In Celebration of Gil Scott-Heron

Gerry Hassan

December 8th 2009

Gil Scott-Heron matters to me. Musically. Politically. Personally. For the stands he took interweaving politics, personal action and what it means to be a man trying to be honest and keep on the straight and narrow. A path which he himself tragically has found difficult to keep to at points ….

Then of course there is the glorious Scottish connection of Gil’s father, Giles playing for Celtic in the 1950s. He became known as ‘the Black Arrow’ and was apparently a bit of a dandy boy! A couple of weeks ago I was on Newsnight Scotland and when I was sitting in the studio – as the Scottish opt-out came in the UK feed continued for thirty seconds or so (on an internal screen) and a pile of Gil Scott-Heron album covers flashed past the screen. This seemed a mistake for the next UK item was something straight and serious about the continued crisis of British finance.

Then a couple of days ago I found the item in question – a wonderful, reflective and loving tribute to the man Gil Scott-Heron (1), about his influence, his life, acknowledging his troubles, and his forthcoming new album by Stephen Smith. Given what Gil has put himself through these last two decades with drugs and two stays in New York State Penitentiary this is as unlikely a comeback as the one staged by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in the last decade. Perhaps even more unlikely!

Here is Gil, laughing, being self-deprecatory and talking about his influence, music, politics and the troubles he has been in. There is footage of him on stage in the last month at B. B Kings in NYC. He comes on stage with that beautiful smile late as always, and comments with an acknowledgement of his troubles, ‘For those of you who bet I would not be here, you lose’, and then of his lateness (45 minutes or so), ‘And for all you who bet I would not be here on time, you broke even’.

I have to say the gentle allusion to his drug filled years, time in prison and chaotic years in such a playful way reduced me to tears. That’s our Gil for you and one of the emotional high points of my life was meeting Gil last year in his home in Harlem and talking to him about his plans and the influence he has had musically and politically.

I gave him a Michael Marra demo of a track about Gil’s dad playing for Celtic, ‘The Flight of the Heron’. I had the privilege of experiencing Gil hearing for the first time this magical Michael Marra song – and as it hit just under its first minute – realise that this track was touching Gil’s heart!

It was a wonderful set of moments, and it made me realise that in many respects as men and performers, Gil and Michael, shared many similarities, being soft, wonderful men, who could both do with a bit of support in their lives, but I imagined had a lot of love.

Sixteen years after the last Gil album ‘Spirits’ we have another Gil album out in January 2010 which from the extracts we have heard sounds fascinating, captivating and very powerful. His voice has changed dramatically but gained an edge in the way late Sinatra, Johnny Cash or Billie Holiday have that striking hollowed out vocal borne of the life on the edge!

People often say you should never meet your heroes, but my experience meeting and connecting with Gil only made me see him as something more impressive: a flawed man who had made many mistakes trying to live his life honestly and give voice to his musical and creative voice which have given us so much.