One chilly winter night in 1995, I was hanging-out at a New York City bar called the Oasis. Located on the corner of a 149th Street and Broadway, it was an unofficial landmark that had been there since before I was born. Drunk on rum and cola, I stepped outside to get some air. A few of the patrons were drug dealers whose jittery customers often lurked under the blood red awning waiting for their pushers to exit through the glass door. It was then that I noticed Gil as he stood outside looking beaten down by life. It was brutal seeing Gil, all bummy beneath a dim street light with wild gray hair and a face that looked like a road map through hell.
At that moment, it was difficult to grasp that the man who wrote the addiction anthems Home Is Where the Hatred Is (1972) and The Bottle (1974) had become a junkie himself. However, when thought about rationally, one realizes its not difficult to become a dope fiend, because it always begins as something fun: sniffing a few lines with friends before the gig, freebasing with some fine soul sisters after the show and next thing you know, youve gone from partying to dreading the first rays of daylight as you smoke or sniff alone.
Perhaps, like many of us before and after Ferguson who see little promise in a system that constantly fails us while blaming the victims for their own brutal murders, Gil Scott-Heron was simply tired. How much racism can a man endure before he finally breaks? How much ignorance can a man take before he finally retreats into his own mind? How much bloodshed can a man take before he finally feels as though rock bottom is the best hiding place from the bullets with our race written on them?
After Gil finally scored a few hits of rock, he quickly disappeared into the night. Truthfully, if he had died soon after, I wouldnt have been surprised. Yet, he somehow managed to hold on for another sixteen years of problems, prisons and poetry. In the meantime, the brother was being rediscovered my a new generation, and Herons balance of intellectualism, musical diversity and cynical humor also inspired the next generation of musical wordsmiths and jazzy rebels including Gang Starr, Mos Def, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Common and Kayne West, who he sampled on the brilliant Who Will Survive in America on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
In June of 2010, when Gil performed in Central Park, Common joined him onstage. The soul of his music
touched my heart and spirit, Common told XXL. His voice and his words and his songs were like the revolution being told in the freshest way…he will always be cherished and loved. In addition to rappers, Scotts fusion of soul, salsa and jazz also helped lay the foundation for trip-hop, neo-soul and spoken word enthusiasts.
That same year, brother Gil, whom many folks had simply written off as just another junkie loser, surprised the world with his last classic single Me and the Devil, a brilliantly spooky cover of a Robert Johnson blues song. HIV-positive and still crack addicted, Herons thirteenth studio effort Im New Here (XL Recordings) was a minor miracle and a worthy addition to his canon of classics.
Releasing the title track as the second single, the critically acclaimed album also contained the prophetic track New York is Killing Me. A year after making a comeback, one of the most influential voices of our generation was finally silenced when Gil Scott Heron died on May 27, 2011 in New York City. He was 62.
Although a few of my friends went to his funeral at Riverside Church in Manhattan, where Kayne I opted to stay home with my friend Shelia, perhaps the biggest Gil Scott-Heron fan I know, as we drank, played spades and blared his music loudly.
Like Nina Simone before and Public Enemy afterwards, Herons hard truths has travelled widely touching the souls of our communities and beyond. Artistic folks (painters, filmmakers, intellectuals and poets) often cite Gil Scott-Heron for giving them courage and inspiring them to strive for more in their work.
Having joined that list of flawed folks I love including Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Sly Stone and Jean-Michel Basquiat, brother Gil was another imperfect artist who did more damage to himself than anyone else while also contributing greatly to that fire-breathing creature we call culture.
In a post-Ferguson world that negates any discussion of post-racial anything, Gil Scott-Herons aural bombs of race, rage and revolt are still relevant, still explosive and still needed as a soundtrack as we navigate through the war zone of racism hoping to escape death.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), DAngelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.