Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron, My Brave and Brilliant Friend

Gil Scott-Heron, my brave and brilliant friend

May 29 2011 06:55

For a number of years I have feared that I would receive a call from someone out of the blue to tell me that Gil Scott-Heron was dead.

That call came late last Friday night. Gil's name appeared on my phone. But it wasn't Gil calling. He had died three hours earlier in St Luke's-Roosevelt hospital in New York. He was 62 years old.

Last year I wrote a piece for the Guardian in anticipation of an event that Gil and I had agreed to do together at the South Bank. The Icelandic volcano put paid to that, preventing Gil from flying into the country on time, but we did end up sitting down later that week and we made a short film of the session.

Watching the film again on Saturday morning, I wept. I remember showing it to Gil in a hotel room in Rome and his happiness with the film, a film that he felt captured part of who he was and what he stood for, mattered a great deal to me. For he was someone who had had, and continues to have, a huge impact on my moral code, my sense of what matters and why. It's impossible to articulate fully why this is so but if you watch this film then I think you will partly understand why he meant as much to me as he did. And why he meant so much to so many people.

At one point in the interview, Gil says: "If someone comes to you and asks for help, and you can help them, you're supposed to help them. Why wouldn't you? You have been put in the position somehow to be able to help this person." That undeniable truth and his simple expression of the importance of taking care of those around you who need help and ask for help was not some empty statement. Gil lived by this creed and throughout a magnificent musical career, he helped people again and again, with his willingness and ability to articulate deep truths, through his eloquent attacks on injustices and by his enormous compassion for people's pain.

But Gil was also one of the funniest men I ever met. Our friendship began back in 1990 in Edinburgh when I went backstage after I had witnessed the first of many remarkable performances I was lucky enough to see.

His openness towards me from the word go typified the generous manner in which he engaged people throughout his life. I was a young white guy he didn't know from Adam, but he welcomed me into his world and over the years we came to spend many hours together, and I always came away from these meetings altered. Wiser but happier.

One thing led to another and by 1996 I had become his publisher, reissuing two novels (The Vulture and The Nigger Factory) that he had written in his early 20s and which revealed his talents as a prose stylist. In that same year my first child was born, my daughter Marley, and a week after her birth I received a fax from Gil entitled A.M Revelations: "Sincere congratulations and standing ovations are due to you and your lovely lady and 'wee female baby' as they might put it somewhere near your part of the planet.

"As the proud father of at least one of each of the two possibilities, let me tell you this: 90% of all men seem to want a manchild if pressed into picking one. Believe me, 'to heir is human, but little girls are divine.' You will never have any experience that compares to the way little girls are and how devoted they are to you.

Their love comes totally without reservation
Without pretence or nonsense, a brand new sensation. Little girls trust their fathers through all situations.

This is how the dreams of an ultimate destination. Maybe they don't know how they link generations.

And carry your immortality on to yet another station. But somehow they must hear and feel god's vibrations.

And know that you are their connection to creation.

Most generous of bandleaders

"Not as good as I used to be at throwing words at things and having them stick to the sense of it. I think I've been working on this f'n book too long and prose doesn't demand the same syllable-for-syllable metric discipline that song writing and poetry does. What the hell? You pick up a nickel, but you dropped five cents.

It's too bad you can't have them both, but if you had both of them you'd still want something else, wouldn't you? That's my problem too. Enjoy your miracle. Help the wife. Spend as much with the child as honesty provides. That is how you show your appreciation to 'the spirits'. You have been blessed."

Six weeks later Gil met Marley in Edinburgh and he ended up dedicating to the two of us a beautiful performance of his song Your Daddy Loves You. I truly feel I have been blessed by the friendship and love of this deeply spiritual and joyous human being.

Hundreds of thousands of people saw Gil perform live over the decades, always with remarkable bands, and few came away untouched by his magnetism, humility, biting wit and warmth of spirit. He was the most generous of bandleaders, inspiring great loyalty and love in his fellow musicians, infecting everybody on and off stage with his singularity of vision, his charismatic personality, his moral beauty and his willingness to take his fellow travellers through the full range of emotions.

Just listen to Work for Peace, from his penultimate album Spirits, to be reminded of just how consistently relevant and incredibly sharp his vision was and will remain. If you want to relive the joy and empathy he felt towards people and music, just play Lady Day and John Coltrane.

If you want to hear again his railing against social injustice, replay Johannesburg. Who else was decrying and condemning apartheid in 1974? If you want to remember his lyrical genius and profound understanding of his own country's tragic and troubled history, then Winter in America is essential listening.

If you want to appreciate his withering assessment of the perpetually bankrupt politics of Republicanism, then listen to the H2O Gate Blues or B Movie, two remarkably prescient records that not only put Nixon and Reagan in the dock and found them guilty as charged, but do so with dark humour and wickedly barbed putdowns that few people can match.

B Movie, like his top 10 hit The Bottle, also manages to be a very heavy dance groove to which I have seen whole dance floors erupt.

Pieces of a Man, New York is Killing Me, We Almost Lost Detroit, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, We Beg Your Pardon, America, Ain't No Such Thing as Superman, Jose Campos Torres, I Think I'll Call it Morning, Whitey on the Moon, New York City, Is that Jazz? ... the range and quality of the Gil Scott-Heron songbook will only come to be fully appreciated over the years to come. If one good thing comes out of his death, it might be that it sends people back to his music quicker than they might otherwise have gone and his body of work will be properly assessed, enjoyed and shared.

Robert Bresson once said: "Make visible, what without you, might never have been seen."

This is what Gil Scott-Heron did, but he also made us feel and hear and understand things in ways that very few are brave enough, uncompromising enough, or brilliant enough to manage. The poet Gwendolyn Brooks beautifully captured his essence in her poem, Gil Scott-Heron:

Emotion voyager
Contemporary Spirit
Untamed Proud Poet
Rough Healer
He is His.

Gil was a giant of a man, a truly inspirational figure whom I loved like a father and a brother and who was a godfather to two of my children. I can't quite believe he is gone but I am consoled by his belief in the spirits and by the fact that in this most important sense he is still with us. Peace go with you, brother.

•Jamie Byng is publisher and managing director of Canongate Books. The Vulture, The Nigger Factory and Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron, are all published by Canongate. - © Guardian News and Media 2011

Source: Mail & Guardian Online
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