Growing Up With Gil Scott-Heron: In Loving Memory
Gil Scott Heron's death last week at the age of 62 stimulated a wave of appreciation from critics and the jazz and hip hop communities who recognized his unique contribution to American and African-American culture. To me, it also brought a flurry of emotional emails and phone calls. Those of us who went to high school with Gil from 1963-'67 shared our memories of the scintillating and joyous character we knew as teenagers at Fieldston, the private Ethical Culture school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx attended then, as now, primarily by the sons and daughters of wealthy Jewish families. Gil was one of five black kids out of a class of around 100.
In 2007 Gil was up for parole after about a year into the last of his stints in jail -- he had developed a terrible addiction to crack cocaine that haunted him until the end of his life. I was one of several high school friends who wrote letters to the parole board about his character and value to society. At the same time I sent him a personal letter about what his work had meant to the world. He responded with a long handwritten reply in which he said that his time at Fieldston had "opened new worlds" for him. I suspect that his gracious words contained both genuine emotion, and a dollop of show biz bullshit. But there is no question that being exposed to his spirit opened new worlds for all of us.
Until the age of 12, Gil had grown up in Jackson, Tennessee, raised primarily by his grandmother. After her death he moved to New York City to live with his mother. For a couple of years he attended Dewitt Clinton School where an English teacher, recognizing his literary prowess, recommended him for the scholarship at Fieldston that brought him to us.
The kid who remained the closest to him was Fred Baron, who also entered Fieldston in ninth grade. Fred lived in Peter Cooper Village not far from the mostly Puerto Rican housing project where Gil and his mother lived on West 18th St. in Chelsea, which was a far cry from the trendy gentrified neighborhood it is today. Most Fieldston kids lived on the Upper West Side and Fred and Gil shared the last subway stop after school. Gil's mom was very strict and insisted on him being home at a certain time. But Bobbi Heron liked the Barons.
Fred recalls fondly that "Gil slept over at my apartment one or two nights a week. Gil's dad had left his family when Gil was a baby so he adopted my dad." Fieldston was a bastion of liberal politics (more than 95 percent of the student body would "vote" for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in a mock election held the next year) but Baron's father Jerry was a conservative libertarian. "Gil would argue with my dad night after night. My dad gave him Ayn Rand books to read and Gil, although he was still learning, believed in socialism and had a radical view on just about everything. Neither of them changed the other's mind but they became very close."
At 14, Gil had a boy's gleeful sense of fun but physically he was a man, gangly but almost 6 feet tall, the beginnings of a mustache (exotic in Fieldston in 1963) and already possessed of the deep voice the virtuoso jazz bassist Ron Carter was later to describe as "having been made for Shakespeare." I would certainly have been intimidated by him had he not been so friendly.
By the time Gil was 23 he had published two novels and a book of poems, and had recorded three albums, one of which included the iconic song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." In high school, however, Gil's persona revolved around sports and a wicked sardonic sense of humor. He was certainly the coolest kid among us, but he was friendly to just about everyone.
The first time I realized that he wasn't just an affable jock, was in an English class where we had been asked to write something about our own lives. A few of us read banal two- and three-page essays. Then Gil raised his hand and we spent the rest of the class listening to him read what must have been a 40-page portrait of his life in Tennessee. It was impeccably written with the kinds of descriptions and use of dialogue of real literature. Any fantasy I had that I could someday write fiction pretty much ended there, as I understood what real talent was, coming out of the unexpectedly earnest mouth of my new classmate. Not long thereafter I saw another flash of his precocious talent in the music room as he sat down at the piano and seemingly effortlessly played some blues.
Gil taught Baron to play the piano and Baron showed him how to play the guitar. They formed a rock band. Baron played rhythm guitar, Bill Horwitz played lead, David Applby played drums and Ira Resnick sang lead on songs of Stones, Beatles and Kinks while Gil sang lead on a couple of covers and on his original songs. "He was a great performer even then," Horwitz wrote me in an email, "a real showman who did splits while he performed Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs' 'Wooly Bully.'"
Resnick remembers, "He was like an old soul, even in high school. We knew Gil was from a different world but he was so great to hang out with." They played primarily at bar mitzvahs and dances. They called themselves the Warlords after a local gang. ("The Bronx was festooned with Warlords graffiti tags so we thought it would be a good name and PR for the band," Baron recalls). At a gig at Manhattan College some members of the actual Warlords gang attended. "After initial tensions they liked our sound."
Horwitz remembers, "Gilbert and I used to practice for the band at my house on Kappock Street in Riverdale. He used to play jacks with my younger sister, who was 10 or 11 at the time, his enormous long legs splayed out every which way on our tiny dining room floor. I had a little spinet piano that he liked a lot and he would pound out excruciatingly endless versions of the Moody Blues 'Go Now' which he sang at our shows."
According to Baron, Gil was constantly writing songs from his freshman year on. "He had a ring binder and he would fill it up with lyrics every month and he had an upright piano in his house and he'd turn them into songs."
Gil never passed up an opportunity to perform. There is a photo of him from the Fieldston student newspaper wearing a silly cowboy hat from an assembly dedicated to "Cowboys and their Songs," and when the Warlords didn't have gigs he also played and sang with another Fieldston band called A Stitch In Time. Keith Kaufman who played guitar in that band recalls, "He was so fucking funny. Just hanging around with him was so much fun and yet he was politically savvy and he was nobody's fool. Once we were at rehearsal studio and a guy who worked there wanted to record rehearsal and Gil refused saying, 'I got to copyright these things first.'"
Heron was a good athlete, at least by New York private school standards, joining Resnick and Baron on the football team where he was a defensive back and a wide receiver. "He had a very irreverent attitude to football," Baron remembers. "He was really good but he wasn't gung-ho. Gil would hold the ball out with one hand daring defenders to knock it away and then dodge their tackles and crack up laughing."
Gil was also the starting center on the basketball team and in our senior year Steve Rothschild and I volunteered to be the "managers" of the basketball team because it excused us from gym for the winter. Our "job" was to get the basketballs out of the closet for practice and put them away afterwards and to keep score at the games. Despite his nonchalance, Gil was the only player who regularly asked me how many points he had scored. Some of the other players could act like assholes to us but Gil was always unassuming and had a way of making us feel like we were in on the joke.
Forty-five years later David Schwartz, the best math student in our grade, still appreciated Gil's kindness in regular gym classes on the court. "He could shoot hoops and play but he made it that regular kids could play with the stars and he gave us respect. Heron would pass the ball to me for an open shot and afterwards compliment me for doing well in math."
My own relationship with Gil evolved around our mutual lefty politics. It was an intense time. A few weeks before ninth grade started, Martin Luther King had given his "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington. A couple of months into ninth grade John Kennedy was assassinated. In February after the holiday break Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston and shortly thereafter changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The year before, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had launched the environmental movement and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique had reinvented feminism.
By the fall of 1965 at the beginning of 11th grade the Viet Nam War protest movement was starting. Joel Goodman and I had protested air raid drills in seventh grade (they were dropped the following year) and in November we organized a bus to Washington for one of the first anti-war marches. Gil didn't come. Maybe his mother wouldn't let him. But after that he always spoke to me on another level. We would often play ping-pong in the recreation room during free periods and vent our frustration with those in power. As 11th grade was ending, in June of 1966, Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase "black power."
Parallel to the politics, we were getting drawn into the hippie idea before it became commercialized. Pot and acid were present by 11th grade along with hints of Eastern philosophy and there was an inchoate sense that there was some more cosmic and enlightened way that human beings could relate to each other and to the universe. It was heady stuff for teenagers.
Despite his popularity, there was always a degree of ambivalence in Gil's relationship with Fieldston. On the first day of ninth grade Heron, Baron and Resnick were ushered in to see the principal, Luther Tate, who condescendingly told Gil, "We brought you here because we want to expand the scope of the Fieldston community, so be yourself." Baron cringed and on the way out muttered "What an asshole," and Gil cracked up, dissipating the awkward tension.
One day Baron and Heron were in an ethics class "and some guy started saying that being poor was being one of the people, some ridiculous rap." Gil, who was ordinarily extremely disciplined in class, angrily interrupted. "Listen, man, I've been poor and I want to be rich. I want to do what I want when I want. You can be poor."
At an assembly in the spring of senior year in 1967, Gil sang the Bob Dylan song "Like A Rolling Stone" backed by Bill Horwitz on acoustic guitar. "It was one of the few times he didn't sit behind the piano," Horwitz wrote in an email, "I think he had some things he wanted to say directly to the audience and he was never afraid to say what he believed. It was quite a moment when he got to the line, 'You've been to the finest schools all right, Miss Lonely.' Being at Fieldston was a very complex experience for him to say the least."
When seniors were asked to select a quote to go with their photo in the yearbook Gil chose a line from an ad then running in the New York City subways: "Young enough to ride for free? Young enough to ride your knee!" Was it an oblique reference to having gotten a scholarship and some feeling of inhibitions that came with it?
Heron attended the historically black Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, where one of his idols, Langston Hughes, had studied. It was an extraordinary time in black culture. (The very word "black" was replacing "colored" and "Negro.") The environment triggered an explosion of creativity in Gil that would form his persona for the rest of his life. Rock and roll was jettisoned and he immersed himself in jazz and blues, bonding with several musicians, including Brian Jackson, who would play with him on and off for decades. When the radical poetry group, the Last Poets, played at Lincoln, Gil had a vision of how he could synthesize his talents and his visions.
At the same time he stayed in close touch with Baron and his dad. Early in his sophomore year dropped out of college to write his first novel, The Vulture, which was published in 1970. In 1996 when the novel was re-issued he wrote a new forward: "It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that my life depended on completing The Vulture and having it accepted for publication. There was a special man, a very gentle man, the father of a high school classmate of mine who I believe was the person 'the spirits' helped me connect with somehow." Jerry Baron had gotten Gil's manuscript to the publisher and the dedication of his first book read "To Mr. Jerome Baron without whom the 'bird' would never have gotten off the ground."
Gil never had the commercial killer instinct of Bob Dylan but he was just as influential and as stubbornly unique. Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets called Gil "a prince who was on his own." Most of Gil's inspiration came from John Coltrane and Lightnin' Hopkins, from Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, from Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcom X and Martin Luther King and other African-American geniuses. But as the years went by I was convinced that there remained a residue of the hippie idea in his approach to his art, mysticism and politics.
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" has Malcom X's fierceness, and ridiculed the shallowness of much of popular culture, but its subtle intensity also contained the message, as Heron often pointed out in later years, that any true revolution must take place inside yourself. The proto-typical hippie rock radio station, KSAN in San Francisco, must have felt those vibes when they played his early albums which led to several bookings at the Fillmore.
Gil was always gracious when Fieldston kids would show up at gigs. Ira Resnick saw him in San Francisco in the 1970s when Gil was playing with Brian Jackson as a jazz duo. "We got high and hung out all night. He couldn't have been friendlier. There was zero star trip." Keith Kaufman had a similar experience at shows in California finding his sense of humor livelier than ever. "We laughed all night."
I was the only other person from our class who had gotten into the music business, but as a journalist and PR guy I stuck to the rock and roll culture. Although I had watched Gil's growth as an artist with awe I didn't reconnect with him until 1979, when I co-produced and co-directed the film No Nukes, which chronicled a series of concerts that raised money for groups opposed to nuclear power plants. (It was as close to the hippie idea as rock culture came up with in the late '70s, organized primarily by Jackson Brown, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt.)
PR guy David Fenton and I suggested Gil, who was one of the few artists who had actually written a song about a near nuclear meltdown called "We Almost Lost Detroit." I had no idea if Gil would even remember me, given the passage of more than a decade and his iconic status, but when I entered the dressing room at Madison Square Garden he warmly embraced me and we briefly joked about high school before he did a mesmerizing set. I included "We Almost Lost Detroit" in the film and it was one of the highlights. One of the editors of No Nukes was Joel Goodman, who had also gone to school with us. We all were all old men of 29 or 30 years old.
Once in New York when Gil didn't have an answering machine Baron went to see him in his neighborhood in Harlem. "On the street he was known as Scotty. If you asked for Gil they didn't know who you meant. He was sitting with a bunch of guys and it was the one time I felt he was a little embarrassed to be seen with someone from high school. Later he wrote a song saying 'When I'm with my boys--you slide.'"
But the friendship endured. Baron become a geologist and his work often brought him to cities where Gil was playing clubs. "I'd see him at half-time in between sets. He was a good friend. He was warm and wise and I always listened to him carefully. Every once in a while he would come up with something that was so profound. But he was living in a different world than me." Baron noticed that at every gig there were local activists from food banks or battered women's shelters asking Gil for help that he was in no position to give. And as the years went by Gil seemed more beaten down by the music business, complaining once, "They always got some slick nigger giving me a headache telling me to sing songs from the latest album."
One time Baron and Heron were catching up on each other's families "when suddenly Gil looked at the time, ran over to an ice machine and stuck his head in the ice, jumped up and ran out on stage to cheers just seconds after we'd been hanging out. I realized again that he was in a different reality."
For a time, Gil's talent seemed to conquer all. His song "B-Movie" released in 1981 at the peak of '60s revisionism, has a fearless moral clarity and remains one of the most trenchant commentaries on the election of Ronald Reagan. But soon, one additional "reality" was the hold that crack had gotten on Gil Scott-Heron. From 1970-'82 he made 13 albums. He would not make another for 11 years. "Spirits," released in 1993, included "The Other Side," a searing description of drug addiction.
Many alcoholics and junkies have found solace in 12-step programs. Neither fear nor therapy nor spiritual practice worked for Gil. He was arrested several times and jailed more than once, the last time in 2005. He'd been arrested for possession of cocaine and he told the judge, who was a liberal, that he had already committed to a European tour and that it would hurt a lot of people if it was canceled, recalls Baron. "The judge said he could do the tour but that as soon as he got back he had to go to rehab or else she would have him sent to prison. We had a beer when he got back from Europe and Gil was joking around about it. He thought that with all the crime that police had to worry about they wouldn't bother coming for him. A few nights later they broke into his apartment at four in the morning."
Gil was sent to a prison up in northern New York State. "He was such a thin guy I was worried he would be cold up there," says Baron, so he asked if he could send him silk underwear. Prison officials said it was OK as long as they weren't gang colors. Baron also sent his friend a leather-bound book with writing paper. "I slipped into the binding a photo of him when he was 16." After Heron was released he told Baron, "You nailed my ass--I was lying in my bunk. Time is forever in jail. For a while the book was so nice I didn't want to write in it but finally I picked it up--and that picture fell out and it fell on me and I could step inside my head when I was that age. It gave me some perspective on all the places the mind has been and I started writing again."
Even after that jail stint and the loss of several teeth, Heron never stopped using drugs. "I went to SOBs after he got out and saw him at half time and he was wired. He was friendly but his leg was shaking like crazy the whole time."
In 2010 XL Records released "I'm New Here," Gil's first album in 16 years and his last. In an interview with Jaime Byng in the London Observer, Gil repeated one of his life-long themes "If someone comes to you and asks for help, and you can help them, why wouldn't you? You have been put in the position to be able to help this person."
There are a million junkies, crackheads and drunks. Very few prophetic geniuses. When he was 19, with awful clairvoyance, Gil wrote a poem as an intro to The Vulture.
Standing in the ruins of another black man's life.
Or flying through the valley separating day and night.
'I am death' cried the vulture,' For the people of the Light.
So if you see the vulture coming, flying circles in your mind.
Remember there is no escaping for he will follow close behind.
Only promise me a battle for your soul and mine.
God speed and thank you Gil Heron. Life lost. Battle won.