However ravaged by addiction his body may have been, Gil Scott-Heron was a remarkably handsome man until the end. He always was, even with his slightly gawky, lanky frame. It’s all about that light smirk, that crease of his lip that could frown into a “I’m serious as cancer” gaze on the cover of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised but most of time, was more playful, what should rightfully be called “swagger” instead of the ridiculous posturing that tries to pass for it these days.
Maybe it’s because that Manning Marable book came out so recently – and a sad reminder of another life too soon gone – but listening and thinking on GSH brings to mind what Ossie Davis famously said, eulogizing Malcolm X: “[he was] our living, black, manhood.” There’s something in GSH’s posture – and I mean that both literally and figuratively – that seems made of the same quality: resolute, steadfast and unyielding (except perhaps to his own demons).
I don’t mean to conflate the two men but like many in “my generation” I discovered both of them around the same time in the 1990s as part of a rediscovery moment in Black popular culture of the time. Both men were mesmerizing to listen to, with voices that cut through the fog of uncertainty and the complacency. Doesn’t mean they were above contradiction and certainly not ambivalence. GSH, in particular,seemed to find creative revelry in his life’s turbulence. But their voices were these glorious instruments that demanded attention and rewarded you in kind.
I have no desire to rap rhapsodic on GSH’s legacy, not the least of which is that other folks have done so far better. Greg Tate, who is always clutch in moments like these, said practically anything I could/might have said and more in his Village Voice eulogy. I especially love this part of his opening since it completely speaks to my frustrations to how GSH has been framed by so many in the media:
Gil knew he wasn’t bigger than hip-hop—he knew he was just better. Like Jimi was better than heavy metal, Coltrane better than bebop, Malcolm better than the Nation of Islam, Marley better than the King James Bible.
Instead, I want to talk more about that voice for a moment.
Even I forget how good a singer GSH was. I partially blame that on the success of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It’s rightfully one of his most famous pieces but if it’s all that many know of him, they’d get the idea that GSH was a poet in the vein of the Last Poets, Watts Prophets or Amiri Baraka but while he may have been contemporaries with all of them, GSH’s power wasn’t merely in the incisiveness of his words or power of his delivery. It was that baritone, so distinctive in its quiet but authoritative growl and the way he rolled notes off that rumbling bottom end. He wasn’t as smoked out as Rakim or as gritty as Otis Redding but GSH always sounded…mournful, haunted by a melancholy that I can’t shake, long after the song ends.
It helped that GSH’s undersung musical partner – Brian Jackson – brought so much to the plate. Imagining Heron’s words without Jackson’s gorgeous arrangements is impossible (even if the latter’s contributions are often overlooked). It simply needed to be said.
In any case, you put all that together – Jackson’s music, Scott-Heron’s words and voice – and these recordings practically tower over anything you could compare them too. I mean absolutely no disrespect here but, for example, even though Melvin Van Peebles will probably never get as much credit as he deserves as a visionary, one can only take his voice for so long. Eugene McDaniels is closer to the mark though his songwriting was often superior to his actual singing.
Let me stop telling and simply show you what I’m talking about:
This is probably the BJ/GSH song I come back to the most. Even though the title makes you think of Horace Silver, the vibe is closer, in my opinion, to Oliver Nelson and I find it to be a song that’s impossible to shake once you’ve heard it, especially when GSH gets to the line, “rivers of my fathers/carry me home.” For obvious reasons, it’s a line that I think of often in these days. 1
Jackson isn’t credited but this is his first collabo with GSH and this song is one of the most remarkable tracks of their partnership. GSH isn’t so dulcet here – instead, his voice interrogates, pushes and needles. It’s weird – it’s an easy song to listen to from the middle distance…until you actually pay attention to what he’s saying. (I’m, of course, equally partial to Esther Phillips’s devastating cover).
This song predates the Jackson collaboration but with the piano accompaniment, it predicts that future sound and even on this, GSH’s earliest recording, you could already get a sense of the kind of vocal presence he’d impart throughout his life. 2
I could go on but those who know…know. And if this is new to you, take it as an opportunity to explore further. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself haunted as well.
- As I’ve stressed, this whole album is aces. ↩
- Notably, listening to this made me think of another song by the same name (not a cover), recorded nearly 10 years later by Labi Siffre who is one of the very few people I’d say was in a similar league as GSH in terms of a socially-inspired songwriter and distinctive singer. ↩