As originally published on The Vine
In August last year, I had the pleasure of seeing Gil Scott-Heron play a show at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, New York City. It was a free show, one of the manifold free gigs that you can see in New York over summer, and as such the crowd was sizeable. Black, white, young, old, everyone stood in the balmy summer twilight and enjoyed the presence of one of Harlem’s own, a writer and poet characterised by his fierce intelligence and burning sense of justice. A man who only three years before had been doing time in prison for possession of crack cocaine.
The show was a strange, harrowing, moving experience. Scott-Heron looked terribly frail – as I wrote at the time, “his body looks fragile and visceral; his bones like iron bars warped by some inner heat”. His speech was stuttering and difficult at times, as if he was struggling to enunciate the words that once flowed so easily from his mouth. But his voice was strong and rich and powerful, and he was a charming and charismatic performer. He played songs from across the breadth of his long career, from yellowing classics like “Pieces of a Man” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” to several tracks from I’m New Here, his wonderful 2010 comeback album. And he interspersed his songs with long, often hilarious monologues, talking about how the term “jazz music” evolved in the raunchy salons of New Orleans as a portmonteau of “jizzum and ass music”, and making jokes about how he allegedly disappeared during the ’90s (“If I really could disappear, well, that’d make me a magician!”).
But he did disappear. And it seemed like a terrible waste. So it was a stirring experience to see him on stage in front of a park full of people who genuinely loved him and appreciated him. He clearly wasn’t what he once was, but life does that to us all – but he seemed a man reawakened. There was a real sense he’d emerged from the void of many, many lost years and was walking tentatively toward the future he always deserved: the status of one of American music’s elder statesmen, his work critically lauded and finally enjoying the recognition it deserved, his influence loved and revered by the generation of artists he helped to inspire.
Less than a year later, Scott-Heron is dead. He died yesterday afternoon in New York City – details are still sketchy, but apparently he became sick after returning from a trip to Europe earlier in the month. Obituaries published today seem to confirm the rumour that had been swirling around for years that he was HIV positive, although exactly what killed him is still unclear. Whatever the case, his lifestyle was problematic, to say the least – an article about him in the New Yorker last year suggested that he was still smoking crack, staying up for days on end, rarely leaving his house, burning holes in his couch and subsisting on fruit and juice.
As consumers, we like our stories to be neat and tidy, and there was a beautiful sense of symmetry about I’m New Here – old performer gets out of prison, gets clean, makes great record, finds redemption and lives happily ever after. Even the album itself seemed to suggest this – especially the chorus of the title track, a Smog song that was so perfect for Scott-Heron it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it himself. “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone,” he sings in a voice so deep it’s almost subterranean, “You can always turn around.”
But life is messy, as the sole self-penned song on I’m New Here, “New York is Killing Me”, seemed to acknowledge: “Fast city living,” rasps Scott-Heron wearily, “ain’t all it’s cracked up to be”. It’s a comfortable narrative to suggest that I’m New Here constituted some sort of life-changing watershed – the New Yorker article also suggested that he’d stayed drug-free for a month touring the album in Europe – but perhaps old habits die too hard. Especially old drug habits. As XL Records founder and I’m New Here producer Richard Russell, who tracked Scott-Heron down in jail and convinced him to make the album, wrote this morning: “Gil was not perfect in his own life. But neither is anyone else. And he judged no one.”
So maybe the drugs eventually did kill him, directly or indirectly. Maybe it was his illness. Maybe it was both. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the damage was long since done. What does matter is that again, this seems like a terrible waste. Scott-Heron was a hugely talented man, a writer possessed of a fierce sense of social justice and a stylistic fluidity that seemed as natural and easy as the sun rising each morning. It seems almost absurd that he fell victim to the temptations he decried on record. But he did. And they silenced him, when all along there was plenty more for him to say.
Plenty of the eulogies published today have concentrated on his status as the “Godfather of Hip Hop” – a term he apparently disliked, and one that in some ways diminishes him, because he should be celebrated for his own work, as well as for those he influenced. If anything, he was a polymath like, say, Leonard Cohen – by the time he was 23, before he became lost, he had written two novels, recorded three albums and published a book of poetry for good measure. He made ten more albums in the next decade, but only two thereafter. Like Rick James and Sly Stone, he seemed a casualty of the crack epidemic that raged through America in the 1980s, a huge talent rendered mute.
That he returned to any sort of functionality is cause for celebration, and his death is particularly tragic because it seemed that he was perhaps starting to emerge from his “cave”, as he called his Harlem apartment. When he was in jail in the mid-2000s, it seemed unlikely that he’d ever again play shows like the one we saw last year, let alone undertake a European tour. As it transpired, he did get the chance to share his words with people again, and for that, at least, we should be thankful. We should mourn the lost years past and the lost years ahead, but nevertheless celebrate the life of a man who should and hopefully will be remembered as one of America’s great literary and songwriting talents. A flawed man who nevertheless inspired a generation with his words. A man all too human who nevertheless elevated humanity with his art. A man who both transcended and fell victim to his limitations.
Now, cruelly, I’m New Here will remain to Scott-Heron what Pop Crimes does to Rowland S Howard – a defiant final statement that also speaks of a future denied. But its words should serve to inspire all of us, and its ultimately defiant and optimistic tone serves as a fitting epitaph. “So, if you see the vulture coming, flying circles in your mind/Remember, there is no escaping, for he will follow close behind/Only promise me a battle/For your soul/And mine.”
Life is short. We all do the best we can. RIP Gil Scott-Heron.