Gil Scott-Heron : Whitey on the Moon

I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.
(while Whitey's on the moon)

The first article I ever wrote was about Gil Scott-Heron. My high school boyfriend was a fan and in a way, Gil was like us: a smart, fucked-up kid growing up in New York at a time when all culture was political. Journalists weren't just reporters; they'd become our Euripedes and Aristophanes. Music was the great cultural unifier. So was rebellion. And our belief that anything was possible.

His father, Gil Heron, was a Jamaican soccer player nicknamed "The Black Arrow," the first black man to play for the Celtic Football Club in Glasgow; his mother, Bobbie Scott, sang opera with the New York Oratorio Society and worked as a librarian. After their divorce, Gill Scott-Heron moved to Tennessee to live with his grandmother. A civil rights activist and musician, she bought him a piano and introduced him to the poetry of Langston Hughes.

After moving in with his mother in New York, Scott-Heron went to DeWitt Clinton high school in the Bronx,

where a teacher recognized his gifts and wangled him a scholarship to Fieldston, one of the city's elite private schools. During his second year at the country's first HBCU, Lincoln University, Scott-Heron published a novel: The Vulture, a murder mystery set in the ghetto.

Here's the ironic part. Gil Scott-Heron wasn't a ghetto kid. His was one of those mashup backgrounds that 1970s America made possible, especially in New York before the hedge funders took over. His mother didn't have much money, but she moved to Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, where Scott-Heron met poet and playwright Amiri Baraka and he was exposed to the city's cultural influences.

Teenage culture was the ultimate mashup: black kids, white kids, Puerto Rican kids, rich kids, poor kids, stoners, jocks, kids with drunks for parents, genius kids, kids who took too much LSD and never came all the way back.

You could afford to live in Chelsea then. Now it's high-end art galleries, crazy expensive stores, condos.

In New York, then and now, you can get discovered, and Gil Scott-Heron did. A jazz producer brought him into the studio to cut the song people still associate with him: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It appeared on the 1971 album Pieces of a Man with a photo of Scott-Heron that made him the Justin Trudeau of the hipster cool set.

After Pieces of a Man came out, Scott-Heron finished his master's in creative writing at Johns Hopkins. He published a second novel. He made more albums with his musical partner, Brian Jackson. Under the tutelage of Clive Davis, his music got more commercial but the message was still political: Johannesburg was a disco-tinged anti-apartheid anthem.

What's the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
From Johannesburg?
What's the word?
Sister/woman have you heard
From Johannesburg?
They tell me that our brothers over there
Are defyin' the Man.
We don't know for sure because the news we get
Is unreliable, man.
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin',
But I'm glad to see resistance growin'.

In the 1980s, Gil Scott-Heron toured with Stevie Wonder. Their call for a national holiday on Martin Luther King's birthday was heard.

By 2001, he was addicted to crack. He died in 2011. His last album became available digitally in 2015.

Now the revolution is televised. And art is political again.

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you
By Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle
And leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams, and Spiro Agnew
To eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary
The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre
And will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because
The revolution will not be televised, brother

There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mae
Pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run
Or trying to slide that color TV into a stolen ambulance
NBC will not be able predict the winner
At 8:32 on report from twenty-nine districts
The revolution will not be televised

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young
Being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process
There will be no slow motion or still lifes of Roy Wilkins
Strolling through Watts in a red, black, and green liberation jumpsuit
That he has been saving for just the proper occasion

"Green Acres", "Beverly Hillbillies", and "Hooterville Junction"
Will no longer be so damn relevant
And women will not care if Dick finally got down with Jane
On "Search for Tomorrow"
Because black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day
The revolution will not be televised

There will be no highlights on the eleven o'clock news
And no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists
And Jackie Onassis blowing her nose
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb or Francis Scott Keys
Nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash
Engelbert Humperdinck, or The Rare Earth
The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be right back
After a message about a white tornado
White lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom
The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver's seat

The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live

A British producer talked Scott-Heron into the studio again. The result was Nothing New. One of the songs was Alien: Hold Onto Your Dreams, a lament by a Mexican who had crossed the border into the U.S., a song he'd written with Brian Jackson someone should pick up. Then there was this deceptively simple tune.

Painting by Joyce Hayes. Available here.

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