One of the most memorable gigs that I have ever been to was Gil Scott-Heron at the Brixton Academy. Drinks, drugs and prison had ravaged both body and voice. But he could mesmerize like few others. He possessed a sharp, sardonic wit, an emotional palette of exceptional richness, and an ability to allow your spirit to take flight. He was undefinable, unique, inspirational.
And nothing, perhaps, better expresses those qualities, and his attitude to life and to politics, than the lyrics of the song that came to define him, ‘The Revolution Will not be Televised’:
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised…
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom,
a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution will not be televised,
Will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.
Gil Scott-Heron was all too often and lazily dubbed the ‘grandfather of rap’, a label he himself fiercely rejected. ‘I don’t know if I can take the blame for it’, he once acidly told an interviewer. He was equally lazily called ‘the voice of black culture’. He was no more just the voice of black culture than Bob Dylan was the voice of white culture. He was, like Dylan himself, one of the most important voices of contemporary culture. Full stop.
A fine tribute. I’d never heard his wonderful version of Inner City Blues. Thank you for that. Like you, I have always felt the ‘grandfather of rap’ thing did him no favours. Sure he rapped, but so did Bob Dylan and. GSH was too politically complicated and subtle and conflicted and dark and confused, and musically he was all over the place. For me he was above all a jazz man and soul singer – my first love was Lady Day and John Coltrane:
Ever feel that somehow, somewhere you lost your way?
And if you don’t get help
You won’t make it through the day
Could you call on Lady Day?
Could you call on John Coltrane?
Now ‘cause they’ll wash your troubles,
Your troubles away
The way he played his cards, we were lucky to have him with us for so many years. Extraordinary and beautiful that he had such a blazing late flourish with I’m New Here.
I agree about I’m New Here. Late flourishes are all too often damp squibs. Not this time.