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.
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.