A friend’s older brother took us to see Gil Scott Heron in the back room of a Derby pub in about 1989. I loved his lyrics and the stories but, if I am honest, the music was a bit jazzy for my eighteen year-old liking. But I LOVED the overall impression that Gil Scott Heron made – the passion of his politics, the breadth and variability of his artistry, the fact that this brilliant man was apparently willing to perform just for beers and the pleasure of sharing his gifts (I later learned that we caught him at the end of his serious junkie days).
He was possibly the first person with a double-barrelled name that I had respected! In an aisde between songs he introduced the uninitiated to Malcolm X music. I have been listening to Gil Scott Heron on and off ever since, but never enough to call myself a proper fan. The only song I really know is ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, the same as everyone else who has had a passing acquaintance with his music, although with its extraordinary repeated mantra and powerful final verse that’s nothing to be ashamed of:
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driving seat.
The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers.
The revolution will be LIVE.
A decade or so later, in the final years before his death in 2011, Gil Scott Heron achieved a mini-renaissance and new respect. He started to be called the Godfather of Rap, a notion he took issue with. He made the cover of a few music magazines. A final album was a critical success. But I only took a passing interest.
Then last year I came upon one of his books of poems, ‘Now and Then’, in a Hay-on-Wye poetry shop. Seen on the printed page his lyrics took on a new power and the now-scruffy paperback has accompanied me on most of my many foreign trips since. Then this weekend, in a Hackney vinyl emporium, I chanced upon the LP that is markontour’s ‘Record of the Week’, an original edition of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.
It is a thing of beauty (see above) and may long occupy the LP frame opposite the turntable on our living room wall. Gil leans back, his arms supporting his afro, confident and possibly slightly belligerent, but yet also clearly thoughtful and deliberative. While your eye is first drawn to the singer’s charismatic face, Gil’s left elbow simultaneously points you to the message in white in the top corner – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It seems to sum up everything about him: art is serious, it is beauty and politics. That much is obvious from every song on the album, and especially from Scott-Heron’s introduction to ‘Now and Then’, in which the artist describes what writing poems and songs mean to him:
They represent hours of concentration
And seconds of spiritual inspiration
With most of the beauty that I have seen
And what I have learned about what it all means
To be lifted by ‘the spirits’ and touched from within
To a place I can smile inside ‘now and then’.
I’m sure ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ is easily available to download. I probably have an old cassette knocking about somewhere, taped off a scratched record borrowed from Burton Library. But once I get back from this latest trip to the even-scarier side of the pond, markontour is going to spend a good few hours staring at that cover, while the beautiful black vinyl spins on a System Dek that was purchased in about the same year as Mr Scott-Heron graced a back room in the Midlands.
With thanks to Stu, wherever his now, for taking us to the gig and Gil Scott-Heron for everything else.