I discovered Gil Scott Heron the summer of 1991, after I returned to Montreal following a riotous five months in NYC. It was the first time I’d lived in the city, and I felt like I’d caught the tail end of an era. In one sense, the future was already being mapped out: the Gulf War had come and gone: the US had proved itself master of the world, its political and economic system triumphant. Yet New York was still a fundamentally black city, where black music, culture, rhythms ran through city life like a great electrical current. The crack epidemic was at its height, and running alongside the city’s marvelous energy was chaos, decay, death. Crackheads and homeless thronged the Manhattan streets, and gunfire from turf wars echoed all across the city. New York was a city in transition, simultaneously galloping forward and eating itself alive.
Gil Scott Heron was the subject of a radio special on the late night CBC. I’d heard of him before, but never knew of his status as the godfather of hip-hop, nor his long reign from the late 60′s through the 70′s, nor the depth and humor of his politics. I’d recently started listening to hip-hop, turning my back on hardcore and the whole alternative white rock scene, and I was thrilled by Heron’s humor and intelligence. On songs like ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, and ‘The Bottle’, he was a voice from a pre-crack, pre-gangster generation, and the clarity and humor of his political vision made groups like Public Enemy seemed like sermonizing schoolchildren (and I liked Public Enemy). Gill Scott Heron reached back to the greats of jazz era, the political greats of the civil rights era. It wasn’t just black culture that was being ravaged by drug addiction: many of my friends from punk’s outer circles were slipping into heroin addiction, apathy and marginalization. Gill Scott Heron was an inspiration, the voice of an older black New York that was still political, still vital.
My life changed and I forgot about Gill Scott Heron, political music in general, until I read the New Yorker story last year. I was shocked. Heron had seemed such a cerebral cat, smart and politically hip, and here he’d been strung out on crack even when I first started listening to him. In the interview, he’d spent most of his time on his couch, lighting up his crack pipe. The writer said he rarely left his Harlem apartment. That he died a year later was hardly a surprise: in the profile he’d seemed like a man who’d come to the very end, who seemed to be alive for little more than crack. That he remained in a Harlem that was being transformed by gentrification, almost by the month, made his state even more poignant.
Then I heard his last album ‘I’m New Here’(click on link to hear livestream of the entire album), his first in 16 years. XL’s Richard Russell had signed Heron while he languished in Riker’s, and recorded him just a couple of years ago. The album is powerful, haunting, meditative. Heron’s political voice turns inward, becomes sombre, even sad. Listening to it now, a lot of it seems almost heartbreaking. Gil Scott Heron, the artist, still burned, even if the man was fading away.
Another image of Heron – or perhaps an older image – appeared, in an article in the London Guardian, ‘Gil Scott Heron saved my life‘. Abdul Malik Al Nasir, a black Englishman, hadd grown up in the Toxteth area of Liverpool, the same neighborhood my mother lived and worked in for a few years before she emigrated to Canada in the early 60′s. Nasir relates how Heron had taken him in during a tour in the middle 80′s, mentored him, taught the then almost illiterate Nasir how to read, encouraged him to go to university.
The image that remains is not the addict glued to his pipe, but the dedicated musician. Whatever his addictions, Gil Scott Heron worked hard, made great music and inspired people. Now that he’s passed, I can forget about the addict and celebrate the man and his wonderful music:
Wonderful song, wonderful shots of Harlem: vibrant, tragic, wasted. From a post-humous profile in the New Yorker: (‘Gil Scott Heron’s Scornful Brilliance‘):
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: A montage revolving around Che Guevera. I’m no commie, but I love the confidence in Heron’s voice, and those images of revolution don’t look so bad given the state of our current Wall street kleptocracy:
Interview: “Black Americans are the only real die-hard Americans here, because we’re the only ones who carried the process through the process!”
Video from his last album ‘We’re New Here’, the song “Me and the Devil.” Great song, great shots of night-time New York:
RIP Gill Scott HeronGil
Read more posts like this at City of Strangers