From the NME, 30th April, 1983
Paul Du Noyer meets an angry black poet who has a radical conscience and a bizarre sense of humour
“hey listen to this. What do you say to a one-legged hitch hiker?”
Er, I dunno. What?
“Hop in. Ha ha ha! Hop in!”
He tell jokes Gil Scott-Heron. Well, that’s no big surprise – serious as his message often is, there’s always been a vein of humour running through his work. But really dumb jokes like that?
Apparently so: Gil Scott-Heron whiles away the flight from Washington DC to London, England, not with some tome of of radical poetry or a batch of Congressional reports, but with a slim volume of The World’s Most tasteless Jokes.
The thing is, there’s more to Gil Scott-Heron than meets the old one-line summaries – the token spokesman of black anger and so forth. This time around, while nothing about him has been diluted, he’s keen to see the stereotype image given a couple of extra dimensions.
“I’m a poet,” he says, “and I’ve been doing that for quite a while, and all the statements that I’ve made are statements that I stand by. But I’m also a father, I’m also a husband, I’m also a son, a grandson and a brother and all those things. And those are not things that I overlook in my pursuit of being radical, or militant or whatever else…
“You like to have people aware of all the things that you do, so they don’t see you as one-dimensional. It happens anyway: we are constantly known as Gil Scott-Heron the radical-militant-extremist, pick any one of those. And that doesn’t add up in any way to my self-image. Fortunately I have my self image to carry round with me to disrupt any of that, so it doesn’t have that much effect on me what people see me as. I feel as though they are looking at whatever aspect of our work they are most often exposed to.”
Rather than expose you to any more of his jokes, let’s backtrack a moment.
Born in Chicago, raised in Tennessee then New York City, and a resident of Washington for the last decade, published a novel at the age of 19, followed by a book of verse and another novel. Over the years he’s released a stream of acclaimed records, many of them in collaboration with Brian Jackson.
The albums run from ‘Small Talk At 125th And Lennox’, a collection of verse, through to last year’s ‘Moving Target’ LP, a mellower blend of soul and funk, with jazz and blues traces never too far from the surface. Along with his band The Amnesia Express (successors to the pre-1980 Midnight band), Scott-Heron has just completed one of his periodic trips to England, playing a series of dates that suggested his UK following is healthy and growing – even if the Commonwealth Institute shows were spoiled with a venue’s pathetically bad visibility (you couldn’t see him) and poor sound (you couldn’t make out the words).
Undeniably, the man’s reputation rests mainly on his gift for eloquent polemic. Describing himself as “an interpreter of the black experience”, his songs and poems can pour scorn in a beautiful way. Whether it’s cold outrage against injustice (‘Jose Campos Torres’), or a stirring affirmation of belief (‘Johannesburg’, newly re-released as a single by Arista), or the withering satire of ‘H2O Gate Blues’, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and ‘B Movie’ (featured on the NME ‘Jive Wire’ tape). . . when Gil Scott-Heron attacks something it stays attacked.
He’s not a ranter. Much of the power in his performance comes out of its discipline – the certain dignity of controlled indignation. Match that with his warm sense of community, and his elegant and economic use of irony and the sheer strength of his presence, and the results can be funny and bitter in equally devastating measure. I’m tempted to think that if the British Labour Party could use him as the other lot use Saatchi and Saatchi, then they’d romp the election.
After the explosion of American black consciousness in the ‘60s, Scott-Heron voice sounded like a lonelier one through the decade which followed. To a casual observer, at least, the dominant strain of US black music in the ‘70s appeared more escapist, full of the bland platitudes about love and good times, coupled with endless exhortations to dance. Did he, I wondered, ever feel like a man out of time?
“No, I have never taken myself that seriously. I did what I wanted to do. I assumed that other artists could not, and therefore did what they did. It never occurred to me to stop and think about why other artists were doing what they were doing. I assumed someone would ask them and find out.
“I had an opportunity to work in some circumstances where I could independently organise the sorts of things that I wanted to be responsible for. You see, you have to live with these things for the rest of your life, and I was pretty well convinced that since many factors that weren’t on records in general were dominating our lifestyles, there needed to be some comment made on them.
“But I think people become fairly selective when they decide to establish an identity for me as an artist. They take ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ for example, but not the song that comes right after it, ‘God Save The Children’. And if you want to be selective in choosing the tunes from the various albums, then you could paint a picture in almost any direction that you care to, because we’ve done that many different kinds of songs. I’d rather look at myself in terms of all the things that I’ve done. I’m responsible for all of them and take an equal amount of pride in all of them.”
I happen to mention to him the New York rappers, and suggest that the recent burst of harder, more political records (Grandmaster Flash, Valentine Brothers, Brother D And The Collective Effort) might be a development he’d welcome, as more akin to his own work. How wrong I was.
“Oh gee, I’m insulted. I don’t really see much substance or expertise being applied there. It seems as though they make it up as they go along. Well, you know I’m always looking for substance. And I’ve been doing what I do now for 15 years, and it seems as if most of these were put together in 15 minutes. Maybe I’m not insulted, maybe I’m just shocked and amazed that there would be any comparison whatsoever.”
The rappers stuff “impresses those it’s meant to impress”, he says, dismissively. It seems like I’ve stumbled on to a topic that rankles. But surely this music has parallels with some of his own. At least it’s a move away from the clichéd get-down-and-boogie syndrome?
“Well that’s what most of it evolved from. See, when they started to replace bands with disc jockeys in the clubs, then the DJs seemed to feel called upon to do more than play records, but to also entertain and be the life of the party. So a lot of them came up with the little slogans and rhymes to go along with the good times they were about to induce, allegedly. . .
“I’ve found it constantly astonishing that what I’ve seen of these particular artists indicates a sort of Columbus attitude. Columbus ‘discovered’ the Indians, yet he’s given credit for having discovered America. Which is to say that, like, if you had a car parked outside and I went out there and got in it, I could say I’d ‘discovered’ it and drive off!
“So their having discovered the possibilities of doing that indicates to them that they’ve discovered this particular art-form – when I’m certain that I didn’t discover it, and I came along 15 years before anybody discovered them. At the very most, it’s sort of amusing. At the very least (laughs), it’s something else altogether. It’s insulting.”
How about English music. Does he hear much of that?
“Oh yeah, they insist on it in the States. They continually bombard you with English artists – anything to keep from playing our stuff! Ha ha!”
A new LP is due sometime later in the year, he tells me. “But I’m never in a hurry. That’s what’s wrong with most of the stuff I hear. It sounds as though they did it in a hurry, like they stopped off at the studio on the way to somewhere else. . . I enjoy looseness when I’m working. I don’t like to say, Alright, we’re gonna meet here at eight o’clock and we’re going to create! (Laughs) Y’know, nobody put those kind of restrictions on God, the original creator. He took as long as he had to, to get it right.”
And he still made a mess of it.
“Yeah! We still got this! So understanding that; when we go into the studio we say, Right we’re gonna work at it but let’s face it, it’s not going to be perfect.”
While I take his point about preferring to be known for the diverse aspects of his work, it seems worth asking a couple more things about the frequent political content. For one thing, there’s a constant debate going on over here, not least in NME, about mixing music with some social concerns. Some say that musicians should stick to smaller topics. . .
“What I’m saying is, why should musicians concern themselves with anything, if not with the breadth of what they’re experiencing? It should be no more interesting to anyone else what my affairs are with my wife, as it is to my affairs with the people who take my taxes.
“Those are both things I have to deal with every day, so I don’t see any separation in terms of, well you should just sing about fucking, or dancing – because that’s not all I do. I also pay taxes to get my ass kicked if I’m on the wrong corner at the wrong time. I see those as parts of life, and I see artists as interpreters of life, and life’s experiences.
“In other words, if a nuclear power plant goes up, it doesn’t just take the people out who are not artists, it takes the artists out too. So the artists should damn well concern themselves with that in the same way that he concerns himself with how he should keep his household together. I think that’s one of the biggest bullshit cop-outs I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard it often enough by now to know it for that.
“Why should artists be confined to describing their sex life, and other people be free to describe what they care to? Like newspaper men – what the hell, they work at the newspaper, why should they have any editorial opinion about anything?
Does music ever change anything?
“I think so. I think it helps to change people’s minds, and I think that changing people’s minds helps to change things. The three steps to change are information, organisation and action. And none of them work without the other. In other words, people who are not informed cannot be organised, and people who are not organised cannot do anything effectively because their energy is dispersed.
“I feel as though music has the opportunity to help inform people, and so naturally I believe that it has an effect. I have letters, I have proof (laughs). But I do believe that before you change anything you have to change people’s minds.”
Suddenly, time runs out. Getting up to leave, I thank him for what sounds to me like a useful contribution to a discussion that’s far from over.
“Hopefully, it’s been given with all the honesty I can muster. I usually manage that – if I lie. I have to remember what I used! (Laughs) So I prefer not to. This way, I can always come up with the same answers!
By the way he’s got another joke – about three brothers chasing an elephant. But I forget the punchline.