The Wire

In Writing

Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces Of A Man

June 2011

Gil Scott-Heron, with and without his longtime partner Brian Jackson, has long refused to fit into anyone's market plan for a soul-jazz singer. Nathan West and Mark Sinker discuss his recorded legacy. This article originally appeared in The Wire 108 (February 1993).

Small Talk At 125th & Lenox (Flying Dutchman 1970)
Even on arrival, GSH presents something of an anachronism - and yet being out of step is the source of his power, the sign of his integrity. Presenting his verse as casually overheard Harlem breeze-shooting, he welds a soft spoken free jazz intensity to the radical clarity of Greenwich Village Old Left folk-coffeeshop, American demotic poetry. But folk and the Old Left are dead, as are Ayler and Coltrane; and Harlem and poetry may be dying. Opt out disillusion, shaped by shutdown, rules: if politics is the Art of the Possible, the limits of this Possible - pushed way out in the mid-60s - are now contracting. King and the Kennedys are gone, Vietnam never ends, Nixon has been elected to roll Civil Rights back. Committed first and last to the classic rad-lib notion that rigorous thinking and precision journalism can seize the times and talk things better, Small Talk foregrounds the first two stages of Agitate, Educate and Organise. Poetry rather than pop, jazz rather than rock, for small rather than mass audiences, time now rather than recorded, displaced, repeatable. (MS)

Pieces Of A Man (Flying Dutchman 1971)
Small Talk fired volleys of radical invective into multiple, prototypical targets - institutionalised racism, hypocrisy on Capitol Hill, the divisive, Black-Not-Black aspirations of the Afro-American bourgeoisie. The word was right and exact - but its constituency was limited by the context (high-rap monologues over distant drums). Pieces unites GSH with Brian Jackson, and brings in Johnny Shaft In Africa Tate to orchestrate backing tracks that meld soul, jazz and funk, to instantly ratchet Gil's outreach towards the Black American underclass - his rightful audience. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is edgy, urgent proto-funk - drawing you into the lyric and a disgusted assault on the Brothers who watch TV while the struggle rages in the streets below. Much of the rest of the album is downbeat - low, mid-tempo Blues framing some of Gil's most trenchant reflections. "Save The Children" insists on political and economic security for future generations, the title track details a personal history of pain and regret that is almost unbearably poignant and "The Prisoner" turns the opening track's direct address into the special pleading of a man crumbling from too many years of ghetto oppression - a harrowing, emotive plateau whose call for communal self-help and awareness remains undiminished. (NW)

Free Will (Flying Dutchman 1972)
High elected politicians had rendered paranoia not merely respectable, but quite literally necessary to understanding a day's headlines ("NIXON BUGS SELF", The New York Post). Reflective soul-jazz dominates the first half of Free Will, the mood flipping swiftly into all-acoustic percussion discussion, Gil rapping out against No Knock and other police crimes against the Black community. Hubert Laws provides this first half with suitably piping, paranoid flute; the set begins hyperactively urgent with "Free Will" itself, groove courtesy Prettie Purdie on drums - when the acoustic personnel take over, the force of the music is greater, but not much. This sense that we're still in the same world, that a music which can quite happily be called 'fusion' can inflect rage and suspicion quite as capably as the most focussed bongo fury, tells all that needs to be told - the Conspiracy Theory of History has never really been alien to any sector of Black cultural production. Fusion was also once a fiercely radical possibility and the point - in "Ain't No New Thing" - where Gil suggests that the next white rock band might as well include Lyndon Johnson for all it means to African Americans, is a sharp rejoinder to the view that musicians like Laws are sell-outs. (MS)

Winter In America (Strata East 1974)
A masterpiece, lyrically, expressively; GSH's shortish list of essential themes are nowhere more definitively explored or better unified. The overpowering melancholy of this set is carried in the soft interplay of the two piano, bass, drums four piece. The sleevenote focuses the cold fury of the words, delivered more in sorrow than anger: more poignant invocations of better times - private space at risk - within the daily struggle ("A Very Precious Time", "Your Daddy Loves You"), of healing tradition ("Rivers Of My Fathers"), of the alien and evil nature of the American city landscape ("Back Home"), of false routes of escape ("The Bottle") - plus the proto-rap classic "H20gate Blues", and GSH's sermon-skill at turning headlines into the building blocks of subtle and devastingly funny political arguments. (MS) [Winter In America is also sometimes titled The Bottle]

The First Minute Of A New Day (Arista 1975)
Minute, on a new label (they were Arista's first signing), seems to represent a shift in mind - away from the apocalyptic prophecies and ghetto polemic inherited from the Nation Of Islam and the Black Panthers. Instead, "Must Be Something", "Guerilla" and "Western Sunrise" reach back to the atmosphere of the 60s Civil Rights struggle. They speak allusively of the Deep South, of proud, beaming faces at lunch-counter sit-ins, hands raised in jubilation and the dream of a better tomorrow in this world (an advance, at least, on the Black Church's Promised Land in the hereafter). But the dream freezes over in the arctic winds that blow through "Winter In America" and during the high-Blues cynicism of "We Beg Your Pardon America". White America would only ever allow Black empowerment so much rope before a noose slipped into view - here the bright optimism of the 60s hardens into recognition of and remonstration against the Nixon administration's murderous assault on the activists and thinkers of Black liberation movements. Welcome to Amerikkka. (NW)

From South Africa To South Carolina (Arista 1975)
"Whatever happened to the protest and the rage/and whatever happened to the voices of the sane/and whatever happened to the talks that gave a damn?/Did that justify dying in the jungles of Vietnam?" In the early 70s, even the most popular Black American music shifted into political gear (pop acts like The Chi-Lites, The O'Jays, The Undisputed Truth, War); shattered by defeats and retreats, the general mode by the mid-70s was frankly escapist. Once again, GSH and BJ manifest most untimely. But even with this in mind, to make music so boldly unforcedly 'jazz' (at a low point in its history, so we're usually told), well, it may feel like mere Keeper of their Artistic Conscience, but it's still remarkably strong in its own right; a world away from the vague universalist platitudes its nearest cousin - pop fusion - offered. Bilal Sunni Ali's "Essex" is the linchpin here, as well as probably the most out thing this team ever tried: freeform intro, mordantly twining vocals, Jackson's darting, flickering flute. "Can you see the things that man has done cannot set you free?" - "Fell Together" may have a weird text for socialists to be expanding on, but its dispersed beat and yearning, yawning holler seem, just like "Essex", to be notes towards a road never taken. (MS)

It's Your World (Arista 1976)
Within an evolving, conscious, self-determining continuum - Afrocentric, politically cognisant, historically correct, forthright and indignant - GSH is the disciple of many traditions: of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez making, in Larry Neal's phrase, "juju with the word on the world"; of the flaming oratory of Malcolm X and H Rap Brown; of Coltrane and Ayler speaking in tongues ancient and cosmic; and of the fundamental Blues of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. In the crucible of It's Your World, these particles of Blackness explode. This is the hour of chaos (or rather, one of many) - Civil Rights is sidelined as America spirals towards the political and economic shut down of a world recession. GSH and BJ respond by steeling their people with sustaining words ("It's Your World"), by summoning inspirational spirits departed ("Trane"), by reinforcing the power of communal celebrations ("17th Street"), and with bitter socio-political satire ("Bicentennial Blues"). Reworked versions of "The Bottle" and "Home Is Where The Hatred Is" preach abstention from alcohol and drugs on political rather than moral grounds - like, if you're out of your head on malt liquor and crack, how you gonna fight the white man when he's down on your back? (NW)

Bridges (Arista 1977)
Bridges is Outernational. It uses the motif of the musician as griot, traveller, visitor - a sensitized artist, self-educator and spiritual communicator. The sleeve notes again speak of revolution: Internal and International. The mutual Blues vibration resonating along a deep Black nerve is summoned across the millennia from its origins in Nubian Egypt. Lyrics call on the Black American to rebond with Africa and its diaspora: "The key to our progress lies with our ability to support alliances between ourselves and Third World people. That support begins here." The word, this 'voice of same', is communicated via louche, liquid R&B out of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. "Delta Man" is the record's outstanding achievement - a Blues slow burning, stretched tight; a tense sonic road movie barely containing its prophecies of the change to come. "It's winter and we are regaining our strength." (NW)

Secrets (Arista 1978)
The rage against escapism (drink, drugs, consensus opinion), and against city life generally makes them seem puritans; no chemicals, no TV, no movies adds up to not much fun, you might conclude. Gil never luxuriates in his voice, that's for sure, and even seems to ration his surreal and witty news-speak raps. Literate intellect overrides expressive passion. Which is an advantage, when the team take on music's New Technology (in the form of engineer Malcolm Cecil and TONTO - The Original New Timbral Orchestra - the studio-sized synthesiser which held Wonder in thrall through the 70s); they use it, and don't let it use them. Secrets is a perfectly respectable record, on their own terms, with much to like about it - the use of synthetic sound for example, every bit as funky, smart and subtle as Wonder's or Gaye's or Kashif's. But it's just not really happening, somehow; it feels soft-centred, losing the words their edge. Although suggesting that the words are as hard as ever maybe hits on another fault: they're so very much the same as ever. (MS)

The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron (Arista 1979)
An out-of-sequence near-retrospective, combining three new poems with a look back to the classic Watergate triptych ("H2OGate Blues", "Bicentennial Blues", We Beg Your Pardon America") After Secrets, the form/context of "The New Deal" and "The Ghetto Code" now sounds archaic, a throwback to the early poetry recitals - intimate, conversational monologues even more cauterised than Small Talk and Free Will of any elements that might detract from the clarity of the message. But the content is compulsively of its moment; the texts reverberating as much through the instant-response, barbed satire as the dynamics of the oratory. "Poem For Jose Campos Torres" lays a synth-wash behind a narrative that, ironically enough, considering his later run-ins, sounds like a manifesto for the no-compromise, hyperventilating fury of the current wave of Black cultural protest: "The battle field has oozed away from the stilted debates of semantics! The reality of our city/jungle streets and their gestapos became an attack on home/life/famiIy/philosophy/total. It is beyond a question of the advantages of didactic niggerisms. The MOTHERFUCKIN' DOGS are in the street." (NW)

1980 (Arista 1980)
If they're in a rut, lyrically and musically, the records of this period (with the exception of the atypical, 70s angled The Mind Of) offer no way out. Looking foolish on the cover, in Star Trek boots and Gary Numan overalls, posing in front of banks of computer technology, GSH and BJ are still working with TONTO. Their worship at the shrine of the small, warm and private, and a unified acoustic space in real time, has worked for them; but it must have begun to seem retro - they want to move on. The need wrongfoots them - the problem they face (the question of the radical possibilities of multitracking and the studio's unreal spaces) will not be solved until Public Enemy. To date, Gil has demonstrated little but contempt for hiphop; and Public Enemy's whirling chaos of rage seems to speak largely to a generation who have no use for or knowledge of his measured literacy. Telling exception: Disposable Heroes Of HipHoprisy. They may only groove in the most draggy, tuneless fashion, but there's urgency as well as careful intelligence in their writing. Their whole thing - good and bad - might be a rap-rewrite of this LP. The Gil glee has gone. (MS)

Real Eyes (Arista 1980)
Their essential period begins with Winter In America and works through to
Bridges. No coincidence that this period also marks the apex of his collaborations with Jackson (the two met in the late 60s at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University) and The Midnight Band. The music forged by Jackson, bassist Danny Bowens, saxophonist Bilal Sunni-AIi, percussionist Barnet Williams and vocalist Victor Brown (the core of the group) gave the raps an immediate cachet, the word carried on waves of Savannah percussion, a slow Blues take on the old-new cosmos then echoing out across Black America from the recordings of Miles, Herbie Hancock and Lonnie Liston Smith. After Bridges, the members of The Midnight Band gradually fell out of the frame. In 1980 Jackson left for New Jersey to work on his own projects. Real Eyes is the first post Jackson recording, and the spirit and muse have obviously been thrown off track by the split. Much of it sounds like outtakes from Stevie Wonder's albums of the period - even words seem to desert him, falling away into disengaged rhetoric or weak personal concerns. (NW)

Reflections (Arista 1981)
Poised on the brink of a decade when he will make almost no new music - his excuse being that he's already said everything needed - GSH's music sounds for this record galvanised back into full life, even if it does once again evade the issues of new forms and technology's encroaching demands (city-modes of communication may be as anathema to him as cities themselves but this doesn't help; most African Americans live in cities; cities are where the Freedom Marches faltered and will have to start anew). Light on its feet, sprung tight in coils of angry energy Reflections opens with ominous broken-winged Stevie Wonder mouth-harp and a reggae-fied beat: "Storm Music" returns, still unfazed, to his favourite revolution-a-comin' metaphor: "Justice is coming on the wings of a storm/We resistin' the present for those yet unborn/A freedom is spreading its wings like a bird/The message it carries has got to be heard." If 'family values' has elsewhere become the noxious cliche of our age, "Grandma's Hands" at least searches out the potential power for good in traditional community being. The tour de force is "B-Movie", his ultimate is-this-for-real? editorial on the early Reagan era. Over relentless circling bass guitar figures, the notion seems to dawn - beyond his usual False Consciousness diagnoses - that only the unreal exists any more: "Nothing but a movie" - there's something very like resignation in his tone. As if to say, it's up to others now. (MS)

Moving Target (Arista 1982)
The penultimate album, but the last one to feature new material. Following the success of "Storm Music", his first major single since 1974's "The Bottle", and the rejuvenation that animated Reflections, this comes as an impoverishing epitaph, one that sells short the preceding two decades. "Fast Lane" accelerates swiftly into proto-Black Rock configurations, but for once the message is obscure and unfocussed. "Blue Collar", "Ready Or Not" and "Explanations" pass by in quiet shadows. Only the lengthy, escalating drama of "Black History/The World", which speaks of the psychic vandalism inflicted on the collective memory of African Americans by generations of Western scholars, suggests that even at this late stage he still remains proactive. On the fade out, the voice rises up one last time imploring its people "We must believe we can change the world". Some would continue to believe this, yes, but in the coming years Gil ceased to move among them. (NW)

Space Shuttle (Castle 12" 1989)
Amnesia Express (Castle 1990)

For GSH, the 1980s were a personal wasteland, a long, dark night of the soul that matched pace with the deepening collective anxieties of African Americans as they watched the Reagan administration slap down Civil Rights and liberties. Throughout the 70s, he had chanted of the day-to-day suffering and spiritual degradation of a people trapped in a racist culture. Now he fell silent. His recording contract with Arista ran out and he became locked in a series of debilitating legal battles with promoters and agents. Isolated from his rightful audience, he suffered the consequences of neglect and indifference. He developed a spiralling drug dependancy (which reached an apotheosis of sorts when he was deported during a 1989 UK tour for possession of cocaine). His occasional European appearances - one is documented on the two hour live set Amnesia Express - revealed a withered spirit. Few new songs emerged. When they did ("Space Shuttle") he saw them sink without trace. As the 80s progressed, a new wave of creative Black artists broke cover - the hiphop generation - signifying heavily on the Blues continuum, but dismissed by Gil as flakey arrivistes. In a recent, unpublished interview, he posed a rhetorical question: after 20 years of personal and public struggle and with prospects of a brighter day for Black Americans so nearer, what more could he do? He'd provided the answer 14 years earlier, on the song "Must Be Something": "Tell you something, tell you something you can do/Keep on moving, keep on moving for what's true." (NW)

In addition to the above, Gil has appeared on three further albums: No Nukes: Musicians For Safe Energy (Asylum 1980) features a live version of "Shut "Em Down"; Sun City: Artists Against Apartheid (Manhattan 1985) features a track called "Let Me See Your ID", unavailable elsewhere and with a guest appearance by Miles Davis; Sunsplash Live (Tuff Gong 1983) has a further take on the nuclear paranoia of "Shut "Em Down" recorded live at the 1983 Reggae Sunsplash. There are also three compilations: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Flying Dutchman 1974, reissued BMG 1989) collects tracks from the first three albums; The Best Of (Arista 1984) is a now deleted selection of the landmark 70s tracks, plus "ReRon", a "B-Movie" follow up and that rare thing, a new song, which was also released as a 12" with a Bill Laswell mix (which Gil subsequently disowned). Glory (BMG/Arista 1990), a companion set to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is a comprehensive if rather idiosyncratic and poorly programmed selection of tracks covering 1974-82.

In Print
GSH began his engagement with creativity as a novelist and poet rather than as a musician; as a teenager in Jackson, Tennessee (he was born in Chicago) he was writing pulp detective stories. His literary direction shifted with his move to Spanish Harlem in the Bronx in the mid-60s, where he began factoring in a vivid socio-political dimension. He followed poet Langston Hughes onto the campus of Lincoln University (where he met Jackson), then took a degree in creative writing at Baltimore before moving on to the University of Columbia (eventually dropping out to pursue less academic callings). To date, his words have appeared across four volumes. The Vulture (World Publishing 1970) and The Nigger Factory (Dial Press 1972) are both novels. Small Talk At 725th & Lenox (World Publishing 1970) is a collection of poetry that provided much of the material for the album of the same name. So Far So Good (Third World Press 1990) reproduces the poems that originally appeared in a booklet that accompanied the 1979 LP The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron.

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