Alec Wilkinson on Gil Scott-Heron

A really great appreciation by Alec Wilkinson of Gil Scott-Heron in the New Yorker:

Gil Scott-Heron, who died late Friday at the age of sixty-two, was among the very first musicians to understand the power of declamatory singing, of holding forth above a line of percussion and blending words into the rhythmic peaks and recessive contours of beats. He did not discover this, he heard the Last Poets do it, but he used their form to his own purposes and produced singular and scornfully brilliant observations such as “Whitey on the Moon,” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which sound as vital and scornfully brilliant now as they did when he recorded them nearly forty years ago. The more cerebral rap and hip-hop artists knew his work the way British blues aspirants such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger knew the work of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

The challenge for anyone in show business is keeping a career afloat after the public’s attention has moved elsewhere. Scott-Heron just missed being embraced by the mainstream. It may be true that no pop artist is embraced—from Frank Sinatra through Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Sean Combs, and Lady Gaga—who isn’t desperate to be embraced, and Scott-Heron was indifferent to what people thought of him. (I learned that writing a Profile of Scott-HeronThe New Yorker last year.) He believed that courting attention was lowering. He was a reader and a thinker and a social observer, and his mind produced ideas, not opportunities for commerce. He loved being onstage and being the center of attention, but he wanted to be left alone otherwise. He was too thorny a character to fit entirely into a persona calculated for success. for

He had been a prodigy of a kind; before he left college, he had published two novels and a book of poems and made two records. Instead of promoting them, he became a college English teacher. He took a leave of absence to go on his first tour, assuming he would return once the interest in his work played out. Something went wrong for him, however, during the eighties—his mother said it was the result of his making too much money—and he began taking drugs. Crack is what he preferred, and he went to prison for it twice and another two times for parole violations. Prison he treated as a kind of retreat. “I’m happy in jail,” he told me. “First thing I had was a subscription to Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, and I would go to the library every couple of days and get enough books to keep me busy. I just kept up with my life.” He made friends with a man serving a manslaughter conviction, and when the man got out, Scott-Heron loaned him money to start a leather business.

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