The Devil and Gil Scott-Heron
Scott-Heron's legacy as a poet and griot is firmly set, as evidenced by the scores of articles and eulogies following his death. Facebook and Twitter blew up with video links, tributes and shout-outs to the brother who predicted a revolution was coming.
There's just one problem with all this. Scott-Heron was something of a mess in the last decades of his life. In no way does that diminish his grandeur as an artist, but it's important to be honest in assessing his life and times, and the evidence is in: Scott-Heron was a drug-addicted, disheveled shell of a man when he died.
He became a cautionary tale of what happens when your demons run you down.
There's no sugarcoating the unpleasant fact that Scott-Heron is receiving all this long overdue love based upon who he was instead of what he became. The Gil Scott-Heron of the late Seventies and Eighties was a proud man and a deep brother full of beats, rhymes and rational reasoning. The Gil Scott-Heron of the new millennium was a hopeless addict who alienated friends, family and fans, while becoming a slave to the very vices he had once cautioned others to avoid.
We should remember Scott-Heron, but we shouldn't shut out the unpleasant realities of how hard he had fallen.
I had heard about the New Yorker profile that ran last year It had become notorious as the article where Scott-Heron smoked crack in front of the interviewer. I didn't want to read it. I knew it was bad. I figured it would be painful. I thought it would hurt.
And I was right. It did hurt, but reading it only made me uncomfortable. It was Scott-Heron who was the one in pain. I could always turn the page or click away to happier and sunnier subjects. Nobody enjoys watching someone, whose artistry and activism he has admired, end up as a zombified shadow of himself.
Unhappily, that's the price you pay for thinking you can freeze a deeply flawed human being in a moment of time and think he will stay that way forever. The music, poetry and words of Gil Scott-Heron are immortal. Nothing diminishes the power and the glory of "The Bottle," "Johannesburg," "Lady Day and John Coltrane," and, naturally, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."
Not even Gil Scott-Heron himself.
Godspeed, Gil Scott-Heron. Maybe the revolution was more theoretical than actual, but there's no questioning you were a revolutionary artist. Rest in peace.
Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here (XL Recordings, 2010)
Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson, Messages (Soul Brother Records, 2005)
Gil Scott-Heron, Spirits (TVT, 1994)
Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Bluebird, 1988)
Gil Scott-Heron, Reflections (BMG, 1981)
Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces of A Man (RCA, 1971)
Gil Scott-Heron, Small Talk at 125 & Lennox (RCA, 1971)
All Photos: Courtesy of Waymedia