Gil Scott Heron lives - but barely, says the author. "We were close enough to see the unnatural glaze of his eyes, the tremors quaking his hands and legs as he leaned into the keyboard, almost as if for support, croaking several of his hits into the mic." The drug abuse that has punctuated the life of this political/musical icon, seems to be winning the race. At a recent performance, "he looked and sounded more like the frail, eccentric uncle at the family reunion than a genius warrior wordsmith and musical marvel."
Genius Burning Brightly: The Unraveling of Gil Scott-Heron by TaRessa Stovall
This article originally appeared in TheDefendersOnline, a publication of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).
“He seemed to be mocking our enjoyment of his performance, our witnessing his once prodigious gifts now so threadbare and wan.”
The good news: Gil Scott-Heron is alive.
The bad news: Just barely.
This is not a premature eulogy. It is the heartbreak of a lifelong fan suffering the self-destruction of someone whose voice, rhythms and brilliance are such an integral part of my coming-of-age soundtrack that my life story cannot be told without them.
There is nothing new in this tragedy: far too many of the artists who inform and enliven our lives are on collision courses with self-inflicted doom. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
The last time I saw Gil perform live was in 1986. I was helping a producer friend with a Black History Month festival. We snagged Gil for a free concert in the Seattle Center. The crowd of people outside who couldn’t get in was twice the size of the throng breaking the fire codes inside. The warm-up act went into triple overtime waiting for Gil to arrive.
When he finally showed, more than an hour late, he made a beeline into the Ladies’ Room (I don’t think he noticed or cared where he was), took a hit of freebased cocaine and a slug of liquor, then asked me to get him some cigarettes. I told him to get onstage before a riot broke out. He shot me a bemused glance, then strode into the adoring applause and unleashed a more-than-satisfying set of every hit, from “Home is Where the Hatred Is” to “The Bottle” to “Johannesburg” to “Winter in America,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and all the others, for a couple of hours. The crowd went wild.
He always appeared much older; back then, he made 37 look like 50. Still, he was handsome in his gaunt, tortured genius street warrior kind of way. And no matter his habits or proclivities, Gil Scott-Heron’s music has always been artistic, spiritual and emotional bedrock for me, and a guiding light in my writing career.
“His beard and the hair that wasn’t covered were snow white.”
So when a friend e-mailed me a couple weeks ago with tickets to see Gil perform at SOB’s (Sounds of Brazil) nightclub in New York City, it was on. We got there early, snagged seats at the lip of the stage and ate dinner, half-wondering whether he would even show. After all, the last time friends and I had been on our way from Jersey into The City to see Gil in 2007, the gig was canceled at the last minute. It wasn’t until later we learned it was because he’d been arrested. Again.
The concert was billed to start at 8; he came in around that time. I almost didn’t recognize him, since he was wearing a suit, rather than the jeans and sneakers uniform I’d always seen him in before.. He rocked shades, though it was pitch black outside and nightclub-dim inside, and an apple cap covering what may have been a receding hairline or bald spot. His beard and the hair that wasn’t covered were snow white.
It took him nearly another hour to make his way to the stage. His first song was my all-time favorite, the very first ever downloaded onto my iPod — “95 South, (All of the Places We’ve Been)” a melodic ode to the late civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and other giants upon whose shoulders we stand, which says, in part:
Placed on this mountain
With a rare chance to see
Dreams once envisioned by those
Much braver than me …
… It’s their lives that shine on,
Inspire me to climb on
From all of the places we’ve been…
Over the years, many friends and I have shared memories of Gil, our sorrow upon learning of his stints in prison when he should have been schooling the hip hop heads on how to bring political consciousness into their lyrical rants, and our heartbreak at the news that he is HIV-positive.
He was there, in the flesh, performing at SOB’s, but it wasn’t a pretty sight. We were close enough to see the unnatural glaze of his eyes, the tremors quaking his hands and legs as he leaned into the keyboard, almost as if for support, croaking several of his hits into the mic.
“We winced at his pain, glaring naked in the spotlight, and at the death-mask smile he flashed.”
From the start, he was weak and weary, like whiskey watered so far down that only the barest hint of its kick remains. We winced at his pain, glaring naked in the spotlight, and at the death-mask smile he flashed, which made him look like the Grim Reaper. Even as his high was intensified by the thrill of making music, he seemed to be mocking our enjoyment of his performance, our witnessing his once prodigious gifts now so threadbare and wan.
I flashed back to a two-year period in the early 1980s, when, as a twenty-something veteran of the 1960s, I required a hit of Gil’s music to get me out of bed and into my day. He was my morning coffee, the jolt of inspiration I needed just to put one foot in front of the other and take on the world.
Now in his late 50s, he looks 80. Seeing him so broke-down and wobbly, I remembered my mother’s heartbreak when she and her best friends had gone to see Billie Holiday. They were as giddy and expectant as we were going to SOB’s. Mom came home, her face heavy with disappointment. When I asked how Billie was, lamenting that I, a first-grader, hadn’t been old enough to see her myself, Mom shook her head sadly and said, “She’s almost dead. It wasn’t the same. She was high and sick. I don’t think she’ll be around much longer.”
Billie Holiday died soon after.
That’s what I thought of as I watched Gil stumble through his songs, joking about his lapses in memory and his wavering voice, once so powerful, now just a faint shadow of its former self. It appeared as though his spirit was on life support.
“Seeing him so broke-down and wobbly, I remembered my mother’s heartbreak when she and her best friends had gone to see Billie Holiday.”
I recalled the first time I’d heard one of his masterpiece odes to addiction, “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” released in 1972 by Esther Phillips, another brilliantly talented junkie. In typical teen-girl style, I fell dramatically across my bed, mesmerized by the lyrics, hypnotized by the raw anguish of the message and determined to find out who had written this amazing song.
Gil played “Home…” near the end of his recent SOB’s set. Invigorated by the music, he turned it into an improvisational jazz testimony in which he moaned and sang his agony over, under and around the lyrics he’d written as a youth. He jammed with everything he had, telling his story to a crowd so high on his presence that most seemed to miss the message completely. They were in party mode, arms waving in the air.
He spilt his tortured genius for us, raw, uncensored, his eloquent anguish filling the club like a whirling dervish. We drank it in, mainlined it, and those of us who grew up with Gil Scott-Heron, those of us who have lived his lyrics in the context in which they were written, sung and recorded, felt something inside give way and die just a little, with every note, every word, every gesture that he threw our way.
Between songs, he spoke of his children, of a new CD coming soon and a book he is writing to tell the whole story behind the movement to create the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Like the standing-room-only crowd that night at SOB’s; like millions of others around the globe, I would like nothing better than for Gil Scott-Heron to live to a ripe old age, playing and writing and agitating as only he can for many years to come.
I guess it’s possible; Etta James is still alive and performing despite her years of substance abuse. But being in the presence of one of the great minds and talents of our time as he looked and sounded more like the frail, eccentric uncle at the family reunion than a genius warrior wordsmith and musical marvel left me feeling that he may be singing “And it might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again” before his time, the one fragile thread he is hanging on to snapping sooner than any of us would like.
TaRessa Stovall is Managing Editor of TheDefendersOnline and Web Content Manager for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Gil Scott Heron's longtime collaborator Brian Jackson is still making music and can be found on the web at www.brianjackson.net.