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A STAY OF EXECUTION FOR GIL SCOTT-HERON

by Alex V. Cook
originally published: February, 2010

His lens is cast inward, his wordplay that was once a scaffold from which one could alert the masses is now more of a chest-splitter, a CAT scan of the soul, a poem found in a DNA readout.


His lens is cast inward, his wordplay that was once a scaffold from which one could alert the masses is now more of a chest-splitter, a CAT scan of the soul, a poem found in a DNA readout.

A STAY OF EXECUTION FOR GIL SCOTT-HERON

story by Alex V. Cook
originally published: February, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron
I'm New Here
(XL)

What Gil Scott-Heron was, and still is, is a poet. A blues singer. A snake charmer with a cobra fed on a diet of a desperation, insight and hope. His "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" has joined Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" in the pantheon of misunderstood aphorisms. Warhol meant that it would be nice if everybody got to be famous for just a bit, while Gil Scott-Heron meant that the revolution will not be passively watchable; to experience it one must be actively engaged in it, even if it passes you by.

His new record, his first since a record nobody has heard called Tales of Gil Scott-Heron in 1990, claims I'm New Here, exactly the kind of thing a man says when he's been off the scene so long no one recognizes him anymore. He has spent the bulk of the 2000s in and out of prison due to difficulties with cocaine and parole restrictions, and working on a book about Stevie Wonder and who knows if any of that is resolved. The material comprising I'm New Here, like the best work in his catalog, finds a great vantage point atop a pile of unresolved problems.

It opens and closes with the two parts of "On Coming from a Broken Home" a tribute to Lillie Scott his grandmother who took him in.

Temporarily, just until things were patched
Until this was patched
Until that was patched
Until I became at 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, the patch
That held Lillie Scott
Who held me
And like them four
I became one more

If you are new to Scott-Heron's particular storytelling lean, prepare to leave your scorecard behind. The relationships are webs in his songs: entanglements, ladders, safety measures, and usually a mixture of the three, where the only way to portray a life is to live it, the poetry of life is life. The bulk of the songs here abandon the pop-jazz-fusion that gave his words their sway back in the  70's, instead the record sounds a little like a throwback to the spoken word-meets-a-DJ records of the late 80's, most notably the Stephen Jesse Bernstein record from Sub Pop and the work William S. Burroughs did at the tail end with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphocracy. On tracks like "Me and the Devil", producer Richard Russell's beat is a twitchy urban dystopia of rattling chains and soul claps with which Mr. Scott-Heron's forced blues yelp finds partner-in-crime. In "Your Soul and Mine," a dark mirror in which the poet picks out the world at his back, the sound is a groan and a heartbeat. The production gets a little heavy-handed, words sent through an echo to drive a point home seems a touch melodramatic treatment of a guy that can swing his own hammer, but on others, like the blues piano metronome "I'll Take Care of You" the two hold each other aloft.

Despite the coyness in the title and title track - a Bill Callahan number - this is not a let's-get back-in-the-saddle kinda record. He leans on the material of others - Robert Johnson, Bobby "Blue" Bland, John Lee Hooker, as well as expert retrofitters like Kanye West and Burial, than he does his own catalog. His lens is cast inward, his wordplay that was once a scaffold from which one could alert the masses is now more of a chest-splitter, a CAT scan of the soul, a poem found in a DNA readout.  "Where Did the Night Go" is expressionistic, confused, questioning, pasting the mundane regrets of a drunk over the spectre of death in a mere 1:14. "New York is Killing Me" has the old man tap-dancing for a second chance, a stay of execution. A choir of himself begs "Lord have mercy/have mercy on me" doubtful that it will be granted.

He nails the urgency and immediately of his message in  "Running"

Because running will be the way your life and mine will be described
As in "the long run"
Or as in having given someone a "run for his money"
Or as in "running out of time"

and

Because if I knew where cover was, I would stay there and never have to run for it

There is no cover, there are no politics to hide behind, no roof under which to cower, no revolution to be televised and the cable got cut off a long time ago. All we have is the ties we can make, believing in them even when people say they are broken, and the hope that they are strong enough to let us hang on a little longer.

Photo by Micha Richter via XL Recordings.

Alex V. Cook

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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