The Energy As He Manifested It: Another Witness Gone–Remembering Gil Scott-Heron
May 28, 2011, Harlem, NY
My ex-husband, Butch Lewis, is the kind of Black man who should be rich and famous. He’s a charmer. Good-looking. Knowledgeable. Has the capacity to talk much bedazzling sense in the Queen’s English and in some gutbucket, raw, funky blues stuff presented with poetical, streetified, Ebonics-laden eloquence. In another life, he will be a well-heeled preacher with a flock of adoring women, who he “knows” in the biblical sense; or he’ll be a prominent poet-musician that changes the way things are done, altering mindsets along the way. Like Gil Scott-Heron.
Butch is my authority on Gil. On this first day after Gil died, I realize that my love for his music is tied up with my love for Butch. Late at night or early in the morning, when Butch walked me home when were teenagers, he, sounding just like Gil, sang Gil’s songs. Maybe,
…Ever feel kinda down and out you don’t know just what to do?
…Living alla your days in darkness let the sun shine through.
Ever feel that somehow, somewhere, you lost your way?
And if you don’t get help quick, you won’t make it through the day.
Could you call on Lady Day? Could you call on John Coltrane?
They’ll wash your troubles away.
When Gil came to New York to play, we were there. I’d say around fifteen times in all. The first time we saw him perform live was at the Village Gate, circa nineteen-seventy-something. He opened for David Sanborn, or maybe it was the other way around, and Gato Barbieri was in the audience with his black hat on. I love when Gil sang/wrote about love:
Was there a touch of Spring in the air?
Did she have a pink dress on?
When she smiled her brightest smile, could you almost touch the warmth?
A singer by the name of Victor (can’t remember his last name) put his jazzy, churchified everything into “Sharing,” one of my favorite Gil pieces.
Well it’s morning and I’m so happy ‘bout the music, the music that we made. Can’t you hear my heart?
It’s singing, as I wake to greet the day.
Ain’t it nice to know you have someone who tries to understand all your dreams for caring, for sharing, for caring.
It’s kind of sad and sentimental in a happy sort of way…
Decades after, Butch was a drug counselor at Rikers Island on one of the days Gil was arrested: He was in the infirmary. Butch went to talk him. Gil was laying up in the bed looking surly.
Butch said, “Gil, man, there is no reason for you to keep living like this. Your gift to the world, man, is your music. How can I help you, man?”
Gil didn’t answer, just kept looking nasty, so Butch kept talking, “You should consider rehab, my man. We really want to help you.”
“If you want to help me you’ll just get the fuck out my face right now. You wanna help somebody? Get the fuck out of here.”
Since Butch is my authority on Gil Scott-Heron, I will quote what he told me today: “I know he had to die at some point, but I didn’t think it would be yesterday. He was living too hard man. I think he was a beautiful, tormented soul. He’s the one that gave me my political consciousness in the 70s. If I had to say who was the jazz blues poet vocalist who hit home, it was Gil. The drug thing. That’s the sad part. Seeing him deteriorate like that.”
Our son, Chenzira, would come home from school some days with various reports on his Gil sitings. One day–
“Ma, I think I saw Gil Scott-Heron.”
“Oh, yeah? Where?”
“Running down the stairs in the train station at 145th Street looking behind him, like someone was chasing him.”
“Well, you know what he looks like. I wonder if that was him.” (This was before I had seen how Gil aged.)
“It looked like him, but this man looked bad.”
“Bad like what?”
“Old, real old. Like somebody’s sick grandfather.”
This was in the late 1990s. The height of the crack era in Harlem. Where the drug boys’ shootouts happened on the regular, and bony young women, walking funny, addled by the glass dick, looked for real ones to suck for a hit.
People like to call what ailed those women and Gil Scott-Heron, demons. I will paraphrase the wisdom of the twelve-steps-addiction recovery movement–if you are a dope fiend, the smarter you are, the longer you will be in it, because you will invent every justification for continuing to use and abuse. What this means to me is that somebody like Gil Scott-Heron with all of that brilliance would, most likely, never stop using until it killed him. So be it.
There are some folk who absorb everything all of the time. And if they are chosen by happen-stance to be the place where art decides to manifest itself, then that’s another kind of thing. The reason I still believe in astrology is because when art goes to live in an Aries, extreme things begin to happen. Freddie Hubbard played until his lip split, his embouchure could no longer sustain those notes he loved to sustain. He said Blakey and Dizzy always told him that he should save some for later, and he’d ask them why. Aretha sang herself hoarse. Her pipes so overflowing with everything we have ever known that even if she became overly concerned with “proper vocal technique” she abandoned it for something more lasting. Billie hosted the art energy so well that her treatment of tones and timing caused those hearing her to be forever effected by her stylized manner of carrying her particular burdens. Brother Gil was filled with Black life–the gorgeousness of it, the pain of it, the lunacy of it; international-affairs life; no-nukes life; the prison-industrial complex life, the living-that-street-life life, that antiretroviral life, and came out on the other side dead too early. Being blessed and cursed by art the pimp, one of those alien beings from those Hollywood B movies that lives in its host’s body. Art the dictator, a nasty bitch, a mean motherfucker, a manipulative loved one. Art is also a pretty little thing. Happy, singing and dancing all the time, writing things that people love/need to read and hear and see. Art tied to witness? Tied to politics? Those are mad extra burdens. Living with all of that inside. That was Brother Gil. His brilliant, arrogant self. This is a new day on the planet: Brother Gil is dead. Passing through his time, he distilled the chaos of movements and revolutions through the singularity of his poetic and analytic genius with a deceptive simplicity carrying the weight, and burden, of happiness, love, pain, life’s contentiousness.
It seems he understood everything after seeing it once, except for how to get the demons out and let art, witness, and politics coexist in his head. Had he figured out how to do this, I would have written a different narrative–a drug-free one. Something like, Gil Scott Heron firmly occupies a seat within the literary pantheon that includes Oscar Brown, Jr., Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Phillis Wheatley. His literary greatness, tied to his standing as a self-proclaimed bluesologist, allowed him the ability to provide cogent, humorous commentary on historical and contemporary affairs. His lyricism, in partnership with Brian Jackson and other collaborators, will not be forgotten by his survivors– those legions of bereft admirers and literary/musical children who would not have known what to write or sing had it not been for him and that pantheon.