One of my friends had a very short-lived music blog a few years ago, for which I wrote a few pieces. I totally forgot about it until now, when Gil Scott-Heron came on my Pandora. Here you go:
Paying Reparations on Your Soul: Gil Scott-Heron's Legacy Yesterday and Today
There is no societal narrative for when a talented artist becomes a drug addict and lives out much of his life in this fashion. Hence, people do not know what to do with them. We pity them, we see them as ravaged, defeated, somehow they lost in life. In his new work, "I'm New Here", Heron gives a contextual identity to this person. The poetry of his music has always dealt with a "ghetto pathos", which he embodies emotionally and politically. Addiction and poverty being the main themes of this pathos, much of Heron's music in the 70's gave gravity to the pervasiveness of these problems, as he spoke about them from a position of experience. In his new work, this gravity seems to have morphed into a mischievous yet haunted voice of fate and redemption. Someone who has hit bottom and lets us vicariously peek down the rabbit hole. It is perhaps not a stretch to say that he has languished in the lifestyle he detests the most, and depending on your perspective, may give more or less gravity to past songs in which he preaches against drugs and alcohol. It's chilling, especially for anyone who has experienced substance abuse, psychological problems, or problems adjusting to societal expectation.
A little background for perspective: In the 60's, when Heron was a teenager, he was awarded a full scholarship to attend a progressive NYC prep school. He lived with his mother in Hell's Kitchen- the belly of much crime and poverty. He went on to Lincoln University, the alma mater of Langston Hughes, and was a casual musician until he met a group called The Last Poets (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Poets). They made such an impression, he asked them if he could form a group similar to their own. At this time, he also met Brian Jackson, who became his musical partner on many subsequent albums. Heron made a name for himself in 1969 with his brilliantly satirical, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Revolution_Will_Not_Be_Televised). The cadence of his speech and the fact that he talks over music has led some to give Heron the moniker, Godfather of Rap. A moniker which, according especially to Heron, is incorrect (see Last Poets, above). Regardless, the poignancy of the piece was resolute in a time when the Civil Rights Movement was taking a more militant approach. Heron crystallizes beautifully the irrelevance of white culture in all of it's ridiculous frivolity. It has become an anthem of sorts for the "radical movement" and is still very powerful, even though his references are somewhat dated and obscure. He is perhaps the most celebrated and sampled artist of the hip hop world. Recently found addicted to crack and destitute in the slums (those which are left) of Harlem, Heron has been reclaimed and given voice once more by music producer, Richard Russel.
Heron's work as a whole deftly expresses an existential concern for his own mind, which he reflects against the poverty he's seen around him. He has internalized the black struggle and regurgitates it for the listener in all of it's complication and pain. These are the blues, reconfigured, reimagined, and poignantly resonant even though the majority of his work is over 40 years old. The Bottle (on both Winter In America- his most critically acclaimed album and It's Your World) has it's obvious meaning, but also describes the isolation of living in a place which you created for yourself which you can never escape. There is a great desire to escape, but the feeling that escape is perhaps impossible. In Home Is Where The Hatred Is, Heron assumes the listener is someone who has never experienced heroin addiction, and challenges them to learn how difficult it is to simply, "kick it". He is viscerally self negating, in a way which humanizes him and reflects a psychological rut which is exemplary of ghetto life. Compare these lyrics to a contemporary, Stevie Wonder, who is a sort of gilded angel, someone who cries, "Why do things have to be this way", from a position of sympathetic detachment. Heron is empathetic, in a way which Stevie cannot be. Heron embodies impoverished existence, Stevie is more diplomatic, knowing in true Motown fashion, where his bread is buttered. Meaning, Stevie would never suggest that the problems of the African American community might be the result of white privilege or even a self-perpetuated defeatedness, which Heron suggests throughout his work.
Heron is a poet, and as a poet, he is able to tap into a collective resonance even with the simplest of sentiments. His new song: "I'm New Here", echoes his original spoken word style. It is redemptive and hopeful. He is "new" in the sense perhaps that he is new to sobriety, new to society, feels back in the world again after so many years of jail and drug addiction. It's like he's a patient waking from a coma. He acknowledges, "no matter how far you've gone, you can always turn around." It is happy, in the video he's smiling, he looks dead-on at the camera. Challenging people to define him, for people to tell him he is lost or ravaged, or finished. Scott-Heron believes that spirits control the life trajectory of humans, and are therefore a common character in his work. In direct contrast to the hopefulness of "I'm New Here", "Your Soul and Mine" is a dream-like descent into the bowels of Hades. The gravity of his imagery is much heavier than before, as he now has years of experience which have fortified his voice and his ideas. There is a raspiness and an aged dusty quality which is in stark contrast to the vigorous, nuanced croon of his old work. It's different from his older work, but wonderful. Just in a different way.
The best songs on the album are the ones which have minimal accompaniment. "I'm New Here" is simple, employing a catchy acoustic guitar behind his words. I also really like, "New York Is Killing Me", which is Heron singing above rhythmic clapping you might hear on a playground. In a world-weary tone he groans, "Buncha doctor's come around, they don't know that New York is killing me. I need to go home and take it slow down in Jackson, Tennessee." That said, it is a bit disappointing that the sound surrounding his voice on the song, "Me and The Devil" and "Where Did The Night Go", are marked by an overly precious banality. Almost every routine hip hop sound and distortion is employed, short of Autotune. It is clear that the perpetrators of this background fluff are great admirers, but perhaps that is the problem. It may be a function of fanboy-itis: When you work with a fellow artist from a position of worship rather than colleague-ship, the results are bound to reflect this imbalance.
Videos to "I'm New Here" and "Me and The Devil" are also hamfisted in their visual narration- they almost seem like a parody of what Heron is trying to say. In "I'm New Here", I find myself alternately fascinated by his expressions and put-off by the overly calculated way in which Heron as a subject is treated. It is supposed to be a document of Gil in the studio, but instead comes off like an Eric Clapton video from 1992. "Me and The Devil" is quintessentially and hipsterifically soooo "NY" in a way which perhaps on the surface gives him more of a cheesy modern feel. Regardless, it seems more like Queer Eye for The Straight Guy coming into his home and repainting his walls to match the sofa. If you can ignore these piddling annoyances, and focus on his voice and the poetry, "I'm New Here" may redeem your soul.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8VOKhRr0eg&feature=related - "I'm New Here"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiuorrXsngM - "New York Is Killing Me"
This is my favorite of all (juxtapose it against Livin For The City, which is interesting):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdhoX1Xu6ZI - "The Bottle" video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSRyf5G2uI8 - "Livin for the City" video Motown time capsule
The live version of We Almost Lost Detroit from a concert in 1990- 10 years before his jail stint (I like that he gets up at the end and just starts bopping up and down):