GIL SCOTT-HERON / “Give Her A Call”

“You have been around this planet for a long time, and you've been using drugs for a fairly substantial amount of time as well. What I want is for you to go and get some help with this problem." —New York State Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman    speaking to Gil Scott-Heron in July of 2001
It isn’t necessary to believe what a singer believes to be moved by or inspired by their words. It is usually necessary, however, to believe that they believe what they're singing. Usually. The power of Gil Scott-Heron’s "Give Her A Call" results from the strong feeling that Gil himself doesn’t believe what he’s singing. A couple of weeks ago*, Kalamu was helping me fill in the gaps in my Gil Scott-Heron collection. He handed me a small, white box of live collections, compilations and a couple studio albums I hadn’t gotten around to getting myself. At the bottom of the box was Gil’s 1994 album Spirits. By 1994, everyone who cared to know knew that Gil had become a junkie. The man who’d once specialized in assailing the ills of the system had become a casualty of the same dangers he used to warn against. Brother Gil is one of my heroes—neither in 1994 when the album was released nor now, more than a decade later, did I want to hear the musical meanderings of a dim, ugly shadow of the spiritual giant I held in such reverence. I should have known better. Throughout his career, Gil Scott-Heron has been a musical assassin; he is expert at selecting a target, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses, and with a poignant melody and an exactly-crafted lyric, dropping the target with a single shot to the head. On Spirits, Gil’s aim is just as precise, his analysis as prescient as ever, only this time, Gil points his sniper’s scope at not only the ills of the world, but also the ills of the man holding the rifle. The most affecting song of the album (on an album with a lot of competition) is the understated 20th-century blues of "Give Her A Call." We’re never told who ‘Her’ is. Mother? Lover? Daughter? Sister? Muse? We don’t know. We do know that Gil promises her: “When I get back to my life…I’ll call.” He sings it over and over, his voice growing increasingly quiet with each repetition: “When I get back to my life, when I get back to my life, when I get back to my life, when I really get back to my life…I think I’ll give her a call.” As the song fades to a close, Gil sings it one last time: “When I get back to my life….” And that’s it. Either the record has become too quiet or Gil just doesn’t have the heart to lie to her that one last time. He knows—and we know—he’s never going to call. The power of the song is in knowing that she still believes he’ll call. In the end, "Give Her A Call" isn’t about lies or expectations or even drug addiction, it’s about people believing in the ones they love. We get the feeling that she—whoever she is—will never give up believing that one day Gil will indeed get back to his life. She will always believe that he's going to call. gil 08.jpg "Give Her A Call" is my favorite song from Spirits, but there are so many strong moments. Other worthy additions to the Gil Scott-Heron canon include the title track "Spirits," one of the most overtly 'jazz' songs Gil ever recorded; the terse yet ultimately respectful "Message To The Messengers" in which Gil chastises hip-hop MCs ("They don't know what to say to our young folk, but they know that you do / And if they really knew the truth, why would they tell you?"); the deeply analytical sarcasm of "Work For Peace" ("Pot-bellied generals as luminaires / Two weeks ago, I hadn't heard of the son-of-a-bitch / Now, all of a sudden, he's legendary"); and the heart of the album, the 20-minute, three-part suite "The Other Side" (which we discuss in this week's Cover write-up). Although newcomers to Gil Scott-Heron should probably start with one of his earlier, classic LPs like Pieces Of A Man or one of the 'Best Of' collections, those who already know and love Gil's music would be well-served to add the Spirits album to their collections. Don't make the mistake I did, assuming that the album would be a painful reminder of how far Gil had fallen. Instead, Spirits is a testament to how much truth and beauty Gil Scott-Heron still had to give. —Mtume ya Salaam * This piece was written in January of '05. Source of quote: “A Ravaged Musical Prodigy at a Crossroads With Drugs” by Amy Waldman. Originally published July 10, 2001. Available at              Revolutionary love songs          About fifteen or so years ago, I did a radio program called Morning Meditations, 6AM to 9AM on Sunday mornings. I would play music that encouraged reflection. Our theme song, which we played at the end of every program was Labi Siffre’s “So Strong.” The challenge, of course was to keep the program interesting even though it was down-tempo. I also worked hard at not repeating from week to week, but if there was one song, other than the theme song, which was in regular rotation it was Gil Scott-Heron’s “Morning Thoughts.” gil 11.jpg Gil starts with a wonderfully tender couplet “the sweet smell of my lady’s love / her body blending with my own” and moves from there to a grace-filled description of his daughter, and then on to the larger extended family and spiraling out to the larger Black community, and then out into the hardness of national exploitation, and from there to world revolution. Recited over horn solos of the evocative melody with a strong bass line bubbling up from the bottom, “sometimes near morning” when and where “there’s a smile I really need.” That “chance to gather our love together and express everything we feel.” Where are our revolutionary love songs? “Morning Thoughts” is one. Given all the disappointments and defeats our people have suffered over the last forty years, I would not be at all surprised if the lady whom Gil is thinking about calling is the same lady for whom he wrote “Morning Thoughts.” Gil may not be able (or willing) to call her. But even if he doesn’t, let these two songs be both reminder and admonition: don’t forget about love. Love love more than anything else because it is only love that will keep us together in these falling apart times. Let us be encouraged by Gil’s insights. Let us learn from his failures and be inspired by his successes. Let us never forget to have “Morning Thoughts.” —Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 7th, 2006 at 12:05 am and is filed under Contemporary. 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.

6 Responses to “GIL SCOTT-HERON / “Give Her A Call””

tayari kwa salaam Says:
May 7th, 2006 at 9:35 am

“Gil himself doesn’t believe what he’s singing.” Whoa. That’s deep like the state we find our people (African Americans) in today. Ya know how ya know but then ya don’t know? My eyes well up in recognition of Gil n too many of the rest of us not believing who we be. But I’m an idealist who believes in the glass being half full rather than half empty. I stand in the wondrousness of African American who make a way out of no way and who conceive/create life seemingly out of nothing.

deen Says:
May 7th, 2006 at 4:53 pm

God, when hearing this music you just begin to feel invisible, so suddenly unimportant and unimpressive next to music thatis just so deep.

My only fear when listening to this music is will, we, the younger generation have our own Gil, someone who can put himself into the music and pretty much just absorb into the listener.

When I listen to Gil it is almost as if Malcolm X could sing and compose. A man who has lived the nightmare and sings to tell his people about struggle in the only way he knows it will be fully digested, through soul music.

It is such a shame that Gil is not a household name for the younger generation. Why do the teachers and the elders and radio stations that play the soul music and listen to the jams of yesteryear never speak of Gil.

Was he not fully understood or heard in his heyday? Was he slept on? When I hip my friends to his music its always like “what the %#@*!”, where has this been? This music is not being passed on like it should.

This is beautiful music, I love your site, and everybody who thinks they love black music I make sure they know about this site before I’m through talking to them.

Don’t go anywhere, please.


hardCore Says:
May 7th, 2006 at 10:49 pm

why do so many of our geniuses fall victim to addiction?

is this the price of the gift?

i’ve heard the stories about gil, being hold up in small motel rooms in new york. coming out only long enough to cash a royalty check of 50k or more, buying an enormous stash of drugs, and disappearing back into the darkness. no way for anyone to live, yet alone a genius.

so once again i ask, is this the price of the gift? damn.

ekere Says:
May 9th, 2006 at 4:00 am

Greetings. A few years ago another poet (who was there back in the day) told me that Gil Scott Heron was not speaking to be famous. He said that Gil Scott Heron was speaking from the depths of his heart, his soul, and his vision. He wanted to be a part of change. This person thought that the addiction was, at least in part, due to all the attention and all the pressure on him. I can imagine. And for some people, being insightful and feeling something down every street and around every corner makes it damned difficult to live in this world.

Somewhere y’all said that we all have an addict in our family. Yeah. Or two or three or four. Drugs, alcohol, depression running rampant through the veins.

Oh, Gil. Oh, us.

one love,

youngblood Says:
May 12th, 2006 at 10:23 am

the blues signifies our past and present circumstances. the ability to effectively communicate across a wide audience ultimately demonstrates how one can rise above specific circumstances. this is an inherent quality of this deceptively simple song form. and if it is true that part of life is struggle, this is an enviable position as most people seem to relate to struggle and love to hear stories about how to overcome. so i suppose striving is good. expressing one’s ‘i am’ ness through word and song is better. being an example of what you know to be true has it’s place as well. yet how a person chooses to live his or her life is ultimately just that – a choice. some may place emphasis or judgment on nascent circumstances that seem to influence the present and often telegraph the future. but the blues – as far as i hear it – is not intended to be permanent or self-fulfilling prophesy. the blues is more about comprehending life. broken down into ‘pieces’, when placed in proper perspective, balancing a person’s life should be fair and weighed by consideration of the total good as well as so-called failures. that’s where hope comes in. we hope for the good but are not overcome by the bad. if the standard of manhood is defined by entities outside and contrary to the culture in question then the result will be that manhood will continue to be illusive. it is only when we start to define for ourselves what manhood is and make the means to attainment a viable part of the cultural experience that self determination will appear on the horizon. gil is a man; a talented man. being talented does not make gil infallible or incorruptable. i do not know the circumstances revolving around a person’s addiction to whatever drug. some addictions directly harm the person. there are other addictions such as the conspicuous pursuit of fame, wealth and class that do far more harm to many. i do not think that using drugs negates gil’s ability to comprehend and communicate. i also do not believe the abuse of drugs is the sign of weakness or shame. being sensitive to the plight of others is a form of conscientiousness that few act upon. there is also danger in allowing one’s self to be open. sometimes it seems as though all people need is enlightenment but then again everyone grows at their own rate. it is the classic conflct of theoretical revolution versus the Essex approach. perhaps drug abuse and bunker mentality are just different reactions to the same frustration. in some ways we are all pieces until we come together on some level and realize commonality. all Auset/Isis needed was one (significant) piece of a man to rebuild a dynasty. using men who were considered by some less than whole, Elijah Muhammad when into prisons and built one of the most powerful movements in America. it may sound cold-blooded but even if you have to forget about the man, proceed with the plan. especially when the paln is a good. nurture the truth of what the music relates until it grows inside and be that truth. sometimes songs are just songs and sometimes songs are social commentary. it is upon the listener to determine the dynamics by which art lives. harmony is behind the art of bridging seemingly unrelated pieces.

Minnie Brown Says:
February 20th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

FATE lead me to this site.

1. I come here and see my future son’s name: Youngblood !!! Now I know it’s meant to be

2. I came across Gil Scott Heron’s song GIVE HER A CALL on A link was posted to another song of his, but for some reason I was drawn to the title of GIVE HER A CALL.

I hope he calls the woman, but I, too, thinks he won’t call. It is as if calling her is the incentive for him to get back to his life. However, I think he’d rather keep this girl a phone call away. I don’t think he really wants to go THERE with her again. She probably makes him want to be better, be the better him or some jive. Anyway for my sake: I HOPE HE CALLS! Give her a call MAN!!!

That “get back to my life” is powerful. Isn’t he living life now? So what life does he have to get back to: the life where he felt worthy of the girl he isn’t calling?

Does anyone have the lyrics to this song?

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