Quotable — Gil Scott-Heron

by M.C. Antil on June 11, 2011

By most accounts, the years were not kind to Gil Scott-Heron.  Called the “Godfather of Rap” by many, and widely regarded as a pioneer of spoken word music, the composer of the seminal 1970’s talk-jazz piece, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, apparently spent his final few decades of his life in a withering slowdance with crack, his drug of choice.

Once a prolific writer and composer — at 21 he had already published two novels and numerous poems, and from 1971 to 1982 released 13 albums — by the end of his life his creative output had been reduced to a trickle.  In fact, Gil Scott-Heron produced only two albums in 28 years; one in 1994 and one last year.

And even though he continued to perform publicly throughout his life, albeit intermittently, Scott-Heron also turned himself into something of a hermit, rarely leaving his New York apartment and even going to so far as to place bed sheets over the windows to block out the sunlight and lying on his couch for hours watching DVDs of old cartoon shows like Underdog, Top Cat and Rocky and Bullwinkle.

For a 2010 profile in the New Yorker, author Alec Wilkinson met his subject in his apartment in Harlem and was clearly taken aback by Scott-Heron’s gaunt appearance, in light of the striking young rebel/poet he had once been: “He was thin then, but now he seems strung together from wires and sinews—he looks like bones wearing clothes.” 

When I heard Gil Scott-Heron died a few weeks back at the age of 62, I recalled something he had said to Wilkinson over the course of that interview, a quote the author included in his profile.  After reading it the first time, I remember putting the magazine down and thinking about what Scott-Heron had said. It really made me think about how rarely most people ever step outside their our own minds and view themselves through the eyes of others.

Scott-Herron was trying to explain the genesis of what would prove to be his final album. He said he’d been approached by British hip hop producer and impresario, Richard Russell, who’d seen him perform in London in the 80’s and wanted to collaborate with Scott-Heron ever since.  He told Wilkinson the producer kept hounding him and hounding him, telling him how much it would mean to him if they could work together. 

Finally, Scott-Heron acquiesced, and after nearly three years of stops and starts I’m New Here was released in February of 2010.

In the course of telling the story, Scott-Heron said to the interviewer:  “My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he (Russell) seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me — why not?  All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

{ 3 comments }

Ed Lee June 23, 2011 at 2:08 am

MC, How\’s it goin\’ ?
First of all, was a big fan of Mr. Scott-Heron. Songs like the Bottle, Winter in America, Angel Dust and The Revolution will Not be Televised, were a new marriage of music, word, and social consciousness. He was a Poet Warrior in the most literal sense; he read poetry out loud; I\’m just a little man he was a great man.
Was it so bad that he spent his last days grooving with Shoe Shine Boy and Sweet Polly Purebread, or TC and Benny (they were from and of the streets too, or most importantly The Cold War Masterpiece of Jay Ward that we knew as Rocky and Bullwinkle ( when you think about it those Fractured Fairytales were deep and thought provoking ); I think NOT.
But to me Gil\’s most important work and gift to the movement was his classic tale of a government gone crazy and not caring for it\’s people – especially those of color- say it together with me, that\’s right, the classic \"Whitey\’s on the Moon\".
\"A rat done bit my sister Nell, her arms and legs began to swell and WHITEY\’S ON THE MOON.\" Those few words sum up the plight of the people of color in this country have endured, and continue to deal with. Think about it, that phrase can be the answer to everything and for everybody- black or white because really Whitey is Beaver Cleaver\’s friend and everyone can rela— I\’m sorry, I lost my train of thought there for a second- where were we, oh yeah, Whitey is really \"The Man\". And we\’re all just pushing dope for the man cuz Fred is Dead—- I\’m sorry, I did it again didn\’t I.
Anyway, if you watch the News (does anyone do that anymore) and they do some incomprehensible report on why the Economy sucks, or We\’re sick of the war, or Kim Kardashian is being hounded by the Paparazzi, all you have to say is, \"and Whitey\’s on the Moon\". Those around you will know EXACTLY what you mean and those that don\’t are the morons who\’s favorite member of The Three Stooges was Shemp so THEY\’RE part of the problem. THEY\’RE Whitey!!!
Try it. Next time the wife is nagging you, your man is doin\’ you wrong, the kids can\’t understand why you can\’t buy them the new I-Phone, the boss hates your idea, your all boys (back then) high school where you were taught by Christian Brothers who were either : A. alchoholics B. Gay (not that there\’s anything wrong with that) C. ex-Golden Gloves participants D. or some combination of the three- hounds you for a donation, just mumble slightly under your breath, \"yeah, yeah, and Whitey\’s on the moon.
So check out the video on YouTube. Rest well nubian word man and look down on Whitey on the moon.
Peace.
Ed Lee

Ed Lee June 23, 2011 at 2:07 am

MC, How’s it goin’ ?
First of all, was a big fan of Mr. Scott-Heron. Songs like the Bottle, Winter in America, Angel Dust and The Revolution will Not be Televised, were a new marriage of music, word, and social consciousness. He was a Poet Warrior in the most literal sense; he read poetry out loud; I’m just a little man he was a great man.
Was it so bad that he spent his last days grooving with Shoe Shine Boy and Sweet Polly Purebread, or TC and Benny (they were from and of the streets too, or most importantly The Cold War Masterpiece of Jay Ward that we knew as Rocky and Bullwinkle ( when you think about it those Fractured Fairytales were deep and thought provoking ); I think NOT.
But to me Gil’s most important work and gift to the movement was his classic tale of a government gone crazy and not caring for it’s people – especially those of color- say it together with me, that’s right, the classic “Whitey’s on the Moon”.
“A rat done bit my sister Nell, her arms and legs began to swell and WHITEY’S ON THE MOON.” Those few words sum up the plight of the people of color in this country have endured, and continue to deal with. Think about it, that phrase can be the answer to everything and for everybody- black or white because really Whitey is Beaver Cleaver’s friend and everyone can rela— I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought there for a second- where were we, oh yeah, Whitey is really “The Man”. And we’re all just pushing dope for the man cuz Fred is Dead—- I’m sorry, I did it again didn’t I.
Anyway, if you watch the News (does anyone do that anymore) and they do some incomprehensible report on why the Economy sucks, or We’re sick of the war, or Kim Kardashian is being hounded by the Paparazzi, all you have to say is, “and Whitey’s on the Moon”. Those around you will know EXACTLY what you mean and those that don’t are the morons who’s favorite member of The Three Stooges was Shemp so THEY’RE part of the problem. THEY’RE Whitey!!!
Try it. Next time the wife is nagging you, your man is doin’ you wrong, the kids can’t understand why you can’t buy them the new I-Phone, the boss hates your idea, your all boys (back then) high school where you were taught by Christian Brothers who were either : A. alchoholics B. Gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) C. ex-Golden Gloves participants D. or some combination of the three- hounds you for a donation, just mumble slightly under your breath, “yeah, yeah, and Whitey’s on the moon.
So check out the video on YouTube. Rest well nubian word man and look down on Whitey on the moon.
Peace.
Ed Lee

M.C. Antil June 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Ed: I can see the years haven’t diminished your powers of observation or dulled your edge. And God, I respect that in a person of any age, much less a grizzled veteran of the Class of ’73.

Gotta admit, I didn’t know much about GSH, other than “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But I will say of all the things of his I read in the days immediately following his death, the one that still sticks with me is “Pieces of a Man.”

I saw my daddy greet the mailman
And I heard the mailman say
‘Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today’
He didn’t know what he was saying
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man

Thnx for the note, Ed. It’s been way too long. I got your email and will get back to you with my contact info. If you’re ever get to Chicago, you know you got a place to stay. Regardless of whether or not Whitey’s on the moon.

Until then.

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