This is a surprisingly sad occasion. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there were a couple of songs that I had been thinking about. One of those was a track off of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here. I didn’t post it at the time because, in all honestly, I had misplaced the CD, and figured I’d post it when I came across it, which I recently did. I was happy, because it was something I had been wanting to share.
So imagine my surprise, when I went to post, and discovered that Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday.
I’m not quite sure what to say. For me Gil Scott-Heron is a figure who seems to stand outside of time and the flow of popular music. He isn’t somebody about whom I could ever say that I followed his career, or even that I had a sense of the arc of career or life. I heard “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” when I was young enough that it wasn’t surprising to hear something new that didn’t sound like anything else. At the time I didn’t like the other songs of his I heard, which lacked the hooks of, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” but eventually I listened to this compilation extensively and came to appreciate how consistantly strong his work was, through a variety of moods and styles. “Small Talk at 125 at Lennox” is still a track that I’ll use as a stereo test track; it’s a surprisingly beautiful sound recording. Even as I got to know some of his work it felt both powerful, beautiful, and somehow remote in the sense that it never seemed to be in dialogue with other recordings. His influence is obvious, well-known, and immense, and his influences are also apparent but the power of his performances feels neither in debt to anybody else, nor transferable.
This New Yorker profile from last summer describes many of the difficulties in life and the respect that people had for him, and is very sad to read following the news of his death.
The song that had recently caught my ear was the title track, “I’m New Here” because I watched the video and was struck by how strongly it rooted the song in an idea of New York City (and how charismatic Gil Scott-Heron’s performance is). It evokes the folklore of the city and suggests that, only in New York, could Gil Scott-Heron, legend, live, be troubled, inspired, lonely, and be just one person in the crowd. If Gil Scott-Heron is somebody who obviously carried his own history with him the video suggests that New York contains so much history, and so many people, that he could still be “new here, once again.”
At the time I saw the video I thought it was a beautiful tribute to the folklore and idea of the urban center, and life affirming. At the moment I see the sadness in it as well. But I think it is, ultimately positive. From the New Yorker article:
“I’m New Here” is a reverent and intimate record, almost more field work than entertainment—a collage partly sung and partly talked, and made largely from fragments of Scott-Heron’s poetry, handled here in a voguish manner. It presents a notional version of Scott-Heron, which is Scott-Heron as hip-hop practitioner.
Scott-Heron recorded the songs and his poems, and Russell added the hip-hop tracks that accompany them. “This is Richard’s CD,” Scott-Heron says. “My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”
“I’m New Here” is twenty-eight minutes long and has fifteen tracks, four of which are songs, one of which Scott-Heron wrote. Russell left the microphone on between takes and during discussions, and so he collected asides and observations, which he presents as interludes.