Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Gil Scott-Heron at Jazz Cafe

Between the death of Langston Hughes and the rise of Snoop Doggy Dog came the poetry and jazz of Gil Scott-Heron, who is to rap what David Bowie is to punk, the Godfather. Without Gil Scott-Heron, then Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash, The World's Famous Supreme Team, Nenah Cherry and Queen Latifah might instead have developed careers covering The Platters and The Supremes, or accelerated the mutation of Disco to House, we would have missed Janet Jackson, MC Hammer, and Public Enemy incessantly sampling the music of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield (and Queen?). No matter your take on rap music, the art of Gil Scott-Heron (who was NOT one of the Last Poets) laid the groundwork of radicalism that would become the dynamic roots of the rap music of the late 1970s and early eighties.

Does nostalgia grip all of us the same way? Or, more precisely, is all nostalgia the same? Is nostalgia just nostalgia, or are some experiences that seem nostalgic more visceral and therefore not really 'nostalgic' at all?

I see David Bowie perform in concert every chance I get, and have been doing so for over 25 years. When he sings "Changes" it feels nostalgic. It feels great! I love it! It makes me giddy and happy and I want to sing along.

Watching Gil Scott-Heron invoked what seemed like nostalgia, too; but it was different. Listening to his songs of protest evokes a more passionate, less gleeful, feeling. An excitment that reminds me of social upheaval, as opposed to personal upheavel. An excitment that I remember tasting in the air during demonstrations and after police riots. It is like hearing Angela Davis speak or reading a history of the Cuban Revolution. It is like getting tattooed or pierced. It vibrates. It's tense.

At the start of the evening, he appeared on stage alone to tell a number of stories in an attempt to de-bunk all the recent publicity about arrests, court sentencing, cocaine addiction, and the like. Looking rather drawn, his skin seemingly draped over his lanky skeletal frame, his voice cracked, and his tone ringing of confusion and defensiveness, he told of a Bay Area reporter leaving a message on his answering machine asking for someone to please contact the radio station to make a statement about Gil Scott-Heron's death. Nervous laughter from the audience.

He berated the New York Times who first published the story of his legal troubles and alleged drug problem, then put the story out on the wire to be printed all over the world. "No wonder no one reads the Times anymore," he muttered and giggled for a less-than-accurate conclusion. Nervous laughter from the audience.

Next was the story of being on tour with Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana the night that John Lennon was killed.

"Why do all the people who work for peace end up shot dead? Dr. King, John Lennon, and the rest." This might have been his most coherent statement of the long, long, LONG monologue that opened the show.

The story goes: He and Stevie Wonder decided not to mention the Lennon assassination before the show, because it would serve no good purpose. At the end of the show, about 11:30 P.M., as with all the shows on this tour, all musicians came out on stage for a finale. At this time, Stevie Wonder announced to the crowd that his friend John Lennon had been shot dead. He cried and there was a stunned silence in the crowd of 17,000. Next morning, the local paper reviewed the show by saying: 'how could Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron say they are voices for change when neither one of them had the decency to mention the murder of one of their own, John Lennon.' The entourage was flabbergasted, because they had performed a remarkable, emotional, spirited encore in Lennon's memory.

How had this happened? The reporter had to leave at 11:00 to make his deadline and the Lennon tribute was at 11:30. Hence, using Gil Scott-Heron's clourful and jocular logic, the press is always wrong and we shouldn't believe them. Nervous laughter from the audience.

So, even though this 51-year-old major talent is drawn and emaciated, slurs his speech like a wet-brain, and looks twenty years older than his years, he musn't have a drug problem, because it was reported in the New York Times and the press is always wrong.

Sigh. Tedium. His is a familar, but nonetheless sad story.

Then the music started. The familiar conga-drums, electric piano, bass lines and then that voice. ". . . you know it's Wintaaaah . . . Wintah in America-a-ah . . ." deep and drawling and angry. The poems sung like lyrics over the beat, sometimes under it, the bass and percussion sounding totally unlike American pop music, but the lead guitar and saxaphone evoking that pre-fusion jazz-only sound that's as American as chicken-fried steak and Carmen Miranda.

Speaking of whom, I was always amused by the cultural phenomenon that I first witnessed in the mid-seventies: the whitest people in the room becoming strangely Afro-Carribbean once they've consumed a bit of alcohol and the music switched from white music (British, Motown, Surf, Country, et al.) to non-white music (Reggae, Calypso, Samba, et al.). The most awkward-looking white woman would suddenly be swaying her hips and waving her arms and stomping her heels in a trance that would make Sister Phillipa flip-out!

I call this the Mammasita Jones Syndrome. It is always the WHITEST people this happens to. It's as if their pink/blue skin somehow holds tightly under wraps a Brown Inner Latin Spirit, and their straight stringy hair knows it wants to be picked into the puffiest 'fro since Jonathan Jackson took out a California courtroom. Their eyes close as they leave the suburban television culture that has been (still is?) spoon fed to them, and their hips sway, and their fingers snap and you can just see them wishing they were NOT WHITE! Their eyes must always be closed when experiencing the Mammasita Jones Syndrome, because they cannot bear to see what is true: They are as white as white can be, they are watching a living symbol of all that is not white and has every reason to hate
all that is white, and everyone else in the room with them is just as white as them. By keeping their eyes closed, they can live the Afro-Caribbean magic that they are convinced is much better than the Caucasian life they know.

(I have taken a solemn vow never to tell white women who enjoy this particular form of dementia that women in those Afro-Caribbean cultures are treated only slightly better than women in Switzerland, blacks in Apartheid-era South Africa, and lesbians in 21st century America. They probably know anyhow.)

OK, so you don't share my analysis of what is happening to all those drunk white people who are trying to cha-cha-cha and meditate at the same time. Too bad! It's the Mammasita Jones Syndrome, it happens, and I know I'm right!

Back to the performance. The three-hour show was broken into two 75 minute sets with a half-hour break. Outrageously, this long show consisted of no more than ten songs. Really.

When Gil Scott-Heron's album "Winter In America" was released, I was living in Boston and probably fifteen or sixteen years old. FM radio had taken to playing the album versions of songs and it was not unusual to hear a six or seven minute song, even twelve or fifteen minutes, on a progressive FM rock station (well, there was only one progressive FM rock station in those days, which is one more than exists today). I was (and still am) a leftist. I hung on my walls posters of Che Guevera and Angela Davis and other dead or dying pop stars from the worlds of music, politics, religion, art, and literature, I read books like "Soledad Brother," "Soul On Ice," "S.C.U.M. Manifesto," and the Little Red Book, fancied Tolkien and the Red Sox and window-pane acid, marched against the war in Viet Nam, for workers' rights, gay rights, abortion rights, I listened to music by Bowie and Nina Simone and T.Rex and Aerosmith and Labelle and Roxy Music and The Supremes and New York Dolls and Eric Clapton and Jethro Tull and J.Giels (yes, even J.Giels), I talked openly that Communism and Socialism were superior to Republicanism and Capitalism, I couldn't wait to vote and hoped there was no draft when I turned eighteen. It was an exciting time. Gil Scott-Heron's music was perfect, it fit perfectly with the lifestyle I'd chosen and the sings of the times, and the radio stations would play six-minute protest songs.

Sometimes when a band performs live, I am surprised how they can take a great three-minute pop tune and turn it into a long, drawn-out, symphonic rendition mottled with guitar solos and bass solos and drum solos and piano solos. The Rolling Stones are probably the kings of this process. Take a wonderful three minute song and milk it for fifteen!

Well, Gil Scott-Heron takes this to new heights/depths. He takes his six-minute songs built around three stanza poems and turns them into twenty-minute jam sessions. Though all of the musicians: sax, guitar, bass,percussion and drums, are above-average musicians, none but the bass player carried their drawn-out solos convincingly.

Gil Scott-Heron himself was incapable of providing piano solos. Granted he is more a poet than a pianist. Sadly his fumbling with microphones and stumbling about the stage prevented him from perhaps offering some spontaneous rhymes/raps about current or historical events. There were no Gil Scott-Heron solos.

The bass player was remarkable and he offered the most solos. Each song included a long bass solo and each bass solo included familiar riffs that sounded like The Who, or the Stones, or Motown session musicians. Each time he stepped forward we were provided a roller coaster through pop music that left the audience cheering for more and allowed the singer to regroup and bring us back to a familiar verse of a familiar song. "See the black boy over there, running scared, his problem is the bo-uh-ttle."

The songs were great, the songs will always be great, and I feel blessed to have have seen Gill Scott-Heron perform them live before the crack destroys what's left of him.

At 12:15 A.M. the band left the stage. We had not heard "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." The audience was not leaving. It was a Sunday night and I am not as young as I once was, so we decided to call it a night. I do not know if the band came back to perform "The Revolution . . . " but I'll bet they did.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
by Gil Scott Heron

(reprinted without permission)

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
in 4 parts without commercial interruption.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abramson and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia?
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner.
Because The revolution will not be televised, brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mays
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run
or trying to slide that color television in a stolen ambulance
NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32
or the count from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers on the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers on the instant replay.
There will be no slow motion or still lifes of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a red, black and
green liberation jumpsuit that he has been saving
for just the right occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant and
women will not care if Dick finally got down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow
because black people will be in the street
looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o'clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Engelbert Humperdinck or Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a germ in dove
bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution WILL put you in the driver's seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised
will not be televised
not be televised
be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, sisters and brothers.
The revolution's gonna be live.

The Jazz Cafe, in Camden Town, was much nicer than I expected. I managed to reserve seats in the restaurant which is on the balcony surrounding the club. We had seats from wihch we could see the show and did not have to mosh around on the floor straining to see the show. Once the show started, the appropriate percentage of white women rose from their meals, turned Mammsita Jones and blocked their fair share of views by gyrating and expressing themselves, all with their eyes closed.

The restaurant offered a three-course meal for £25, and the food was remarkably good. I'm from Boston, so when I think of eating food in a venue at which I will see a show, I lower my expectations. Very low. Anne had Greek Mezze Platter, Mushroom Risotto, and Chocolate Truffle Terrine. I had Smoked Duck with Thai Noodles, Lamb Kidneys in Dijon, and Summer Pudding. The service was passable (which means it was excellent for London) and the seating was comfortable. I almost want to book seats for any other show, just to have the dining and show experience which is so rare in America.

So . . . pull out your Gil Scott-Heron records, your biography of Che Guevera, your bong, and a bottle of Ripple, and remember where you came from, Mammasita!

Peace and love.