The Voice

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)


2 thoughts on “The Voice

  1. i both read the new yorker pieces and concur with much of what you’ve said, right down to the SNL connection. i don have one other wide-eyed experience of hanging out in an underground radio station in the early 70s hearing “the revolution will not be televised” and having my 13 year old brain stunned that anyone would be allowed to be so frank and open and yet entertaining at the same time. it was part and parcel to a seismic rift in my thinking that i feel made me who i am today.

    but of all this the thing i recognize most (and scares me a little) is the affinity i have with scott-heron’s not being interested in chasing down the limelight and still wanting that interaction with people. for myself i’ve defined it as like wanting to be a teacher while disdaining the classroom. creativity doesn’t thrive in a vacuum, but the work it takes to be “out there” can be equally soul-sucking.

  2. that’s really amazing that you focus on that part of the story: it really struck me to. that image of him sitting on the subway singing — happy to be told “brother can sing!” and to be recognized as *looking* like GSH, but feeling uncomfortable inhabiting all of what that meant. that really struck me as well, and there was much resonance — and the teaching connection, i understand too. there is something about working on a project together that in some ways mimics the creative process more — i’ve always been lead by curiosity, a nagging one actually, and i think that’s why i ended up in journalism. i think if there is a way to mimic the journey as part of the education, we’ll be getting to something. one of my former professors was just talking about that the other day, how she observed how much of my process was as much at the classroom as it was self-education, a sort of self-mandated curriculum, I suppose you could say — i just didn’t know how else to be. one thing always lead to the next…

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