Have you heard ‘I’m new here’ – Gil Scott-Heron’s final album, released in 2010, just a year before he died? If you have you’ll know about Lily Scott, the grandmother who raised him ’til he was twelve years old, in Jackson Tennessee:
‘I loved her from the absolute marrow of my bones,
And we was holding’ on,
I come from a broken home’
‘Absolutely not your mail-order, room-service, typecast black grandmother’
She loves him fiercely and builds in him a love of learning and a determination to get as good an education as possible. Well, as good as possible for a black child in the American South during the fifties and sixties. In all he goes through ten educational establishments, including being one of the first ever black children to be controversially ‘bussed’ into a predominantly white school.
And he learns so well that by the time he finally drops out of college at nineteen, he’s already written the poem that will set the course of his future: ‘The revolution will not be televised’.
The book is ostensibly centred on the tour Gil Scott-Heron and his band did with Stevie Wonder in 1980 and 81. The tour where Stevie was campaigning to have Martin Luther-King’s birthday declared a national holiday. (He succeeded in this by 1983.) He writes very warmly about Stevie Wonder, who is clearly a very good and likeable man. But these are the bits of the book that work the least well for me. Because I came here to listen to Gil Scott-Heron.
So I prefer it where he’s remembering and philosophising about his own life. Like when he’s bussed to the white school:
‘It may sound strange, but I didn’t look ahead. If I had I might have guessed that we would get to the Civil War in American History. This was going to come up. But I swear it snuck up on me, and the ramifications snuck up on the class. When we did get to the Civil War, it was like reviewing it from the loser’s locker room. I don’t know how many classes I’d had about the Civil War up to that point, but none of them had ever been from a point of sympathy with the South. Okay, so now the South was the home team.
We landed on a page with a picture of a black man in chains, a slave. It was as if nobody knew it was coming. Everyone froze for a minute. Then this one guy, Stevie, who was a real pain in the ass, snickered. The teacher chastised him and took over again and we moved on.’
But in Jackson, at least, the integration of the education system seems to work. And, as he notes later ‘It was made clear that Jackson’s politicians knew the Civil War was over’.
But then when a new highway rolls through his childhood neighbourhood, the part of Jackson where all the black people lived – he writes about it turning all his old side streets into ‘asphalt memory lanes’.
The book kind of falls apart towards the end. Lots of key details about his life are missing. Like, we hear nothing of his addictions or his two spells in jail. And nothing of then pulling himself together to make his final, magnificent album. But then he had no idea he was about to die, and that he should get on with finishing the book he’d been writing for the best part of thirty years. Our loss, but at least we have what we have. And I warmly recommend it.
Also I have a Gil Scott-Heron story that’s not in his book. In May 2011, the morning I heard the news of his death on the radio, I had a meeting with the people I was just getting to know in Granby. And they were all even more upset than me about his death. This mystified me a bit, but I just put it down to their good taste in music and people.
Then a couple of months later a story appeared in the local paper about a local Granby man, Malik Al Nasir, who Gil Scott-Heron had helped out. Meeting at a concert in Liverpool, they’d become friends, looked round Granby and the rest of Liverpool 8 together (the 1981 riots hadn’t long happened). And in the end:
‘The pair would become lifelong friends. Scott-Heron helped Malik learn to read properly, helped him get into university, and after years of touring with the band, Malik went into music production himself’.
Well, in Granby, they haven’t forgotten Gil Scott-Heron. And we never will.