The Sixties produced a great many incendiary performers, but perhaps none with quite the longevity of Gil Scott-Heron. So when he died in 2011, both Susan Green and John Corcelli decided to address his legacy.
When Gil Scott-Heron died last week at age 62, he left behind a planet on which revolutions inevitably will be televised. They’re already being televised, you-tubed, texted, Facebooked and Tweeted in places like Iran, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. To freedom-seeking residents of the Middle East and North Africa, information carried by the media and every social network brings comfort in the knowledge that the whole world is watching.
In a more melodic though still very topical vein, Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” was a cut from Bridges in December 1977. He borrowed the title from a 1975 book by John G. Fuller about a nuclear accident, which had happened nine years earlier, that threatened not just the Motor City 30 miles away, but also Toledo in neighboring Ohio and especially Windsor, Ontario. All three metropolitan areas were within easy spitting distance of Fermi 1 on the shores of Lake Erie, the first commercial “liquid metal fast breeder reactor” in the U.S.
The Fermi 1 incident, in October 1966, was a partial meltdown. Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” lyrics underscored the otherworldliness of the structure: “It stands out on a highway/ like a Creature from another time ... ” The tune emerged at the end of 1977 so his description did not resonate for me until eight months after I had covered a spring occupation of the planned Seabrook power plant by 1,800 no-nukes activists.
When a few fellow reporters and I drove up to the main gate of the construction site, the first startling thing was an innocuous signpost that read “Seabrook Station,” as if it designated nothing more sinister than a train depot. The car radio was playing Al Stewart: “I think I see down in the street/ the spirit of the century,/ telling us that we’re all standing on the border ... ”
The second startling thing: this place where atoms would be split, rendering those already energetic particles hyperactive, was in people’s backyards. On one side, the gigantic structure even overshadows an adjacent nursing home. I had expected to find the plant on the outskirts of this small hamlet along the New Hampshire seacoast, not where the town common should be. Not dead center. Beyond the high chain-link fence topped with razor wire, I could see nothing but trees yet the specter of Seabrook was spooky. Scott-Heron’s observation about the potential peril facing Detroit was destined to eventually ring true in this Northeast locale: “It ticks each night as the city sleeps/ seconds from annihilation ... ”
|Performing in New York’s Central Park, 2010|
In “Johannesburg,” on 1976‘s From South Africa to South Carolina, Scott-Heron tackled apartheid but revealed his preference for a less violent form of revolution: ”Well, I hate it when the blood starts flowin’/ but I’m gad to see resistance growin’ ... ” He had begun to succumb to the lure of drugs, followed in the last ten years with arrests, jail time, rehab and HIV. Haunted by personal and sociopolitical demons, he had already expressed his anguish in “A Sign of the Ages,” a 1971 lament: “So you cry like a baby, a baby/ or you go out and get high./ But there ain’t no peace on Earth, man./ Maybe peace when you die, yeah.” The sense of purpose in his work nevertheless continued until the end, including the completion of I’m New Here in 2010. One line from the title tune may have indicated an ultimate embrace of that Langston Hughes notion about optimism against all odds: “No matter how far away you’ve gone/ You can always turn around ... ”
|Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections (1981)|
But nothing hits you over the head better than "B Movie," quite possibly Gil Scott-Heron's best poem/song. It's a beautifully rendered composition that captures America in all its messy history. Not willing to accept Reagan as the new "hero" of America (Reagan was first elected in 1980), Scott-Heron puts into perspective history the United States before "the free press went down to full court press." He covers every aspect of American society and closes singing..."this ain't really your life...ain’t really your life…ain't nothing but a movie," but he sings it like a voice that repeats in your head without resolution. It's as horrific an impression of the torpor of an era as it is liberating. It's that aspect of Scott-Heron’s sense of the horrors of civilization perhaps that he balanced best by love, respect and a call to political action.
- originally published on June 8, 2011 in Critics at Large.