Pieces of a Man: On Gil Scott Heron

Pieces of a Man: On Gil Scott Heron

The musician’s posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday, is as rich and ambiguous as his declaration that “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.”


In late January, flying high from his South Carolina primary win, Newt Gingrich promised supporters in Florida that by the end of his “second term” in the White House he would establish a permanent American lunar colony, an outpost for a future fifty-first state. Several weeks earlier the Republican presidential candidate had told a different audience that what poor children require, more than material assistance, is tutelage in “the habits of working”; it was widely understood that Gingrich was speaking in code about black and Latino kids. His racebaiting and spaced-out sense of resource allocation called to mind a song released by Gil Scott-Heron in 1970, the year after Apollo 11 had deposited the first humans on Earth’s moon:

A rat done bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell, and Whitey’s on the moon
I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still, while Whitey’s on the moon

Scott-Heron, who died last year at 62, included “Whitey on the Moon” on his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, alongside the original version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a screed against mediated apathy in the African-American community. The album shared a title with his first book of poems, and most of its contents are not sung but declaimed over percussion, a format indebted to the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets.

At the time, Scott-Heron thought of himself as a writer, not a musician, having also published, at the tender age of 20, The Vulture, a Harlem crime novel with multiple narrators. A second novel, The Nigger Factory, based on his experiences at Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting black college, appeared in 1972, though by then his recording career was in full swing, with music having become as vital as words. The more familiar recording of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is on Pieces of a Man, released in 1971 with top-drawer jazz and R&B players supporting the slightly altered text with a funky two-chord ostinato. Scott-Heron continued to record while earning a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and teaching writing in Washington, DC, and became a full-time musician only after signing a long-term deal with Clive Davis’s newly formed Arista label. He recorded ten albums for Arista between 1975 and 1982, and while up-tempo tracks like “The Bottle,” “Angel Dust” and “Johnannesburg” (an early announcement of antiapartheid consciousness) had some currency on dance floors and black radio, the records were too prickly and ambitious to fit smoothly into the pop marketplace, coupling strong grooves with loose, improvisatory arrangements. Scott-Heron’s singing, though earnest, rarely matched the vocal grace of Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye.

Political commentary, for which Scott-Heron often returned to spoken delivery, remained a strength, from “H2Ogate Blues” to “B Movie,” a thirteen-minute dissertation on Ronald Reagan’s mythic appeal: “Nostalgia, that’s what we want…a time when movies were in black and white, and so was everything else. Just remember that it won’t be too long before the director cuts the scene.” Even when hip-hop claimed him as a godfather, a paternity he only reluctantly acknowledged, his down-to-earth persona and penchant for extended analysis remained at odds with the glossy production and boastful materialism of much black popular music in the 1980s and 1990s. Although Scott-Heron continued to tour, Moving Target, his final Arista release, was his last studio album for more than a decade. A 2001 court appearance on charges of cocaine possession exposed the habitual drug use that associates had reportedly known about for some time. (In a New Yorker profile from 2010, Alec Wilkinson pulled back the curtain even more, noting that the musician would openly smoke crack in his presence.) Later drug arrests led to jail time. On his final recordings with English producer Richard Russell, released in February 2010 as I’m New Here, Scott-Heron’s voice, graver and less pliable than ever, is a spectral presence, floating against atmospheric, sample-based musical backgrounds. Though well received, and undeniably poignant, the album cannot be considered the work of a fully engaged artist.

* * *

Some of The Last Holiday, his posthumous memoir, can. When he started the project in the 1990s, an otherwise fallow period, its focus was his participation in Stevie Wonder’s 1980 concert tour, during which Wonder campaigned to establish Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday and Scott-Heron replaced the terminally ill Bob Marley as the opening act. Over time, the book grew into something closer to a full-dress autobiography. At one stage, it was written in the third person, with the author appearing as “the artist,” a device that Jamie Byng of Canongate, the book’s UK publisher, advised against. In an afterword omitted from the first printing of the US edition but since reinstated, Byng describes the “piecemeal” manuscript, “written on various archaic typewriters and computers,” that he received after Scott-Heron’s death, and the role of editor Tim Mohr in assembling the published version.

Too much of The Last Holiday is of value to raise questions about editorial exploitation, or the facility and confidence of its author’s narrative voice. Langston Hughes’s “Simple” stories, which Scott-Heron grew up reading in the Chicago Defender, were an early and enduring influence, and his appreciation of their strengths—a disarmingly colloquial tone, a keen sense of incident, an ever-present undercurrent of social awareness—informs the reconstruction of his early life.

Gilbert Scott-Heron was raised in Jackson, Tennessee, by his maternal grandmother, Lily Scott, while his mother remained in Chicago—his birthplace—after separating from his father, a Caribbean-born soccer player named Gilbert Heron. Lily Scott and an extended circle of relations are sharply drawn, as is South Jackson, home to an aging black population a generation or less removed from sharecropping—“only their houses were planted in town while something within them drove them out to dig and hoe and rake and dirty their hands in the dying sunlight”—even as cracks in Jim Crow are beginning to show. His grandmother’s demands for service and credit provoke unease in white shopkeepers, but no real repercussions; in 1962, after her death and his mother’s return to town, Scott-Heron became one of three black students to integrate Jackson’s Tigrett Junior High, the first white square in what would prove to be an educational checkerboard.

Uprooted, along with most of South Jackson, by the extension of Interstate 70 from the north, Scott-Heron and his mother relocated to the Bronx, where he attended DeWitt Clinton High, “a joint laid out more like a penitentiary than a school.” His writing impressed a white English teacher who recommended him for a scholarship to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an expensive, largely white private institution. Scott-Heron’s reluctant entry into Fieldston, where “you needed to be rich just to drive past their campus,” supplies his most complex and riveting material: his mother goes into diabetic shock on the morning of his entrance interview, and Scott-Heron cuts short his examiners’ anxious, socioeconomically pointed questioning to join her at the hospital. His “proper attitude concerning priorities,” he is later told, clinched his admission.

The self-portrait that emerges in the memoir is of a somewhat isolated adolescent and young adult, increasingly dedicated to his artistic ambitions at the expense of formal curriculums and, later, personal relationships, which are downplayed for most of the book. At Fieldston, he entertains himself by playing Motown hits on the school’s prize Steinway while dodging its guardian, an officious, pop-hating music teacher. At Lincoln University, he devours the library’s holdings in African-American literature, eventually taking a leave of absence to write his first novel. In Scott-Heron’s eyes, Lincoln was by the late 1960s no longer the school “of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall,” having recently begun to accept female students and, under its new white president, Marvin Wachman, funding from the state of Pennsylvania; in a verse passage, Scott-Heron also charges, without elaboration, that “Lincoln’s state relationship included ‘COIN-TEL-PRO.’”

Despite the period and milieu, Scott-Heron’s discussions of changes in black political consciousness are surprisingly brief and muted. His most sustained connection to the Black Panthers is fictive and opportunistic: he bluffs his way into a meeting with the editor of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice by implying that he and the manuscript of The Vulture represent that controversial “organization.” When he re-enters Lincoln, he focuses his activism on broad-based campus issues, spearheading a boycott of classes in the name of reforming the school’s medical facilities. In May 1970, in response to police shootings of students at Kent State and Mississippi’s Jackson State, and to Attorney General John Mitchell’s silence on the incidents, Scott-Heron is among the instigators of another campus shutdown, which threatens to turn into a disorganized march on the nearby town of Oxford until the students hesitate at Lincoln’s archway, collectively realizing that “the only things that could have happened were bad.” This episode, marking both the peak of Scott-Heron’s militancy and an apparent retreat from its consequences, is immediately preceded by an impressionistic account of a road accident involving a car full of rifles and ammunition. Has Scott-Heron written a piece of fiction, or is the episode a veiled acknowledgment of involvement in actions more radical than those he describes directly?

* * *

Similar ambiguities muddle the book’s less distinctive and disciplined second half, where the narrative compromises and lacunae grow too obvious to ignore. It’s impossible to tell if these are the result of writerly choices or the inchoate state of the material inherited by Scott-Heron’s editors. His early struggles as a writer make for more compelling reading than the stable recording and touring career he later enjoyed, but much the same could be said of many show-business memoirs. The account of his tour with Wonder, though, reads as more of the same, as digressions and celebrity cameos (Michael Jackson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) slacken to an amble what is supposed to be a stirring march.

The intended sense of uplift is also undercut by Scott-Heron’s elliptical account of the following decades. The lack of candor about his legal entanglements and drug use is especially disappointing when set against his wrenching, compassionate treatment of similar material on 1971’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”—“you say kick it, quit it….God, but did you ever try?”—and its autobiographical counterpart, “The Other Side,” from his unheralded 1994 album Spirits. By comparison, the signs of evasiveness in The Last Holiday are unmistakable. Scott-Heron allows, early on, that his “mistakes have been due to my own poor judgement both of people and circumstances,” but, without his specifying their nature, this remains a bland generalization. One incident is compared to “being charged with a first offense even if it’s the tenth time you’ve done something”—but the scene of the crime is that tempting Steinway at Fieldston.

Despite these failings, Scott-Heron’s pride in his role in Wonder’s championing of Reverend King’s legacy is palpable, and justified, both as career peak and symbolic vindication. Wonder, King and Thurgood Marshall are the book’s positive political models, illustrating the contention that “We all need to see folks reach beyond what looks possible and make it happen. We need more examples of how to make it happen.” Scott-Heron’s approval extends to King’s choice of means: in a closing poem, which first appeared in Now & Then, a collection published in Britain in 1990, he writes that “Through a storm of provocation to fight we saw/That in order to change America you must change the law,” despite the recognition that “Over here there was nonviolence, but only on one side.” Whether one hears in these lines the same Gil Scott-Heron who asked, on the fiery From South Africa to South Carolina, from 1974, “Whatever happened to the protest and the rage?” depends on how one believes that rage should be kindled, and channeled. It may be worth remembering that even “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was as much a sardonic commentary as a call to arms, and that its continued resonance has much to do with its refusal to pronounce on what the revolution will be, other than “live.”

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