A time capsule from the summer of 1974:
Chords from an electric piano order a loping groove, colored by not one but two chekeres in the rhythm section. On top, a saxophone with one foot in ‘60s soul jazz and the other in ‘60s free jazz articulates a counter-riff to the song’s melody, then spins that riff into his solo. The tune itself is something of a blues, not so much in a 12-bar structure or a classic progression, but in a melody that hints at the familiar blues device of changing keys building internal tension within each verse, to be resolved by the final lyric.
And the lyrics themselves have a hint of blues to them; not in any run-down, my-baby-left-me feeling, but as in a life lesson learned the hard way, and being shared for the benefit of whomever’s passing by (even if it sounds like the singer has someone specific, or some specific attitude, in mind). “You have understood the riddles of the ages,” the song begins, “you have understood the universal nine”. In each of the three verses, the singer begins by praising his subject’s intelligence, compassion and vision. Yet and still, albeit without giving any development at all to the notion, he comes back to one eternal question:
“So why can’t you understand / that there ain’t no such thing as Superman?”
The song becomes a tribute to the power of the intellect, and the active choice of using facts, not fictions, to drive one’s behavior. This is especially so when it comes to making progressive change, a fact carried home in the final verse (“you alone have the wisdom to take this world and make it what it needs to be, got to be, will be”). Superman is shorthand here, not for comic-book superheroes or pop culture creations but the entire category of the non-real, the things not based in the here-and-now. When you know so much, the singer gently scolds, when you so clearly see what needs to be done, why are you wasting your time succumbing to the folly of myths?
But finally, it becomes about the singer: that singular voice, a baritone dripping with honey, clear and vigorous. It’s informed by the long linage of black male truth-telling-in-song from Charley Patton to Curtis Mayfield. It’s rooted in prophetic black culture’s twin founts of the pulpit and the soapbox – the church for its sustenance towards the eternal, the street for its insistence on the immediate. He sounds like the wise uncle you’ve known for years, a sage at only 25. His cleverness, and amply evident love for his audience, make even a heady message like this one (which others might have rendered as a heavy-handed philosophy treatise) go down as smooth as an after-dinner cordial, garnished with African drums.
This is Gil Scott-Heron, along with his partner-in crime Brian Jackson and their Midnight Band, performing “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman”, from The First Minute of a New Day, their first album for a new label, Arista, after previous releases on small indie jazz labels. It carries the freshness of a band finding its voice, and features many tunes that would become cornerstones of Scott-Heron’s catalogue.
But back in the summer of 1974, Scott-Heron was still a relatively unknown quantity to most of the black pop world. His classic poem-turned-song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971), was already fading from view, along with the turbulent era that spawned it. And the years of his greatest visibility on the scene were yet to come. At this moment, his music was still an underground thing, its followers small in number but passionate about this young brotha keeping alive the flames of righteous movement art.
No one at the time had much of a sense that nearly 30 years later, after Scott-Heron’s improbable success and even more improbable failures, at the end of a career and life filled with both achievement and despair, they might be the people he was signing about on “Superman”.
And they probably had even less of a sense that Scott-Heron himself might be that Superman.
On one (and only one) album, Marvin Gaye gave sublime voice to the black anguish and struggle of the late ‘60s and early‘70s; the rest of his oeuvre is mostly about women, sex and his demons. Donny Hathaway wrote and sang some stirring anthems for that fervent time, but his own personal issues helped cut short his life. The social justice contributions of Mayfield and Stevie Wonder go without saying, but they were also masters of more traditional pop fare for dancin’ and romancin’.
By contrast, Scott-Heron is alone among black pop artists of the ‘70s in being known primarily as a singer of truth to power. He spoke out against apartheid years before it became fashionable (“Johannesburg” 1975). He warned us about the dangers of nuclear power (“Shut ‘Em Down”, 1980). He sounded off about a Ronald Reagan presidency, not once but twice (“B-Movie”, 1981 and “Re-Ron”, 1984). Time and again, he held America to task for its hypocrisy on matters of justice and race, and he did so with humor, love and funk.
He never sold a truckload of records, but he recorded prolifically well into the ‘80s (even after the Midnight Band dissolved around the turn of the decade). And then, his moment passed. Politically-minded R&B and jazz had fallen out of favor. Hip-hop, the new sound of the urban streets, carried political implications of a sort by its very existence, but actual political content was scarce during its embryonic years. And Scott-Heron himself…vanished, not unlike a pop star whose hit-making days were over.
He didn’t go on the oldies circuit. He didn’t soldier on as a left-wing cultural institution like Sweet Honey in the Rock. He put out exactly one CD in the ‘90s (Spirits, 1994). Some of his early albums were reissued and “Revolution” made its way to scads of compilations, but most of his work remained (and is still) out of print from American labels. There would be a rumor of a resurfacing from time to time, a show here or there. But nothing more would come: our heroic black sage had gone not just silent, but MIA.
In time, we found out where he’d been: on drugs, in tatters, in jail. It seemed not just tragic, but incongruous. Here was one of our strongest voices, a man who sang forcefully about the dangers of chemical addiction not once but twice (“The Bottle”, 1973 and “Angel Dust”, 1978). Here was someone who, we just knew, would be stronger and wiser than the others. He’d see through the traps, because he’d been telling us about them for years. How could he have been laid so low?
We never did much find out. There were occasional magazine articles that would try to catch us up on the unfolding tragedy, but most of the updates were crime blotter reports. Only Scott-Heron himself could have told us what really happened, how he started to fall and didn’t stop. But we heard nothing from the man himself.
That is, until last year, when I’m New Here came out on the rock-leaning label XL. He’s smoking a cigarette on the front cover, playing a piano on the back. He looks worn. His eyes, once clear and fill of fire, are older, and tired. The handful of songs on the CD don’t shout down injustice like he once did. The music itself is sparse and electronic, not full-bodied and warm like back in the day. There is frailty in his voice where there once was fury. This was not the Gil Scott-Heron we knew and loved. But it was still Gil Scott-Heron, and we knew and loved him just the same, and it felt good to have him back.
The ravages of his life wore down the strength of his voice, but its tone remained, soulful and reassuring. When he spoke, as on the CD’s book-ending centerpiece “On Coming from a Broken Home”, it was not with the declarative authority of yore, but the measured introspection that was a lesser-known aspect of his art. It was more autobiographical than virtually anything he’d ever done.
He didn’t tell us exactly what had happened – leaving those details for the crime blotters – but he did intimate how it now felt to be him. He talked about the bill that would come due for all his misdeeds over time. He talked of desperation and loneliness in the middle of the night. And over syncopated handclaps and a couple of synths, he announced “New York Is Killing Me”, yearning to be back home in Jackson, Tennessee, sounding like nothing so much as a wizened old bluesman sharing a life lesson learned the hard way.