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Gil Scott-Heron R.I.P

May 28, 2011

The legends are falling fast.

I woke up this morning to the news that Gil Scott-Heron had died in New York at the age of 62. He was a poet, singer, musician and author, known for such tracks as The Bottle, The revolution Will Not Be Televised, Lady Day And John Coltrane and Pieces Of A Man. He’s often credited as the ‘Godfather of Rap’, telling stories about life on the streets that would not had been heard or seen on mainstream media. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised in particular criticized television and mass consumerism for an anesthetized nation, ensuring the experiences of the disaffected whether by race or other groups would not be heard. It’s a song I would say is just as relevant today in these austere times – X Factor, and other ‘reality’ shows, I’m talking about you. In his spoken word and music he was eloquent in his anger, but could also be tender and moving, with a great voice that was mellifluous with a hint of an edge. He was also a troubled man, fighting addictions and having repeated spells in jail. I do sometimes wonder if greatness can only be achieved through having troubled or difficult lives.

Portrait of Gil Scott-Heron

I was introduced to the music of Gil through one of my brothers. We would swap our music like trading cards, which made us very catholic in our tastes. The album was called Moving Target, released in 1982. It’s Jazz based and I found it very exciting. The back cover, for reasons I cannot explain, sent shivers down the spine. Look at it – that man meant business! It looks piddling here, but the impact is much bigger on 12 inches of vinyl album cover – trust me.

Back of CD cover for Gil Scott-Heron's album called 'Moving Target'

My mate Ola, whose ability to find quality gigs is unparalleled, managed to get tickets for Gil who was to play at The South Bank last year. The Icelandic volcanic ash put paid to that one, though, as we found out when we arrived in feverish anticipation. I had never seen him live and was gutted to find that Mother Nature had thwarted us in our mission. We went to a restaurant instead, so it was still a nice evening, but we were smarting at an opportunity lost. And now our chance has going forever. I’ll never see him live, but will continue to enjoy his music. Perhaps I’ll give his final album a listen, his first release in 15 years called I’m New Here, as well as dig into the old stuff. Here’s a video of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Thanks, YouTube. Thanks Gil Scott-Heron. Rest in peace, brother.

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10 comments

  1. So sad. One of the most intelligent men of the music world – a poet, a philosopher, an activist. Thanks for that back cover reminder, you don’t see backs of albums in these download days.


    • No, you don’t. Album covers are so last century, but it was one of the things that made buying music exciting. Thankfully, regardless of whether we see a great cover to compliment the track or not, good music and genuine talent rises to the top and stays there. Gil Scott-Heron can be counted in that group.


  2. He was indeed a great poet, and one of those who influenced my abhorrence of politics. Thanks for your tribute, Pie. Here’s a live clip in return:


    • Mikey, that was amazing. This could be played in 20 years time and it would still be relevant, sadly. He and Bill Hicks could’ve been brothers in arms. I imagine they’d be stirring things up wherever their energy has now gone to.

      Now, if a Bill Hicks routine was set to music…


  3. I’ve always liked Gil Scott-Heron, but didn’t know much about him until he died. Thanks for sharing your memories.


    • You’re welcome! The tributes have been trickling in through various media for the past fortnight. I’m discovering new stuff about him at least once every couple of days.

      A friend told me about a gig he went to, here in London, last week. A man called Chris Cunningham who has made the most stunning, disturbing and brilliant videos for such people as Aphex Twin, Bjork and Portishead, is also a DJ and plays around the world with his work featuring on three massive screens. Anyway, my friend mentioned Gil Scott-Heron, as a track from his final album was played at this gig, accompanied by a film created specially for it. I watched it on YouTube last night and although it doesn’t give you the full majesty of that moment because it’s on a small screen, it still gave me goosebumps. Here’s the link if you want to have a look for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adq_e_NSzQ8


  4. It’s sad to think how shallow and superficical today’s “music” is. Apart from their messages just about sex and material possessions, when are we going to get back to when musicians were actually talented and not 80% digitally fixed?


    • I think the way to find ‘real’ musicians and not autotuned cuties is to scour t’internet and find live gigs. You and I could be watching future stars in some pub round the corner. The best musicians, in my humble opinion, usually eschew the trappings of fame and go for quality. They may have the odd hit here and there as Gil did, but they stay true to themselves and therefore the strength of their talent remains.


  5. This is such a lovely tribute to a talented and honest man. The flute background to The Revolution always gives me goosebumps on top of the goosebumps that always come whenever I play this track. I went lumpy in the throat and sort of cried when I heard he died.


    • It was truly shocking, wasn’t it? You could say that given the problems he had, it was only a matter of time, but it was upsetting all the same.

      The flute has a nice flow to it. The juxtaposition of the smooth jazz vibes with the urgency of his polemic makes for a heady mix. The message then is as relevant now. Perhaps our children’s children will eventually experience true equality across the board and be able to see the song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as an interesting part of 20th century history.



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