“A composer and a writer, though he was a greater wordsmith. I’ve known a lot of people in the arts, and he was the first Renaissance man I ever met. He showed up and had an immediate impact, basically representing the entire history of black music and telling stories about the black experience.”
-Bob Golden (from Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man)
In the 1980’s Saturday Night Live went into syndication, rerunning edited-down one-hour versions of their live broadcast. They were shown locally at 11:30 weeknights (at a time when late-night TV was mostly repeats and not an endless slew of talk-shows that provide better analysis of the day’s events than most news outlets, but I digress). That was where I caught up on the SNL editions I was too young to stay up late for in the 70’s. And that was where I first saw the edition where comedian Richard Pryor hosted the show. The musical guest that night was someone in a dashiki (similar to the one my mom often wore in the 70’s; see my FB page if you don’t believe me) with a huge afro I had never heard of who was at the time, at the apex of his popularity. It was Gil Scott-Heron, and he blew me away with his passionate performance of the song Johannesburg. By the time I saw him his career was already on the downslope. Years later a co-worker was playing a tape of some of his songs and again Scott-Heron caught my attention, this time for good. (I especially liked his more poetic pieces like Whitey on the Moon and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised best.) Less than a year later he was gone. The highly influential life and times of this singer, poet and writer is the focus of Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man, the new book by writer Marcus Baram.
In his book Baram deftly assembles a terse, simple and direct portrait of a complex and at times inscrutable man from multiple sources and interviews. I am tired of reading 600-page biographies where the author feels that every minute detail is necessary; at less than 300 pages, Gil Scott-Heron moves at a steady pace with short, informative chapters and few redundancies, and never over-stays its welcome.
It was also refreshing to read about an iconoclast songwriter who was not afraid to speak his mind and try to rock the system, not like the superficial tripe force-fed to us in today’s popular music.
There were a few times in Gil Scott-Heron where the timeline doesn’t seem to work and some facts don’t quite match up. For example on page 187 when the author refers to Michael Jackson as “the biggest pop star on the planet” in 1980. While he was quite famous at the time, Jackson did not achieve true superstardom until after the Thriller album, released on the 30th of November in 1982 (source: Wikipedia), came out.
Gil Scott-Heron is an important figure in American culture whose footprint can’t be ignored: He was a proto-rapper, the first great urban storyteller, and his music was a precursor to hip-hop; often referred to by some as “the Godfather of Rap” (page 205), (a title he was apparently not comfortable with, to say the least).
With the current political climate south of the border, an artist like Gil Scott-Heron is primed for a resurgence and perhaps Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man, the story of an American life, an American original, and an American icon, will help the legend grow.