity, its identifying parent styles. The phenomenon of jazz is another way of specifying cultural influences. The jazz that is most European, popular or avant, or the jazz that is Blackest, still makes reference to a central body of cultural experience. The impulse, the force that pushes you to sing...all up in there...is one thing...what it produces is another. It can be expressive of the entire force, or make it the occasion of some special pleading. Or it is all equal...we simply identify the part of the world in which we are most responsive. It is all there. We are exact (even in our lies). The elements that turn our singing into direction, reflections of our selves, are heavy and palpable as weather.
We are moved and directed by our total response to the possibility of effects. [...]
The differences between rhythm and blues and the so-called new music or art jazz, the different places, are artificial, or they are merely indicative of the different placements of spirit."
Part of this realm of cultural experience included what Chester Himes was referring to when he spoke of "the quality of hurt," of what Scott-Heron was talking about when he asked, "Why should the blues be so at home here? / Well, America provided the atmosphere." But it includes a number of other things too -- love, hope, the promises of a better day, the joys of music, etc. -- that Gil Scott-Heron often wrote and sang about.
"What we do with the truth is the key to our freedom," he once said. Indeed. And peace go with you.
1. Being asked, sometime in the early 1990s, by a hiphop magazine if he had any words of advice for aspiring emcess, Scott-Heron crustily responded, "I'd tell them to learn to play an instrument, that way you can make what you do your own. And while you're at it, keep your hands off of my shit."
2. For instance, I hope that in acknowledging the darker passages of Gil Scott-Heron's later years, that none of this aligns itself with a particular type of insidious narrative. That being the sort that I've repeatedly encountered over the years whenever it comes time to eulogize some former counter-cultural figure. The sort where you often find, tucked away somewhere in the middle or later passages of the thing, a comment to the effect of: "In the final years of his life, he became increasingly unhappy/depressed/frustated/erratic in his behavior...". Tedious, that...but more often more than a little unctuous, as one senses the author(s) taking their revenge on the deceased by decreeing: if only he'd just been able to accept things the way they were, hadn't criticized or gone against the tide, then perhaps he might've found happiness and stability. Ultimately it's the backlash narrative, or the self-serving and -congratulatory voice of the status quo, effectively declaring the subject to have been on the "wrong side of history" for having chosen another, more difficult path. And I hope that none of my comments or thoughts above might be interpreted as lending themselves to that sort of account.