GIL SCOTT-HERON / “Beginnings”

They need to study music. I played in several bands before I began my career as a poet. There's a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There's not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don't really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing. —Gil on rap in the 90s.
I’d intended to write about something else this week, but I woke up on a particularly good side of the bed this morning (‘this morning’ being the morning of December 31st, the last morning of 2005) and thereby decided to write instead about a few songs that express the way I feel this morning: realistic and determined yet joyful and optimistic. Actually, it isn’t just this morning—I’m in the midst of the longest streak of consecutive good days that I can ever recall having. I’m not talking about a few days. I’m not even talking about a few weeks. I’m talking about a couple of months or more without a single day that I didn’t actually enjoy. At first, I kept waiting for my usual cantankerous, ornery, cynical self to reappear. But every morning, I’d go in the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face and there’d be the same happy face looking back at me. So, I give in. I’m officially happy. On to the music….
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heron 01.jpg Gil Scott-Heron is probably best-known for his stridently political material—songs like “Johannesburg,” “The Bottle,” and of course, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”—but my favorite Gil Scott Heron songs are the ballads. Invariably pensive and reflective yet always filled with hope, Gil’s ballads range in tone from the political (“Winter In America”) to the nostalgic (“A Very Precious Time”) to the outright optimistic (“A Lovely Day”). Gil wrote so many great ballads that it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite, but at the moment, the one I’m feeling the most (no doubt because of the imminent New Year) is “Beginnings (The First Minute Of A Brand New Day).” “Beginnings” is a lament, I admit that, but the soaring vocals and the raw honesty of the lyrics raise my spirits. And, although Gil sings “We’re struggling here / Faced with our every fear / Just to survive,” that isn’t the part that stays with me after the song ends. The part that stays with me is when he sings “We’re searching out our every doubt / And winning.” And winning. That’s the part I always remember. The lyrics to “A Very Precious Time” read like a requiem to innocence: “Was their a touch of spring? / Was there the faintest breeze? / And did she have a pink dress on? / And when she smiled…could you almost touch the warmth?” But “Precious Time” isn’t a simple nostalgia trip, that isn’t Brother Gil’s style. In the bridge, Gil defines his wistful look back as a means to remain in the present, to remain cognizant of the reasons we struggle on, even when we would much rather give in: “And now they got me trying to define in later life how much her love means to me / And it keeps me struggling to remember my first touch of spring.” The song ends with Gil picking out notes on his keyboard and humming softly to himself “La-da da-da da-da-dum…”—a statement of considerable eloquence which, in my opinion, sums up the matter perfectly. heron 03.jpg “A Lovely Day” and “I Think I’ll Call It Morning” are peas in a pod: twin dedications to joy, happiness and freedom. It isn’t often that a revolutionary is wiling or able to give in to unvarnished optimism. So, listen to these two tracks and decide for yourself: if a conflicted and complicated musical revolutionary like Brother Gil can write and sing earnest paeans to sunshine and flowers, what kind of mood do you want to be in today? What kind of mood do you want to be in tomorrow? What kind of mood do you want to be in next year? All I really want to say Is that the problems come and go But the sunshine seems to stay Just look around I think we’ve found a lovely day…. Happy 2006, mi jente. Let’s do this! —Mtume ya Salaam Tracks:  “Beginnings” (from From South Africa To South Carolina, Arista 1976) "A Very Precious Time” (from Winter In America, Strata-East 1974) "A Lovely Day” (from From South Africa To South Carolina, Arista 1976) "I Think I’ll Call It Morning” (from Pieces Of A Man, Flying Dutchman 1971)           It’s not easy          heron 04.jpg It’s not easy being Gil Scott-Heron, an icon everyone respects as well as a fuck-up everyone feels sorry for. How do you contain the contradiction of being an insightful, revolutionary artist and a habitual addict? My man, Richard Pryor had a similar problem, except he never was seen as a political leader. If any one artist represents the post-civil rights journey of African Americans, it’s Gil Scott-Heron. Mtume likes Gil’s music. He got it from his Mama & Daddy. Literally. At some points, Gil was playing damn near everyday in the house. I still play Gil's music, but I no longer play it with unadulterated joy—today, Gil’s music always calls to mind contradictions and the difficult struggle of coping with, and sometimes even overcoming, those human failings we all have, those failings which Gil has in spades. Gil has a deep catalogue, deep as in beaucoup beautiful songs and deep as in profound music. Turn the lights out, sit quietly in the dark and review your life; if you’re over 35, a few of these songs are damn near guaranteed to churn up shit inside you that will make even the hardest of the hard blink back a tear or two. In the midst of all of his contradictions and shortcomings, one thing Gil never did was lie about it in his music. All he is (as they say, the good, the bad… etc.) is in there, poetically so, beautifully so, sing-along so. Who else would be honest enough to say, home is where the hatred is…? A junkie on his way back home. heron 02.jpg Ultimately, Gill is uplifting not because he is perfect, but rather because he is honest about his flaws, and in being so honest about being so fucked up, he encourages us who are less fucked up than he is to be honest about our own contradictions. A little further down the line, I think I’ll do a Gil Scott-Heron write-up, but for now, let’s just resolve: regardless of how painful it be, let’s make a pact that we will at the very least be honest with ourselves about who we actually are. —Kalamu ya Salaam

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18 Responses to “GIL SCOTT-HERON / “Beginnings””

R. H. Says:
January 1st, 2006 at 8:36 pm

Fist I would like to say that I respect Kalamu and these comments are not directed towards him; however, his comments did trigger a point of thought that came to mind.

I would just like to say that when a person has insight and is insightful, then he or she has a gift to examine things in 3 and 4 dimensions. Is it really relevant to examine a persons personal life to say whether we are going to validate inspiration given to us. I constantly hear these contradictions in civilized Black America. As a person who has battled with drug addiction, spent time incarcerated in prison and returned to society as a writer, I see more day to day contradictions in the people that I associate with now than I ever did on the streets of Washington, DC. Most of these people are fake and wouldn’t know the real struggle of Black America if it slapped them in the face, I’ve hustled, stole, robbed, begged, and I’ve been homeless to say the least. Also, I’ve tried to redeem myself through good work and developing a social conscious. I know the shit Gill was putting down was real, and so I respect the words and recognize true greatness when I see and hear it. Hell, I remember being in a crack house and learning something from a homeless man sucking on a pipe. In a lot of ways, I have more respect for the addict and prostitute than I do for some of these people out here propagating bullshit like they are the chosen one. Do I listen to Gil? Hell yeah! Because he has something to say, who an I to judge a person’s personal life. Sure, I may not agree or condone certain types of behavior,, yet I recognize when a person has a gift for language and shaping and molding that language into something constructive and useful. What Gil has done is give his community a catalogue of great music that still stands the test of time as far as content and musically as well.

Max Says:
January 1st, 2006 at 9:06 pm

Man, if there is one think I can be thankful of is the consistency and commitment to the quality of music you all have shown for the past six months. Until now what I knew of Gil Scott-Heron was biographical information, his name invoked in a scatter of hip-hop songs, and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I knew nothing of these ballads, that are heartbreaking and simply elegant. It’s nice to hear them because they give another layer to what I know of him as a man and as an artist who is warring with many dimension of not only calling people to action, but enjoying and preserving what is at our disposal. Again thank you for the posts and I hope to read more in the future. I wish you guys well in the incoming year.

Mark Tuggle Says:
January 1st, 2006 at 11:46 pm


I met Gil after his powerful performance at a Cental Park Summerstage jam in the summer of ’94. I waited patiently for 45 minutes & was escorted quietly into his trailer. He humbly signed my new copy of “So Far, So Good.” I’ve never been the same since. Also, I understand addiction intimately: clean & serene now over 10 years. My compassion is endless for his talent & trauma. The brother remains a spiritual mentor.

Qawi Says:
January 3rd, 2006 at 1:04 pm

Thanks Mtume for such a selection. Thanks Kalamu and others for your honest reflections on Gil Scott-Heron.

I thought I’d heard all of Gil’s tracks, but obviously I’ve lost touch as this track is so rich…lyrically and musically. Losing touch is something that happens to the best of us, and like some of the commentary already, you cannot mistake Gil’s God-given gift of birthing lyrical masterpieces. I mention God, because we often forget that the Creator is perfect, but we are flawed. We can sometimes lose touch with more than just music when we attempt to deify someone whom we can appreciate musically. It always seems hypocritcal when the person with the message falls to not heeding his own words. One only needs to think of the lyrics from ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’ … “Saw a Junkie Walking through the twilight, I’m on my way home”, to be reminded that in all the celebrating of Gil, he is still a man with troubles.

Before we get lost in the, “How can a man preach, sing, and rap about all that is ailing the Black community, but still use drugs?”, we need to take the message for what it is. Much as Kalamu said, it is his honesty that draws you. The challenge is not to read into this honesty as an endorsement to the things that Gil has done to himself. I’ve never been a drug-addict, been around enough of them though. But I say this, the Creator can use anyone, in any state to bring about a message. Gil is evidence of that.

Happy New Year to all. Mtume and Kalamu, keep up the good work.

youngblood Says:
January 5th, 2006 at 12:48 pm

message to the messenger: “look around on any corner and if you see someone looking like a goner, it’s gonna be me.” Gil Scott-Heron, the Bottle.

Ain’t none of y’all no different from any one of them brothers and sisters hangin on corners, strung out like frayed knots. That’s what the brother is sayin. If you can’t see that there, but for the grace of whatever you believe, go you, then the tree obstructing your forest is more mind numbing than the ones smoked by them addicts. Hell, we all suffer from some type of addiction. It’s just that some people’s hang out like shingles on front street while others just try and front in streets using diction like a soapbox with nary a degree of understanding. Part of being in the world is knowing that no matter who you are, loves gonna getcha. (Knowledge Reigns Supreme)

Case in point: The last time I was in a church this 400 pound woman in a low cut dress came up to me and asked, in an acuusatory manner, “You ain’t lettin the devil getcha, are you? Here I am with my youngest daughter besides me and the only reason I’m even there is outta respect for my grandpa, who was a founding member of the church. I hadn’t been back to the church since age 14 when my momma stopped makin me go. But upon my return I don’t get no, Hey, how are you? How’ve you been? No, I didn’t get none of that. And I admit to havin waged many a battle with both angels and demons – I’m hard on both. But here she is, this 400 pound, grasp the bible like Miles grasped relationships, walkin podium tryin to get in my face. I glanced down at Mrs. Pinkston and said, “Look Babe, this is a sanctuary not a confessional. The question is, is why you tryin to smuggle them two midgets into church?” Probably not the best thing to tell the minister’s wife but hey, the way I saw it, she had it commin (and goin, for that matter).

Like I said, we all have our demons. Me, I slipped up and went back in a church. That’s on me. It’s like mayor Ray Nagin deciding to go back in city hall or chief of police, Eddie Compass deciding to go back into a jewelry store; some people just need to avoid certain places. Gil is no different. In this case the brother decided to sing ballads. Not the move, ‘B’. Liberation songs? Yeah! Political satire? Indeed! Songs of injustice? Bring that shit! Love ballads? AW, HELL NAH! I don’t care how dope (ma bad) the lyrics, I don’t wanna hear nobody sing who can’t out sing me. I don’t think that’s asking for too much. And I don’t care how “from the heart” that shit sound. With all due respect Gil, keep writing those beautiful lyrics and melodies but please go and find Victor Brown or Brian Jackson. You need a twelve step program and it’s called the chromatic scale.

It’s actually possible for the same person to like both Gil Scott-Heron and Cyndi Lauper – even in the same rotation. Though that’s like liking Mad Dog and Irish Cream in the same cup, or crack and and ecstasy in the same alley.

Happy juice, huh?

Jason Says:
January 5th, 2006 at 2:13 pm

1993- Gil-Scott comes out on stage at Georgia Tech and can barely sit on the stool behind his Fender keyboard. Wobbling back and forth, he incoherently babbles on between songs that he mangles as the band looks on with consternation.

I was sitting in the middle of the front section of the crowd, trying to hide from my date the fact that I was crying. This was the first time I had seen Gil-Scott live after wearing out my Aunt’s copy of “The First Minute of the New Day”. I had gathered some of his other music as I got older through mixtapes and bootlegs, and in my pantheon of heroes, he was Marvin Gaye’s older and more ‘down’ Brother. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared to see a junkie. Then halfway through the show, he started playing ‘The Other Side’ which was a part confessional piece about his substance abuse…and suddenly, he sobered up and for the next 45 minutes, was the astute talented Elder I had fashioned in my mind.

Will never forget it.

My favorite Gil ballad is a ‘A Song for Bobby Smith’ – the version where he just playing the keys and singing. It always reinforces the belief in the idea that ‘WE’ are going to win.

Patrick Oliver Says:
January 5th, 2006 at 5:14 pm

This month selection is definitely a tribute to us old school heads. Gil is one of orginal rappers and premier wordsmiths.

Sounds of Blackness was with me when I began my readings by John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Ben and Ivan Van Sertima. My two words I selected for 2006 are optimism and Umoja (unity).

I remember Cindy Lauper and Miles Davis doing Time Afte Time.

Big Ups to Kalamu and Mtume. I’m at work grooving to the tracks.



Stephanie Renee Says:
January 5th, 2006 at 5:47 pm

Always, it seems, the most profoundly gifted among us also battle personal demons equally profound.

My heart broke when I heard about Brother Gil’s arrest in a Harlem crack house, or about live performances when he was so under the influence that he slurred or forgot those amazing lyrics for which we love him so. That kind of heartbreak forbids me from listening to anything written, produced or performed by R Kelly anymore…the same as it causes me to listen to any Eric Benet love song skeptically, regardless of the rich beauty of his voice. But I would agree that Gil’s honesty is what keeps me listening to, deciphering, interpreting and absorbing his creativity.

We don’t judge Gil for his downfalls, but that doesn’t make his struggles hurt any less. It is a constant reminder that sometimes we singers, writers and other artisans are really just trying to heal ourselves through our respective muses.

Ken Says:
January 7th, 2006 at 11:44 pm

From what I’ve read and heard about substance abuse, at core, addicts use in order to mask–or obliterate–pain; the fact that they destroy themselves in the process is a by-product. Anyone as clear on and sensitive to what it means to be black in America as Gil is surely has pain in abundance. Also, much literature on addiction emphasizes the notion that certain people have a greater genetic/physiological predisposition towards addiction than others. Assuredly, except for the complete, lifetime teetotaler, as “Youngblood riffed earlier, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Gil’s “other” problem is his brand of musicianship. Even many of us who thrill to his music still recognize him as a writer–poet, essayist, rapper–first; there really is no comparison in pop music (Marvin Gaye? Curtis Mayfield, ‘70’s Stevie Wonder?). And his acid critiques of America stand out foremost in our minds. As a lyricist and polemicist, Gil’s deeds vs. words are continually scrutinized.
But in his art–these lovely ballads just make it plain–, even when he lambasts (sp) all things (white) American , I believe, at root, he is telling us about us: our beauty, our strength, our perseverance, all in the face of the tremendous obstacles before us.

I can’t temper my affection for Gil or his work, despite his personal failings, anymore than I could for Marvin, or Ray Charles, Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins or Wayne Shorter, all of whom, to varying degrees, struggled with substance abuse of some type during the course of their lives–the ugliness of this demon, despite the unwavering truth and beauty of their art.

Gil has paid a heavy price to be who he is. He has had to have labored under considerable financial strain his entire career. Anyone who can make memorable music with alcoholism (“The Bottle”), nuclear mishaps (“Shut ‘Em Down”) and reparations (“Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?”) as topics surely could have made some money via the cross-over, or writing for other artists.
The fact that Gil didn’t do this endears him to us.

I think we suffer with Gil–in pity for him, in anger toward him for his self-abuse–precisely because we need his type of anger and eloquence– and him– so very much.

Malcolm Says:
January 14th, 2006 at 4:35 pm

I would like to give props to the following people : Mtume, R.H., Max, Mark, Qawi, Youngblood, Jason, Patrick, Stephanie and Ken. Each of you, in your words have expressed the embodiment of my thoughts on Gil. It is those thoughts which compelled me (unknowlingly to you) to create my web site and discussion group. I believe in the adage, “if each one reach one, then each one teach one.” Gil and Brian have certainly reached me and my intent is to reach another.


Malcolm Says:
January 14th, 2006 at 4:49 pm

My apologies for inadvertently omitting Kalamu. Thanks to Kalamu and Mtume for starting and recognizing the omportance of Gil.


Adam Spangler Says:
January 15th, 2006 at 6:17 pm

just wanted to say you don’t have to be over 35 for Gil’s music to bring a tear. At 27, i’ve been holding back and letting forth for years (I found Gil peeking back from the jazz racks when i was 19), through 4 shows, news of arrests, paroles, etc, etc. His is a story of life: joy and pain and back again through the circle of life.

Eddie Wright Says:
February 23rd, 2006 at 3:59 pm

I love Gil-Scott Heron despite it all. He is a real soldier…

ninj4h Says:
March 10th, 2006 at 8:12 am

If there were a recording with Donny Hathaway and Gil… wouldnt that be something..

St.Clair Bourne Says:
May 14th, 2006 at 11:21 pm

Gil Scott-Heron is a musical griot who has captured the ups and downs of contemporary struggle better than almost anyone else. His music brings a surge of energy and thoughtfulness in me, whether he’s singing ballads or up-tempo songs.

David Eubanks Says:
July 10th, 2006 at 3:46 pm

I’m seventeen and was introduced to Gil Scott Heron’s music by my fateher at a even younger age. He provides, and creates music that can’t be rivaled by today’s artist. Scott Heron’s words have led me to many conclusions about life through song’s like ” The Other Side “, and inspiration through “Don’t give up”. Scott Heron will always be a Hero of mine despite his personal issues.

Khpra Senwosret Says:
April 24th, 2007 at 3:35 pm

I simply want to say all the comments on Gil-Scott heron well excellent, I am 27years into listening to the most profound artist we have ejected out of our cultural womb,whether live or on wax or cd or dvd or vhs Gil Scott Heron said it with passion and love and a militant conviction rivaled by only Malcolm X, I don’t mourn him because he is still with us but I do mourn the oppurtunity to save him Gil-Scott has failed in his personal life because we have failed in the struggle. Until we create and produce the great works as a people that he sings about and our fallen leaders have died for we too are strung out. In his own words Peace go with you brother.

Victor Says:
January 1st, 2008 at 11:52 am

I was at Lincoln U. with Gil, Brian, and Victor before I dropped out, got drafted and sent to Vietnam. Every brother I knew there from NY and NJ ended up with narcotics problems (anybody remember Sly from Harlem?). No telling what we could have achieved if not for them. I will never forget any of them.

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