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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.