Gil Scott-Heron: Musician, writer and political activist whose years lost to drug addiction could not erase his influence
Monday 30 May 2011
Gil Scott-Heron lived a life of two distinct, very different halves.
Up to his mid-thirties, He was a prolific, compelling and important artist. But the second chapter of his life was dogged by creative impotence and a vicious, devastating drug habit.
During that first half, Gil Scott-Heron was a highly articulate, extremely charismatic Afro-American renaissance man. A singer, novelist, musician, lyricist, poet and political activist, he created a classic body of work in a comparatively short space of time. Remembered principally as a recording artist, Gil's career burnt brightly from 1970 up to the early Eighties. During this period he famously created the phrase, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, and wrote a substantial number of righteous soul-jazz masterpieces, including "Lady Day & John Coltrane", "The Bottle" and "Johannesburg". These first inspired the soul generation, then the hip-hop one, whose more socially conscious members dubbed Gil the "Godfather of Rap."
In the dark, distrustful 1970s, Scott-Heron, with his musical partner Brian Jackson, battled to motivate the "Me Generation" with the altruism of someone raised during the "We Generation" of the civil rights 1960s. Although comparisons to both Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield are not inaccurate, Gil's critiques on Watergate, drug addiction, race relations, Vietnam, nuclear power and apartheid, were far sharper, wittier and more explicit than the social appraisals by those two artists. Gil called his recordings "storm music". But the combativeness in certain tracks was often tinged with a sense of hope. Indeed, his apolitical songs, which received less attention, were shot through with sunshine.
Clive Davis, the Arista Records boss who signed Scott-Heron as the label's first black artist in 1974, praised "the incredible power of his poetry," and collaborator Jackson described him as "one of the great black writers of the 20th century". The rapper Mos Def believed Scott-Heron embodied "the elder statesman and the man on the corner at the same time". By 1982, when still only 33, Gil had a CV that included 14 albums (several classics among them), some timeless hit singles, two acclaimed novels and one volume of poetry.
But Gil's subsequent years were a bleak negative of those prolific and positive times. From the mid-1980s onwards, Scott-Heron emerged to his public as a chronic crack cocaine addict. Although he continued to tour – his solitary source of income – he released just one album, Spirits, in 1994, and seemed, both physically and artistically, a shadow of his former, vibrant self. Sometimes he didn't even show up to his own gigs. Arrests and jail time followed.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April Fool's Day in 1949. When asked about the implications of starting his life on that unflattering date, he once joked: "I have my suspicions!" His mother was a librarian, his father a professional footballer from Jamaica who later signed to Celtic where he acquired the soubriquet, the "Black Arrow". When the couple separated, young Gil was sent to live with Grandma Lily in Jackson, Tennessee, where he was one of the first black teenagers to help to integrate a white school – a direct result of the Brown vs Board of Education ruling of 1954. He later said: "It was a revelation. I found out that there were more advantages to go to a better [white] school – smaller classes, better equipment, more books in the library, better circumstances entirely."
Grandma Lily died the night of President Kennedy's election and Gil was reunited with his mother in New York. They lived in fairly impoverished circumstances in the Bronx and Chelsea. But these sometimes tough, social, political and cultural experiences in Chicago, Tennessee and New York City were feeding Gil's creative juices. In the mid-1960s, as well as filtering the civil rights era through his highly perceptive teenage eyes, his buzzing antennae also picked up the writings of Langston Hughes, the Chicago blues, progressive jazz, New York's Black Arts movement – and much more.
It was Hughes, a former student of Lincoln University, who influenced Gil's decision to read English literature there. Here Gil met Jackson and other undergraduates who later played important roles in his musical career. Gil and Jackson helped establish the Black & Blues, a student soul band that jammed at local night spots.
Scott-Heron's debut novel, The Vulture, written during a year off from Lincoln, and a volume of poetry, Small Talk At 125th & Lenox, emerged in 1970. The publisher, World Publishing, was allied to a new progressive jazz label, Flying Dutchman Records. Gil shrewdly presented himself to label boss Bob Thiele, pushing a copy of his poetry book into his hands. The meeting was an absolutely crucial first step in Gil's musical career. Thiele phoned him a few days later, suggesting they record Gil performing his verse. The subsequent album, Small Talk At 125th & Lenox, introduced Scott-Heron as a "New Black Poet". Ricocheting with witty, insightful references to the new Black Power era, the record was a raw mix of conga beats and Gil's proto-raps which he dubbed "survival kits on wax".
Scott-Heron was then allowed to record an album with Brian Jackson. The result, 1971's Pieces of a Man, was a quite different experience from Gil's sparse, heated debut. Fleshed out by a crack team of jazz musicians, with the exception of the incendiary opener, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", the record flowed with reflective soul-jazz numbers. These included "Home Is Where The Hatred Is", one of his first recordings to detail the causes – and subsequent hell – of drug addiction. Gil sang from a junkie's point of view: "Home was once an empty vacuum, that's filled now with my silent screams / Home is where the needle marks, tried to heal my broken heart." After another album, 1972's Free Will, he signed to Strata East. His sole album for the label, 1974's Winter In America, was the first of seven credited to Scott-Heron and Jackson. A classic album of exceptional, tender beauty, it included both his wicked Nixon administration satire, "H20 Gate Blues" and the club hit "The Bottle".
The latter track set record mogul Clive Davis's ears wiggling, and he promptly signed Gil as the first black artist to his new label, Arista. And just as this bigger company gave Scott-Heron substantial artistic freedom and more marketing/promotional clout, so Gil also widened his thematic scope, tackling global issues such as South African apartheid in the hit "Johannesburg" and the dangers of nuclear power in "We Almost Lost Detroit", which he performed at the huge No Nukes shows at Madison Square Garden. The 1978 hit "Angel Dust" was another incisive caveat against hard drugs. Gil was also involved with Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July tour which campaigned to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday.
In the early 1980s, things fell apart. Scott-Heron and Jackson ended their partnership and his marriage to actress Brenda Sykes collapsed. After recording three albums without Jackson – Real Eyes, Moving Target, and the 1981 classic Reflections – Gil clashed with the new proprietors of Arista. Although it's not apparent when he first succumbed to crack cocaine, evidence points to the mid-1980s. Then, over 20 years of sporadic tours and one album, Spirits, speculations and the anxiety of friends were substantiated by arrests and prison sentences.
Jailed in 2001, he was released on parole in 2003, the year BBC TV broadcast the acclaimed Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. During the editing of that film, Gil was arrested for possessing a crack pipe on October 30 2003 and served a further six months at Rikers Island. Then, in July 2006, he was jailed after breaking an earlier plea-deal which had permitted him to be treated at a drug rehabilitation centre rather than return to prison. He claimed he left the centre becausehe was refused medication for his alleged HIV+ status. The centre argued he had once slipped out to perform with the singer Alicia Keys.
After his parole in 2007, Scott-Heron began performing live again, and in 2009 was interviewed on BBC's Newsnight in an item headlined "The Legendary Godfather of Rap Returns". Last year I'm New Here, his first album since 1994, was released on XL Recordings, to huge critical acclaim, followed in February this year by We're New Here, a well-received album of remixes by Jamie Smith of the Mercury Prize-winners The xx. Scott-Heron's artistic rehabilitation was complete.
The affection that his audience felt for him as a person and an artist never faded. He was a warm, sensitive, altruistic and highly complex man whose music, lyrics and poetry will continue to inspire.
Gilbert Scott-Heron, musician and writer: born Chicago 1 April 1949; married Brenda Sykes (marriage dissolved; one daughter); died New York City 27 May 2011.
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