Gil Scott-Heron's Legacy May Not Be Televised...But It's Written Down

Musical visionary Gil Scott-Heron (right) and friend/collaborator Brian Jackson hanging out in the early '70s.
Musical visionary Gil Scott-Heron (right) and friend/collaborator Brian Jackson hanging out in the early '70s.
Courtesy of Gary Price/St. Martin's Press

Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man By Marcus Baram 320 pp. St. Martin's Press $26.99

Like pretty much every other musical genre, rap and hip-hop have many musical "fathers," with various groups and individuals claiming full (or partial) paternity. DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Sugar Hill Gang are often listed on the birth certificate.

But others point to Gil Scott-Heron as the Baby Daddy, as the R&B/soul/jazz vocalist, spoken-word poet, journalist and novelist's albums of the '70s featured a lot of sonic themes and rhythms that would find their way into rap and hip-hop. Along with decidedly familiar themes and lyrics of black empowerment, disenfranchisement and culture.

Pieces of a Man tells the roller-coaster life and music journey of a fresh-voiced musical pioneer and cultural soldier who made a huge impact with his early work. Only then to fritter away much of the last few decades of his life in the grip of cocaine and crack addiction, erratic behavior and concert no-shows before dying in 2011 at the age of 62.

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Writing and exploring music since he was a child, Scott-Heron broke actual barriers in educational integration. And his written, sung and spoken polemics made him a well-known figure on the campuses while he attended Lincoln and then Johns Hopkins University.

He then went on to record a series of albums that -- while not big commercial successes -- found wide audiences on underground radio and college stages. Early work "Whitey on the Moon" contrasted the achievement of white Americans in reaching the stars, while blacks lived in ghetto conditions down on earth.

His most famous work, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," is a cultural touchstone whose title at least has passed into general pop consumption. It's been used by headline writers and journalists who have never actually heard the incendiary track about an African-American uprising.

And -- like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." -- it has also been interpreted in ways far removed from the author's original intention. An author whom record company executive Clive Davis once dubbed "The Black Bob Dylan" -- much to said author's distaste.

Scott-Heron maintained that the song's true meaning was that any "revolution" had to first start in the mind, and thus could not be captured, recorded or rewatched, rather than the more literal translation many listeners took away.

Other well-known sociopolitical works included "The Bottle," "Johannesburg," "The Needle's Eye," "The Vulture" and "Save the Children." Most directly addressed -- and in strong language -- the ups and downs (often downs) of the black urban experience and racism.  

Some of his tunes even took aim at many in the black empowerment movement. Whether their fashion consciousness ("We deal in too many externals, brother / Always, afros, handshakes, and dashikis" from "Brother"), or those who were down with no intention of getting up ("I know you think you're cool / If you're getting two welfare checks" from "Get Out of the Ghetto Blues").

However, times changed in the '80s and '90s.

Some rap acts such as KRS-One, Public Enemy and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprishy not only lauded Scott-Heron but took the message in his music further.

But the genre's booty-shakin', banging sounds took priority. And Buppies and Yuppies who viewed things like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as aspirations were not widely interested in the struggles of those still in the ghetto.

This is about the time that Scott-Heron's drug addiction began to spiral out of control. Baram writes of his learning to freebase under the tutelage of Richard Pryor, and of marathon binges with Rick James.

Ultimately, Scott-Heron would serve real jail time in the early 2000s for cocaine possession, and still didn't manage to get his life back together after release.

Houston makes several appearances in the book. Scott-Heron's "Jose Campo Torres" was about the 1978 death of a Hispanic Vietnam veteran at the hands of six local police officers. He joins Stevie Wonder's "Hotter Than July" tour as the opening act (playing with his Midnight Band to his largest crowds ever) at the Summit in July 1980.

And he also gets involved with demanding a new trial of Gary Graham, a Houston teen convicted of a 1981 robbery and murder. There's also an amusing anecdote about a band member almost missing a flight at the Houston airport due to...marathon games of Space Invaders.

First-time author Baram interviewed more than 200 people who were part of Scott-Heron's orbit in good times and bad, as well as those who speak on his work. And his book is a solid companion and a far more objective look at the musician's life than Scott-Heron's own The Last Holiday: A Memoir.

Gil Scott-Heron burned bright, and then burned out over the course of his life. And while this biography takes its title from one of the groundbreaking performer's most affecting works about a man's loss of his job, there are plenty of "pieces" of his own life to go around.


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