New York Is Killing Me: The unlikely survival of Gil Scott-Heron
08-21-2011, 04:03 PM
New York Is Killing Me: The unlikely survival of Gil Scott-Heron
New York Is Killing Me: The unlikely survival of Gil Scott-Heron
Scott-Heron performing in 1998. Photograph by Monique de Latour.
Gil Scott-Heron is frequently called the “godfather of rap,” which is an epithet he doesn’t really care for. In 1968, when he was nineteen, he wrote a satirical spoken-word piece called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It was released on a very small label in 1970 and was probably heard of more than heard, but it had a following. It is the species of classic that sounds as subversive and intelligent now as it did when it was new, even though some of the references—Spiro Agnew, Natalie Wood, Roy Wilkins, Hooterville—have become dated. By the time Scott-Heron was twenty-three, he had published two novels and a book of poems and recorded three albums, each of which prospered modestly, but “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” made him famous.
Scott-Heron calls himself a bluesologist. He is sixty-one, tall and scrawny, and he lives in Harlem, in a ground-floor apartment that he doesn’t often leave. It is long and narrow, and there’s a bedspread covering a sliding glass door to a patio, so no light enters, making the place seem like a monk’s cell or a cave. Once, when I thought he was away, I called to convey a message, and he answered and said, “I’m here. Where else would a caveman be but in his cave?”
Recently, I arrived at his apartment while he was watching fight films with Mimi Little, whom he calls Miss Mimi. Miss Mimi helps run his affairs and those of his company, Brouhaha Music; the living room of his apartment is the company’s office. They were watching Muhammad Ali knock down George Foreman in the eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle, in Zaire, in 1974. Scott-Heron was wearing baggy gray sweatpants, a red-and-white-striped polo shirt, and white socks, and he stood in front of the television, lifting one foot, then the other, as if the floor were hot. When Foreman collapsed, Scott-Heron pretended to be Ali chastising him as he lay on his back. “That’s the best you can do?” he said. “I had about enough of you.”
“It’s done now,” Little said.
“I thought you could hit,” Scott-Heron said. “You hit like a baby.”
A crowd flooded the ring. “Look at these silly people,” Scott-Heron said. A large black man in a blue blazer wrapped his arms around Ali from behind and lifted him, and Ali waved his arms like a cranky baby. “Brother try to pick up Ali here. He says, ‘Put me down.’ ”
All you could see then of Ali in the blending swarm was his head and shoulders, so he looked like a bust. “Ali’s thirty-two, having been exiled to nowhere,” Scott-Heron said. “Unbelievable odds. I like to see unbelievable odds, because that’s what I’ve been facing all these years. When I feel like giving up, I like to watch this.”
The phone rang, and Little answered. She said it was Kim Jordan, his piano player. Little covered the phone and said, “She wants to know what to practice.” Scott-Heron had a performance that week in Washington, D.C. He kept his eyes on the screen. “ ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane,’ key of A,” he said. “ ‘I Call It Morning,’ ‘Give Her a Call.’ ”
“He’ll give you a call,” Little said.
“No, that’s the name of the song, ‘Give Her a Call,’ ” Scott-Heron said.
Little hung up, and Scott-Heron sat down on the couch, facing the screen. The couch was brown, with so many little black burn circles that they seemed worked into the fabric’s design. A few extension cords crossed a rug on the floor, and lying at his feet among them was a propane torch. Taped to the wall facing him was a piece of paper on which he had written, in capital letters, with a Sharpie, “NOTHING NICE TO TALK ABOUT? NOTHING GOOD TO SAY? NO YUKS? NO SMILES? THEN SHUT UP. THE MNGMT.” On the shelf of a cabinet were some books, and some DVDs, which he buys at a video store next door to the Apollo Theatre, on 125th Street. He especially likes shows and movies and cartoons from his childhood, such as “Top Cat” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and “Underdog.” “Your life has to consist of more than ‘Black people should unite,’ ” he said. “You hope they do, but not twenty-four hours a day. If you aren’t having no fun, die, because you’re running a worthless program, far as I’m concerned.”
Little said that she was leaving to run errands. Staples was having a two-to-a-customer sale of something she needed a quantity of. “I’m going back two or three times,” she said. “I have a disguise, and I know where four Staples are.”
When she left, Scott-Heron seemed briefly at a loss, then he said, “We should listen to some music.” He put on a song of his from years ago called “Racetrack in France,” which is about a festival he played in the seventies. “I don’t feel as comfortable playing something of somebody else’s,” he said shyly. “I can’t say how the good parts got put together.”
Sometimes when I spoke to people who used to know Scott-Heron, they told me that they preferred to remember him as he had been. They meant before he had begun avidly smoking crack, which is a withering drug. As a young man, he had a long, narrow, slightly curved face, which seemed framed by hair that bloomed above his forehead like a hedge. The expression in his eyes was baleful, aloof, and slightly suspicious. He was thin then, but now he seems strung together from wires and sinews—he looks like bones wearing clothes. He is bald on top, and his hair, which is like cotton candy, sticks out in several directions. His cheeks are sunken and deeply lined. Dismayed by his appearance, he doesn’t like to look in mirrors. He likes to sit on the floor, with his legs crossed and his propane torch within reach, his cigarettes and something to drink or eat beside him. Nearly his entire diet consists of fruit and juice. Crack makes a user anxious and uncomfortable and, trying to relieve the tension, Scott-Heron would sometimes lean to one side or reach one hand across himself to grab his opposite ankle, then perhaps lean an elbow on one knee, then maybe press the soles of his feet together, so that he looked like a swami.
Scott-Heron’s voice has always been more of a declaimer’s voice than a singer’s voice—when he was young, he sounded like a writer singing. In 1971, he recorded a second version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and the bassist Ron Carter, who played on it, told me, “He wasn’t a great singer, but, with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare.” Smoking cigarettes erodes a singer’s subtlety and range, and Scott-Heron has smoked for decades, making his voice less versatile but raspier and even more idiosyncratic.
Scott-Heron says that he writes songs and records them all the time, but he has made only two albums since 1982. (Between 1970 and 1982, he made thirteen.) He writes at night, when it is quiet, but only, he says, when the spirits bring him a line or a melody.
Recently, though, Scott-Heron has returned to prominence, having released an album called “I’m New Here,” which has brought him a new, younger audience. It is the result of the British hip-hop producer Richard Russell’s sending him a letter in 2005 asking if he wanted to make a record. As a teen-ager in London in the nineteen-eighties, Russell had seen Scott-Heron perform. He also knew his music from clubs that played rare groove, the British term for obscure, older soul, funk, and Latin records, which hip-hop musicians covet for samples.
Scott-Heron and Russell met in 2006, at Rikers Island, where Scott-Heron was being held for a parole violation. Since 2001, he has been convicted twice of cocaine possession. The first time, he was arrested by cops who said that they saw him shake the hand of a man on a street corner and accept a small piece of tinfoil. The second time, cocaine that he had hidden in the lining of his bag showed up on an airport X-ray. A guard read on Russell’s paperwork the name of the prisoner he had come to see and said, “Don’t tell me it’s the Gil Scott-Heron.”
“I’m New Here” is a reverent and intimate record, almost more field work than entertainment—a collage partly sung and partly talked, and made largely from fragments of Scott-Heron’s poetry, handled here in a voguish manner. It presents a notional version of Scott-Heron, which is Scott-Heron as hip-hop practitioner.
Scott-Heron recorded the songs and his poems, and Russell added the hip-hop tracks that accompany them. “This is Richard’s CD,” Scott-Heron says. “My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”
“I’m New Here” is twenty-eight minutes long and has fifteen tracks, four of which are songs, one of which Scott-Heron wrote. Russell left the microphone on between takes and during discussions, and so he collected asides and observations, which he presents as interludes.
The record starts and ends with excerpts from a poem written thirty years ago, called “Coming from a Broken Home,” which includes the lines “Womenfolk raised me and I was full grown / before I knew I came from a broken home.” Russell embedded the reading in a sample from a Kanye West song, a hip-hop self-reference, since Kanye West had already sampled Scott-Heron.
The first song, “Me and the Devil,” by Robert Johnson, is an account of a man who hears the Devil knocking early in the morning on his door. In Johnson’s version, delivered in his clear, glottal voice, the character is a violent reprobate. Scott-Heron portrays him as boastful, lunatic, and malignant—proud to be acknowledged by someone capable of appreciating the true cast of his soul. He amended one of the words, though. “I have this philosophy from further back in my family about beating women—that’s what this song is about,” he says. “ ‘Me and the Devil walking side by side, I’m going to beat my woman until I’m satisfied.’ That’s why the Devil’s coming to get him, that’s why he’s going to Hell, because he’s a hitter, he beats his woman. And that’s why he’s expecting him, because he’s resolved. I’m not hooked up that way, so I sing, ‘I’m going to see my woman.’ The song’s like a confession.” (Even so, Scott-Heron pleaded guilty in 1999 to assaulting a woman named Monique de Latour, who said that he threw a drafting table at her and cut her hand.)
The song Scott-Heron wrote, “New York Is Killing Me,” is a blues sung against a spare background of syncopated handclaps and looped fragments. His voice is weary and raw. “The doctors don’t know, but New York is killing me,” he sings. “Bunch of doctors come around, they don’t know, that New York is killing me / I need to go home and take it slow down in Jackson, Tennessee.”
More than one romance threads itself through “I’m New Here”—the most prominent of which is a younger man’s veneration of a charismatic elder. Aside from liking Scott-Heron’s music, Russell regards him as “genuinely philosophical,” he told me. “He’s not hung up on time or ordinary circumstances, and I’ve never come across anyone as interesting to talk to.” Russell has said that a difficulty of working with Scott-Heron was that sometimes he wouldn’t show up. A philosopher might miss appointments, but so might someone with a propane torch in his apartment, even if he is a philosopher.
There is a gentleness in Scott-Heron’s nature that suggests his childhood among the stern, intelligent women he pays homage to in “Coming from a Broken Home.” His father, Gilbert Heron, who died in 2008, and whom he never much knew, was a soccer player who grew up in Jamaica. In Chicago, Gilbert met Scott-Heron’s mother, Robert Scott, who was named for her father and called Bobbie. “It was after the war, working for Western Electric,” Scott-Heron told me. “He also played for the Chicago Maroons, or something like that. A Scottish team came through, and he scored on them, which was not what they had come for. They was all white. He went to Scotland, and the legend goes he scored the day he arrived. He was dubbed the Black Arrow, and played professionally for three more years.”
Scott-Heron’s parents separated when he was two years old, and while his mother went to Puerto Rico to teach English he lived with his grandmother in Jackson. “My grandmother was dead serious,” he said one day, sitting on his couch. “Her sense of humor was a secret. She started me playing the piano. There was a funeral parlor next door to our house, and they had this old piano that they used for wakes and funerals, and they were getting ready to take it to the junk yard. She wanted me to play hymns for the ladies’ sewing circle that met every Thursday, and she bought the piano for six dollars, and she paid a lady up the street five or ten cents a lesson to teach me to play four hymns, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ ‘Rock of Ages,’ ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ and I can’t think of the other one. I was eight years old, and I had started to listen to WDIA in Memphis, and they would play the blues. When I was practicing, I would have to mix them, because my grandmother was not big on the blues. When she was out in the yard, I can play what I want, but if she’s in the house I got to mix John Lee Hooker with ‘Rock of Ages.’ ”
The phone rang, but he ignored it. “I found my grandmother dead,” he went on. “It shook me up. I got up to make her breakfast, and I knew it was strange that she wasn’t stirring. I went in to wake her, and she was laying in rigor mortis”—he leaned back and held his legs and arms stiff—“and I’m done. I called next door, and the kid picked up the phone, and I was so wild, he dropped it. I went outside and saw the woman from the house going to work, and she came and took over. I was twelve.”
With his mother and her brother, Scott-Heron moved to an apartment in the Bronx, and his mother went to work for the city housing authority. Before long, his uncle moved out, and his mother couldn’t afford the rent, so she put her name on a list for an apartment in a project in Chelsea, in Manhattan. “Black people didn’t want to live in Chelsea, but we just wanted to go somewhere,” Scott-Heron said. “We started in ’65. It was eighty-five per cent Puerto Rican, fifteen per cent white, and me.”
The young woman who taught Scott-Heron English in his sophomore year at DeWitt Clinton High School had gone to a private school called the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which is in Riverdale, a prosperous section of the Bronx. “She was assigning all these books that didn’t mean anything, like ‘A Separate Peace,’ ” Scott-Heron said. “Finally, she asked me a question, and I said, ‘Look, can I get out of here? This just sucks.’ I told her—I figured she knew—‘I can write better than that. I been sitting here writing better than that.’ I handed her something from my notebook, and she gave it to the head of the department at Fieldston. They asked me would I come to a meeting. I said I might walk out, but we met at the Howard Johnson across from the Bronx Zoo, and I got a hamburger and a strawberry shake out of it, while they asked me would I take a test to see if I could go to their school.”
After he took the test, the school asked him to another meeting. “They looked at me like I was under a microscope,” he said. “They asked, ‘How would you feel if you see one of your classmates go by in a limousine while you’re walking up the hill from the subway?,’ and I said, ‘Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?’ Anyway, it just happened to be the day that my mother was sabotaged by this diabetes. We took a break, and I called my uncle at the hospital, and he told me, ‘Come down here,’ so I went back to the meeting and I said, ‘Whatever you’re going to decide, you decide, but I have to go and be with my mother.’ From the way I handled it, I learned later that they thought that this was a sign that I was mature enough to handle whatever would come my way from the school.”
Scott-Heron was one of five black students among a class of a hundred, and in his second year he got in trouble for playing the piano. “They had a beautiful Steinway they used for the choir and the chorus, but I got caught using it to play the Temptations,” he said. “A guy came in and screamed at me to stop, and they put a sign up saying ‘Do Not Play.’ A few days later, he came in, and I’m sitting under the sign playing the piano. So they told me they were going to call my mother, and I laughed—not because I was being disrespectful, although he took it that way—but because I thought, You really don’t want to get my mother into this. But they called her and told her to come to a disciplinary meeting, and the evening before she asked me what had happened, and I told her. And she said, ‘Well, did you hit the man?,’ and I said, ‘No, I was playing the piano.’ I tried to explain that there had been no rule against it until I did it. A lot of kids had been going up there to play ‘Chopsticks,’ I said, and she asked me again, did I hit him. She had reached the conclusion that I had done something so awful that I didn’t want to describe it, because she couldn’t imagine that they had called her up there to tell her I had been playing the piano.”
The meeting took place around a horseshoe-shaped table. “My mother listened to them, and when they were finished she said, ‘You all know where we live, and the difficulties of our life, so I’m not going to talk about that. We got burglaries, assaults, muggings—it’s not the best place to raise a child—but whenever something happens down there that might involve my son, I don’t call you. I figure that’s my area, and this is yours. Now, I have read your discipline handbook, and what I suggest you do is expel him, because it’s this way or that, near as I can tell, so what I’m going to do right now, since this is your area, I’m going to leave and go to work, because if I don’t get there soon, they’re going to take half my day’s wages from me, and when I get home this evening he’ll tell me what you decided, but, if you’re asking my opinion, you have to expel him. We have really enjoyed it here, and it has added to my son’s life, and I think we’ve added to your ethical-culture thing, but I’m going to go now, and you’ll excuse my son because he’s got to walk me to the subway. Thank you all very much.’ She got up and put on her coat, and I took a hard look at the man who had started all this, to say, ‘See, I told you you didn’t want to get my mama involved.’
“She walked to the subway in a stone silence. All she said was ‘I want you to leave these people’s piano alone. You’re not here to play the piano.’ I said, ‘What if they expel me?’ ‘Then you won’t have to worry about it; you’ll be someplace else. You leave these people’s stuff alone, and when you tell me something from now on I’ll believe you.’ ”
Scott-Heron was made to stay after school three Wednesdays in a row to wash out the brushes in the art room. A classmate, Roderick Harrison, says that he remembers two things about Scott-Heron. “He could hold a classroom or a hallway in thrall” is one of them. The other recollection is of his mother. “She was,” he told me, “imposing.”
At the end of June, at a concert in Central Park, Scott-Heron played one song from his new record, the rhythm-and-blues standard “I’ll Take Care of You,” but for the rest of the concert, as is customary with him, he drew from his older catalogue. Later, he was joined by the rapper Common, who said that as a child in Chicago he had listened to Scott-Heron and that it was an honor to occupy the stage with him. Then Common began to rap, but stumbled because the pace was too fast. He asked the musicians to slow down, then he asked them to go even slower, and then he started again, sounding not quite so agitated and more earnest. The song he recited was called “My Way Home,” which includes samples from Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.”
“We been sampled,” Scott-Heron told me. “I don’t want to tell you how embarrassing that can be. Long as it don’t talk about ‘yo mama’ and stuff, I usually let it go. It’s not all bad when you get sampled—hell, you make money. They give you some money to shut you up. I guess to shut you up they should have left you alone.”
The epithet “godfather of rap”—derived from the claim that Scott-Heron originated the form—is partly apt but also partisan. The case for him as proto-rapper goes like this: at the beginning, he had company, the Last Poets, who in the late nineteen-sixties in Harlem recited poetry while accompanied by conga drums, used mainly in Afro-Cuban music. “Compared to Gil, their stuff is very stripped down,” Bill Adler, the hip-hop critic, curator, and record executive, told me. “It was like a park jam that got onto a record. Nothing but beats and rhythms. They embodied a revolutionary idea of black manhood, and Gil likewise. He wasn’t as potent as they were—he was more musical—but at the very beginning you can think of Gil Scott-Heron as a one-man Last Poets. People often confused the two, or thought that he was a member of them.”
Scott-Heron went to Lincoln University, the historically black college in Pennsylvania that Langston Hughes had attended. The Last Poets performed there in 1969. “Gil was the student-body rep,” Abiodun Oyewole, one of the Last Poets, told me, “and after the gig he came backstage and said, ‘Listen, can I start a group like you guys?’ ”
A strict honoring of rap origin legends would say that it begins with d.j.s in the Bronx, among African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Jamaicans, in the summer of 1973, and especially with a d.j. named Kool Herc. The people involved were going to parties where they could dance to a spare form of recorded music that had been arranged so that the pulse was foremost. The language and the stories that went along with them were simple. “Hip-hop has its own superheroic myths and stories,” Greg Tate, the hip-hop critic, says. “Gil is a genre to himself.”
The legacy of the Last Poets and Scott-Heron was more deeply embraced by second-generation rappers with social convictions. Among these was Chuck D., of Public Enemy, who told me that he first heard Scott-Heron when he was a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies. Scott-Heron and the Last Poets are “not only important; they’re necessary, because they are the roots of rap—taking a word and juxtaposing it into some sort of music,” he said. “You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word. He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else. In what way necessary? Well, if you try to make pancakes, and you ain’t got the water or the milk or the eggs, you’re trying to do something you can’t. In combining music with the word, from the voice on down, you follow the template he laid out. His rapping is rhythmic, some of it’s songs, it’s punchy, and all those qualities are still used today.”
When I asked Scott-Heron what he thinks when people attribute rap music to him, he said, “I just think they made a mistake.”
Scott-Heron was one of the first musicians signed by Clive Davis, in 1975, for Arista Records. “I had seen a live performance, where he was very striking,” Davis told me. “Very charismatic, absolutely unique—the verbal and the performing abilities—he was electrifying, and based on his song ‘The Bottle,’ and ‘The Revolution,’ and seeing him, I signed him. He was very compelling as a speaker—the wit, the turn of phrase—it was all very special.”
Between 1975 and 1985, Scott-Heron made nine albums for Arista, and then they parted. “I always felt tremendous regard for him,” Davis said. “You see the success of a Jay-Z or a Kanye West, and I always felt that Gil was as charismatic as either of them. Seeing him in his prime, the ability to dominate a stage—Gil at his best was an all-timer.”
A theme that Scott-Heron often brings up at performances is how people say that he disappeared during the past decade—during the years, that is, when he was serving time. Not long ago, he sold out the Blue Note, a club in Manhattan. “I read all of those reviews that said I disappeared,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be great if I could add that to my act? Come up here and—poof!” Then he said, “I had read how great I was before I disappeared. It makes me afraid to show up.”
When I first began visiting Scott-Heron, he would leave the room at intervals and go into his bathroom. The next time I went to his apartment, he went into his kitchen and a stream of smoke drifted out. One day, I turned around, and he had his crack pipe to his lips, and after that he didn’t bother to leave the room anymore. Sometimes he would fall asleep in the middle of an interview, and I would excuse myself.
Monique de Latour, an artist who lived with Scott-Heron for three years beginning in 1997, says that he would smoke crack for four or five days without rest. The longest she saw him stay awake was seven days. She knew he was getting tired when the things he said no longer made sense. “He would be talking about baseball and say someone had scored a touchdown,” she told me. Periodically, he would disappear—he says he was trying to get away from her. To find him, de Latour would check the phone to see whom the last call had been made to, which was sometimes a clue. If his propane torch was gone, she began visiting the hotels he liked—the Casablanca, on 145th Street, or the Old Broadway, on 126th, or the New Ebony, on 112th, where he was eventually banned for setting fire to his room. He would check in as Benjamin Safir. “As in Ben Safir, as in Been Safer,” she said. The desk clerk had been paid to tell her that he wasn’t there. “I would find a crackhead who didn’t care about Gil and give him half a ripped five- or ten-dollar bill,” she said. “I gave him the other half after I had checked out what he told me.”
Sometimes de Latour found the door to Scott-Heron’s room left ajar and Scott-Heron asleep. She took photographs of him lying on the hotel bed, which she hung in their apartment in the hope of forcing him to face his circumstances, but he wouldn’t look at them. If she didn’t find him in the hotels, she called the neighborhood hospitals and then the police precincts. Not infrequently, she found him locked up for trespassing or loitering. Once he was arrested as Denis Heron, which is his half brother’s name. When he missed a court date, the cops went looking for Denis.
According to de Latour, after a couple of days of smoking, Scott-Heron would sometimes make holes in the walls looking for microphones and cameras. On the door of their apartment, he would post menacing remarks, which he would change every few weeks or months. One said, “For all visitors we despise. I will pray to ‘the spirits’ that you and all who conspire with you condemn your souls. You have been seen. You are known. You will be paid.” He believed that bad spirits came with crack, and to counteract them he would give money to charities.
When he ran low on money from royalties, de Latour says, he would arrange for gigs and insist on a deposit to pay for the band’s airfare. He would spend the deposit, then arrive with a two-piece band, which was all he could afford. When his money ran out altogether, he slept, sometimes for two weeks. “He could sleep until he knew the next check was coming,” de Latour said.
De Latour would try to get him to leave the apartment, because he couldn’t smoke crack in public, but he almost never would. His teeth fell out and he got implants, some of which also fell out—one time while he was onstage in Berlin. “I saw him once at Eighth Avenue and Twenty-third,” Bill Adler told me. “This tall guy staggering across the street, and I recognized Gil immediately—he’s very tall and distinctive—and he’s clearly whacked, and he could have been dead right there, stumbling across the intersection.”
In the fall of 1999, de Latour told him to choose between her and crack, and he chose crack and moved in with his mother, on East 106th Street. She was in poor health, and shortly after he moved in she died. “I went with Gil to the funeral, and he was such a mess,” de Latour says. “He was already going downhill, but he was going more downhill once his mother died.”
After the funeral, he moved out of his mother’s apartment. He ignored the eviction notice the landlord sent him. Her belongings were auctioned.
Even so, de Latour said, there were many moments of tenderness between them. “There is a very gentle person inside Gil,” she said, “but very remote. It’s the little boy who lived with his grandmother in Jackson. He used to say to me, ‘I wish you knew me before I was like this.’ ”
Scott-Heron spent July on tour in Europe. His tour manager, Walter Laurer, says the tour has gone smoothly, and Scott-Heron says he hasn’t used any drugs for more than a month.
Anyone familiar with Scott-Heron’s career knows that early on he had a partnership with a musician named Brian Jackson. In 1969, when they were students at Lincoln, they wrote songs together. Eventually, they made nine records. They parted company in 1979, although they made a few attempts to play together again. “We’ve had a few falling outs,” Scott-Heron told me, “but this last one, I think, is permanent.”
Jackson still records and performs, but he has a day job as a project manager in the City of New York’s I.T. department, where he began working in 1983, when, he told me, “I woke up one morning and realized I wasn’t getting my ASCAP checks anymore for publishing. I called and they said, ‘We don’t have you listed as a recipient.’ I said, ‘I could show you some checks that you just sent me,’ but they said that didn’t matter, and I didn’t have the money for a lawyer to find out what had happened. I sent for the papers to prove that I was a fifty-per-cent partner of Brouhaha Music, and I found that the company had been dissolved in 1980.”
“Somebody should have pushed the mute button on that motherfucker,” Scott-Heron said of Jackson. “Our accomplishments show what kind of people we are. The way our careers have gone, you can see who the spirits favor.” On another occasion, he said, “I would not take a dollar from Brian.”
Scott-Heron says that in 2003 Jackson stole money that was meant to be used for his bail; Jackson says that, after the bondsman refused the money, he used some of it to pay members of the band for shows that were cancelled when Scott-Heron was arrested at the airport. He also paid some of his own bills. Jackson told me that, as Scott-Heron was about to go to jail, they spoke. “I thought it was time to go to him and say, as a friend, ‘Are you O.K.?’ He told me, ‘Yeah, I’m O.K. I’m doing better than you,’ meaning I was the one having to scratch for a living.” In one of the interludes on “I’m New Here,” Scott-Heron says, “If I hadn’t been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish, I wouldn’t be me.”
At the Blue Note, when Scott-Heron touched on the subject of prison he said, “They say my new record proves I came out of jail angry. Nobody comes out of jail angry. They come out of jail happy.” He wore dark trousers and a cap, and a suit jacket with a label that said “Jos. A. Bank” sewn above one wrist. When he finished talking, he sat down at an electric piano, which looked like a desk. His hands formed chords. He began a song called “Show Bizness,” which has the refrain “Do you really want to be in show business?,” then he stopped. “I used to be with Clive Davis,” he said. “I don’t think he liked this song. Not in that key.” He started in a second key. “Show business, want to be in show business,” he sang, then stopped again. “Now I don’t,” he said. He sang the words softly to himself as he searched for the chords, then he started a third time and said, “That’s right, that’s right.” At one moment, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, and it looked like the expression of an ecstatic.
One of the last times I went to Scott-Heron’s apartment, he rose from the couch now and then to make slow journeys around the room. His movements appeared to have a purpose, for he spent some time opening drawers and meticulously sorting through the prescription bottles and folded-up dollar bills and scraps of paper they contained, but he didn’t say what he was after. When he found a lottery ticket that hadn’t been scratched off, he sat down and carefully ran a coin across its surface.
He was wearing jeans and a black-and-white shirt with the buttons askew. It was the morning after he had been expected at a video shoot downtown to make the second video for “I’m New Here,” and he hadn’t shown up. Meanwhile, the crew and the filmmaker had waited through most of the night. When the phone rang, he said, “That’s those people from the video shoot trying to get me,” and he didn’t answer. “They all think it’s some kind of mixup when I don’t show up where they are, but being too omni-visible is a bad idea. The kids at the record company are very enthusiastic, and they have a lot of friends they have made, and they all want to have an interview, and the only problem is they’re asking the same things people asked me a long, long time ago, because that’s what they do when they’re starting—you ask questions you already know the answer to. I don’t want to disappoint them, but you can’t disappoint unless you have an appointment. They don’t know I only like to talk to people who have something to talk about other than me. Like everybody in New York, they know everything. How can you tell them anything?”
He tossed the lottery ticket on the floor. “It’s the death of the vertical,” he went on. “They have taken all this time to stand up straight so that they can say ‘I.’ They’re very proud of that. The way you get to know yourself is by the expressions on other people’s faces, because that’s the only thing that you can see, unless you carry a mirror about. But if you keep saying ‘I’ and they’re saying ‘I,’ you don’t get much out of it. They’re not really into you, or we, or they; they’re into I. That makes conversation slow.
“I am the person I see least of over the course of my life, and even what I see is not accurate.” The phone rang. “This is Brouhaha Music,” he said. “Who the fuck is this?” He leaned back and talked softly, with his eyes closed and a hand on his forehead. Then he hung up and rubbed his neck with one hand, while turning his head from side to side. “I’m trying to stay out of traction,” he said. “I feel like I got a piece of gravel up at the top of my spine.” He lit the propane torch and touched the glass tube to his lips. “Ten to fifteen minutes of this, I don’t have pain,” he said. “I could have had an operation a few years ago, but there was an eight-per-cent chance of paralysis. I tried the painkillers, but after a couple of weeks I felt like a piece of furniture. It makes you feel like you don’t want to do anything. This I can quit anytime I’m ready.”
He touched the flame to the tube. “I have a novel that I can write,” he said next. “It’s about three soldiers from Somalia. Some babies have been disappearing up on 144th Street, and I speculate later on what happened to them and how they might have been got back. These guys are dead, all three, and they have a chance in the afterlife to do something they should have done when they were alive.” He raised the torch, then paused and said, “I have everything except a suitable conclusion.” ♦
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