Saturday, September 12, 2020

Texas Notes: The Revolution Will Be Televised

           Austin  bureau chief Caren Jeskey reports in.

   Gil Scott-Heron disappeared at his own show. He was performing at Cabaret Metro in Chicago in October of 1998. We’d been bobbing our heads to his smooth and sultry partly spoken, partly sung poetry while the band played mesmerizing blues-jazz-funk tunes. We were transfixed by the visionary before us. This was our church—live, soul-enriching hypnotic music. Gradually we realized that we hadn’t heard his voice for a while as the band played on. It took many long minutes before the trance was broken and we opened our eyes to see what gave. He was no longer front and center at his microphone stand. As pleasantly lulling as the band was, we missed our superstar and had to know where he had gone. I made my way to the front of the stage and scanned for Mr. Scott-Heron.
     As though watching the fog lift during a film noir scene, I made out his impossibly thin frame crouched down against the wall alongside stage left. He must have leaned against it, and his tired legs slowly gave way, leaving his knees pointed sharply out towards the band, his bottom sagging almost to the floor. His bony back was deeply rounded into a C, and his head drooped heavily into his long-fingered palms. I had heard he’d battled a long history of drug addiction, but to actually see our hero taken down by drugs was heart wrenching. As I recall, he did not return to the mic that night.
     We had gotten all we had hoped for at the show—he’d delivered all of our favorite songs in perfect tune. His lyrics summarized each and every truth about social injustice that we were painfully and acutely aware of as young people from Chicago involved in social work. His lyrics were what we called next level—he “overstood” in our eyes. He was a wise sage for whom understanding was simply too banal. Yes, we took ourselves and semantics pretty seriously. He saw things crystal clearly and said them in a such a warm and inviting way that he could have melted an ice cap. His words predicted everything happening in the United States of America today. A Nostradamus of his time.
   His extraordinary talent made it easy to forgive his flaws. He modeled how to use one’s voice and speak the truth, and he did so with genius level lyricism and musical composition. We could chill out to his music droning on endlessly in the background of coffee shops as we played backgammon and philosophized about changing the world for the better. We could also dance to his songs as spun on vinyl records at the Muzic Box on lower Wacker or at C.O.D. on Devon.
     When we danced to this kind of music, it was a form of activism. We moved our bodies to thumping beats while contemplating lyrics to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, thus focusing on topics that mattered. We awakened more deeply to why we felt that things were just not right. We’d been with our black friends and harassed by cops, knowing that we were all good kids who did not deserve the tyranny and fearing deeply for our black friends’ lives—we knew many who did not make it. We closed our eyes and danced away our blues while singing and relating to The Bottle, a song about alcoholism and the destruction it wreaks upon families and children; or the incredibly sweet sounding Angel Dust he recorded in 1978. “He was groovin’ and that was when he coulda sworn the room was movin’—but that was only in his mind. He was sailin’, he never really seemed to notice vision failin’, ’cause that was all part of the high… He might not make it… down some dead end streets there ain't no turnin' back.”
     Prophetic lyrics from Winter in America: “The Constitution, a noble piece of paper with free society. Struggled but it died in vain, and now Democracy is ragtime on the corner hoping for some rain.” Since this blog for the not-easily offended I feel comfortable sharing Whitey on the Moon: “A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon. Her face and arms began to swell and Whitey's on the moon. I can't pay no doctor bills but Whitey's on the moon. Ten years from now I'll be paying still while Whitey's on the moon.” If he were alive and writing today it might say “I take the bus to and from work and Whitey works from home. I may die of CO19 while Whitey works from home.”
     Gil Scott-Heron did not know that Instagram and Facebook feeds and iPhones would be streaming our current revolution live when he wrote his famous song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: “Because the revolution will not be televised, Brother. There will be no pictures of you and Willie May pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run, or trying to slide that color TV into a stolen ambulance. There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkins strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he has been saving for just the proper occasion.” Lo and behold, it is.  
     For today I will try to rest in knowing that what is happening today is a tragic yet inevitable piece of our history. Our current circumstances have been building for generations—both the uncorking of exploitation as well as the pandemic. Sociologists and common folks, as well as scientists, have been trying to warn the rest of the world. Conflict has and will always be present in civilizations. We can only hope that all of this unrest will yield true change, true democracy.
     I will take solace in the gestures of activism I am able to make, such as collecting donations and feeding, clothing and supplying my unhoused neighbors with essentials and taking good care of my clients in this global multi-layered crisis. I will also gratefully ask Gil Scott-Heron to continue to sooth and inspire my soul. In 2010, one year prior to his death, he gave us something sweet to ponder. “No matter how far gone you've gone you can always turn around… and I'm shedding plates like a snake. It may be crazy but I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason. Turn around, turn around, turn around and you may come full circle and be new here again.”

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for your poignant perspective . Sadly Gil's words have been disregarded and continue to be by far to many.
    If you are poor and brown you might as well be the one on the moon cause the only acknowledgement you'll receive from wealth folks is a sign in their window. When I read those crooked and fading signs all I can think is: AND WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT?

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  2. Wonderful piece, Caren. Thank you as I struggle daily, "and Whitey works from home."

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  3. I love the passion and descriptive content of this essay. Great writing, Caren!

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  4. Seems like the more things change, the more things stay the same.

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  5. It was a few weeks before he hung himself at his sisters house in Far Rockaway, New York. He had a cast on his wrist and a somewhat surly attitude, but it might have been the alcohol. His anti-war anthems and indictments of racist American had moved me in the sixties, so I was at the Quiet Knight expecting Phil Ochs put some perspective on the Nixon morass. Sadly it was not to be . He had been unable to summon the muse of his past I learned after his death. Later still, I learned he had been attacked in Africa, suffering irreparable throat damage, which explained the disappointing performance of that night. It hurt to see a hero laid low. It hurts more today when we could use his songs to help cure the Trump Fever afflicting his land full of Power and Glory. Caren, I know how you felt that night. This piece might be your best. It has me remembering art that moved me and it moves me to listen to GSH tonight.

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    1. I sure wish I'd gotten a chance to go to the Quiet Night- especially the Bob Marley show.

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  6. Thank you for the comments all- I’m glad this memory moved some of you.

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