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….
* * *
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.
“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
(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
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.
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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on Sunday, January 1st, 2006 at 2:55 am and is filed under Classic.
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