Gil’s music and poetry have always been popular in Britain, despite them being about conditions that are far removed from here. Why is that?
It’s got a lot to do with his humanity and humour. There are strong and clear messages in his work, especially the early records in this box set. But you never feel like you’re being bashed over the head with them. He was very concerned with emotions.
In Did You Hear What They Said? he asked what it would feel like to be a mother whose only son had died in Vietnam and couldn’t be buried because his body was a thousand pieces.
The result is so much more powerful than the more dogmatic approach used by other spoken word acts of the time, such as the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets. I think people are much more likely to listen to an anti-war message when it is relayed in Gil’s way.
Gil is often remembered as someone who fought addiction. Is that a fair view?
Not really. In his early tracks that feature addiction, such as Home Is Where the Hatred Is, he talks in dreadful detail about how drugs destroy people. But that’s long before they started to dominate his own life.
He was a 21 year old student when he first sang that song and was already well known for his writing skills. He met his longstanding collaborator, Brian Jackson, at that time.
Brian said of his first encounter with Gil, “I have met my Langston Hughes” [Hughes was the outstanding black poet of the 20th century].
Those songs were the result of really strong observations, rather than experience. The really sad point in his life comes in the mid-1990s.
I remember seeing him live at that time singing The Bottle, which is about alcoholism. He was clearly out of his head and seemed to have lost all his teeth. It was terrible to see.
In the spoken word style featured in this box set the gap between artist and audience is narrow. Was that a deliberate choice?
Certainly he wanted to speak up for people, rather than speak down to them. But his early recording style was something of an accident. His first producer, Bob Thiele, said he simply couldn’t afford a band to accompany Gil.
I think that decision actually increased the power of his delivery. You can hear it in the acoustic version of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
When Gil drops the last line, “The Revolution will be live,” the emphasis on the word “live” is so insistent, so demanding of attention. It really grabs you.
Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Begins CD box set from Ace Records. The set comes with a 56-page booklet and is available from Bookmarks for £24. Go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk