Over the last few years we in Thee Faction have become increasingly upset by the prevailing wisdom on Gil Scott Heron: that he ‘lost it’, or that he in some sense betrayed the good he did back in the day. Nothing makes us angrier than this. The system created Gil Scott Heron – it created the need for him, and the social conditions he lived under created the man himself. The system destroyed him, and took it all away. At his peak, he was unbeatable: a revolutionary force for change that no amount of theoretical texts or topical pamphlets could match, containing within it the deepest socio-economic analysis delivered with the lightest touch and the sharpest words. At his lowest, he was the perfect example of how the system, The Man, could crush even the brightest of men. This tribute has no interest in the bad years, bar the observation that only a capitalist system could engineer the dismantling of such a revolutionary force, and have society blame the individual. That was the system Gil Scott Heron consistently attacked. Dialectics in action, brothers and sisters.
The revolution will not be televised, Comrade Gil told us. The Library of Congress is full of heavyweight texts full of analysis of American society. It was all there, in that song. From the hypocrisy of black leaders (“Roy Wilkins strolling through Watts in a red black and green liberation jumpsuit”), the dislocation of US popular culture from the mass of the people (“Green Acres, The Beverley Hillbillies and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant”), to a critique of the bourgeois illusion of capitalism’s consumer phase (“the revolution will not go better with Coke, the revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath” – the careful insertion of the ‘may’ is another moment of critical genius from Comrade GSH), Gil assembled a biting critique of US capitalism and the society it had spawned, and offered us the route to a new tomorrow (“cos black people will be on the street looking for a brighter day”). That the title has become a meaningless cliché, manipulated and played with by those appropriating it for their own messages, should not stop us remembering the revolutionary critique that lay within it. Those that have read Raymond Williams on Television, or Thomas Frank, will recognise exactly which tradition this stuff lies in.
To many, Gil Scott Heron was that song. But he was a whole lot more than that. Lady Day and John Coltrane was one of the finest restatements of the redemptive power of music that has ever been cut to vinyl: “it’s all because we’re so afraid to say that we’re alone, until our hero rides in on his saxophone”. The Bottle – and let’s ignore the proleptic irony of its content – offered us another devastating critique of capitalism and how it will seek out those who don’t do its work, chew them up and spit them out:
See that gent in the wrinkled suit
he done damn near blown his cool
to the bottle
He was a doctor helping young girls along
if they wasn’t too far gone to have problems.
But defenders of the dollar eagle
Said “What you’re doing, Doc, it ain’t legal,”
and now he’s in the bottle.
Now we watch him everyday trying to
chase the pigeons away
from the bottle.
And don’t you think it’s a crime
when time after time, people in the bottle.
But for Thee Faction, Comrade Gil’s finest moment was Johannesburg. Internationalism was a theoretically important thing to us, of course. But the practical statement of Internationalism that underlies the entire song, culminating in the chant: New York like Johannesburg, LA like Johannesburg, Detroit like Johannesburg, brought the whole thing to life. Where comrades in the 30s had Spain, our generation had South Africa, and Comrade Gil talked us through exactly why their struggle was our struggle.
When we read today that, in the Ivory Coast, trade’s unionists are being arrested, while other union officers are going into hiding, we must immediately remember Comrade GSH’s simple statement: “they tell me that our brothers over there refuse to work in the mines. They may not get the news but they need to know we’re on their side”.
Now sometimes distance brings misunderstanding, but deep in my heart I’m demanding: somebody tell me what’s the word, sister, woman have you heard, from Johannesburg?
Gil Scott Heron was as good as it got. And the system made sure that he suffered pretty much as badly as it can get. So, let’s say goodbye to a fallen comrade with these words:
I hate it when the blood starts flowing, but I’m glad to see resistance growing
The greatest tribute we can offer to the man is to continue to build that resistance. So that no one else can fall as he did, and so that the intellectual and cultural energies of comrades of his talents can go into building a brighter day, not just analysing the problems of these darkest of days.
Onward, Comrade Gil. Onward.