Paid in full
Gil Scott-Heron's final reckoning
Published: June 23, 2011
I'm New Here
It's all about redemption. Gil Scott-Heron, the philosopher, poet, musician, author and rapper prototype, turned his incisive, uncompromising vision toward himself for his last album, last year's I'm New Here. For all the thematic bigness that seemed to encompass much of his work – "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," "Whitey on the Moon," "From South Africa to South Carolina" – the album reads like a 12-step confessional. It's brutal in its personal honesty, particularly the ominous reading of bluesman Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil" that rides on an electronic dirge as he recites, "Me and the devil / walking side by side." The accompanying video is just as ominous, shot in black and white and reminiscent of the film Black Orpheus, with its deathly figures roaming the urban landscape.
Scott-Heron died on May 27 at age 62 in a New York City hospital after a flight from England. No cause of death has been officially released, but his body was ravaged from decades of alcohol and drug abuse, and in 2008, Scott-Heron said that he had been HIV-positive for years. He was born in Chicago in 1949 and raised from age 2 by his grandmother in Tennessee after his parents separated. He seemed to predict his own death on I'm New Here, saying, "Yeah the doctors don't know / but New York was killing me / Bunch of doctors coming 'round, they don't know / That New York is killing me / Yeah, I need to go home and take it slow in Jackson, Tennessee."
He should have taken his own advice, as he indeed met his end in New York. And he seemed prepared for that end. On the album, he says with a laugh, "If you've got to pay for things that you've done wrong / I've got a big bill coming."
Everything about him seemed big when he burst onto the scene in 1970 with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a screed railing against the intersection of mass media and the black power movement, voicing mistrust of the motives of any establishment figure and turning away from the American establishment. It rode on a bed of African drumbeats and was delivered with an accusative, proselytizing voice.
The piece was on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and branded Scott-Heron a "new black poet." He never lost that three-chords-and-the-truth sensibility. Singles such as "The Bottle" and "Angel Dust" rose up the R&B charts, and singer Esther Phillips covered his "Home is Where the Hatred Is." He played Saturday Night Live with Richard Pryor, and the über divas of Labelle covered "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It seemed that Scott-Heron could have been a rock star with his intense lyrics, deep bluesy voice and an ability to create hooks inside songs that went to uneasy places in our psyches.
I'm New Here is a stripped-down recording, sometimes sounding like an old man musing into a microphone. At the beginning, he talks about having grown up in a broken home. At the end, he returns to the theme to deny that brokenness: "Unless the homes of soldiers stationed overseas / Or lost in battles are broken / Unless the homes of firemen, policemen, construction workers, seamen, railroad men, truckers, pilots / Who lost their lives, but not what their lives stood for ... I came from what they called a broken home / But if they ever really called at our house / They would have known how wrong they were."
Gil Scott-Heron was another tragic hero in a long line littering the cultural landscape. Most of the tributes and obituaries dwell on and on about "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and that is the work that is inexorably pinned to his star. But I believe there are more important lessons being taught on I'm New Here where Scott-Heron gets so very personal in examining the soul of a man.
His bill is paid in full.
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