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 2001It 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. "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 www.nytimes.com. 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 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
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