The anger and poetry of Gil Scott-Heron

19:49, Feb 09 2010

The first I was really aware of Gil Scott-Heron - and I mean really aware - was hearing Paul Ubana Jones perform an a cappella take on Home Is Where the Hatred Is. (Here's the Gil Scott-Heron original.)

I had heard of Gil Scott-Heron; I knew this famous piece. But hearing Jones speak and sing the words...well, that really made me take notice.

The compilation album Evolution and Flashback: The Very Best of Gil Scott-Heron was one of the most important/influential/amazing albums to come into my collection. I picked it up at Fisheye Discs - the place you could always go to find something like that (pity not enough people had the same idea; maybe they would still be there).

And I followed up that purchase with a copy of the book, Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron - it's one of the very few books on my shelf that I have read and re-read; several slithers of paper bookmarking favourites...favourites such as:

Paint It Black:

Picture a man of nearly thirty
who seems twice as old with clothes torn and
dirty.
Give him a job shining shoes
or cleaning out toilets with bus station crews.
Give him six children with nothing to eat.
Expose them to life on a ghetto street.
Tie an old rag round his wife's head and
have her pregnant and lying in bed.
Stuff them all in a Harlem house.
Then tell them how bad things are down South.

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On the page and on compact disc I devoured the work of Gil Scott-Heron. There is so much to enjoy in this work - the "godfather of rap" antecedents; the connections to R'n'B, soul and jazz; the work with Brian Jackson, Ron Carter and Bernard Purdie; the politics - the humour...the anger...

Often - as with Whitey on the Moon - the politics, humour and anger would all flow, informing one another - then falling in on each other.

It is possible to listen to Gil Scott-Heron just for the words; he is a writer first and foremost, a poet of the page and for the stage. But it is also possible to listen to his poems and songs for the music; for the arrangements and playing of Brian Jackson, of Gil himself (a very soulful singer and a talented composer/pianist) and of the jazz and funk musicians who contributed to the records. Then there's the musicality of his spoken-pieces, the sound of his voice telling you the words. There are also the early percussion-and-poem jams, combining the rhythms of the tongue with conga and cowbell rhythms. Check out his 1970 debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, for the best of that sound.

Gil Scott-Heron released poems as songs, recorded songs that were based on his earliest poems and writings, wrote novels and became a hero to many for his music, activism and his anger. There is always the anger - an often beautiful, passionate anger. An often awkward anger. A very soulful anger. And often it is a very sad anger. But it is the pervasive mood, theme and feeling within his work - and around his work, hovering, piercing, occasionally weighing down; often lifting the work up, helping to place it in your face.

And for all the preaching and warning signs in his work, the last two decades of Gil Scott-Heron's life to date have seen him succumb to the pressures and demons he has so often warned others about.

It stands to reason...you can't write a song like Home Is Where the Hatred Is without first living it, or later dreading it; without being so close to it as to feel it. That's the difference in this work as a hip-hop antecedent and so much of what it allegedly (often very indirectly) influenced.

Gil Scott-Heron turned up on an album (Blazing Arrow) by Blackalicious. This introduced him to a few. And served as a reminder for others. There were some gigs. But there also some arrests. Possession of cocaine. Parole violations. Always the anger.

This week Gil Scott-Heron released I'm New Here. He sings about his close companion with Me and the Devil; he shows plenty of anger on Where Did the Night Go.

But most important, he reminds/reintroduces the vitality and passion that was there (and is still present) in his best work. It's been 15 years since his last album. And this is an album that was delayed by another arrest.

Here's the title song. A cover of a Smog tune. (Here's the Smog original.) You'll notice, comparing them, just what a quality Gil Scott-Heron's very lived-in voice brings to a song.

And if you go here you can discover more from of that (and other qualities) with a preview of the album.

It's been worth the wait for fans - and it's a thrill to hear the anger being channelled once again. The wisdom, the pain, the sorrow, the social commentary - again it all overlaps and rolls under, one facet informing another. Nothing is ever, as Chuck Klosterman pointed out, ever in and of itself. And that's what matters. And with I'm New Here you will hear what matters most to Gil Scott-Heron right now. And it's great. A highlight of the 2010 music releases.

So, will you be checking it out? Are you a fan already? Or have you heard the name and never got around to hearing any of his music? Or have you heard the album already and you are not impressed?

What do you think of Gil Scott-Heron? Do you have favourite pieces/albums?

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