THIS WEEKEND, on the New Yorker’s blog, Alec Wilkinson weighed in on the passing of Gil Scott-Heron. The piece, particularly because it was something that bloomed in the crunch time of deadline, is all that more remarkable. It felt to me, in the best possible way, like a series of gestures, words, images, glances that reporters take away with them long after the interviews are finished and the deadline is met.
It doesn’t simply “sum up” his career, but rather looks at what “career” might mean for someone like Scott-Heron:
The challenge for anyone in show business is keeping a career afloat after the public’s attention has moved elsewhere. Scott-Heron just missed being embraced by the mainstream. It may be true that no pop artist is embraced—from Frank Sinatra through Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Sean Combs, and Lady Gaga—who isn’t desperate to be embraced, and Scott-Heron was indifferent to what people thought of him. (I learned that writing a Profile of Scott-Heron for The New Yorker last year.) He believed that courting attention was lowering. He was a reader and a thinker and a social observer, and his mind produced ideas, not opportunities for commerce. He loved being onstage and being the center of attention, but he wanted to be left alone otherwise. He was too thorny a character to fit entirely into a persona calculated for success.
This would have been a tough piece to write for me. That voice alone was many ways a metaphor — steady, serious, attention-grabbing and singular. The 70s was a period all manner of folks were self-defining — and adamantly so. His voice cut through all the empty noise. Felt like more than a foothold, but a foundation. My visual introduction to Gil Scott-Heron was seeing him on Saturday Night Live singing “Johannesburg” — in his dashiki. His performance was politics with locomotion, it was an education about what apartheid meant. I’d tuned in to steal a peek at Richard Pryor, but that was the lagniappe — seeing Scott Heron in his low-key force. I was a child, but was riveted.
Talking about this piece with another journalist friend, I was truly struck by how stories — the people we spend time with — continue to live inside of us long after we’re done — this piece feels like he’d been still considering the many puzzle pieces that made up a man as full of convictions as he was contradictions.
(image via Clash Music)