Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Last Poet

To call Gil Scott-Heron a poet, just as to call him anything else, was to overvalue one part of this unique artist above and beyond another. Gil, who passed away overnight, aged 62, is unequivocally deserving of the term "legend" but I'd also say he's one of those few unique artists who is "sui generis", and his passing means we will not see his like again.

His first writings and music were published and released at the start of the 1970s - he was a young man, 21 as the decade opened - and in the fervent of that decade, the rare talents he showed, as a writer (he was a novelist before he was a musician), singer, poet and performer were eminently necessary. Scott-Heron's place in American culture is hard to quantify from this distance, but what is fascinating is how his stock has always been so high in Britain. I must have first encountered him via his funk classic "The Bottle", but also, in the carcrash of the Reagan administration political rap-funk tracks like "Re-Ron" got played on UK radio. His music was hard to find, yet when he came over to play a tour with his jazz-inflected Amnesia Express, around 1990, myself and a friend headed to Leeds Irish centre to hear a fantastic two and a half hour set, with lengthy improvisations of "Angel Dust", "Winter in July" and others. I saw him several other times, in small venues in Manchester, and each time the set was staggering. In those days, where smoking was allowed indoors, what people was smoking was partly herbal, and you saw the great man through a cloud of it; his languid, but always wonderfully courteous onstage persona, providing a contrast with the tight band and fantastic wordplay.

His return to the recording studio and critical acclaim with last year's "I'm New Here", was again prompted by his British fan-base, and he was always welcomed ecstatically in the UK, particularly those times when he'd had issues with immigration in getting into the country. Its hard to offer a critical summary of an artist who, at times, seemed to be the only radical voice in American music, but whose message was equally inclusive and universal, and whose songs will only grow in stature in the years to come. Everything's he's ever recorded is worth seeking out, even if his back catalogue has only been patchily available over the years; pick up the individual albums if you can, as the compilations available have often downplayed his more political work.

The sign of an artist who has gone beyond his fanbase is when their words get spoken out of context. "The revolution will not be televised," he sang early on, and the phrase has been used and misused ever since, as this most remarkable of writers found the words to describe our contemporary condition even as we looked on it with ignorance and indifference. He will be missed.


BDR said...


Art Durkee said...

"The revolution will not be televised. . . . the revolution will be live."

I agree completely. He was a true original, a cultural influence beyond what people have acknowledged him for, and a brilliant observer of his (our) times.