The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
And so we start another week of Morning Music. I’ve been reading, Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man. So I thought we ought to feature him. He was an amazing talent. He died far too young. And he spent far too much time otherwise engaged, releasing no work. Still he left the world a great deal of work: 13 studio albums.
Given that he isn’t that well known, I think we should start with his breakout song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” off his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. I first heard it when I was in my very late teens, working graveyard as a baker. It blew my mind. For one thing, I had long been interested in a kind of chanting or talk singing. And I had long been told by people that you just couldn’t do that. Well, here was someone doing that and it was electrifying.
Note a couple of things about this. First, not all his work is like this. He was quite varied. Much of his music is very jazzy, as the song I’m going to feature tomorrow off his next album. Second, this is the original version. If you want to hear his recording of the song with a full band, it is on YouTube. I prefer this one:
Pieces of a Man
Today we listen to the title track of Pieces of a Man. Gil Scott-Heron wrote it with jazz composer Brian Jackson — who he would do some of his best work with.
The song is the perfect combination of music and lyrics. It sounds like a jazz standard with lots of major 7th chords. It is highly evocative, even as it tells a fairly concrete story about a man destroyed by his economic difficulties. In particular, it highlights the importance of having a paying job to a man’s self-esteem. “He was a good man and a strong man, yet he went to pieces.”
I especially like the line, “And for some unknown reason, he never turned my way.” I know that experience. Men of that generation did not like to cry. But this feeling was especially true when it came to crying in front of their sons. They felt like they had to be strong for their sons. Although as this song indicates (but it is not autobiographical), sons still saw their fathers as strong. Regardless, that’s such a wonderful way of rendering the scene — explaining exactly what was happening with very few words.
Poetry: Pieces of a Man
Tossed about the room,
I saw my grandma sweeping
With her old straw broom.
But she didn’t know what she was doing.
She could hardly understand,
That she was really sweeping up
Pieces of a man.
I saw my daddy meet the mailman.
And I heard the mailman say,
“Now don’t you take this letter to hard now Jimmy,
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man.
I saw the thunder and heard the lightning,
And felt the burden of his shame.
And for some unknown reason,
He never turned my way!
Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room.
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom.
But they don’t know what they are doing.
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man.
I saw him go to pieces!
I saw him go to pieces!
He was always such a good man!
He was always such a strong, strong man!
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces.
I saw him go to pieces.
Pieces of a Man
The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues
We will slide smoothly into Gil Scott-Heron’s third album, Free Will. I’m making no effort to stay away from his better known tunes, because none of his work that that well know. And even people who have heard these tunes may not know who did them. Today, I feature, “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues.”
One thing that was interesting about the black power movement was how self-critical it was. In that way, it was exactly what conservatives like David Brooks and Paul Ryan claim the African American community should be. (In my work with a local Baptist church, I can assure you that this never went away.) But, of course, white America was terrified of black power. And, of course, we aren’t just talking bigots in small town Mississippi. We are talking northern white suburbanites — most of whom did not consider themselves racists.
“The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” is very simple. It’s about self-empowerment — by way of hectoring. It also has an awesome guitar part by David Spinozza.
Winter in America
In 1973, Gil Scott-Heron released what I think is generally considered his masterpiece, Winter in America. And that’s saying something, considering the amazing quality of his work throughout his career. And I really think you should take eight minutes to love yourself by listening to “H²Ogate Blues.” Get it? It is an amazing musically accompanied rap. It is intense and insightful. But what it reminds me of is Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” because it is so clear that the musicians are having such a great time. It can’t help but cheer you up, and you don’t even have to think of Nixon and Vietnam. Although “Just how blind, America?” still cuts like a new razor.
But instead, let’s do a song that wasn’t on the original release of Winter in America: “Winter in America.” I’m sure it was meant to be on it. It was on his next album. And it has been on reissues. It starts with the line, “From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims.” And I’m sure to most people, the response will be, “Yes, it probably did feel like winter in America in 1973.” But I think Scott-Heron is still right. Nothing has changed. It’s just that we are more delusional than we used to be. We pretend that we aren’t at war because we use machines to prop up our empire. Americans may not be dying, but I think it is pretty clear that America is dying.
On this live version, I’m pretty sure that that is Brian Jackson doing the flute solo. But this song was written by Gil Scott-Heron alone.
“Four more years of that?!”
I’m New Here
Forgive me. By definition, weeks only have seven days, and it is impossible to squeeze into that the whole career of someone as great as Gil Scott-Heron. So I’m just going to jump to his last album, I’m New Here. We’ll spend our last two days on it.
It is not even a half hour long, but it packs a punch. In one way, it is totally different from what he’d done before. There’s a lot more atmosphere. But fundamentally, it is another Gil Scott-Heron record — in many ways as good as anything he ever did.
Me And The Devil
What we’re going to listen to is a video of two works on that album. The first song is his amazing cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.” I don’t really know what to say. You’ve got to hear it. It’s fantastic. And then, there is his song “Your Soul and Mine.” It is Scott-Heron reciting “The Vulture” off his first album, with atmospheric music underneath. “Standing in the ruins of another black man’s life…” The two songs go perfectly together:
New York Is Killing Me
I’m New Here is probably Gil Scott-Heron’s most personal album. Or at least it feels that way. A friend mentioned that it was interesting that he should fall into the very trap of drug addiction and jail that he preached against. But I noted that this is actually a misreading of his work. Any hectoring that he did was loving. His real attacks were against the system that destroyed people. The fact that the system, to some extent, destroyed him almost seems appropriate to me.
The good thing about it is that he was able to write from both sides of it. For example, “The Crutch” presents what I think of as a very knowing portrait of a heroin addict, even though that was not his drug of choice. But I want to share with you a very raw blues number, “New York Is Killing Me.” It is both personal and social. And it is eternal. I am apparently not the only one to think that, because there are a lot of derivative songs based on it. But here is the album cut:
Gil Scott-Heroin 1984
We come to the end of our week of Gil Scott-Heron, and as usual, I’ve chosen a live set for this Saturday. I had a hard time choosing. The truth is that there are kind of two Gil Scott-Herons. There’s the young firebrand. Then there is the older and wiser man. Being older and wiser myself, I identify much more with the latter. But it is often great to spend time with the firebrand. It doesn’t really matter. I love it all.
The big problem is that I can’t find any live performances that are really late. They are more in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was struggling. These performances make me a bit sad, even though they are still very good. I’ve found and hour-long performance from a German television show back in 1984. But as usual, it was taken down because of copyright infringement. So here is “Gil Scott Heron Black Wax.” It’s been on YouTube since 2014 — almost 3 years. Hopefully, it will stay. It’s good!
Popcorn, Bottle, and Gil Scott-Heron
Many of you may know of my fondness for Gil Scott-Heron and his funky proto-rap. I remember the first time I heard him, I was working as a baker in my late teens. The one nice thing about that job was that I was alone and so I could listen to the local alternative radio station. And on came “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It was a revelation, “The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal… The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner because the revolution will not be televised.”
Earlier today, my friend (and sometimes writer for this site) Will sent me a link to Scott-Heron’s song “The Bottle” with a note, “Doesn’t the bass line sound like corn popping?” I had to admit that it did. But going back over a lot of his work, that’s more generally true. That’s part of what makes his work funky. There is no funk guitar, so it all comes down to the bass and the percussion. But the bass on “The Bottle” does sound more like a popcorn machine than any other song I’ve heard.
The song itself is deadly serious despite a really catchy tune and pleasant production. It’s about hopeless people who find their only solace in alcohol. It could be anything though. The bridge is slightly different each time, but the lyrics are:
The way, time after time
Friends of mine
In the bottle
There’s people sure ‘nough
In the bottle
But the song offers no solutions, and not even much in the way of context. Maybe in the three years between “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “The Bottle,” Scott-Heron had become a bit more cynical. I don’t actually think so. But it is certainly true that Small Talk at 125th and Lenox with “Revolution” and “Whitey on the Moon” is more strident than Winter in America. I prefer the former, but musically the latter is better.
Anyway, here is “The Bottle”:
Gil Scott-Heron was one of the rarest of things: an idiosyncratic artist who was incredibly skilled. Everytime I’m forced to listen to some American Idol skreetcher, I’m reminded of the authentic beauty of Gil Scott-Heron’s work. In a way, I think of him as our Jacques Brel. But what his work is so much more relevant to my life. I wished he were still alive. He’d only be 68 as I write this. It would be a different thing if his last album was weak, but it was some of his strongest work. He had so much more to offer us.
But I am extremely grateful for the work that he did leave to us. And I recommend that you check him out. There is lots of his work on YouTube. And you can still buy his albums at Amazon or your local record store. Listening to Gil Scott-Heron is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself!