Michael Franti was rather direct about Scott-Heron: "He was a genius and a junkie."
I will continue to celebrate (most of) GSH's art while refusing to judge him for his mistakes--I've certainly made plenty of my own, and if any of us claims that we are
completely free of an addiction, we're not telling the truth.
Gil Scott-Heron's remarkable debut album, Small Talk at 125th & Lenox (1970), gave us
"Whitey On the Moon," probably the first bit of overt black consciousness that I heard on the radio; I'm contrasting "Whitey" with more subtle pieces about racial conflict, such as Curtis Mayfield's hits with the Impressions,"Keep on Pushing" and "We're a Winner," which I heard long before GSH but I can hardly say that I understood. Small Talk had its drawbacks, like an obviously homophobic song in addition to GSH's failure to tie racial struggles in America with the women's movement. (Of the latter, GSH was prone to a stereotypical view just as much as the average American.) I'm really not moralizing here; humans evolve, that's all. And in my own sheltered world as a kid, I knew a resounding zero about what was going on in the world when Gil Scott-Heron
But as I was becoming more aware of music and social issues, my pal Mike Ortega lent me classics like GSH & Brian Jackson's Winter In America (1974) and Midnight Band: The First Minute Of a New Day (1975). Mike was well ahead of just about any music fan I knew in college, because he understood that a great message song and a great dance song were not mutually exclusive. I'm referring to "The Bottle" (the Winter In America studio take is the best version), GSH's funky and insightful look at alcoholism.
Gil Scott-Heron became more compassionate and inclusive as he matured as an artist,
which is just about the highest praise I can think of. Pouring over some of the media that has chronicled GSH's life in the days since his passing, there is one glossed-over report after another. But there are a few good ones, led by Peter Jackson's BBC News report. Jackson lists five significant songs by Gil Scott-Heron that at least hint at the immense range of his work--it's telling that GSH's best-known anti-nuclear song is largely ignored in his obituaries. I will repeat Jackson's song notes here (and add a note about what album they were on; most of them have been reissued by TVT Records):
Peter Jackson/BBC News--
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (1970): Gil Scott-Heron's critique of race in the mass media age. (The first recorded version is on Small Talk at 125th & Lenox, and a
re-cut version with a full band and less abrasive lyrics--it's the one usually played on the radio--is on 1971's Pieces Of a Man.)
"Home Is Where the Hatred Is" (1971): Drug addiction and poverty in the U.S.
(From Pieces Of a Man.)
"Johannesburg" (1976): In support of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
(From From South Africa to South Carolina with Brian Jackson.)
"We Almost Lost Detroit" (1977): Concerns over the use of nuclear power. (From
Bridges with Brian Jackson.)
"Message to the Messenger" (1994): Calling on rappers/musicians to use art for positive social change. (From Spirits.)
In a modern day culture lacking a spine, Gil Scott-Heron loomed large with his art and his ability to educate and inspire us. His own personal change and growth helped to affect listeners everywhere and resonated through his finest work. R.I.P.