Gil Scott-Heron Rememberedby Theodore Hamm and Don Geesling
One way to look at Gil Scott-Heron’s passing in late May is that we were lucky to have him around for 62 years. An even better way to understand him is through his own words. In our November 2007 issue, we were fortunate to run Don Geesling’s conversation with the poet and musician. Geesling spoke to him via phone, while the man many called Gil Scott did a stretch at the Collins Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
Don Geesling (Rail): I’d like to start things off by asking you about the Harlem Renaissance and its influence on your work over the years.
Gil Scott-Heron: It has been a big influence! Langston Hughes was one of the people who had gone to Lincoln. And when I was at Lincoln—one of the oldest black universities in the country—it had a tremendous collection of black writers. I had spent a lot of time in the black stacks at Lincoln and read up on things that happened during the Harlem Renaissance and its background.
Rail: How did you first encounter Hughes?
Scott-Heron: Well, Langston Hughes used to write a column for all the black newspapers and my grandmother used to subscribe to the Chicago Defender. So even when I was living with her, on Thursdays the guy who sold the Chicago Defender would come by and bring her a copy of the newspaper. That was her weekly newspaper—we didn’t take the Memphis Press-Sentinel or the Commercial Appeal; our only newspaper was the Chicago Defender and that’s where my grandmother would keep up with what she wanted to know about.
Rail: What did you take from him most as a writer?
Scott-Heron: The fact that, like, it’s easier to laugh than it is to cry and we have a lot to cry about—but there was a great deal of humor in his writing and a great deal of laughter in my life. I’m saying, my grandmother comes off like a very strict and hard working woman but she could laugh. And we enjoyed Langston Hughes’s stuff like the “Jess B. Semple” things that he used to write. Those were her favorites and they became my favorites. As far as I was concerned my grandmother knew everything and she could do no wrong, so if she was in favor of it, so was I. The humor that Langston Hughes had as a part of his make-up and a part of his character came through in his writing; they were things that I felt were very important to have as an artist.
Rail: Did you dig his experiments with poetry and the blues?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, I liked both his and Arna Bontemps’s work. Over the course of the Harlem Renaissance they always refer back to the blues, and you know, living in Tennessee, the blues artists were the ones I was most familiar with from the radio.
Rail: So you were able to grasp that aspect of their work right away?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, I could see the necessity of it, I could see the humor of it, and I could see the rhythm of it.
Rail: Did you ever pick up that album on Verve that Hughes did with Mingus and Leonard Feather, The Weary Blues?
Scott-Heron: No, but I met Charlie Mingus and he spoke about it! I met Mingus at a place called the Joyous Lake, which was up in Woodstock. When we used to play in Woodstock, he would come by. And he talked about the fact that my work reminded him a lot of Langston Hughes, and that was a very high compliment.
Rail: How did you come to the attention of Bob Thiele, the producer and owner of the Flying Dutchman record label?
Scott-Heron: I told Bob Thiele I was a songwriter and I told him that I had a partner (Brian Jackson, Scott-Heron’s collaborator on nine albums) and that we wrote songs and that we thought that he was recording the kind of people that we thought might be interested in what we were doing. He said that he didn’t have any money to do an album of music at the time. But he had read my book of poetry and he said, “If you do that and make any money, maybe we can get some money together and do an album of music.” “Small Talk at 125th & Lenox,” “Whitey on the Moon,” “Brother,” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” got picked up. He called me up and said, “Who do you want to perform with?” By that time, Scott-Heron’s Lincoln-based band, Black and Blues had broken up, so that’s how we got to work with Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, and Bernard Purdie.
Rail: So you made up a wish list and he made it happen.
Scott-Heron: He made it happen, yeah.
Rail: In Bob Thiele’s memoirs he wrote that you said, “that anyone who had produced Jack Kerouac and John Coltrane can’t be all that bad.” Were you a fan of Kerouac and the other Beats?
Scott-Heron: You know, I wasn’t that into the Beat stuff because I was into the blues. But I did understand where they were coming from. The Beatniks were the forerunners to the hippies. And a lot of that came out of the neighborhoods that I lived in when we moved down to 17th Street, to the Fulton Houses in Chelsea —you know that’s just right on top of the Village. We used to go to the coffee shops down there. I’d try to sneak in and see if I could see what was going on.
Rail: Did you know Joe Bataan and Edwin Birdsong while you were in Chelsea?
Scott-Heron: Joe Bataan recorded “The Bottle” as “La Botella” on the Afrofilipino LP. He recorded an instrumental version. He did it with a saxophone solo lead. You know, like, I had “What Good Is A Castle” and Riot—that was the album with Joe Bataan that I had. I used to describe my neighborhood as 85 percent Puerto Rican, 15 percent white people, and me. So, there were a lot of Latin rhythms and Joe Bataan was a big excitement in the neighborhood. And José Feliciano used to play over at the pizza shop over there on the corner. He used to play “Mack the Knife” on the guitar when he was trying to earn himself a few coins.
Rail: So you were able to soak up all kinds of musical influences living in Chelsea?
Scott-Heron: Oh, I’m saying like, you know, Julius Lester lived up at 23rd Street; Edwin Birdsong was from 18th Street; Richie Havens lived down on Hudson Street; the Wilson brothers had a loft down there before they started Mandrill—man, it was a very, very artistic neighborhood. A lot of artists were living down there.
Rail: And of course in the late ’60s the Last Poets had their East Wind thing going on—the poetry collective up there at 125th and Lenox. Did you ever drop in on that scene?
Scott-Heron: That was something that percussionists Isaiah Washington and Charlie Saunders took me to because they lived at 117th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Anytime I’d go to their neighborhood—they worked at a place called Pride Inc., which was also located on 125th Street—we used to go by there all the time.
Rail: What was Pride Inc.?
Scott-Heron: It was like Operation P.U.S.H.—a job place. It was where people would go to get training for jobs in construction work and different job assignments, you know. Like any kind of work you could do, if you could do it they could find you a job. If you wanted to work, they could use your talents. [Laughs]
Rail: In the introduction to “Comment #1” and on “Enough” you spoke of the Rainbow Conspiracy and the alliance between SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Black Panthers. What was the Rainbow Conspiracy?
Scott-Heron: A lot of people tried to confuse what was going on with the people in the Latin community, the people in the black community, and SDS. And the Rainbow Conspiracy is what they used to call it. Any time they would see Felipe Luciano and his people from the Young Lords and the people who were trying to get the Black Panthers organized in New York—I didn’t get to know those people as thoroughly as I might have, but they were all down in the Village. They used to have handouts and they were trying to do fundraisers and stuff so they could do things for the community. I never joined any of those organizations, because once you join one of the organizations, it made you enemies with somebody else. You start arguing back and forth and you’ve wasted your energy that you could be using and you’re both trying to do something for the community. Which is why I stayed out of most organizations. I wanted to be available to all of them. I played for Shirley Chisholm, I played for Ken Gibson—I played for anybody who was trying to do something positive for black people, just count me in and I’ll be there.
Rail: In an interview with the Black Panthers newspaper (the Black Panther) in 1975 you criticized white folks who were joining the movement, particularly those from SDS.
Scott-Heron: Yeah, they had a movement and they needed to be in that one.
Rail: That’s what you said then—that you welcomed their interest but told them to “go revolutionary” in their community and go talk to their people.
Scott-Heron: Well, see, they was the ones that were lynching people, we wasn’t killing them. They needed to talk to their own folks.
Rail: Between 1970 and 1974, the movement changed. Society was changing; the Panthers had been neutralized and Pan-Africanism came into vogue.
Scott-Heron: Pan-Africanism was a part of it initially. I think a lot of this started with Stokely Carmichael who changed his name to Kwame Ture and went to Guinea and started talking. Stokely Carmichael used to work with Marion Barry in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). So when I moved to D.C. and started teaching at the University of D.C., I found out a lot of the things they had been doing down there and a lot of the folks they had worked with, and a lot of the echoes of what they had been trying to do were still there and working.
Rail: So your interest in P=an-Africanism, you trace it back to Stokely?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, absolutely.
Rail: In the liner notes to the “Johannesburg” 12-inch single, Jesse Jackson is mentioned as being an influence—would you care to elaborate a little?
Scott-Heron: Jesse Jackson was an inspirational person. You see, if you’re going to change things, if you don’t change the law, you don’t change anything. So, Jesse Jackson’s attitude was about changing the laws and about people needing to know more about Thurgood Marshall and needing to know more about what happened, because how you change America is the law. You can burn your community down and somebody else will build it up and all you’re doing is burning down some houses. But if you change the law, then you have done a whole lot to change the foundation of society. So I’m saying, in the meantime, I’m looking at myself as a piano player from Tennessee. Because that’s what I was really trying to do; play some piano and write some songs. You know, like, the fact that I’ve had some political influence, I mean, that was all well and good, but I never considered myself a politician.
Rail: But you do consider yourself an activist, right?
Scott-Heron: I consider myself a piano player, I mean, I was writing some songs that other people could use. Because we helped in any political attitudes or any political thing—that’s what was necessary in the black community. I never ran for any offices, I’m saying, aside from being the president of my freshman class for a few months, that’s the only election I was ever involved in. That was enough.
Rail: Okay, last question: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was probably one of your most misinterpreted and misappropriated pieces. In general, how do you feel about people’s misuse of your work over the years?
Scott-Heron: As an artist, you always subject yourself to that. I think a lot of people look at The Great Gatsby, but I don’t think that F. Scott Fitzgerald is turning over in his grave! [Laughs.]