Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Latest Survivor of the Constantly Strong

When I started college in the late 1970s, I was a 17-year-old girl from a small, all-white town, who asked for a room on the "quiet floor" so I could be sure to be surrounded by studious geeks like me. So of course, my roommate was a wealthy preppy party girl from Boston who smoked pot and was glad to get Cs.

She did, however, have great taste in music and introduced me to many artists I had never heard of, including Gil Scott-Heron. I don't remember the first time I heard him and his then-partner Brian Jackson on her stereo, but I soon knew every bit of First Minute of a New Day and It's Your World.

I loved the songs but also the monologues, which are filled with sharp rhetoric and rhyming invective, reflecting Scott-Heron's politics and perspective as a black man in America. I think they resonated with me so strongly because, not long before, I had been immersed in a high school English elective about black literature from the Harlem Renaissance to the 1960s. And I had read Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land multiple times. Part of my fascination with the world outside my small town, I guess.

Cover the album Bridges with a painting of Scott-Heron and JacksonThe album Bridges came out later that year. So many good songs, including this one that Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic posted today, "95 South (All of the Places We've Been)." Listening to it here in Scott-Heron's older, less-supple voice made me cry. It's always been one of those songs I listen to when it seems like the world can never change for the better, and I need a reason to keep going.

I kept listening to Scott-Heron through the 1980s (and saw him play live in Washington, D.C., once), but I fell out of touch with what he was doing eventually. After recreating my LP collection in CD format about a decade ago, I started wondering what he had been up to. Then, a few years ago, the cartoonist Andy Singer recommended an album called Spirits (which had come out in 1992) to me, and he was right -- it's some of Scott-Heron's best work.

But by this time in the 2000s, Scott-Heron was in prison for cocaine possession. I read his Wikipedia page at the time and recall it quoted him, insisting he was being persecuted for his politics. A New Yorker article from last summer made it clear that Scott-Heron's brilliance was dimmed by crack. Even so, the article included glimpses of his spirit:

On his then-current obsession with cartoons from the video store: “Your life has to consist of more than ‘Black people should unite,’ ” he said. “You hope they do, but not twenty-four hours a day. If you aren’t having no fun, die, because you’re running a worthless program, far as I’m concerned.”

On being recruited to an exclusive private school when he was a sophomore in high school: “They looked at me like I was under a microscope,” he said. “They asked, ‘How would you feel if you see one of your classmates go by in a limousine while you’re walking up the hill from the subway?,’ and I said, ‘Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?’
As much as it illuminated Scott-Heron's history, it was a sad article -- and mental preparation for hearing about his death yesterday. I guess no one can be a survivor of the constantly strong forever.

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