More on Scott-Heron — artist in the American tradition

I turned to the recordings of Gil Scott-Heron after writing that he should have and did known better than to abuse drugs as he did, leading to his decline and demise. They make me ever more impressed with his scope and intensity, in both long ago and recent work. His 2010 recording “Me and the Devil” fully justifies the black and white zombie pulp of the video by Coodie and Chike that accompanies it. It’s a horror song of a burned out, psychotic soul, a new link in an American tradition running from Edgar Allan Poe through Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf to Jim Thompson, George Romero and Martin Scorsese.


Scott-Heron’s reading of “Where Did the Night Go” is utterly convincing, abrim with a junkie’s rueful but self-justifying, fatalistic bewilderment. The singer-songwriter knows exactly what he’s done to himself: “I did not become someone different/That I did not want to be” is how he the opens his final album, I’m New Here. More’s the pity. He represents a vision as bleak as any in Burroughs, Jerzy Kosinksi, Cormac McCarthy, but from the streets of Harlem and by extension the south side of Chicago, Detroit, Watts, New Orleans, post-industrial America. It’s as if Johnny Cash had bottomed out on Skid Row, or Elvis had gone to seed as a tweaker in a trailer camp, but blacker in every sense of the word.

Revisiting Scott-Heron’s message proves he was more unflinching and highly charged than Marvin Gaye in “What’s Going On?”, the Temptations circa “Ball of Confusion,” Curtis Mayfield in “Freddie’s Dead,” and the few other ’70s musicians who dared to sing of the devastation of black urban working-class America. Most other black artists (one exception: Nina Simone) seemed then to romanticize conditions that social scientists and politicians such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan construed as social problems (i.e. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Diana Ross and the Supreme’s “Love Child”).   

Neither Stevie Wonder nor James Brown sang of hopelessness like Gil Scott-Heron (maybe Ray Charles did). Not Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Clash, Springsteen or anyone else, any race, sang about the inner city in that rough, tough ’70s hangover to the ’60s cultural revolution, the Viet Nam defeat, Nixon’s betrayal of democracy. In retrospect, one can see Scott-Heron was born of backwood blues and grim folk ballads which he married to ironically groovin’ smooth jazz. His is an ultra-American troubadorism, with precedents in Simone, Oscar Brown Jr., Wilson Pickett and arguably Jimi Hendrix (what bold, bad, self-absorbed cool even when confessing to confusion). 

GS-H had more than one incisive hit: “The Bottle.” “Angle Dust” (refrain: “Down some dead end streets there ain’t no turning back,” while girls coo the title), “Winter in America” (there’s some trenchant social analysis), “Johannesburg” (a virtual call-to-arms). Hear Esther Phillips sing his “Home Is Were the Hatred Is.” How can such terrible stories be the stuff of great songs? Was “Strange Fruit” among Scott-Heron’s touchstones? How about “Hellhounds On My Trail”?

For all the immediacy of his imagery and obvious empathy with his subjects, Scott-Heron uttered his snapshot lyrics in an ice-dry growl, seldom full-throated, sarcasm at the ready, vulnerability to flash for charm, like in his “I’m New Here” performance. Not to come down on the poet for his frailties without appreciating his gifts and acknowledging his complexities: At his end Gil Scott-Heron speaks for the American faith in the possibilities of redemption and reclamation: “You can always turn around . . .and come full circle,” he says so touchingly in “I’m New Here.” Maybe he had to go to hell to report back and issue urgent warnings. Those fires have their lures. Rest in peace, man. Thanks for the life, the fearlessness you embodied, and finally your unique honesty. You gave us lots to contemplate, though we shudder at the thought.
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  1. David Sampson says

    A fine post and a worthy reconsideration.
    That GSH fell to symptoms of the social evils that he excoriated is a matter of deep sorrow. When I saw him perform in Australia it was tragically clear that his abilities to do justice to his great talents had succumbed to drug problems (coincidentally, Nina Simone was also one of the rare African-American greats to visit Australia whose personal problems prevented them from doing justice to their genius). But GSH’s honesty and talents did not permit deflection or hypocrisy(listen to “Brother” and his take on macho black posturing).
    A truly great jazz poet, witty, biting, lyrical and funny: may he rest in peace and may we remember him with gratitude, charity and love.

  2. says

    A fitting portrait of a complex situation. Battling symptoms with his talent. The fight goes on. And though it’s wretched to see, there remains the jewels of his gift.