Real Time Short Stories

“Chapters and scenes of all of the places we’ve been”

Posted on: May 28, 2011

Let’s talk about Gil Scott-Heron, and let’s talk about the writing. Let’s forget, for a moment, the voice, the music, the life; let’s forget Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Glenn Turner, Kim Jordan; let’s forget Civil Rights, Watergate, Plutonium, Reagan, Apartheid and Revolution. Let’s remember that what you’re feeling when you read this, and when you flick back through memories and sounds across over four decades, came about because someone picked up a pen and began to write.

Time. The words comes through the turnstiles of your mind, ringing the bell that attracts your attention like the warning bell near the end of a line on a typewriter. Time is here; then it is gone. I remember the first day I learned the meaning of the word gone. I had found my grandmother dead. Gone meant no tomorrow. Gone meant over. Dead meant that you, who had been something, were now nothing. That was the first time I saw a body lowered into the ground while people cried. I cried too, because I realized that I would someday die, and I was afraid of death. No longer was death a shootout in a cowboy movie or Christians being eaten alive in a Roman arena by toothless lions. It was the end of everything.
[from The Vulture, Canongate 1996, originally published in 1970]

It’s the reference points that set the fingertips tingling. The “turnstiles of your mind” – turnstiles, the ones you push through to get to the cheap seats; the image of hammering away at the typewriter, desperate to get the thought out in time to beat the bell; cowboys and indians; lions and Christians; the truth that comes from movies and the lives we actually live. When your eyes glaze over another obituary this weekend telling you that Gil Scott-Heron was called “the Godfather of rap” or “the black Bob Dylan” but blah blah blah he shied away from those titles…think about how small the box is into which those reductionist phrases place a writer with such a facility for illuminating the apparently banal and the apparently humble.

The passage above is from his 1970 novel, written in his early twenties yet vivid about the thoughts of a young child and the knowledge we grow into as we approach old age, and his poetry and lyrics are also studded with moments in which the humanity reaches out from the text to stroke our faces. “It stands out on the highway/ Like a creature from another time/ It inspires the babies’ question – What’s that?/ for their mothers as they ride…” [We Almost Lost Detroit]; “I saw my Daddy meet the mailman/ and I heard the mailman say./ ‘Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,/ ‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.’…” [Pieces Of A Man]; “Should have been asleep/ When I was sitting there drinking beer/ And trying to start another letter to you/ Don’t know how many times I dreamed to write again last night/ Should’ve been asleep when I turned the stack of records over and over/ So I wouldn’t be up by myself/ Where did the night go?” [Where Did The Night Go?].

We’ve had these nights, these journeys, these conversations; we’ve touched it all with our hands. That doesn’t make Gil Scott-Heron unique. It was what Chekhov and Whitman did, and Steinbeck, Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams. Dylan managed to connect in this way too, and so do quite a few rappers, but this is too vital a tradition in the last 150 years of art to be narrowed down to a binary polarity of white folkie / black proto-rapper (and to trace hip-hop back to anyone and not get as far as Louis Jordan at least is simply ignorance, but that’s a discussion for another, more music-driven blog). We are talking about the lives and voices of ordinary people being acknowledged and dignified, not just that they can be considered worthy as literature but, more, so that the lives of the poor and powerless, the marginalised and defeated can be raised up and the pastimes and leisure pursuits of art and literature be dragged down to become the biological necessities we know them to be. Brian Jackson was GSH’s greatest collaborator but Henry Fonda provides some neat backing in the quote from the end of the John Ford film of Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath:

I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’-where – wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

This is the language Gil Scott-Heron spoke too, and he addressed us as a friend and brother, which is why today’s remote news floating over the wires feels like a very immediate, local and personal loss. I don’t intend for obituary-writing to become a major part of this blog, though Poly Styrene jolted me into some thoughts on here a few weeks ago, but there’ll be writers the world over who’ll feel today that a slice has been taken from their tongues, some centimetres taken off the legs of their writing desk, and some water poured in to dilute their pens’ ink. There are truths about this world it’s our job to state but Gil usually got there first. And that world’s not getting any better for knowing that what he said made the most honest, humane and progressive sense. So things are going to get even harder from today onwards.

But I’m not too happy ’bout the middle of the mountain
so soon I’ll be climbing again
‘Cause all I can think of are chapters and scenes from
all of the places we’ve been.

That’s from 95 South (All Of The Places We’ve Been) and it was, of course, folly to think we could forget about the music so here’s the song:

Your reflections on Gil Scott-Heron are welcome.

14 Responses to "“Chapters and scenes of all of the places we’ve been”"

What can I say… my experience of GSH is refracted through a single piece of music, more or less, as I mentioned last week.. thinking about The revolution.. in terms of my own cultural references, I’d say it triggered an imaginary zone of references lying somewhere between Groucho Marx, Spike Lee, and Miles Davis.. coolness, sardonic humour, and political provocation all rolled into one.. I heard it divorced from its time and far from the society of its conception, but it was a piece of musical poetry which has always resonated with me as a perfect artefact; I still don’t get all the references but those words themselves have taken on meanings of their own… if I’m ever involved in a revolution of any kind you can be damn sure I won’t be wearing no jive red, black and green liberation jumpsuit… and yet brilliantly flippant lines like these sit next to the disturbing imagery of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay. Instead of Fonda’s Joad it might be the language of Bellow’s Mr. Sammler I hear in GSH’s words; but the affirmation of humanity is the same.

You may only own the one track by him, nilp, but what a track it is. I get your zone of references in terms of where it may have come from; I’d also suggest that Bill Hicks, Chris Rock and Adam Curtis have all taken their buckets to that well – the “pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay” repetition feels like a Curtis documentary condensed into five or so seconds.

I read Canongate’s Jamie Byng recalling his friendship with Gil in a beautiful and very moving article and this paragraph expresses what I was getting at in my first comment on The ‘Spill yesterday, about the multitude of roles his music and words can play in a person’s life:

Just listen to Work for Peace, from his penultimate album Spirits, to be reminded of just how consistently relevant and incredibly sharp his vision was and will remain. If you want to relive the joy and empathy he felt towards people and music, just play Lady Day and John Coltrane. If you want to hear again his railing against social injustice, replay Johannesburg. Who else was decrying and condemning apartheid in 1974? If you want to remember his lyrical genius and profound understanding of his own country’s tragic and troubled history, then Winter in America is essential listening. If you want to appreciate his withering assessment of the perpetually bankrupt politics of Republicanism, then listen to the H2O Gate Blues or B Movie, two remarkably prescient records that not only put Nixon and Reagan in the dock and found them guilty as charged, but do so with dark humour and wickedly barbed putdowns that few people can match. B Movie, like his top 10 hit The Bottle, also manages to be a very heavy dance groove to which I have seen whole dance floors erupt.

A loving and thought-provoking appreciation, thank you. Of course he belongs in that blues – jazz – soul – hip-hop lineage, but “Pieces of a Man” would speak to anyone, and better than any song, reflects Freud on the universal need for love and work.

Plus it contains the line “I saw the thunder and heard the lightning” which is my standard example of synesthesia when I’m doing a creative writing session on different types of imagery! And as slight as that seems, it’s also a reminder of what was great about this writing, that it never strained for artful literary effect, never made that the point, but it achieved it anyway, while all the time sticking to the main plan of telling the stories of people in struggle.

That piece from Grapes of Wrath literally always brings tears to my eyes, it’s so honest and it’s also sad that the guy that wrote it wound up as a right wing republican Reagan supporter!

Indeed – Nunnally Johnson (I’ve just looked that up, I’m not going to lie to you!). I wonder – you may know this, goneforeign – if he was one of several carried over to the right in the wake of Reagan who, as Gil put it in B Movie, “Acted like an actor – Hollyweird, acted like a liberal, acted like General Franco when he acted like Governor of California, then he acted like a Republican…” It was that acting like a liberal as head of the Screen Actors Guild in the McCarthy era that would have convinced others he was one of the good guys. I can understand that but it’s harder to see how they’d have managed to sustain that view when Reagan turned to frying black prisoners to win gubernatorial votes…”I guess we’re all actors in this.”

Let’s try that one again, shall we? I got my wires crossed, thinking goneforeign was referring to the screenwriter who adapted Steinbeck’s novel for the John Ford film. Just to be clear, the precise quote I used was from the film but the words are Steinbeck’s – Tom Joad in the book reflects during the speech that he’s starting to sound like the radicalised former preacher, Jim Casy. And Steinbeck did indeed lurch to the right in later life, coming out in favour of the Vietnam War. Nunnally Johnson’s politics can go back to being an unknown quantity to me, and the relationship between Reagan’s former liberalism and the shifting patterns of Hollywood political affiliation needn’t detain us any further!

I sent this to my brother who was with me that night at the Phil, Loved this Dinesh have read a few tributes today more poems than anything that do focus on the music, I like how you took a different take on it, because it was the words whether lyrics or poetry that most of us connected to the most but he was much more than a pioneer of rap as some label him, he had that ability to hea othersl while revealing his vulnerability and demons – it is like someone from our immediate circle, family even, died today. I don’t remember ever feeling so happy about a new album from an artist coming out, not for the obvious reasons but because it must of made all those critics eat humble pie and although most of his older work is my favorite, the new album I connected to like a soundtrack for my own transition and journey. Thanks for sharing this.

Thank you, Maria. There’s a similar pattern here with Curtis Mayfield (who remains my ultimate musical hero; I tend to view Gil in a different context). There was, as Jamie Byng describes about GSH, the period of time when you expected to hear the news of Mayfield’s death, following the accident that left him paraplegic. Then came the triumphant new album, a suitable continuation of the earlier inspiration but modern enough to appeal to those who had no prior knowledge. Relaxed into that sense of re-birth – and then he died, and I agree it felt like a death in the family. Johnny Cash, similar pattern. And all three spoke for and with the voice of the weakest in society – and we cannot afford to lose voices like those that at least managed to get heard. We’re going to have to pick our words carefully and clear our throats.

I am a freedom singer who found her voice–cut her teeth on the culture of resistance by listening to Brother Gil, the Last Poets and Amiri Baraka. The song, 95 Miles South (All of the Places We’ve Been) resonates with me in a haunting and prophetic way as I labor in the belly of the deep south here in the Mississippi Delta where I am a Peoples’ Lawyer who still writes and sings songs and field hollers in the 21st Century. When I sang with my former husband, Ngoma Hill with the group “Serious Bizness” we shared the stage with Gil Scott at SOBs in New York City. We opened for Gil and what a night it was. Culture really is the seed of resistance, as Amilcar Cabral said all those years ago. Now my brother, you can rest, take a deep breath, tell the demons to back up cause they didn’t get you. They only thought they did. But your bounce back was their push back. Your battle brought on by the burden of oppression and the isolation of resistance! Rest in Peace Warrior while we keep on singing and try to carry on! With love and respect, your sister, Jaribu Hill

Welcome Jaribu and thank you for sharing your personal connection to Gil. You are doubtless aware of how deeply people in struggle and creative artists worldwide have drawn from the history, sounds, literature and imagery of generated by those like Gil, and like you, who have carried the movement for human and civil rights across America’s heartland.

As a writer in the UK just twenty years ago, I know I was channelling all the names you mention – Gil, Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets – before finding comfortable expression in my own voice. I regard it as crucial to my development but, once that stylistic influence stage has been passed through, the work remains as an inspirational beacon, never more so than with Gil, who spoke with the voice of Black America as well as that of the working class, poor, oppressed and marginalised on a global scale; ultimately, with all our voices.

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[…] is for Gil Scott-Heron For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that for Pieces Of A Man: Saw my Daddy meet the mailman and […]

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