R.I.P. Gil Scott-Heron

3 Jun
Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron. Photo credit: Mischa Richter

It’s Friday night and I’m spending the evening listening to I’m New Here, the last album by the late Gil Scott-Heron,who died last Friday. I got the record for free while I was writing for WNYC’s culture site last year. I was amazed at my luck, that I just happened to be a music writer at the moment when Scott-Heron released his first new work in years, and I posted a brief write-up about the album. I was excited about the new album, but for me (and probably many others) Scott-Heron’s comeback was tinged with sadness and worry. My boyfriend told me about the New Yorker article in which writer Alec Wilkinson wrote about how Scott-Heron smoked crack in front of him. I remember talking with a friend who, planning to attend a show of his at the Blue Note, wistfully wondered aloud if he’d show up for the gig. He’d become one part artist, one part revolutionary, and one part tragedy.

Strangely enough, a few hours before news broke of his death, Scott-Heron’s biggest hit, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” inspired the title of one of my blog posts. The 1971 version of “Revolution” is what most people know him for, but I hope I’m New Here becomes a work that he is remembered for as well. Clocking in at less than 30 minutes, the 15-track album is a spoken word, blues-filled, occasionally industrial-leaning tour de force that tonight, feels like some avant-garde correspondence from beyond the grave. One of my favorite tracks is the brief, haunting cut “Where Did the Night Go.” Scott-Heron speaks with a grandfatherly, strong yet weary rumble as he recounts the events and thoughts of a night without sleep. As a night owl, I can relate.

It’s these pithy bursts of genius that make me wince at the reality that Gil Scott-Heron is dead. Yes, he was 62 (though that’s not that old, really) and yes, he had a drug problem, but damn it, he also had a gift for crafting verse and capturing emotions, a gift that was still as potent as it was in the early ’70s when he quipped “The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.” We’re lucky we had him for as long as we did, but I can’t help but wonder what more this man may have said if we’d had more time with him.

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