Saturday, May 28, 2011
Earlier today I heard the terrible news that one of my favorite artists and major heroes, Gil Scott-Heron, had passed away at the age of sixty-two. I was first introduced to the music of Scott-Heron a decade or so ago, and since then he has become one of my great artistic and life inspirations. The hours upon hours I have spent absorbing his ideas, via the grooves of the records I have collected, have been so extremely valuable to me. With Gil, I found a voice that expressed so much of the frustration and pain I have felt in my own life, as well as the sense of hope, strength and vitality that I have always strived for. His words mirrored my own strong liberal beliefs and rage at the systems in place that I feel on a daily basis. Gil Scott-Heron was one of America’s bravest and most daring icons, as well as being one of the most important, trailblazing and vital artists we have ever known.
Like many of my major musical heroes, ranging from Lou Reed to Bobby Womack to John Cale, the record sales of Gil Scott-Heron never matched the huge influence he had on those who followed. To say that Scott-Heron belonged to a generation of vital voices that has been routinely capitalized on, and flat-out ripped off, is an understatement. Artists without even a fourth of the vision Scott-Heron possessed built a career on the strides he made, and for a lot of younger folks I am sure the name Gil Scott-Heron has, thus-far, probably proven elusive.
Along with being one of our most gifted lyricists, Gil Scott-Heron was also one of American music's most consistently dangerous artists. While many of the rappers that Scott-Heron has inspired over the years have spent most of their lives attempting to cultivate a rebellious spirit, Gil was the real deal…he was an angry and provocative poet who stood as one of the most genuine ‘protest’ singers America ever had. From relatively well-known compositions like "The Revolution Will be Televised" to "The Bottle" to "We Almost Lost Detroit" to angry epics like the lesser-known "B-Movie" (one of the most brutal and dead-on indictments of the Reagan administration ever layed down on vinyl), Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t afraid to question and he wasn’t afraid to piss people off. His best work, some of it recorded four decades ago, now sounds like a clear warning against the conservative minded powers that have all but ruined America.
Perhaps the thing I most valued about Gil Scott-Heron was that his biting honesty didn’t end at the corruption around him, as he never let himself off the hook. Like John Lennon, Scott-Heron had an unnerving way of facing his own demons with his work and anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and perhaps not recognized the person staring back will find major solace in the grooves of albums like Pieces of a Man, Moving Target and I’m New Here.
Gil Scott-Heron was far too young to leave this planet and his most recent work showed him as an artist with still so much to give. For anyone who is perhaps not familiar with his work, I highly recommend searching out the following albums to have your mind expanded and blown:
Pieces of a Man
Winter in America
The First Minute of a New Day
From South Africa to South Carolina
Those are just six of his greatest albums, although any that you can track down can be life-altering. Gil Scott-Heron was also an award-winning novelist, with his first work The Vulture being particularly brilliant. For those who wish to see live footage of Gil defiantly check out Robert Mugge’s terrific Black Wax from 1982, where you can witness Scott-Heron during one of his more biting if less known periods. Also, seek out Scott-Heron’s legendary stand on Saturday Night Live (with Richard Pryor hosting) where he unleashed his extraordinary "Johannesburg". Sadly, the No Nukes concert film (in which my favorite song from Gil, "We Almost Lost Detroit", played such a pivotal role) is way out of print.
2011 has been a rough year that has seen so many of our great artists and icons fall. For me the loss of Gil Scott-Heron is the absolute worst, as we so need an artist willing to compromise his commercial viabilty (and even personal well-being) to fight the good fight. Gil Scott-Heron wasn't just a poet, he was a fucking warrior who possessed the rare capability of pointing out what is wrong with our society, as well as offering up solutions to save it.
I loved the man, his music and his spirit and mourn the fact he is no longer with us.