Time Doesn't Extinguish His Flame

The poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron struck a raw nerve in the early '70s  with "The Revolution Will Not be Televised," a sarcastic, simmering three minute taunt set to a flute, drum and bass soaked jazz backing track that  sounds today more like Beatnik parody than jazz.

Scott-Heron's construction was simultaneously mischievous, subversive and ingeniously disarming. It took pot shots at blacks and whites alike, aiming most of its vitriol at a mindless TV culture.

The poem is packed with cultural and political references of the time as filtered through the television medium. For those old enough to remember 1971 both politically and culturally, the poem is like a time capsule. If you're unfamiliar with the political and cultural stars from that time—not to mention the popular TV commercials— you will after listening to the poem.

The rest of the Pieces of a Man  album ( Flying Dutchman FD 10143), some written by Scott-Heron and some in a collaboration with keyboardist Brian Jackson, veers from powerful "Home is Where the Hatred Is" to the mundane  "When You are Who You Are." It's part breezy pop and part protest. Scott-Heron, born in 1949 is a product of the '60s and was clearly influenced by the counterculture, musically and otherwise.

In some ways it's the jazzy counterpart of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? that was also issued in 1971. Pieces of a Man was recorded April of 1971. Most of What's Going On  was recorded around the same time so its difficult to make the case that one influenced the other. Both probably sprung simultaneously from the era. Gaye's album was heavily and intricately produced. Scott-Heron's was simpler. It's more of a live jazz performance and less of a "concept album."

While What's Going On holds up better as an album, Pieces of A Man was probably more influential. It merged jazz with soul music and pop. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" presaged rap. Scott-Heron is more of a poet than a singer and his relationship with the musical backdrop is unusually casual, which is what makes it so original and interesting even now, despite some of the dated sentiments.

His career, recording and otherwise continued throughout the '70s and '80s, though he no longer seeped into mainstream culture other than as an important influence on rap music, which some credit "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" for spawning.

Scott-Heron has apparently had a tough life since the Millennium. He's had or has a drug problem and has been both in jail and in treatment. His trevails are apparent from the photos on the cover of this new album and from the roughness of his voice.

This shot at cultural redemption was orchestrated by XL label head Richard Russell about whom I know very little except that the XL label is to today's music scene what Chris Blackwell's Island or Jac Holzman's Elektra was during the '60s. A greater compliment could not be paid. I'm not saying Russell has attained equal status, but given the environment in which he finds himself, you could argue the case.

So on this remarkable record Russell replaces the Hubert Laws flute, Bernard Purdie drum, Ron Carter bass thing with a modern electronic environment of synth strings, stark drum hits, and dim, flickering lights, augmented by Scott-Heron on piano, plus guitar, synth strings, vocal choir and even a Kanye West sample. 

While the Russell produced backing tracks are brilliantly moody and evocative, it's the A&R work that really shines. The songs, including the ones he didn't write tell Scott-Heron's story, or at least try to explain his life.

The title tune, written by Bill Callahan, A/K/A Smog, was a stroke of genius choice. Setting Scott-Heron's gritty voice against a tune fresh off the Appalachian trail creates, deep mystical chemistry. 

Scott-Heron's inner sleeve listening instructions deserve transcription. 

"There is a proper procedure for taking advantage of any investment," he writes.

"Music, for example. Buying music is an investment. To get the maximum you must


Not in your car or on a portable player through a headset.

Take it home.

Get rid of all distractions, (even her or him).

Turn off your cellphone. 

Turn off everything that rings or beeps or rattles or whistles.

Make yourself comfortable.

Play your LP." (etc.)

As on Pieces of A Man, Scott-Heron's talk-sing isn't exactly conventional. It's gruff and the mechanics of getting from one place to the next are often exposed but it's always compelling and moving, particularly if you follow his listening instructions.

It begins with a short dramatic narrative titled "On Coming From a Broken Home (Part 1)" backed by a synth track as distant as the time Scott-Heron talks about. 

Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil" set to an appropriately ominous electronic backing track comes next, painfully and grittily delivered by Scott-Heron. Up next is the scene shifting title tune. If you're not hooked by then you'll never get this record, but if you do, you will continue following the sleeve instructions and "LISTEN all the way through." And "Think about what you got."

While Scott-Heron didn't write all of the tunes, he inhabits them and makes them his own autobiographical statement. The short record is dotted with Scott-Heron conversational quips that shed light on some dark spaces.

The recording by Lawson White, mostly at Clinton Studios, particularly of Scott-Heron's voice, is intimate, three-dimensional and appropriately unadorned. When it's processed, the processing is for a purpose.

The production as a whole is equally accomplished and evocative. The arrangements are spare and to the point. The gatefold packaging completes the picture of a producer intent upon presenting a physical and sonic package he was proud to help create and that you will be glad you bought and experienced.

Mr. Russell began negotiating the production of this album at Riker's Island where Scott-Heron was incarcerated for his drug problem. We have a Speaker of the House, third in line for the presidency who is a drug addict but because of politics and customs, his addiction is ignored. That has nothing to do with this album, but I'm just saying...

If you listen to this relatively album as Scott-Heron suggests I can't imagine that you won't come away thinking you made a great investment in money and in time. I'm not saying you're going to play this daily, but when you want to be moved by a story in time, it will be here for you.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Rose_whip's picture

This is an outstanding album. A classic of its time, this album deserves to be heard by every fan of traditional music. - David Slone