GIL SCOTT-HERON / “Pieces Of A Man”
There is a revolution going on in the world. We are very much a part of it and have a great deal to contribute to the force and direction of this revolution. There are many fronts within this struggle, many far flung outposts geographically isolated and distant from our mainstreams of communication. But everyone who struggles for a better life for oppressed people is an ally who could use any symbol of our concern and solidarity.
—Gil Scott-Heron, from the liner notes to Bridges
About five months ago, as part of our tribute to the New Year, I mentioned that my personal Nobel Laureate in the field of genius-level songcraft, the one and only Gil Scott-Heron, had written far too many quality ballads for me to pick a favorite. In that week’s jukebox, we featured four ballads that communicate the more optimistic, hopeful side of Brother Gil’s artistry. This week, we’re featuring another four of Gil’s ballads, but this time the focus is on the darker side of Gil’s artistry.
We start with one of Gil’s bluer moments, “The Prisoner,” the last track of the 1971 LP Pieces Of A Man. Though the blues is often about hope, there’s not much here. A young Gil Scott-Heron sings of “black babies in the womb / shackled and bound” and of trying to survive in a world where “can’t nobody…see just who in hell I am.” He is “hounded by hatred and trapped by fear,” “a stranger to [his] son” who fights off fantasies of “slaughtering his own.” Throughout, the sense of isolation and desperation the character feels is palpable. As Gil repeats in the chorus, what the man really needs is “somebody to listen to [him].” But the way I hear it, “The Prisoner” isn’t about any one particular man. It is a metaphor for black men in general, circa 1971. In the 35 years since, a lot has changed for many of us. For too many others, not much as changed, if anything. Gil foreshadows this bleak future-reality by refusing to provide a resolution to his character sketch. “The Prisoner” runs more than nine minutes but it never really ends. It just stops.
We turn now from the personal to the political. Or, I should say, to the more overtly political. (I have to specify because one of the most consistent elements of Gil Scott-Heron’s large body of work is that he is almost always politically conscious, even when he is highly specific or personal.) “We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Winter In America” both address the collective and willful amnesia that America and Americans seem to specialize in. The original version of “Winter” is backed by flute and tympani drums—a sarcastic nod to a military march. The version in this week’s jukebox is a solo piano version that was included on the CD reissue of the 1975 Midnight Band LP. (Yes, there is a 1974 Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson LP named Winter In America, but the song “Winter In America” didn’t come together until a year later.) Lyrically, “Winter” tells of an America where “democracy is rag-time on the corner,” “the forest is buried beneath the highway,” “robins are perched in barren treetops” and finally, where “no one is fighting because no one knows what to say.” And speaking of winter, “We Almost Lost Detroit” (from the out-of-print 1977 Bridges LP) is about a narrowly-averted nuclear winter: an epic-scale disaster that could’ve wiped out a major American city. The title is taken from the John Fuller book of the same name in which Fuller details the partial melt-down of the Fermi I nuclear power plant in Lagoona Beach, Michigan—a distant suburb of Detroit. The beauty of the anti-nuclear tune is how warm and human it sounds. In fact, if you didn’t understand English, you’d be forgiven for hearing it as a love song. (And not coincidentally, Mos Def and Talib Kweli sampled the languid, jazzy chords of “We Almost Lost Detroit” for their love song, “Brown Skinned Woman” “Brown Skin Lady.”) Gil even brings a human touch to his description of the plant itself. He begins the second verse by singing…
It stands out on the highway
Like a creature from another time
It inspires the babies’ questions—“What’s that?!”
For their mothers as they ride
…and it’s hard not to smile as you imagine slack-jawed little kids kneeling on the backseat of passing cars, faces and hands pressed to the glass. The monster disguised as a circus giant.
The feature track, “Pieces Of A Man” (the title song from the same LP that contains “The Prisoner”) is one of Gil’s better-known recordings. It tells the brief, devastating story of one man’s layoff notice. The brilliance of this recording is that the scene is reported neither from the point of view of an omniscient narrator nor from the point of view of the man himself. Instead, the story is told by a little boy. “I saw my Daddy meet the mailman,” the young protagonist says and you’re right there with him, peeking through a rip in the screen door. When the mailman says, “Now don’t you take this letter to hard now, Jimmy / ‘Cause they laid off nine others today,” you feel your heart sinking through your chest as if you were the kid himself. Then there is Gil’s precise imagery. He begins with a line about the “jagged jigsaw pieces” of the letter and later, rejoining the metaphor, the little boy hears “sirens come knifing through the gloom.” As much as any song Gil ever wrote, “Pieces Of A Man” evokes the awesome timelessness of the blues. “Pieces” adeptly communicates the weight carried by the average, everyday working poor but also, by using the voice of the son rather than the father, Gil illustrates the still-hidden legacy of America’s class structure. For poor Americans, poverty might as well be a genetic disease…and a deadly one at that. For most, there’s just no escaping it. “He was always such a strong, strong man,” Gil sings in the voice of the child. But, “I saw him go to pieces.” As you stand there with the little boy, watching the police take the father away, you can’t help but feel that you’re watching nothing but the latest episode of an ominous and vicious cycle.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Enduring and Endearing
Mtume, that Pieces Of A Man album was a major step for Gil Scott-Heron, a step in which he firmly planted his foot on the career path of merging music and poetry in ways that many of us during that era aspired to but which most of us seldom, if ever, achieved. Gil was the one who pulled the pieces together and did it to the max. Before Gil, we had The Last Poets and Amiri Baraka, but Gil was the one who consistently put the music with the poetry. And by music, I mean more than drums.
The Last Poets had a conga player and occasionally some miscellaneous musicians sitting in. Baraka could (and did) do it, but it was never something he pursued fully, full time, by which I mean Amiri was so busy with so many other concerns he never all the way concentrated on putting the poetry and music together. But Gil did and over the course of ten-plus albums, he laid out a body of work that is unparalleled, then or now. Nobody else even comes close in terms of quantity or quality.
I think Gil is under-recognized on purpose. Say what?
I’m saying it’s no accident that his work is not more widely celebrated, is not studied and taught in colleges and universities. Given academe’s track record in English departments studying boring-ass poetry and explicating on meaningless shit, Gil Scott-Heron would be an awesome breath of fresh air in those cloistered towers. But no. You see, to study Gil would mean dealing with the political content of Gil’s work, and, as Amiri always reminds us, ultimately it’s always the content that they disagree with and can’t deal with—“they” being those who perpetuate the canons of mainstream conformity.
So the political content is one big reason academe doesn’t deal with him too tough, but another reason they don’t is because they can’t. Most of the professors don’t have the understanding of Black culture in general and Black music in particular to appreciate, not to mention critique, Gil’s music-based constructs.
Whether talking literature or listening to music, Gil was leagues deeper than the average professor whom the system set up as an expert on poetry. Pieces Of A Man was Gil’s declaration that he intended to do more than be a continuation of the Last Poets, more than a wanna-be Baraka. The distance between Gil’s debut Small Talk and his sophomore effort, Pieces Of A Man is incredible. Talk about smashing the sophomore jinx. This is probably the strongest sophomore album of any contemporary artist who has had a major recording career. Of course, he surrounded himself with major musicians such as bassist Ron Carter, who over a decade later would contribute to A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory. Also, I must make mention of Bernard Purdie on drums, one of the masters of studio funk, by which I mean, he was the man in demand when artists when into the studio to record. Ask Aretha Franklin. This is also the album that began Gil’s recording collaborations with Brian Jackson.
Beyond the musicianship of the release, this is also the album that offered us a handful of Gil’s most enduring and endearing classics including his signature song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” as well as “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” which is featured as a cover selection.
That’s the context. Give thanx for the genius of Gil Scott-Heron.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, May 7th, 2006 at 12:03 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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