Gil Scott-Heron: And now, for a fascinating and demanding dialogue…
GIL SCOTT-HERON aims to be a catalyst. Not a leader of revolutions, but an insistent elbow in the ribs, nudging people off their fence to bring them a little bit closer to the essence of their problems. He likes that word essence; uses it a lot.
He uses all words a lot. They are his stock in trade. He’s not loud or dramatic, but he’s sure of himself and sure of what needs saying and sure as hell not afraid to say it.
A conversation with Gil is a fascinating if demanding dialogue. Nothing’s thrown away. He’s attentive and analytical of everything you say and waits patiently ’til you’ve said your piece before delivering his verdict. So you bet he’ll take you seriously.
He takes himself seriously too. Or perhaps not himself, that’s too heavy. Shall we say he’s serious about what he says. There’s too much that needs saying to waste words.
When we finished the interview he looked me straight in the eye and told me: “When you play the tape back you’ll find out as much about yourself as about me.” He was right too. I hadn’t realised it at the time but I’d been quietly but firmly lectured.
It was my cynicism that provoked the rebuke. We were coming to the end of several hours of intermittent togetherness when we hit the core of his agony – America. He told it thus:
“America already has the machinery to deal with the problems that I discuss, but The Hundred Families, the two per cent who have most of the money in America, control the political system to make it operate in ways that are beneficial to them and not to the other 98 percent.
“So primarily using the constitution of the United States as the basis of where I’m coming from, which indicates that there should be justice, liberty, and equality for each and every citizen, we try to focus the attention of the people on the inequities that exist within that document.
“The thing we’d most like to do is make America live up to all of its advanced publicity, so that it becomes the democracy and the multi-racial society it has always boasted to the world about.”
Ah, says I, very laudable. But when you oust the two per cent, don’t you think you’ll get another minority from within the 98 per cent that will take control of the cream? Silly question really; I might have known that brick walls are only there to be knocked down by Gil’s perseverance.
“If they’re replaced by others, then the others have to be replaced. You can give up any time you’re ready, but you can’t really give up if you intend things to be better for your children and for the children that you see growing up around you who had absolutely nothing to do with creating the situation as it exists.
“Of course if you care nothing for the children and care nothing for yourself, then you got it made. In some respects I’m sure there’d be people who envy that situation, but I don’t because it’s a very real world and the problems are very real, despite the fact it’s possible to avoid and ignore them.
“So I don’t choose to be anything other than realistic about what needs to be done, and damn the rest.”
Exit one demoralised journalist. Well not really, but at least by then I’d established that the man was not about to be undermined by a little friendly contradiction.
That was midway through an evening that started at London’s Capital Radio and climaxed with a gig at Essex University, Colchester, where with his alter ego Brian Jackson he led The Midnight Band in a set that was far stronger musically than I’d anticipated from his albums.
It was a revelation in fact: little or no indoctrination and plentious groovy sounds. But that comes later. First, back to Capital.
How did Gil’s appearance on The Greg Edwards’ Show sound at your end of the airwaves? Jammed in the studio, hip-to-hip with 10 other bodies, slopping wine all over the control board, and generally creating havoc, it seemed to go over pretty well from our end.
Greg asked some sensible questions, Gil responded thoughtfully without really getting into his stride (no time! no time!), and Brian tootled a phrase or two on his flute. Then it was time to split for the gig.
Packed like sardines into the kind of limousine that’s normally reserved for funerals, me between Brian and Gil like the offending party in Amplex advert, we got into the fax ‘n’ info of his blossoming career.
“So I started out as someone who wrote short stories and aspired to be a novelist. I appreciated the work of Richard Wright and the writers or the Harlem Renaissance that had evolved, because they concentrated on the black experience and of necessity that was my experience.
“Then in the mid-60’s I met the well known poet and essayist Langston Hughes.
“I was in high-school then. I came across a couple of his books and chose him for my senior project. It happened that he was working in Harlem at the time and I was living in New York so I interviewed him and he recommended I attend Lincoln University and research the literature of other black writer/poets. Through his advice I came into contact with a lot more people who gave me a clearer indication of the value of poetry.”
After several terms at the university he was given leave of absence to complete his first novel, The Vulture, while working as a clerk in a dry cleaners.
After graduation he put out a collection of verse called Small Talk At 125th & Lenox and a second novel, The Nigger Factory.
By then he was gigging with Brian, fronting a group that featured a lot of his own material and a vocalist who varied the programme with songs like ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head’ and ‘God Bless The Child’
Through his publishing company he contacted Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman records and cut an album based on his book of verse (with the same title) followed by an L.P. called Pieces Of A Man, which included the statement that made people sit up and take notice – ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.
After a third album, Free Will, Scot-Heron and Jackson switched labels so Strata/East, recording the Winter In America L.P. from which came the disco slanted putdown of alcoholism, ‘The Bottle’, that eventually landed him in the wealthy arms of Clive Davis’s Arista label.
At which point the chronological resume conveniently ground to a halt as both men nodded off on the road to Colchester. Just before we all fell silent to contemplate the night sky of Essex I slung in a question that seemed to demand an obvious answer. In a partnership like theirs, it’s naturally going to be Gil, the man with the words, who creates the message for Brian to put to music. Right? Wrong.
“Brian’s in charge” came came the response.
“Yeah” says Brian. “The music is generally written first although there have recently been some things that Gil has written as poems that I’d definitely like to try and put some musical form to.”
You mean to say, Gil, that although you’re primarily known as a writer, for records you wait until Brian has composed a tune before deciding what subject to write about?
“Well, see, in my conversations with Brian about the structure of the tune I find out key words than unlock the whole puzzle and I add something to it there. Music suggests a certain atmosphere, so I use that as my basis. Brian establishes the mood and I describe the type of things that can exist within that atmosphere. That’s how the two statements come together.”
Noting my surprise he adds, “If it works going home, it’ll work coming back.” With this profundity hanging in the air, we speed on into the night.
Realising instantly that I’m a political moron, he warms up with a more familiar topic: The general lack of recognition for black writers and singers.
“If writers like Hughes and Wright had received the type of exposure their white equivalents received they’d be generally considered just as outstanding, but often times they work in obscurity. They may be known as the best in their area throughout the world but they’re not given the same amount of accolades on the homefront.
“We as black people haven’t had the proper forums to display our art. We’ve had to be dependent on society at large to provide these forums and they’re often more interested to show Elvis Presley than Little Richard, or The Osmonds than The Jacksons.
“It’s consistently been an issue. And going back, the Tommy Dorseys and the Benny Goodmans and the Stan Kentons were hailed as innovators when in actuality you have to look at Count Basie and Duke Ellington as the springboards for that whole feeling that swept America and continues to sweep the world.”
Well all right. Amen. I hear that O.K., which gives me the perfect excuse to drag in my favourite example, James Brown. Especially as Brown, in his gauche way, attempted to counteract the same sort of apathy that Scott-Heron’s working on. It didn’t always work though, did it? I would say that the generation I came through college with only associated James Brown with dance music and didn’t allow his attempt at politics to interfere with their enjoyment.
“You have to be able to perceive things with clarity, in depth as well as superficially. So in terms of James Brown’s political focus and his depth perception, that’s often what’s been questioned. If you’re attempting to get people to think which undoubtedly he was, you have to get your information together otherwise it becomes terribly transparent that you haven’t done your homework.
“So we pride ourselves on doing that too. If people want to check on what we’re talking about we urge them to. We can’t give them all the information, but hopefully what we chose to use as the essence of an issue will inspire them to go out and examine the details.”
“Like the government in America obviously have subjective values about South Africa, so we are only given news from a specific angle. It doesn’t necessarily relate to the fact that, for example, the MPLA was formed in ’56 and has been struggling for 20 years.
“They tell it like the Russians and Cubans just suddenly went over there and gave these people arms last year. The reports ignore the Africans who have been struggling all along against the Portuguese, so you got to take a deeper look at what’s going on to get some sort of realistic balance.
“The facts do exist, clouded though they be. People just need encouraging to research them for themselves.
“WE RECENTLY recorded a song called ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’, inspired by a book of that name by John G. Fuller. You see I found myself in opposition to the expansion of nuclear powerplants and did some research about them. One of the sources was Fuller’s book which explains how incalculably unsafe these things are.
“Using the same title will automatically refer people to this awesome bank of information. It has an incredible amount of data, not technically obscure but specifically clear information about the gigantic risks the country is taking with the fast breeder reactors.
“You see, that it is … in order to maintain a situation like that they have to be infallible, and human beings have proved to be something less than infallible. And when you’re talking about the Detroit area, which is where this accident that he documents took place, you’re talking about the life, health and welfare of three million people.
“You can’t just wash them away as the price of progress because, goddamn, progress doesn’t have to be that expensive. I mean, if it is, then perhaps that isn’t the way we should be progressing. And I’m sure that the people in Detroit whose very lives were at stake had no idea that a country with a reserve of 2,000 years of coal would be placing their lives in jeopardy the way America is.
“I just don’t think it’s right, and I can’t make myself think it’s right no matter what I do, so I have to say something about it.”
Which hardly leaves me any room to tell you what a fine show it was. (It doesn’t leave you any room – Ed)
Shucks. Can’t I just say…
© Cliff White, 1976