Ain’t No New Thing

by RANDY SHIELDS

The commanding voice that named the names, that directed a musical letter of rage (air mail special) to whitey on the moon, and lived to see a revolt (if not a revolution) televised in Egypt, has died. Gil Scott-Heron died Friday afternoon at age 62 in NYC’s St. Luke’s Hospital.

I don’t know what age I was when I first heard Scott-Heron wittily and boldly lambaste Nixon and Spearhead Agnew and Ronnie Raygun and Attilla the Haig and Marlin Perkins and Papa Doc Bush — they and their America didn’t mean shit to him (and me and millions of other Americans) and it felt damned good to hear it. One of his favorite targets was Americans’ greatest religious experience: getting something for nothing — specifically, the ripping off of black art, music and culture by (mostly) white capitalists while its creators often died paupers.

He declined the title of “Godfather of Rap” and it was easy to see why. I was blown away by NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” the first couple weeks I listened to it — the anger, the violence, fighting back against racist cops, the clarity about who your enemies are, the cheapness of life worn like a badge. But I found that I couldn’t keep listening to it indefinitely — the music, especially, was both depressing and boring. And that’s what Gil Scott-Heron and his brilliant longtime collaborator Brian Jackson figured out: they created a poetic, free-flowing, typically flute and percussion-driven platform for Scott-Heron’s AK-47 mouth to artistically and scathingly say that America was a racist war-loving hypocritical slag heap, deluded by fake movies, fake history, fake images and fake media. Scott-Heron and the multi-instrumentalist Jackson maxed out beat poetry and music to what they always should have been, with fabulous hypnotic grooves and the occasional tasty solo. Scott-Heron ra-ta-tatted against injustice, but you kept on listening, for decades, because the hooks and creativity are always present whether moving through funk, soul, R & B, free jazz, African or Caribbean beats. Drugs, violence, poverty, inequality, opportunistic “leaders” and sellouts, addiction, defeat and lives that never got off the ground were frequent subjects. But the really unforgivable sin was musical boredom.

I saw Scott-Heron perform two years ago at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia. To see the creator of “Storm Music” and “The Bottle” perform in an intimate club was a thrill. He had a voice and presence that you paid attention to — his baritone was born to deliver Shakespeare, as bassist Ron Carter once said. He and his rockin’ pianist, blistering lefty lead player and the smoking rhythm section were so relentlessly good that I didn’t even miss my favorite song, “Storm Music,” or “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The new songs, from “I’m New Here,” were instantly embraced. And “The Bottle” swung mightily that night. And he was hilarious, both that night and on his recorded offhand pot shots against the ruling class, something that isn’t often noted when he’s written about.

That Philly show fell in a time period, the fall of 2009, where I also saw James McMurtry and Iris DeMent. Interestingly (maybe) is that Scott-Heron did not perform “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” DeMent did not perform “Wasteland of the Free,” and McMurtry did not play “We Can’t Make It Here,” all absolutely classic songs pointedly critical of America. I’m sure these artists had different reasons for not playing these tunes but I took it as a bad omen. The impression it made on me was that now that the Big Bad Bush was gone it was time to STFU about America. It was time to start feeling good about America because an uncouth goon from Texas was replaced by a smooth-talking intelligent Wall Street stooge. Protest and anger were uncool. Nothing as pseudo-glorious as Reagan’s Morning (Thunder) in America but, rather, some weak-ass liberal Sleepytime tea time in America. Scott-Heron had also spoken favorably about Obama.

So, after two years of Obama, I muse: the working class of America, especially blacks, can get as much action on their concerns from sending a letter to whitey on the moon as they can from having America’s first black president in the White House.

In the jumbled world of confusing musicians with leaders, I thought about how Scott-Heron canceled a planned show in Israel in 2010 (why did he ever schedule it?) — persuaded by activists that it would be similar to playing in apartheid South Africa — and how two weeks ago I saw my first keyboard hero, Ray Manzarek (of the Doors), at the Sellersville Theater, pleased with his acid-tested spirituality, telling the crowd that Christians and Muslims and Jews should put away their religious books and just love each other and, by the way, he and Robby Krieger are looking forward to playing as the Doors in Tel Aviv this summer because “the Israelis are so cool.” I’m so damned glad we agnostics don’t have to put away any of our books.

(Hey, Ray, how about you and Robby do something that truly breaks on through: be on the next Free Gaza flotilla and play a Gaza concert if and when you “break on through” the illegal Israeli blockade — maybe you can see how “cool” the IDF is. Maybe you can grab Jim Morrison from out of the ether, where you said he resides, and bring your interstellular spirituality down to earth where it might mean something. It says in the Uncool Book that faith without works is dead.) Oh well, as a sometime Zionist, sometime Christian troubadour once admonished us, “Don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters.” He never explained the parking meter thing though I assumed he was warning us not to take up the drunken dares of friends to vault over the meters after the bars close.

Anyway… Gil Scott-Heron, don’t rest in peace as everyone is advising you to, rage on wherever you are, be witty and scathing, be the fighter you are, be bold when no one else will, whether you’re in heaven or hell, I’m sure that things can be better in both places. And I give you the next to the last word: “It ain’t no new thing — America is always the same old shit.”

Now, are those words from many years ago too negative and cynical, too unhopey and unchangey? Well, decades after Gil Scott-Heron urged people to send their unaffordable, unpaid “doctor bills to whitey on the moon,” he lived to see 45 million Americans without any health insurance and 47 million on food stamps. He railed against ghetto poverty in 1970 and 41 years later lived to see the greatest inequalities in wealth since the Great Depression. And he lived to see the first black POTUS, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner who’s currently slaughtering innocent dark-skinned people in five different countries. America can’t make clothes, shoes, toys, electronics, peace or justice but we make a hell of a lot of irony.

Randy Shields can be reached at music2hi4thehumanear@gmail.com.

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 30, 2015
Bill Blunden
The NSA’s 9/11 Cover-Up: General Hayden Told a Lie, and It’s a Whopper
Richard Ward
Sandra Bland, Rebel
Jeffrey St. Clair
How One Safari Nut, the CIA and Neoliberal Environmentalists Plotted to Destroy Mozambique
Martha Rosenberg
Tracking the Lion Killers Back to the Old Oval Office
Binoy Kampmark
Dead Again: the Latest Demise of Mullah Omar
Kathy Kelly – Buddy Bell
No Warlords Need Apply: a Call for Credible Peacemaking in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
Darker Horizons Ahead: Rethinking the War on ‘IS’
Stephen Lendman
The Show Trial of Saif Qaddafi: a Manufactured Death Sentence
John Grant
The United States of Absurdity, Circa 2015
Karl Grossman
The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press
Cesar Chelala
Cultural Treasures Are Also Victims of War
Jeff Taylor
Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics
July 29, 2015
Mike Whitney
The Politics of Betrayal: Obama Backstabs Kurds to Appease Turkey
Joshua Frank
The Wheels Fell Off the Bernie Sanders Bandwagon
Conn Hallinan
Ukraine: Close to the Edge
Stephen Lendman
What Happened to Ralkina Jones? Another Jail Cell Death
Rob Wallace
Neoliberal Ebola: the Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak
Dmitry Rodionov
The ‘Ichkerization’ Crime Wave in Ukraine
Joyce Nelson
Scott Walker & Stephen Harper: a New Bromance
Bill Blunden
The Red Herring of Digital Backdoors and Key Escrow Encryption
Thomas Mountain
The Sheepdog Politics of Barack Obama
Farzana Versey
A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism
Norman Pollack
America’s Decline: Internal Structural-Cultural Subversion
Foday Darboe
How Obama Failed Africa
Cesar Chelala
Russia’s Insidious Epidemic
Tom H. Hastings
Defending Democracy
David Macaray
Why Union Contracts are Good for the Country
Virginia Arthur
The High and Dry Sierras
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, the Season Finale, Mekonception in Redhook
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Jesse Jackson
Sandra Bland’s Only Crime Was Driving While Black
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz