GIL SCOTT-HERON: JUST PEOPLE TRYING TO MAKE IT
Gil Scott-Heron passed away today. He was a poet, songwriter, orator and author sharing record labels if not actual records with American giants like Ron Carter, Bernard Purdie, Bruce Springsteen and Blackalicious. He celebrated the 39th anniversary of “Whitey On The Moon” during the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. He spoke to Dan Collins in October 2009.
Was it a strange transition going from being on a label with Angela Davis to a label like Arista, which had people like Barry Manilow?
Both of them had something to say, but in different directions, wouldn’t you say?
Did you run into Barry Manilow?
Yeah! Clive Davis was just getting started from his days at Columbia. And Arista became rather well-known very quickly. That first year, we did the Midnight Special with all the Arista artists making their appearance. Barry Manilow was there, Patti Smith, Melissa Manchester… he had one major artist in each category, so he was trying to present that.
What was Patti Smith like?
I saw some performances that she did, and I was very impressed. She was a little short big-mouthed militant! She did excellent work. She was altogether unconventional and unique.
I love her armpits on those Robert Mapplethorpe photos! In the lyrics in ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ you made fun of ‘hairy-armed women’s liberationists.’ Is that something that you look back on and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that?’
No, I spoke of what I saw. I don’t think that the women’s liberationists at that time represented feminism. I think they represented women who were having a hard time at having to do the job that men do, but it didn’t appear that there needed to be different movements at that time. I thought the Civil Rights Movement would have covered it all. I think when they divided us into gay liberation and women’s liberation and Chicano liberation, it was an attempt to split us up and keep us from getting any lib.
People who don’t know many of your songs may think of you as abrasive, but listening to the albums, I would say that maybe 80% of your songs are beautiful and gentle.
I would hope it’s more than that! To represent a community, you sort of have to represent all the points within it. I think we’ve done that rather fairly. Our community is not harsh and aggressive. Our community is mostly just people trying to make it. So, like, the songs that we tried to do, from ‘Save the Children’ to ‘A Lovely Day’ to ‘Your Daddy Loves You’ are representative of the community. If people want to sort of pick out some of our songs, they didn’t really represent me as much as they represented where I did it and what I would see around the way. We’ve been heard of more than we’ve been heard!
The narrative behind ‘Whitey on the Moon,’ about the girl who gets bit by a rat—was that based on something true?
No, not exactly. It was a metaphor. The night that we had landed on the moon, my mother and I were watching it. And we started talking about different ideas that were in sharp contrast to the amount of money that had been spent to accomplish that. That’s all the poem is about. And I was an aficionado of Langston Hughes, so it has some Langston Hughes irony—I don’t know, maybe a bit more than ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ ha ha! ‘A rat done bit my sister Nell,’ it had the rhythm I was looking for. It had a bridge, like songs do—it went back to the top, and went in different directions. And my mother supplied the punch line.
What’s your favorite funny lyric?
We took a nice shot at Frank Rizzo, the Mayor of Philadelphia, in ‘The Watergate Blues’: ‘The high school graduate mayor whose ignorance is surpassed only by those who voted for him.’
Your first novel was The Vulture. And that imagery shows up in at least one other lyric of yours. What’s the meaning of ‘the vulture’ for you?
For me, the vulture was this sort of demon that lurks over everybody when they’re in that life. John Lee was that guy who was at parties in the summertime with all of his friends and started to sell reefer and pills, and he became involved in an atmosphere where his friends became enemies, and his enemies maintained their position. And somewhere the life of the party became the death of the neighborhood.
I’m feeling like death today—last night I was coughing up blood! Is the healthcare crisis in America something that you want to address?
You don’t have to really force ideas that people are familiar with in everyday life into music. To make it worthwhile, you have to say something that hasn’t been said. That takes time sometimes. I haven’t gone any ways with that. But I think if you talk about the famine that was taking place in the Sahel, we mentioned that in ‘We Beg Your Pardon’—the fact that we throw a lot of food away, we mention that also in the same poem. So we try and make sure that points that people are familiar with are mixed in with the rest of the piece.
The time you began your musical career—the late sixties and early seventies—is remembered by many as one of the most difficult times in American history. Are things better or worse now than they were then?
Well, I don’t think it was necessarily one of the worst times. There’ve been two world wars, there’s been a Civil War, there’s been a Depression. I think the sixties are overemphasized by people who believed that smoking reefer and getting high and having birth-control pills were some sort of drama. When millions of people are dying, we can picture that as more of a crisis than people smoking a joint. I’m saying there’s a war going on right now, with people dying every day. I can’t think of anything more unnecessary and more ridiculous than people killing each other over something that no one understands.
In ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ you say that the ‘theme song will not be written by Francis Scott Key nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Engelbert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.’ Don’t you think that’s some harsh shit to lay on Johnny Cash?
Well, Johnny Cash was one of the icons, and I heard him take a stab at ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ one day, and I didn’t think he did such a great job. Ha ha! I heard them all take a stab at ‘the Star-Spangled Banner,’ and they did an awful job!
The Rare Earth has been sampled by a lot of hip-hop artists. Have you ever seen someone perform and use the Rare Earth’s samples?
No, I haven’t, but I’m not surprised! A lot of people are too lazy to write their own.
Are you against sampling?
I’m against doing it for the sake of convenience. I wouldn’t record it and call it respect.
A lot of people credit you as being the Father of Hip-Hop. Maybe you’re not always happy with the path your children have taken?
I’m proud of Chuck D! I’m proud of Mos Def. I’m proud of the people from PM Dawn. It depends on who you’re pointing at. That’s such a general shot… if you look long enough, you can find something wrong with anything! We worked with Mos Def when they were doing ‘Hurricane,’ we worked with Blackalicious. Different folks! You meet these folks, and they’re just starting their careers off. You can’t tell which direction it’s going in, but if you can have some positive influence, why not?
You appeared on what seems like several charity albums, like the No Nukes album in the seventies, and the Sun City record in 1985. How did you come to take part in those?
That’s part of the thing when you live in the community—is to help somebody, to bolster its visibility. Jackson Browne was working on No Nukes, and since we were the only ones out that had made a song about nuclear power, they thought we might be appropriate. Steve Van Zandt invited me to be on the Sun City album.
Little Stevie! That one always made my mind kind of pop, because I admire both your lyrics and the lyrics of Lou Reed, and he’s on the same album. Did you guys hang out?
I didn’t meet Lou Reed! The night I went in, almost all the work was done. I went in with Steve Walker and Robert Gordon [not the rockabilly one—ed.] and we sang ‘Let Me See Your ID.’ Steve was there and a couple people who were working on the album, David Goldberg and some people I knew from high school. Later, on TV appearances, I ran into Bonnie Raitt and Herbie Hancock and other people who were making appearances at the time. But Little Stevie’s energy and attitude were the foundation of that project, and I think he should get the credit.
Do you listen to his garage rock radio show?
Every once in a while, I run across that. What I do is I’m a writer. And I’m also a baseball fan, so that takes up a lot of time!
Besides your lyrics, you also have a very sonorous voice. Did you train as a singer?
I have a range that goes from A to B. I try to do what I can! When you’re doing songs, actually you’re becoming a character because of the point of view that’s there. And when you take on that character… often you’re having to do things with your voice that wouldn’t come up.
Your range is more than just A to B. On ‘Save the Children,’ it’s downright lovely! Did you get coaching from anyone?
No—just people saying ‘Don’t do that!’ Ha!
What’s the name of your book that’s coming out?
It’s called The Last Holiday, and it’s about the tour we went on with Stevie Wonder to try and get Dr. King’s birthday established as a national holiday.
And you won! But do you think that there are some places in the country where old-fashioned racism is still pretty big?
No, they haven’t made as much impact as the folks who want to see society as it ought to be.
I don’t know… after Obama’s election, I’ve even seen some blatantly racist statements come out of the mouths of newscasters!