The 'Jo'burg' man has a reputation for telling it like it is. However, John Abbey had his pre conceived notions of Gil completely and pleasantly shattered….
HAVE YOU ever been guilty of wrongly misjudging someone when you've never even met them? Well, I confess I just have because I wasn't particularly looking forward to interviewing Arista's Gil Scott-Heron. I further confess to not really being into Gil's music and, from the little I thought I knew of him, I was frankly expecting an egotistical, hard-headed militant type. And, since I do my utmost to lead a placid and simple existence, I envisaged basic differences in our two characters. But, Lord, was I wrong!
If you're looking for a human being radiating good vibes, then the amiable, quick witted and utterly amusing Mr Scott-Heron is your man — and his father played soccer professionally and anyone who did that can't have a son that's all bad!
Let's face it, very little has been said or written of Gil outside of his American homeland and so we have had to judge him on his six albums — all of which had political leanings, culminating in the extremely successful and equally accurate comment on "Johannesburg". Despite its raunchy rhythm track, "Jo'burg" wasn't a planned assault on the pop, soul or disco charts.
"Actually we cut it back during the last half of 1974," Gil explained, having just disposed of a leek soup because it was made of an animal base and our man is a staunch vegetarian. "And even then we edited it down to about three minutes twenty. But if you listen to my music, you'll find that there is always a natural rhythm — not, please note, a Bump or a Hustle rhythm but a natural rhythm.
"I consider my music to be very good for dancing — if you can do the dance! Being of a commercial mind, I am aware that the basic rhythm and then the music are the initial attractions to the listener, and the odds are that if you don't get through on either of those scores then the listener won't even give a damn what your lyric is all about!"
Nevertheless, lyrics are really what Gil Scott-Heron's music is all about and though he accurately corrected me from using the word 'political' to 'serious', he would be the very first to admit he couldn't see himself writing 'moon-in-June' lyric tags.
Two songs that spring to my mind when I think of the name of Gil Scott-Heron are "The Bottle" and "Home Is Where The Hatred Is". The former found its way to fame via a disco version by New Jersey band, Brother to Brother — though they merely retained Gil's basic riffs and rhythm and simply adapted them to a harder, more orthodox disco sound. But once you get used to the gua-gua-guan-co rhythm (Gil assures me that's the correct spelling of the West African-Cuban rhythm that he adopted for this particular recording), take a special note of the lyric because it deals with the harsh realities of ghetto life in urban America.
"Drinking and alcoholism are common problems in the States and this poem was the way I see the problem," Gil emphasised, stressing that every song he writes is from the personal, 'first person singular' angle. "Alcoholism and drug addiction are both illnesses but people really only see the condition and not the illness so that's why I wrote the lyric from a stark point of reality.
"I said: Look, here's a drunk and this is why he is an alcoholic — instead of just glossing over the problem. I always like to give a very personal and constructive viewpoint to whatever it is I'm writing about."
Continuing the serious theme, I cross-questioned Gil on the song that first brought his name into my life — "Home Is Where The Hatred Is". Though it was originally included on his own Flying Dutchman LP, "Pieces Of A Man", the world knows it more via Esther Phillips mean, moody and magnificent version that brought her world acclaim when she first joined the Kudu label.
"Esther got the song via Pee Wee Ellis who was then working at Flying Dutchman but who had been brought in to work on Esther's first Kudu album," Gil reflected. "In fact, Pee Wee is still with Esther to this day as her musical director. Anyway, the story line in 'Home Is Where The Hatred Is' seemed to run a parallel with Esther's own life in reality since she had openly overcome a serious drug problem.
"So the heroin thing was something she could communicate with in terms of a song and, to this day, I'm desperately proud of the way she performed the song. It brings it to life and that's a helluva thing for a writer to be able to hear in one of his songs."
Many of Gil's songs deal with social injustice and the problems that surround those injustices. Yet, Gill feels that where he has been labelled a radical, another writer could produce the same type of song and sail innocently by without a murmur from the press.
"You know," he explains, "there really isn't a great deal of difference between 'Home Is Where The Hatred Is' and the Peter, Paul & Mary hit. "Puff, the Magic Dragon', yet 'Puff' is looked upon as being a children's song. Yet they both deal with drugs! They both conjure up the same image in my mind although 'Home' is probably far more vivid and hits home far harder.
"I guess my problem is that I don't beat around the bush, I hit the problem fair and square head on! But I sing about life as I see it and I see drugs as destructive to life and so I sing it that way. But I'm also realistic and I try to be what they term 'commercial' — you see, I'm extremely cautious about being redundant!
"But the funny thing, too, is that ninety per cent of the material I write and record isn't even vaguely political. However, because it has an immediate impact and doesn't leave much to the imagination, any point I raise isn't transparent or deceitful. But on the 'South Africa to South Carolina' album there are songs such as 'Beginnings' or 'A Lovely Day' which are simple love songs. But people always remember the ones like 'Bottle' or 'Johannesburg', don't they?
"I guess that another reason is that nobody else is doing that type of material so they only have me to pick on. But I've been making albums for six years now and I think you'll find my material is far more diversified than people give me credit for."
Twenty-five year old Gil's current project revolves around his first movie score. "It's for a movie that stars Calvin Lockhart as a movie maker who is trying to make a movie about the legendary European racing driver, Baron Wolfgang von Schultz — that's the name of the movie, by the way. Anyway, Cal runs into trouble raising cash to finish the film — that's in the film, not in real life, by the way. And he borrows some from the mob and the film revolves around the trouble he has meeting their terms and deadlines. But since he is so sure he is on to a winner, he gets in deeper and deeper until it's too late.
"He actually borrows the cash from a notorious drug dealer and it all ends rather unsavoury. But I'm particularly happy with the score that we've done for it and with the movie being premiered around Easter time, we are planning to release the soundtrack album towards the end of March."
Gil's recent successful debut trek to Europe is one of two overseas trips he hopes to make this year. "I've become very close to Masakela — in fact, he now lives close to me with his family in Washington D.C.," Gil explains. "And he has persuaded me to make one trip with him to West Africa and I'm looking forward to that as much as I was to this European tour.
"You know, things you hear about as a child and wonder about. I'm also hoping to go to Johannesburg — you see, I'm of the belief that you don't treat South Africa as a parasite because by going there you might be able to educate them just that little bit more. You can't just ignore or avoid a problem because, if it's there, it has to be faced — and the sooner you face it the better.
On Gil's recent five concert dates in this country, he was joined by 'the best bunch of musicians in the world today' as he fondly refers to them. They are the Midnight Band and comprise Gil, vocals and electric piano; Brian Jackson, keyboards and vocals; Barnett Williams, percussion; Danny Bowens, bass; Bilal Sunni Ali, harmonica, flute & saxophone; Tony Duncanson, timbales; and Reggie Brisbane, drums.
I'd like to just close by adding that Gil was to me a refreshingly direct and honest person, not hung up in any false trappings of self-importance. I especially enjoyed his quick wit and lightning sense of humour that appeared very English in its style — almost Pythonish, even! And our meeting has taught me a lesson — I'll never dare prejudge a person again. For that I say: thanks, Gil.