Gil Scott-Heron – I'm New Here

I first saw Gil Scott-Heron in 1974 at a club on the Redondo Beach pier. I went with my first girlfriend, Lisa Jovanovich. Lisa was a few months older than me but she was already infinitely wiser and in touch with the best of what was happening in Los Angeles. While I was still mixing Valium and beer and listening to Fritz Wunderlich and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, she introduced  me to Muddy Waters, Eddie Harris, Gil Scott-Heron and some of the finer things of life.

 

After the release of his albums Pieces of a Man in 1971  and Winter in America in 1974, Scott-Heron had already become an icon. His songs with Brian Jackson – “Whitey on the Moon”,  "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, and "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" expressed all the frustration and anger that had crystallized out of the souring hopes of the 1960’s. 

 

By 1974 it was clear that the revolution would not be fought with flower power. The streets of Haight-Ashbury had been cleared of  Diggers and Hippies, and speed was becoming the street drug of choice.  The spectre of the returned vets baring their physical, mental and spiritual wounds on the nation’s street corners  unnerved the country, which was riveted to its newspapers with the notion that a President of the United States might have condoned the burglaries at the Watergate Hotel. 

 

Scott-Heron  was late to the show in Redondo Beach. When he did get to the stage he was already on the nod. The patter of the  first intros was slurred, but he caught a groove, delivering a couple of powerful sets. In the parlance of the day, he blew my mind.

 

In retrospect of almost 40 years, Jackson and Scott-Heron’s music is considered with greater and greater reverence. These early albums are now held to be seminal works of the early 70s. His work, like that of the Watts Prophets and The Last Poets, is said to be the fount of rap.

 

Scott-Heron’s  personal life, however, took a different turn. Years  of heroin, cocaine and crack addiction took a severe toll on the music. Several multi-year prison terms  and an AIDS infection prevented him from releasing any material from 1996 to 2010.

In Febuary 2010 however, XL Records released a new disc, I’m New Here, with fifteen tracks, of which 11 are spoken. It would be his last recording. Scott-Heron  died in May of this year of unspecified causes.

 

He begins and ends the album with a tribute to the women who raised him, his grandmother  and mother. To hear Scott-Heron tell it, it was the sacrifice, love and guidance of these strong black women that made him into a man. Yet Scott-Heron’s life contained much that was dark. He was an egotistical, obnoxious and aggressive man, who made more than one pact with the devil. It is this tension between light and dark, between the loving family and his obsessive  pulsion toward  destruction  that gives the album such an edge.

 

You can hear that he was slowly and cruelly torn apart. His voice has a sound of having been scraped away by age and disease, at moments the rich tones slide off to reveal glistening bone. He slurs his words and you wonder whether he still has sufficient teeth to articulate his lyrics. 

 

Yet even standing amidst the desolation and destruction, Scott-Heron can still touch deep. His voice, on the good tracks,  is mellifluous and rich with wisdom bought at a terrible price. It is the vantage of someone “standing in the ruin of another black man’s life.”

 

Richard Russell produced the disc, and also composed work along with Brook Brenton and Bill Calahan. 

 

I believe Russell created a small miracle with this material. Apart from a couple of songs, most of the disc appears to have been constructed out of very short segments  of sound material,  a couple of words or phrases at most. It is as though Russell scavanged through the ruin of a burned-out shell of a house, finding a scrap of photo, a scorched button, one soot-covered shoe and from these he was able to create a portrait of  a man.

 

Scott-Heron was beaten down to the bare live wire of life, yet the portrait drawn in I’m New Here is filled with strength and dignity.   Yet it is a true picture of a damaged soul , one more that old Charon will carry across the river Styx  “to add to sorrow’s  total”.

 

(Caveat emptor. XL Records later produced a re-mix of the album by JamieXX,  entitled We’re new here which (IMHO) is of little  interest.)