Just one change of buses, and the sound stages of Century City, CA, where platinum-plated cowboys bite the props department dust, are replaced by the real life dramas in Compton or the barrios. Kids with paint on their noses bite the s****y end of the stick.
Worlds apart, but only streets away.
Babies on welfare cry as they cut milk teeth without any milk, yet in the White House, less than 20 blocks away, re-enamelled molars munch jellybeans.
Worlds apart, but only streets away.
The other side of town...the other side of the coin...the other side.
For more than ten years - or more than a thousand songs - as a journalist, novelist, poet, songwriter, singer and musician, Gil Scott-Heron has been speaking up for that other side. Speaking up against the many-headed monster of social injustice, living among its effects while looking closely at its causes. A little too closely, some have said, and that's why it's taken ten years.
Ten years a victim of the socially aspiring conditioning that makes Scott-Heron's records unwelcome in hip houses. Ten years of the '60s aftermath, when revolution was cool provided it was somewhere else. Ten years of corporate policies that didn't extend promotional facilities to potential troublemakers. Ten years of "paying dues", but now, in 1982, people are listening to the stories within stories in large numbers.
An encouraging sign. It must mean that, albeit when faced with what may well be the shuffling and dealing of the final hand, public awareness is on the upstroke. Scott-Heron's approach has not altered.
Since meeting up with Brian Jackson at university in 1969, observations (that proved to be prophesies) with all the cutting edge of 'B Movie' have been as regular as they were unheeded. In 1971, 'Home Is Where The Hatred Is' told of the generation games that have now become a massive factor in young disillusionment. A couple of years later there was 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,' and last summer it was on our doorsteps. 'H2O Gate Blues' came months before any charges were brought against Nixon, 'From South Africa To South Carolina' was an overture to Soweto and 'Shut 'Em Down' appeared two years before the CND revival. But although the level of commitment remained constant, the presentation was changing all the time.
The more recent of these changes are the most noticeable, and while causing a fair amount of bewilderment among long term aficionados, on reflection had a lot to do with getting over the final fence into easier marketability.
The changes began with the absence of a gorilla wearing army combat clothes, complete with bandoleers of bullets, from the drawings on the album sleeves. (It was a visual pun on guerilla and became a symbol of the band's serious/humorous approach.) Then, as the albums' artwork became sensible, the sound seemed to fluctuate. The freewheeling rawness came and went with each record, and went more often than came. Scott-Heron going Hollywood? Some people thought so, but it was all part of the plan.
On a trans-Atlantic hotline to London from his mother-in-law's house, the man explained: "Well y'know we try to deal with something different on each of our songs, it was the same as that. We've been continually experimenting with our sound, learning to make use of studio technique to preserve that raw feel, and still get a good sound quality.
"For instance, what you hear today on the Reflections album has a rougher feel to it, yet is a much more sophisticated recording. Listen to Pieces Of A Man (his second album), they filtered my voice on that! Then, there wasn't a thing I could do about it, but now, with the help of Malcolm Cecil [producer or co-producer on much of the later work] I can get the sound I want. Real Eyes was mellower than the one before it (1980) as it was my first without Brian [Jackson], and I was putting together a new band and trying out some ideas I had. I think Reflections rather than Real Eyes is the end product of our experimentation. I think in that, we reached the balance."
There was a chuckle at the mention of the gorilla, and I got the impression that Scott-Heron was a little sorry to see him go.
"There just wasn't anything else we could do with him! Also, as people became more aware of our music so they wanted to see what we looked like, they needed faces to go with the voices."
He mentioned Jackson's leaving, and that was the most radical of the changes. At the time, nearly two years ago, rumours flew around indiscriminately. Now was a good time to clear that one up.
"Brian was always looking forward to doing other things rather than work live. When he had the opportunity to, he opted to stay at home, writing and producing, instead of keeping on the road. After all, when we first got together it was just to write some poems and songs. Everything else just grew out of that, and Brian's just now getting beck to it."
What really sets Scott-Heron apart from other black American "consciousness" artists is his dealing with the troubles of ethnic or national groups other than his own, right across the globe. He even seemed to know more than me about the Brixton uprising, and I was in it! A healthy pursuit, and the reason for it was in a different league to the "We-wanna-sell-reckids-all-over-da-werl" standard.
"In America, if you're not white, you're black! At least that's how you're classed, and that's how you're treated. Indians, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Orientals and blacks are all beginning to identify with each other much more now, as we are all on the same level in the need for justice and opportunity.
"The band and I, we see ourselves as interpreters of the black experience, which is an experience that is universal throughout the black or Third World. The only way we can progress, either globally or in our own countries, is to form strong alliances between all fronts of the revolution."
I look for an expansion of "interpreters of the black experience." It's the kind of phrase I wish I'd thought up!
"The people are becoming more aware, nowadays, of the black situation as relative to the rest of the world. But in a lot of cases, it isn't being told in a way that makes sense to them. Also, it's that as a nation, we have survived culturally as well as spiritually over the years, and are still going on. Like the African griot [story teller] who can recount the history of his village, so our songs are the same oral tradition."
What about books? Scott-Heron has written two novels, The Vulture and N****r Factory, and a volume of his poetry Small Talk At 125th And Lennox (also the name of his first album). Surely this outlet can't be as rigidly controlled?
"I went from writing those two books to recording, as there are a lot of children, adults too, who the books were aimed at but don't read too good, therefore would not be able to appreciate or learn too much from a novel.
"I enjoyed doing them, and think about doing another one all the time, because you're right and they are not as strictly controlled, but it takes too damn long! I think if I did, it would take the form of a TV script, as that would reach more people, but then again, that would be subject to the same censorship as radio. It could be worth a try though, anything that will help bring about the change is."
The "Change" is the revolution that Scott-Heron believes is on the way. A bloodless revolution to promote new understanding, and ultimately bring a better deal for the masses he talks about. With his interpretations of the black experience, he believes he can speed up that change and influence which way it will go. And Scott-Heron left me feeling hopeful - and looking forward.
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