Winter in America: A Musical Lamentation Offered on the Passing of Gil Scott-Heron

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Gil Scott-Heron died on May 27, at age 62. As I write this, there’s no official cause of death. We’ll know soon enough. This is America, after all. Whatever the medical details suggest, I’m listing his official cause of death as grief.

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This isn’t his obituary. An obituary would require me to cite his accomplishments and transgressions, to refer to him as Mr. Scott-Heron, to traffic in the bogus gravitas that we use to commemorate the dead in print. The entire formula feels completely fucked up and wrong.

If you want to know who Gil Scott-Heron was and why he mattered to me more than any other artist on earth, check this out:

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I first heard Gil back in 1984, when my uncle Pete gave me his Best of album as a high school graduation gift.

I had no idea what to make of the record at first. It did not sound like “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama. Nor did it sound like “Shark Attack” by Split Enz. The arrangements baffled me. Was this Latin music? Funk? And what of the strange instruments (flute? timbale?). Gil sang beautifully – when he chose to sing. But more often he delivered the words in a sly chant that confused and enthralled me.

It’s the reason we become enamored of certain singers, I think, because they project the voice we wish to summon within ourselves. His was a masterpiece: deep, resonant, slightly muddied by the South, learned but playful. “The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia,” he explained, in the track “B-Movie.”

They want to go back as far as they can even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment.… someone always came to save America at the last moment, especially in B movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan. And it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at like a B movie.

I’d never heard anyone explain, in language so simple and persuasive, the phony messianism of the Reagan Revolution.

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Gil was was often hailed as the “Godfather of hip-hop.” It would be more accurate to say that he invented rap. He was the first person to fuse the tradition of the street preacher with that of the soul singer. In 1971, Gil released what remains his most famous song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang would not be released for another decade.

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But this isn’t something we need to argue about, who invented what. It’s a kind of pointless critical dick measuring that gets us no closer to the art.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is frequently mischaracterized as a song about Black Power. It is a song about the tranquilizing effects of screen addiction, about how our compulsion to sit back and watch keeps us from taking action.

It was written more than forty years ago.

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Actually, GS-H explains the song more eloquently than I  can.

That’s who died on May 27. That guy.

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More than any single issue, Gil’s essential topic was America, how the nation had fallen away from its moral precepts and into ruin, a condition of spiritual malaise that would eventually deliver us the bigotry and psychotic greed of the Bush Era.

If this makes Gil Scott-Heron sound didactic, the fault is mine, for it is the unique talent of the prophet to convert rage into poetry. Gil did so by creating a musical lexicon that ranged from Marvin Gaye to John Coltrane, from James Brown to Tito Puente. “Shut ’Em Down” may have been about nuclear power plants, but it was also a joyous hymn, complete with horn charts and gospel singers. “The Bottle” managed to turn the ravages of addiction into a salsa party.

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I saw Gil in concert years ago, flying from Miami to Washington, D.C., for the chance. It would have been impossible for him to live up to my hopes. Like any disciple, I expected an ascension. Why not? The club was small and we had good seats.

But Gil.

Gil was a wreck, a muttering wreck, jittery, coked up, or tweaked out on some other cruel amphetamine. He looked skeletal. He couldn’t remember the words to his songs and so resorted to vamping. Between songs, he delivered semi-coherent soliloquies in which the essential topic was his own desolation.

I was devastated. I was devastated because I have a birth defect, or possibly some other kind of defect, wherein I expect my musical heroes to shower the air with lilies of patience and wisdom. It didn’t occur to me at the time that prophecy – a heightened sensitivity to our moral lapses, a compulsion to declaim – might arise from internal distress. Certainly not in the case of Gil, whose precision as an observer of American folly was the equal of Twain, and who enjoyed the refuge of music.

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What I had failed to discern (forgive me, I was still in my twenties) was that true prophets are cursed. They wind up stoned to death. Or alone in the desert, naked and howling. We might take as proof the fact that none of Gil’s albums reside in Rolling Stone’s Top 500. Such lists are reserved for the true artists of our age, the Def Leppards and TLCs. Gil has become a curious relic, the original uppity rhyming nigger, though he has no more to do with the contemporary hip-hop stars who sample his tracks than Isaiah did with the idolaters of Judah. He preached – with a great and useless eloquence – against the delusions of materialism and violence.

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Gil himself became a spectral presence, arrested on drug charges, imprisoned for ten months on Rikers Island. An old girlfriend of his (or a woman claiming to be) described him as a crack addict living amid squalor, claims he denied. It was hard to know what to believe.

Still, I find myself wanting to defend the guy’s honor. The prophet is an idealist unable to silence his disappointment, who lashes out at the world’s demons at the risk of awakening his own.

His fate certainly came as no surprise to me. It was clear from the moment I set eyes on him in that club. The years had ravaged his face. His long body flicked like a sparrow’s. Time and again he looked in sorrow at a snifter of cognac, which trembled on his keyboard. And when he sang, his voice – once a magnificent gravelly croon – sounded torn.

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You can find more of Steve Almond’s musings about music in his book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →