Gil Scott Heron crept into my life in a bath in a rented house in Sidcup.
I was a feckless drama student sharing the premises with seven others and Monday night was my bath night. Once a week was all that was required and indeed allowed given the impoverished state of our finances once beer, fags and chips had been bought. It was a mixed blessing this bath as it shared the same room as the only toilet and so often the room was shared with someone else, usually someone with ….ahem….pressing business. So often ‘bathtime’ was a double bill of horror – mine and someone else’s! However on a cold November Monday I lay in the steaming water, tapping my Players No 6 over the side listening to Radio Caroline and what should come on but this extraordinary piece of music. An organ and a sweetly marching snare, a floating flute and a mellifluous vocal that spoke of the heartbreak of watching his country succumb to the greed of the few. It was captivating, more than that, transcendental. I knew nothing of this song or indeed artist. “Democracy is ragtimes on the corner…And I see the robins perched in barren tree tops, Watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor”. What was this wild, shamanic poetry? It took me ages to find out the details of the track as there was no back announcement and in those days no Shazam and no digital display on the radio. I knew the title that’s all I knew and it wasn’t until a trip to central London and a visit to Oxford Street did I find someone who knew of the song ‘Winter In America’. He then led me to a section of the old HMV shop where I found lots of stuff by this man Gil Scott-Heron. I started with a cheap (student, remember) greatest hits that actually was pretty good for a career so far overview. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ – hang on, this guy invented rap! ‘Johannesburg’ – we were that very week protesting outside the South African embassy! ‘B- Movie’ – Reagan was public enemy number one beyond Thatcher! ‘Shut Em Down’ – could have accompanied me as we marched to Dungeness! And blow me the music swung like a hammer, jazzy, urgent full of soul and fury.
Over the years the records accumulated as did the knowledge; ‘Pieces of a Man’, ‘Free Will’, ‘Winter in America’, ‘The First Minute of A New Day’, ‘From South Carolina to South Africa’ and many more until the final one ‘I’m New Here’. Here was a man wrestling with his demons whilst fighting ours for us. I discovered wonderful covers such as Esther Phillips’s version of ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is‘ and the love of Gil’s and Brian Jackson’s music led me to explore the Philly Sound, Stax and Motown as well as the catalogues of Gaye, Hayes and Mayfield a journey I am still on today as more soul nuggets come to light in the digital age. And politically he sustains a fire that burns as brightly as it ever has. Only recently I used ‘Whitey on the Moon‘ in an assembly about homelessness in the Western economies, and the shame of it is that he wrote that over 50 years ago!
Scott-Heron died in May 2011, he had cancelled UK gigs earlier in the year. ‘I’m New Here‘ became a wonderful epitaph for this funny, passionate, brave, fractured and extraordinary artist. I urge exploration, his voice, whether the clear 70s soul singer, the spoken word poet or the wracked, cracked lived in one of 2010 has the power to move in a way beyond rational comprehension. It’s not the other side of me, along with everything else, it is me.