I have a love-hate relationship with my smart phone.
I enjoy the fact that I am connected to the world at any moment with a few simple clicks. I also hate that I’m connected to the world at any moment with a few simple clicks when I decide to browse the Web on a Friday night. What should clearly have been a fun time full of meaningless bar talk and the downing of several low-calorie beers turned into a depressed celebration of a fallen idol when I learned of the passing of Gil Scott-Heron on May 27th. I spent the long weekend in my pajamas mulling over the news and its impact and how it affected others. And though my words aren’t new or singly impressive, I figured I’d add myself to the conversation. This is for you, Gil.
As a sort of advanced warning, I, along with so many others, discovered the singer/poet with the 2010 release of I’m New Here. After spending a week or so with the record for a review, I had even more time with it courtesy of a road-trip to SXSW. Some 15 hours in a car can make room for a lot of music, but one cut in particular from the LP, “Where Did the Night Go”, found itself on lengthy repeat during a late-night chunk of my journey. Having just been booted from a long-term relationship, in that uncertainty where all you want to do is talk to them despite the fact you can’t, Scott-Heron’s love letter to a woman who long since moved on spoke volumes to me. In less than 90 seconds, his voice, that definitive, booming masterpiece of soulful wisdom, though cracked and flawed and shaky underneath the surface, hollowed out the remaining bits of my tiny, confused head and filled it with a sense of unity. It was as if he were sitting right next to me in that car and telling me about the same painful trip he’d taken years ago, and how it doesn’t get better or worse, it just remains constant until time seems to make it less all-consuming. He gave me no real ray of sunshine or port from the emotional storm– just an unending truth and realness that the way I felt would always be a part of me, and the more I accepted it, the better off I’d be. That, or I’d just die alone and miserable. Either way, those are the only real options a man ever has. His wit and insight and earnest way of communicating made that truth easier to accept.
The next SXSW, as I ended the same trip, I revisited the album in a serious way. Once again, this time after more space from the heartache and new girlfriends (and the accompanying new heartache), “Where Did The Night Go” had the same kind of impact it did before; the same mesmerizing, silencing hush that puts you in your place and opens your mind up to the same old baggage you had only finally just let go off. That, my friends, is power worth tipping your hat to.
Like any good fan would do with a new artist they’ve fallen in love with, I explored Scott-Heron’s wide back catalog. Despite the many gems, the one that sticks out for me is his spoken word debut, 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The effort was the world’s introduction to Scott-Heron, and as far as introductions go, none could be called more powerful and resonating than this minimalist jazz-spoken word combo. Along with housing his most important song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, the record has some of the most devastatingly simple and yet wholly crushing efforts Scott-Heron ever crafted. “Whitey On The Moon” is as succinct of a Black Power song you’ll ever find, one that manages, in no small feat, to be relevant and insightful as much as it is skewed toward a particular worldview. “Who’ll Pay Reparations?” is less cerebral, a wholly stirring effort that strikes at any spiritual ties that ever existed within the listener. And the rest of the effort has the same varying effect on you; it’s no wonder that it had such a huge influence on the formation of modern hip-hop. It’s angry and it’s funny, and there are lots of clever lines and well-delivered verses. It was only the beginning of a long, impressive career, but even if nothing else had ever come of it, the effort stands as not just a moment in history or the declaration of a sentiment, but as all of that and something more: true, unwavering belief in something bigger. There’s never been enough of that sentiment going around.
Now that he’s gone and all the pretty words have been spoken, what does all this mean? What can we take from these feelings of sorrow and disappointment? Like the man himself taught us, that hole is always going to be there, but we have to be able to discern a lesson or something of value from what will always hang over us. I’m not sure what that could be in the end, but it did get me thinking about our shared relationships with musical entities. It’s no wonder the death of Scott-Heron had such an effect on me and so many others. Unlike other entertainers, be it sports heroes or someone’s favorite actor, bands and solo artists aren’t sharing themselves at their most glorious or as some character to be dissected; instead, they’re giving us themselves at their most open and vulnerable, without pretense or context. So it’s no wonder that when these rockers and crooners and divas and pixie goddesses die, we all feel it so deeply. That, in and of itself, may very well may be the point of all of this– that truly great music hits you so hard that you mourn something that was never really for you in the first place. You just lucked out and found this record or this song, and it ensnared your forever and ever. And when the person or group who made it are gone, you welcome that connection, letting it once more consume you. You repeat this process dozens of times across your life and over a span of genres, each time just as difficult, each time just as powerful and comforting.
Thanks will never truly cut it.