Gil Scott Heron died on the weekend.
I first heard his music thirty years ago when Ronald Reagan was the fresh new face in the White House. I was young and my musical tastes were still pretty narrow. When I saw the album cover I wasn’t impressed. “Never heard of him, must not be much good,” I said to myself.
Then they started to play B-Movie, this long history lesson-cum war chant against Ronald Ray-gun and I grabbed the album to study the information on that man who was responsible for telling the world what we all felt but in our immaturity were unable articulate. When B-Movie ended they flipped the record and the house warmed to the sound of Is that Jazz? and Gun. Excuse the lame pun, but I was blown away.
Since that wintry day Gil Scott Heron has always figured high on my ‘favorites’. I bought his albums, read his poetry and even wrote to him in jail when he was a low point in his life and career. And I am not taken to dashing missives off to my ‘heroes’ with regularity. Indeed, that letter to GSH is the only time I’ve done such a thing. Why? Because I truly believe in his vision and his music. And I felt it was the least I could do, as his music had been like a counsel and guide to me through many hardships in life. His vision is honest, unadulterated, real, unidealistic but absolutely optimistic. And his music is funky, classy, bluesy, jazzy and ultimately uncategorisable.
I’ll not repeat what the net is buzzing with in regard to his life story. You can find any dozen of places to read up on that.
I just want to share with you, in honor of his memory, two of my favorite GSH albums (indeed just favorite albums period). Reflections which despite being 30 years old is still relevant. Ray-gun and Skippy may be ancient history but the White House is still the same, with all due respect for current resident. And with the recent attempted assassination of yet another politician in Tucson, Gun will remain eternally powerful and relevant.
Spirits from 1994 is more jazzy and hip hoppy and I love the authority with which he raps with the listeners, including himself. He is brutally honest about his community, his vision and his own struggles that have more often than not ended in failure and despair. And yet, as always, one ends the record full of hope. Work for Peace one of his inimitable political raps is still immensely relevant with mention of Libya, Gadafi and the American military industrial complex!
As I listen again to this wonderful music I’m reminded that one of the strongest resonances is his constant theme of ‘home’. Home is where the Hatred Is, The Bottle, Grandma’s Hand, On Coming from a Broken Home and Back Home are just some of the songs that overtly refer to that place where you can find safety, love, the warm feminine, hope and healing. The entire album Spirits is a cry for home. For a young lonely boy raised in a boarding school where home (in all its meanings and manifestations) was always just out of reach, this was music that spoke to my soul.
Farewell Gil. Thanks for everything.
01. Storm Music
02. Grandma's Hands
03. Is That Jazz?
04. Morning Thoughts
05. Inner City Blues (The Siege of New Orleans)
07. B Movie
01. Message to the Messengers
03. Giver Her a Call
04. Lady's Song
05. Spirits Past
06. The Other Side Pt. 1
07. The Other Side Pt. 2
08. The Other Side Pt. 3
09. Work for Peace
10. Work for Peace