all of my formative childhood influences are now dead. Larry
Norman, whom none of you have ever heard of, James Brown,
Michael Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron, whom few of you have ever
heard of. No, he was not related to Jill Scott, which is as
close as many people under 40 come to knowing anything about
this brilliant, insightful social commentator and jazz musician.
Until I encountered Heron's brilliant The Revolution Will Not Be
Televised, I had never heard a black musician inject such social
relevance into his music. His music was a contemporary of the
Norman Whitfield-era Temptations, where the legendary producer
Whitfield moved the Temps to Number One with a turn toward
brilliant social commentary and protest with such smash hits as
Runaway Child, Running Wild, Ball Of Confusion, and the epic
masterpiece Papa Was A Rolling Stone. But that was Whitfield,
that was never the Temptations, who groused and complained about
Whitfield's oversized ego and his creative direction. They'd
rather sing love songs, they complained bitterly, and eventually
Whitfield moved on. The Temps returned to banal, trite. empty
love songs and vanished from the charts forever. Not so with
Heron, whose only smash hit was the startling (for its time)
anti-Regan spoken word poem B-Movie. Heron gave voice to the
silent majority of tens of millions for whom the 40th
president's administration was not Morning In America. The
nation adored Reagan, was ensorcelled by him to the point where
they hardly noticed Reagan destroying the economy and making the
rich richer while abandoning the underserved. Heron's classic
reminds me of Eddie Murphy's epic and groundbreaking HBO comedy
special Delirious, where the comedian dared to mock Michael
Jackson. It was shocking, unthinkable, for anyone to make fun of
Jackson, who had, in the early 80's, achieved a kind of
sainthood. He was simply off-limits, this innocent man child, a
kind of Mickey Mouse idol beloved by billions—with a "B."
Murphy's attacks rang in shrieks of laughter not only because it
was some of the strongest stand-up Murphy's ever done but for
the sheer taboo of it: imagine, making fun of Michael Jackson.
This was the scenario with B-Movie. Openly criticizing—actually, criticizing is far too soft a description—the jellybean-pushing, Bob Hope-joshing, witty, beloved messianic idol, on a major label with national distribution, was simply unthinkable. It was so shocking, so repellant to the nauseating Leave It To Beaver-Acid-Trip-Back-To-The-50's malaise America was in the throes of, that B-Movie sped up the charts, receiving heavy airplay even though the song was some twelve minutes in length. Heron simply eviscerated the former president and everything he stood for. In my early twenties at the time, I heard black America exhale. Thank God, someone is speaking for us, saying what we say but is never reported. Heron was, for that shining moment, the literal voice of Black America. And I was hooked by his intelligence, by his relevance by his guts.
I'm not sure what became of Gil Scott-Heron. After B-Movie, he released several other albums, but none with the massive, Jaws-shark bite of B-Movie. Heron eventually moved on to more benign and varied subjects, making tremendous music for sure, but I began to drift and eventually lost sight of him. He was dropped by Arista in 1985 and stopped recording. He was planning a comeback of sorts with the independent LP I'm New Here, released by XL Recordings in February. Heron struggled with drug addiction for many years and revealed he was HIV positive. He died Friday afternoon in New York.
When I think of him, my first thought is not of Small Talk at 125th And Lenox, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, The Bottle or even my personal favorite, B-Movie. I think of Grandma's Hands, the fairly benign and poignant portrait Bill Withers drew of his grandmother—of my grandmother, of all grandmothers. Heron covered Grandma's Hands on his 1981 smash hit Reflections. His remembrance of his grandma evokes my own memories of one of the two women who raised me, a woman I miss every day with all of my soul.
Our loss of this amazing, gifted poet is a great loss to America, whether she knows it or not.