Gil Scott-Heron's Gone
Turn Around, Turn Around… I'm New Here, Again
He wasn't like anything you'd think. A raw-voiced truth-seeker, crippled by addiction to where Riker's Island became a return address. A provocateur working on a template of what came before - the Last Poets and Langston Highes - who broke ground for the hip=hop revolution.
“We Almost Lost Detroit.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The cracks swallow inconvenient black men. It's easier that way. Give them smoke'n'something, let'em quiet their mind beyond the law, silence the nagging the truth they sell. Cause coalescing the underclass is a problem. You don't want that lightning rod, especially one laying down the real of how it is, how it's wrong, how it's gone…
Gil Scott-Heron was just that kind of cat. He knew. Child of a Jamaican soccer player who wasn't around and a librarian woman of strength and conviction, born in Chicago and raised in Jackson, Tennessee by a Grandma who died when the boy when 12. Moved to the Bronx, ended up in a Chelsea project apartment that mostly Puerto Rica - the marginalized have their margins, too - and a high WASP prep school by virtue of his gift as a writer.
College in Philadelphis. Signed to Arista by Clive Davis. A voice of a generation, a racial awakening, a revolutionary, a man galvanizing ecological realities, social injustice, enslavement at one's own hand.
No Nukes, he was devastating. The coiled energy and fraught warning of “We Almost Lost Detroit.” You knew who the Doobies Brothers were, CSN and Jackson Browne… But the lanky black man who's voice burned into you, haunted the furtherest recesses of your mind. Damn.
The man could play football stadiums in Detroit. He was a superstar. Before superstars.
He was the messenger. Same way as Chuck D. As Rage Against the Machine. As Dylan, but more over than Dylan - more strident, less mercurial.
It was all so much, too much.
But it all fell apart, falls apart like too much heat and momentum can when not tended by sane minds working to a common goal and direction.
So Gil Scott-Heron disappeared. Gone into the shadow, into the night, into the ether.
In our louder, faster, blinger culture, it was easy to not even miss the raw voice tugging at what you know is right, but just isn't convenient, just don't make you feel all fly and nasty.
The hip-hoppers, from Kanye West to even Usher yesterday, acknowledge his power.
Even that didn't have the power of the “stuff.” The crack he smoked to feel better, feel taller, feel like he matter… cause most addicts pick their poison for the way it makes them feel invincible, the way it pushes back the doubt and the things they don't wanna know. Blotto is sometimes a good way to go.
Til you're strung out, a forgotten junkie trading on what was, acting like it still is.
Gil Scott-Heron became the kind of classic cautionary reality he might've word-song'ed about.
Books, Poetry. Records. Then a while other kind of rap: a rap sheet at the local precinct.
When word of I'm New Here came down the line over a year again, I wondered.
What could it be? How could I feel? How bright would be a light lit with a propane torch?
Turns out there was nothing to fear. Like Rick Rubin, Brit producer Richard Russell came in reverence, but not awe. He looked around, assessed the situation, the reality - and crafted an album fraught with tension, but ultimately strung like wire to hold up the rhymes and the truths of Gil Scott-Heron today.
I'm New Here is a tough listen. Confessions from the edge of the slide into a Hell that isn't completely unwanted. It is not a surrender Scott-Heron brings, but more a boastful sense of indifference, the denial of mortality and the rough patches that knowing brings.
Opening with a variation on Robert Johnson's “Me & The Devil,” it is a coll;aborative work. As much between the artist and the producer as the demons and the artist. It is a bit of a wrestle and a bit of an elegy for someone still alive, yet half-dead to the addiction.
“New York is Killing Me,” “Running,” “Where Did The Night Go” - all haunted and haunting, the romance pf pain and fleeing tempered with the ache of how it really is. “I'm New Here,” a quiet acoustic track that's almost a rural evocation, could be the siren's call of the geographic cure or the topographic lie one tells to believe things change.
There us a middleground, the romantic promise - all cello slices for punctuation, synth bed, piano chords rising and that voice descending in a low =-slung cocktail jazz moan - of “I'll Take Care of You.” It is a bankrupt warranty, more hope in hope than any kind of reality to embrace. Kind of like the empty promise of crack cocaine, crystal meth, whatever alters your truth to something that don't reckon.
Still, beyond the slippery slope on this patchwork work of beats, sinister melodic lines, electronica, the occasional sample and Heron's raspy wail and off-handed in-studio conversation (used as transitions between the actual tracks) a picture emerges of a gentle man grateful for the roots he was given. Equal parts tough Polaroid and soft-focus black & white field photograph,I'm New Here celebrates the women who raised him.
So for every admonishment like “The Crutch” or the spoken knowing the bill will come due “Being Blessed,” you have an interlude of “Parents” and “I've Been Guided.” Indeed, “From A Broken Home” and “From A Broken Home, Part 2” are a strong witness to the potency of strength, love and facing reality without flinching. No matter how rank his life got, he knew where he was from.
“From A Broken Home, Part Two” is not a cop-out, but an homage. Beyond bromide.
As he unrolls what he's seen, what he believes, the language is bare, the beat right there.
“And so my life has been guided
and all the love I needed was provided
through my mother's sacrifices
I saw where her life went
To give more than birth to me, but life to me
“This ainn't one of those clichés about black women being strong…
cause, hell, if you're weak you're gone
but life courage determined to do more than just survive
& too many homes have a missing woman or man without the feeling of missing love…”
“cause men die
and lose their lust
and they leave/
“I came from what they called a broken home
but if they ever really called at our house
they'd've known how wrong they were
we were working on our lives and our homes
dealing with what we had, not what we didn't have
my life has been guided by women
but because of them, I am a man
God bless you, Mama, and thank you…”
And so I'm New Here ends. The spoken utterance of grace and truth.
“No matter how far gone you're gone, you can always turn around…,” Heron sings on the title track. “I did not become someone I did not mean to be/ But I'm new here, will you show me around?”
Turn around, turn around
You may come full circle
a new year
Turn around, turn around, turn around
You may come full circle
every new year again
I'm new here… again….
Gil Scott-Heron's Gone