Sunday, May 29, 2011

Testament to Gil Scott-Heron

On Friday evening, May 27, We were attending an open mic poetry session at Modbo in Colorado Springs. It was getting near the end of the evening, and a brash slam poet recited some Langston Hughes, then announced that Gil Scott-Heron was dead. I was stunned. He had been a soundtrack to my life since I was 16. I wrote this overnight, then discovered many friends such as Dom Gabrielli, Marilyn Basel, and Aad de Gids had written pieces of their own about Gil. He had survived many years of prison, many years of being strung out, and had come back with an exceptional 2010 album, I'm New Here, as well as an exceptional remix album in 2011 produced by Jamie Xx. I guess dying in a time of renewal was preferable to dying when broke and forgotten, but it still hurts all the more. And I guess that learning of Gil Scott-Heron's death at a poetry slam was the optimal way to find out.

Days Gil Whispered in My Ear

I. “And what would Karen Silkwood say to you, if she was still alive?”
I know precisely what she’d say, Gil.
She’d say it’s high time to wake up.
Protestations of broken alarm clocks and dissipated late nights aside,
I picked up a placard in 1976.
I never let go. My arms grow weary.

II. “Tuskeegee 626, scientists getting their kicks.”
Dolores DeLuna beams a benevolent mannequin smile
On Iggy’s Lust-for-Life grin
And the somber Leninist busts of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson.
“It’s so social realist,” you say as I slit shrink wrap.
I go grand-mal trembling in an excess of social realism.
Gil almost lost Detroit, I lost Detroit that day
Unwilling to play bedsitter to a Michigan gone Alzheimer’s.

III. “My name is what’s-your-name, you might reject my claim,
I expect that you won’t vary from the norm.”
The riot of desert color in Tempe, Ganado, Buckeye,
blossoms resembling the obscured face of an
Iranian exchange student in rectangular white mask
The shah is
“You mean to take it as a symbol”
a U.S. puppet,
“But look closely, who does it resemble?”
down with the shah!
Fedayeen collapse in multitudes as the first of dozens
of bearded stern faces are displayed in our shooting gallery
providing room for decades of bogeymen keeping us awake at night.
“Shah Mot. Shah Mot. Shah Mot.”
(Gil was the one to inform us that the chess warning of checkmate
is derived from the Farsi declaration that the shah is dead.)

IV. “It’s 1980. There ain’t no way we can reclaim ’75,
much less 1969.”
This is what democracy looks like!
This is what checkmate looks like.
as Gil Scott-Heron and Captain Beefheart go silent 30 years.
Silent all these years.
The needlework of desire keeps Gil from showing up
in New Mexico, Colorado, stations of the cross.
While this same needlework traces out the map
of a different desire, the material gone global,
gone derivative,
where even the chronicling of the exponential cancer
makes for hunger, makes the fingers twitch.
Brecht is there, sitting in for a silent Gil,
“even anger against injustice makes the brow grow stern.”
Hands on the placard falter,
but this remains an act of love, not fear.

V. “Womenfolk raised me and I was full grown,
before I knew I came from a broken home.”
Gil’s voice returns unexpectedly,
not hoarse in bitterness and regret,
not angry at 30 years’ unchronicled injustice,
but happy and humble in declaring that the
African-American male is only defined
by the women who shape him and carry his burden.
Works in all colors, Gil, works for all men.
Women as the strongest heroes
pulling a lost cause from the fire,
the one with dicks taking comic sidekick roles,
Vichyssoise, vichyssoise,
as they remind us again and again not to slacken the placard grasp.
The chador, the burqa, the undrivability in Salafist climes
opened the floodgates to chase the bearded ones away.
And Gil was there, learning dub step with Jamie XX,
discovering the untapped power of being new here.

VI. “The sheriff of Monroe County had disasters on his mind.”
The brash poet with shaved shining ebony head
announced Gil Scott-Heron is dead,
bookending Gil and Langston Hughes in
a declaration that will never stop reverberating.
“And what would Karen Silkwood say to you, if she was still alive?”
In my dreams she’d say, “Job well done.”
The real words mouthed by these lips,
“Go then and do likewise.
Do not falter. There is still a world to win.”
Gil wholeheartedly agrees.

Loring Wirbel
May 28, 2011


Ruth said...

He was not in my G.L. past, but now I've found him through you and other blog friends. I'm about to post a request for the music I missed back then by only listening to the car radio.

Ruth said...

Oh! And I meant to say Happy Birthday!!

Loring Wirbel said...

Thank you, Ruth! Boy, that list of music would be a long one. Did I ever tell you the story about how Roscoe Mitchell,saxophonist for Art Ensemble of Chicago, lived down the street from Surf City Convent in East Lansing? In the summer he would sit on the porch, in the lap of a mannequin covered in glued-on sunglasses (all over the body, not just the eyes), and play sax for the neighborhood. Never realized at the time how special that was.

Ruth said...

Well I'll limit it to "essential" music or something.

Cool memory of Roscoe Mitchell, you'll have it forever, the way I now have Gil Scott-Heron only after he died.

Loring Wirbel said...

My favorite phrase lately has become "I have trouble telling the difference."
As in chatting with a table of friends in San Jose about esoteric and strange jazz, but one guy at the table is a country-music lyricist, and I jump when he says he's writing for The Civil Wars, and he says, "How do you keep up with all that free jazz and noise and listen to country music too?"
"I have trouble telling the difference."
My daughter and I were talking about all the post-modernist Fouccault and Derrida and Ronell types, and she pointed out I read comic books too, and I said, "I have trouble telling the difference."
"Essential Music" hmmmm "I have trouble telling the difference."