Q&A with Gil Scott-Heron
In advance of his two shows this weekend (Saturday, May 2nd at The Oriental and Sunday, May 3rd at The Fox Theatre), we were able to have a few words with jazz/proto-hip-hop legend Gil Scott-Heron about his influences and his work.
Westword: Your music is known for being socially conscious. When and what sparked that awareness inside you?
Gil Scott-Heron: Don't you just hate socially unconscious people? We run into them every once in a while but we try not to hang out with them. I think everybody has it, some people choke it off and don't use it. I think we all start off with it. We are a social sort of animal, as far as I'm concerned. My songs are just about people. Generally they're folks I know or have heard about.
WW: Did Langston Hughes having gone to Lincoln University influence your decision to go there after high school?
GSH: Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Kwame Nkruhmah, Melvin Tolson--quite a few people. Langston Hughes going there was definitely an influence. I thought his writing was something special and I became aware of him at a very young age. But Thurgood Marshall was one of the great men of the twentieth century.
WW: Did you ever get to meet Mr. Hughes?
GSH: I wrote my senior paper on Langston Hughes and I went down to interview him. He was working at The Amsterdam News and the New York Post. He wrote a column each week. He was very gracious and humble. We talked about his work and how he had come to master so many different art forms. That, also, was very influential because I like to write many different things myself: poetry as well as longer pieces and music. He'd done the same. He wrote songs, he wrote that weekly column and I used read his work in The Chicago Defender when I was a boy in Tennessee. It was nice to come across him still working and still just as powerful and as humorous as he was in print.
WW: Your albums always seem to have poetic titles. What lead you to title the albums Pieces of a Man and Winter in America?
GSH: Pieces of a Man was done when we were with Flying Dutchman Records, that was one of the songs that Bob Thiele was particularly fond of. Bob had produced John Coltrane. He liked the song, and he liked to name the albums that came out on his label behind something that was represented inside. Small Talk at 125th and Lennox was the name of our first book of poetry and the name of one of the poems we did on our first album. Pieces of a Man and Free Will, the other two albums we did for him, were from songs we included inside. Winter In America was what the inside of the album was about. There was no song called "Winter in America" at the time. Miss Peggy Harris, the woman who did the collage inside the album, said there ought to be a song called "Winter in America." I eventually wrote it and put it on an album called The First Minute of a New Day. In general we did not name things after a song, we tried to sum up what we were talking about on the albums.
WW: How did you get hooked up with Bob Thiele for Pieces of a Man?
GSH: I went to see him after I did my first book of poetry. I introduced myself as a songwriter. He had just started his own label and he had Leon Thomas, Oliver Nelson, Gato Barbieri and some other people that I thought might find some of the songs I wrote interesting. We got a three record deal with him eventually.
WW: Your songs often deal with heavy subjects but I also hear a playfulness and wry sense of humor there as well. I realize that may be your personality coming through but is there something else at work there?
GSH: I think that's part of life. If you're always living one way or another, you're not living a full life. You talk about all sorts of things that challenge you in your life and they have an influence on you. There are things that are, as you call it, "heavy," or complex but we deal with the simplest aspects of them so everyone can understand what we're talking about.
WW: One of your most powerful songs is "The Bottle." I have often wondered if that song was autobiographical in any way?
GSH: Actually, there was a liquor store that I could see from the back of the house when I lived in Washington. The folks used to be there every morning at 6:30 or 7:00 and be there when they opened the door. I went out there to find out who they were. There were a lot of different people. There was an ex-schoolteacher, an ex-air traffic controller, there was a doctor--there were different people with different experiences. Different things lead them to be out there in the morning like that. But none of them set out to be an alcoholic when they were born, something happened in their life that turned them that way. I like to drink a glass of cognac once in a while but that's about it for me.
WW: You've been working on an autobiography?
GSH: It covers certain pieces of my life but it's really about the campaign Stevie Wonder initiated to get Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday turned into a national holiday. That's the slice of my life that I discuss because I think that when things of historical significance happen, there need to be firsthand accounts of it. Since I was on the tour with him, I saw the various things he had in mind to bring that about and I got a good look at it. There are autobiographical pieces in there but it's not cover to cover about me.
WW: You were a published novelist before releasing an album and yet you've said you were in bands before you were a poet. Is the creative process of writing poetry and writing music different for you?
GSH: They're absolutely different. Some ideas show up by themselves and others show up with tones and melodies that you can only express with a few chords or a few pieces of harmony. Everything that shows up, shows up differently. I published a novel, I quit school to write it. I was a college sophomore. I'd always wanted to write so when I came across an idea I thought might fill the bill as a novel I took off and went to work on it.
WW: Your first novel was The Vulture?
GSH: It was and it came out at the same time as Small Talk at 125th and Lennox.
WW: Your second novel was called The Nigger Factory? I saw an interview where you talked about how it maybe had to do with the university and schooling system in America.
GSH: It was a piece of fiction. It was about a small uprising on a college campus, trying to get some basic rights. Because of the conflict between the students and the administration, things kept getting blown out of proportion. The title itself came from looking at three or four situations like that: one was Columbia University, one was Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee and one was Kent State in Ohio. Where students were trying to find themselves in one direction were getting pulled in another by folks who can't remember being young.
WW: Will you be performing new songs and poems on this tour and can we expect to see a new album in the near future?
GSH: Absolutely. If you've never heard them before, they're all new. I doubt anyone has heard all twenty-five of the albums. But we're constantly working on new things and different arrangements on old things, trying to make the show as interesting as possible for everyone involved. We're trying to finish up a new album this week that will hopefully be out at the end of the summer.