One day, about a hundred years ago in the Los Angeles offices of SOUL magazine, I was working at my desk when I became aware of my colleagues Mike Terry and Mike Martinez, huddled together on the other side of the room, excitedly discussing some new album. I asked what they were listening to. Barely sparing me a glance, they told me to go back to the Jacksons or the O’Jays or the Brides of Funkenstein or whatever I was into then, because this was too deep for me. This was something I would never understand.
The Mikes are a few years older than I, which makes not a lot of difference as we slog through our 50s. But a hundred years ago, I was 19 or 20 and desperate to appear mature. My ego could not stand still for being dismissed as callow by two older guys. So I snagged that record as soon as I could.
This was my introduction to Gil Scott-Heron.
I had not known it was possible for music to do the kinds of things this music did. Scott-Heron, who died of an undisclosed cause last week at the ridiculous age of 62, had little interest in songs about shaking your booty or falling in and out of love. He was a poet, spoken-word artist and singer with a ferocious intelligence, a gift for wordplay and a voice that sounded as if it might have carved out some ancient riverbed. He brought all these things to bear on a musical canon that went where few others did. He weighed in on a South African mining strike (“Johannesburg”), fought nuclear power (“Shut ’Um Down”), navigated a season of disillusion “Winter in America”).
Other artists might sing some generalized paean to brotherhood and call themselves “socially conscious.” Scott-Heron named names and got specific in songs that snapped with the immediacy of newspaper headlines, as in “B Movie,” an evisceration of the Reagan Gang that crackled with righteous indignation. And then, of course, there was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his famous satire about being present of mind in the moment of change.
Because he sometimes spoke his songs, Scott-Heron is often called a progenitor of rap. Actually, he was what rap claimed to be — CNN of the streets — but never quite was. Rap too readily mistook the profane for the profound.
Scott-Heron disappeared long before he died. I remember yearning for his take on the Bush debacle, but it never came. Indeed, he released only two albums after 1982. He spent those years doing drugs and time.
Last year, a saddening profile in the New Yorker found Scott-Heron living in a ground-floor apartment in Harlem with a bedspread covering a sliding glass door. He smoked crack in front of his interviewer.
It is axiomatic that musicians end up joining the establishment they once terrified. Ice-T became a TV cop. Mick Jagger got knighted. Elvis went Hollywood.
But Scott-Heron did not become old and co-opted. He became old and pathetic, old and sad, old and ridiculous. And that’s worse.
So I choose not to remember him that way. I choose to remember him for a singular voice and vision, conscience and courage rare in American arts. And I will leave the last word on all the rest to Scott-Heron himself — a lyric from “Angel Dust,” a song he wrote begging kids to avoid a dangerous drug.
“Down some dead-end streets,” he warned, “there ain’t no turning back.”