...throw up both my hands.
Yes, the lyric is Marvin Gaye’s. But as much as I like Marvin, it’s the genius of Gil Scott-Heron that made the Inner City Blues come alive for this white boy who only knew those blues second-hand, through artistic representations. In the same way, his cover of Bill Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands” directed me to that particular genius and his work, even as Scott-Heron sang it with the certainty of someone who had lived it. Scott-Heron brought a particular brand of radical politics together with a keen jazz sensibility and a poet’s heart. He wrote brilliant songs that took listeners deep into his world, and once there, one could only come part of the way back.
What has happened is that in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer. And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune...the consumer has got to dance. That's the way it is. We used to be a producer – very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and finding it difficult to understand. Natural resources and minerals will change your world. The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World. They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one. Controlling your resources will control your world. This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now. They don't know if they want to be Matt Dillon or Bob Dylan. They don't know if they want to be diplomats or continue the same policy - of nuclear nightmare diplomacy. John Foster Dulles ain't nothing but the name of an airport now.
I first became aware of him back in the early 1970s, when he did a stint as artist-in-residence at San Jose State University. Later he appeared on the seminal “No Nukes” concert album with the haunting “We Almost Lost Detroit.” I never owned all his albums, but of the ones I did have, “Reflections” was my favorite, with its cover of Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” the thought-provoking Storm Music, the frankly political “B Movie,” and the powerful, frightening “Gun,” among others.
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the moon)
I can't pay no doctor bills.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still
While Whitey's on the moon.
--Whitey on the Moon
Scott-Heron reflected his times, but he did more than that, because his poems and songs didn’t simply define the times he lived in, they stayed fresh and true decades later. He was able to see, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, how events led from one to the next, inevitable to the rest of us only in retrospect.
Justice is coming on the wings of the storm
We resist in the present for those yet unborn
Freedom is spreading like the wings of a bird
and the message it carries has got to be heard
What’s that music
playin’ on the radio?
What’s that music
playin’ everywhere I go?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard
a sweeter feelin’ in the whole wide world
than that music playin’ in my heart
Here’s an appreciation/obituary of Gil Scott-Heron from the Village Voice. We might have saved Detroit—jury’s still out, though indications are favorable—but Friday we lost one of American music’s most distinctive voices.