Gil Scott-Heron & Me

Gil Scott-Heron died May 27th at the much too tender age of 62. Though he was referred to often as the “Godfather of Rap,” he rejected that and the many other labels flung his way. He wasn’t fond of labels, nor of being pigeon-holed into a specific musical genre. He argued that he had been influenced by those who came before him and in turn influenced those who followed. Semantics and humility aside, he touched a whole generation of musicians and altered the course of musical history. He was a key figure in the evolution of Hip Hop, Neo Soul, Acid Jazz and Rap. Those who are familiar with him know him as a poet and musician, but many are unaware that he was also an author who published the first of two novels at the age of nineteen!

I first heard The Revolution Will Not Be Televised in 1987. I was in first year university, surrounded by my boyfriend’s black beret, combat boot-wearing friends from the Fine Art Department. They were my source for cool music: Coltrane, Davis, Holiday, Monk, Zappa, Tom Waits and Scott-Heron.

I was delighted by his lyrics. He was a master of irony, humor and poetically relating the shocking realities of American inner city life, a life I knew little about then and know only slightly more about now. I was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Canadian woman living as far from the ghettos of America as one could metaphorically get, but he still spoke to me. He spoke to people of all colors, socio-economic status and geography because so many of his lyrics are full of Truth, universal truths that are applicable to anyone, living anywhere, in anytime.

He believed in Peace, the brotherhood of man and respect.

I met Gil Scott-Heron once.

I’d been working in the forests of northwestern Connecticut, living over the garage of one of those established white American families that has managed through a combination of good luck and good management to do very well. When the snows started to fall, making field work impossible, I returned to the science institute in Millbrook, New York just in time to join a couple of fellow research assistants to see Gil Scott-Heron live at nearby Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, NY. We were all under 25, white and mutually surprised to learn of the others’ familiarity with the musician.

The theater in Woodstock was tiny then. I have no idea what it’s like now. Constructed of milled wood timbers, the interior had walls of heavily varnished yellow wood that gave it the look and feel of a large lakefront lodge. The front, near the entrance, consisted of a long narrow lobby backed by an equally long, modern bar. Behind the bar was a line of windows beyond which rows of brown seats fell away to the stage below. It couldn’t have held more than 250 people. We took our seats on the far left side near the top and still had a perfect view of the stage below.

Scott-Heron sat at the front of the stage behind his electric keyboard, grey pork-pie hat covering his graying curly hair, face thin and ragged, punctuated by his large, deep eyes, the lower half of his face covered in a scraggly black and grey beard. He started the show solo, just he and the keyboard, and his voice. His voice as always captivated me. It’s a voice that reaches in and grabs you by the heart, pulls you in. <!– /* Font Definitions */@font-face {font-family:Arial; panose-1:2 11 6 4 2 2 2 2 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;}@font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} /* Style Definitions */p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-fareast-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";}span.postinner {mso-style-name:post_inner;}@page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;}div.Section1 {page:Section1;Hebegan with characteristic humor, “Recently, I don’tremember when, someone, though I don’t remember who, asked me to go on a tour,but I can’t remember where. This evening I’ll be joined on stage by somefantastic musicians who call themselves the Amnesia Express, but to tell youthe truth I don’t remember why.” 

 

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At intermission, I found myself in front of the bar, alone, when I heard a male voice beside me ask a couple of women what they thought of the show so far. I looked over my right shoulder to see a tall, handsome black man whom I recognized from onstage – it was the bassist from Amnesia Express. He smiled as he listened to them singing the band’s praises. In the pause that followed, I spoke up (I am embarrassed now to think of my audacity) to give him honest feedback, “I thought you might want to know, we can barely hear the piano. You might want to get the sound man to check the levels.”
  
He turned to me with surprise and said, “You must be a musician.”
   
Next thing I knew I was following him downstairs, through a long narrow hallway, harshly lit with florescent lights, past a line of people, all waiting to meet Scott-Heron. They protested as we walked past, but the bouncers did nothing and we passed through a doorway. It was the backup band’s dressing room and the three other members sat spread out among a mess of clothing and equipment, sipping water, smoking cigarettes. I was introduced to the pianist, a lovely black woman with her hair loosely tied into a bun on the top of her head, wearing flowing black and rust-colored robes. She regarded me somewhat suspiciously, but politely offered me her hand. The bassist asked me what I wanted to drink and disappeared. The pianist and I chatted and she introduced me to the rest of the band. Next thing the bassist was pushing a gin and tonic in my hand, with an explanation, “I made it a double,” and was leading me back out into the hall. I followed him to the next door over where a large man stood partially blocking the door, his arms crossed over his expansive chest. He nodded his approval as we approached and stepped to one side. I felt like I was on some kind of magic carpet ride. 
 
The bassist held the door for me. The room was stark, white concrete walls with bright white tile on the floor and more fluorescent lights overhead. If there was any furniture, I don’t remember it. Seated on the floor, his back against the wall with his long legs sticking straight out was Gil Scott-Heron. He was hauling on a cigarette listening to a teenaged, blond kid reading bad poetry from wrinkled sheets of lined paper pulled from a spiral-bound notebook. Did I say it was bad? Correction, it was really bad, even to my untrained ear. I winced as I listened, looking from the young man to Gil Scott-Heron, wondering when he would holler, “Uncle!” Instead, he listened attentively and offered encouragement to the wannabe artist. The young man left smiling, thanking him profusely. I could imagine how his experience would be replayed over in his mind and retold in the days to come. 
 
And then we were introduced. “Gil this is Dawn. She’s got a good ear. Told me about a problem with the sound.” Gil smiled and shook my extended hand, said with that mellow baritone voice, “Nice to meet you.” I was speechless. He turned and asked the bassist, “What’s goin’ on with the sound?” I looked around to see two other men standing to one side of the him like guardians. After they got the sound discussion cleared up, Gil asked one of them a question in a low voice that I couldn’t hear. The man pulled something out of the large pockets of his over sized pants and started to roll a joint. There should be another name for joints of this type. It was bigger than any I’d ever seen. Gil turned to me and asked, “Will you join us?” I nodded my assent. 
 
It was powerful shit and, in combination with the double gin and tonic, after a couple of hits my head soon started to buzz. The men laughed appreciatively, seeing I was getting high. Gil just stayed quiet, observing, taking a long toke now and then. I have no idea how long I sat there, but soon Gil stood up, took my hand and said he hoped I’d enjoy the second half of the show. Somehow I managed to get up off the floor and followed everyone out of the dressing room. I watched as they filed onto the stage, turned and realized I was alone with the bassist there in that long hallway. He put his hand on the wall above my head, leaned in and kissed me (a kiss I will never forget) and made me promise to join them after the show. He kissed me again and then one of the other band members yelled from the stage, “hurry the fuck up and get on stage!”  
 
He smiled at me, then took my hand and led me to the wings where he said I could stay and watch. I stood there for a long time, so stoned it felt like my feet grew roots through the wooden floor. My body buzzed with the kiss and his proposition, the reverberation of the music floating across the stage enveloping me in some kind of erotic embrace. 
 
Somehow I wound my way back to my seat where I watched the rest of the concert as though under a spell. The music now had palpable texture and the bassist seemed to play with four hands. Each stroke of the strings he was stroking me, the energy rising to an ecstasy I wondered if I could contain.
 
Then the concert was finishing, the band was bowing its goodbye. And suddenly I was overcome by wave of paranoia. 
 
I grabbed my cohorts and ran for the exit. “Come on, let’s go, let’s go!” I begged them. They looked at me like I was losing my mind, “What’s the hurry? What’s going on? Where did you disappear to for so long?” All I could think was, I can’t sleep with a musician. I gotta get outta here before he convinces me otherwise!  What I said was, “I’ll tell you when we get in the car, but for now, just do me a favor and let’s go. Please!” 
 
Not much of a story I suppose, and addled by my fucked up state, but something that sticks with me nevertheless. I might not remember the bassist’s name, but Scott-Heron’s humility and compassion left an indelible impression. There was no “star” in that room, just a man. His humility is apparent in responses he’s given in interviews and in notes that accompany several albums. There is an echo of artistic genius in the liner notes from his 1993 album Spirits in which he describes where his inspiration came from:
 
In truth, I call what I have been granted ‘gifts.’ I would like to personally claim to be the source of the material and ideas that have come through me, but that is just the point. Many of the shapes of sound and concepts have come upon me from no place I can trace, notes and chords I’d never learned, thoughts and pictures I’d never seen – and all as clear as a sky untouched by cloud or smog or smoke or haze.  Suddenly. Magically. As though transferred to me without effort. 
 
I met Gil Scott-Heron in 1991. He was the same age then as I am now. Even then he looked ancient, weathered, abused. It seems a miracle he managed to live another twenty years. Perhaps more miraculous is that he released another album in 2010, sixteen years after his last. His voice, noticeably affected by age and illness, is still unmistakable and full of soul. The lyrics contain much of the power of earlier work, but something’s different. The hope is missing and many songs examine themes of death and dying. Words from the song  “Me and the Devil” are eerily prophetic:  

You may bury my body

Down by the highway side

So my old evil spirit

Can greyhound

Bus that ride

God’s speed Gil Scott-Heron…takethat Greyhound express.
 
******************************
GSH video full of his beauty  
 
Other clips of GSH doing his thing: 
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