[27 June 2011]
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.
At the time of its release, I’m New Here certainly didn’t seem like a swan song or an epitaph. If anything, it felt like the first step of a comeback, a lion-in-winter turn courtesy of indie rock fans not unlike the love shown Bettye Lavette and Solomon Burke in the ‘00s by the Anti- label. Why, there was even a remix CD earlier this year.
And even now that we know how the story finally, sadly ends, I’m New Here doesn’t feel like a goodbye, or a summation of a life’s observations. It feels like he’d like to stick around a minute longer, that he’s just getting his sea legs back, and there will be more to come. The title track, after all, is about a man who just showed up someplace, not a guy who senses his time is up – a song about beginnings, not endings. This is, no doubt, a dark and somber CD, not at all like his classic uplifting anthems. Yet its very existence was cause for optimism, it had the air of someone tentatively starting over – or at least we wanted to believe that.
But in wanting so much to believe that, to believe that Gil Scott-Heron had, amazingly, conquered the demons that had beaten him down, perhaps we missed something. Perhaps we were so happy to have him back, we never realized just how far gone he really was (Alec Wilkinson’s 9 August 2010 New Yorker profile, also titled “New York Is Killing Me”, fills in some of those gaps). We thought he was bulletproof. He wasn’t. We thought he’d know better. He didn’t. He was human. And I‘m New Here, not his greatest work, is his most human work.
It was a humanity that was there all along, central to his art. In ballads like “Your Daddy Loves You”, “Give Her a Call” and others, he displays the tenderness and vulnerability that is the flipside to his activist fervor. Such songs broaden his canon, and make his music more than just one lefty screed after the next. But he’s best known for those lefty screeds, and in all the years he was gone there weren’t a lot of them in the world of black pop. The long span between Public Enemy’s fall and Barack Obama’s rise was as apolitical a period as black pop music has ever seen. That void made Scott-Heron’s absence all the more telling.
We needed him to be back from the living dead, to sing the songs the trap rappers and baby-faced gigolos wouldn’t sing. But in leaning on his image like that, we missed the message of “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman” from way back when. We railed against artists for not trying to right societal wrongs in their music (as if that were their primary responsibility), for glorifying sex and violence and money at a time when our community suffered so much pain on so many levels.
But we really didn’t need any of them, or even Scott-Heron himself, to sing those songs. We already knew the words. We already had the beat. All we had to do was proclaim, as Scott-Heron himself had once done armed with nothing more than righteous indignation and a couple of drummers.
He truly was a gifted artist, possessed of a singular skill set. But there was a nation of millions who shared his viewpoints, and we didn’t pick up where he left off. We kept waiting on him to sing those songs for us. He was, in so many ways, mythic for us, a cultural superhero. He was emblematic of a time when our artists told us our truths, a time so seemingly distant from today our youths can barely fathom it. And yes, we missed him bigtime. But nothing, nothing at all, nothing but ourselves has ever stopped us from telling those stories, from updating those lefty screeds to fit the current outrage.
In our love for Gil Scott-Heron, in our disappointment at his consequence, we lost sight of that. We kept waiting for him to magically come back like nothing had happened. We succumbed to the folly of myths.
Thankfully, he did come back. But life, in fact, had happened. He wasn’t the same, not after all he’d been through. He couldn’t have been. The intellect, the love, and yes that voice, they were all still there. But at that moment, he had different songs to sing, different stories he needed to tell us. After the better part of two decades in his own private hell, 2010 wasn’t his moment for laying down fire and brimstone against the status quo.
And that’s the one thing we never realized, throughout his heyday of chanting down corrupt politicians and their actions. For all the audacious invincibility laced within the grooves of the Midnight Band, Scott-Heron was first a human being, prone to all the follies and pitfalls and demons Marvin and Donny and the rest of us encounter every day.
Sometimes we love our stars so much we forget to allow them their humanity.
Maybe that’s his final message to all of us: at the end of everything, after all the battles have been waged, all the enemies mocked, all the demands made clear, all we have are our common dreams and aspirations, our wills and our hearts and our souls, and our determination to forge one place in this mad and cruel world where love reigns, as did the matriarchs he honors on “On Coming from a Broken Home”. Politicians and their dictates come and go, regimes and their excesses ebb and flow, but people will and must, somehow, together, endure.
Now that Gil Scott-Heron has joined our ancestors, it’s now officially on us to manifest the songs of freedom – personal as well as political—that we never really needed him, or any other mythic Superman, to sing.