All My Little Words

Gil Scott-Heron – A Poet Who Died Too Young

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on June 12, 2011

In the early hours of Saturday morning, in front of the Pitchfork stage at Primavera Sound, I was dancing to JamieXX playing out his version of Gil Scott Heron’s “I’m New Here”. Several hours later we awoke to the news that the song’s author had died overnight. That a young musician has, by reinterpreting Heron’s first album in more than fifteen years, managed to successfully carve himself a secondary career as a DJ, is as fitting a tribute and as telling a testament to his relevance as there can be.

Although I’m New Here is unlikely to surpass The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as Heron’s most politically  “important” work, it can be reasonably regarded as its equal in terms of peer influence and critical reception. For a man who seemingly had, in recent years, very little interest in writing poetry and recordung it as music, it was a simply stunning production. Thoughtful, analytical, riddled with self-criticism and an appropriate level of pathos, I’m New Here was so much more than we could have expected it to be.

I have no idea if Scott-Heron was working on new material at the time of his death, or if the 2009 LP was intended to be followed by anything at any point. Still less can we know if the record that might never have been could have matched its predecessor in lyrical majesty and musical impact. But the very occurrence of I’m New Here, sixteen years after Spirits, is enough to suggest he could do it again. That is why Gil Scott Heron’s death means more.

It means more than if, say, Bob Dylan were to keel over tomorrow. Or Bruce Springsteen. Or Paul McCartney. For these men and their ilk, we can be sure, will never come close to recording anything the equal to  their most celebrated works, as influential as they still are, decades after being released. All of these might still be important performers, but their performances are of the songs and albums on which they originally made their names. While they might continue to write and record new material, the comparisons cannot be made and the public interest barely register. The Rolling Stones are, and have been for some time, no more than a Rolling Stones covers band.

There are contenders. Dave Gilmour and Robert Plant have in recent years bestowed on us a couple of albums which we should be very grateful to receive and that are really worth experiencing live. It would have been a great shame had we not been given On An Island or Raising Sand, but the Dark Side of the Moon or Physical Graffiti they are not and it is to those records we would turn in tribute if either men were to depart tomorrow.

Gil Scott Heron, for all his troubles, left us wanting more. His death, at 62 at full 35 years longer than musicians are meant to live, feels too young and leaves us bereft of what might have been.

One last tribute from Gilles Peterson:

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