A Dec. 2003 Mojo article about Gil Scott-Heron and his longtime musical partner Brian Jackson. A very good retrospective that poignantly talks about Gil’s drug problems…
In the late afternoon of 4th April, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot through the neck on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. Pronounced dead at 7.05 PM, news of his death ricocheted out of Memphis, horrifying the world.
Gil Scott-Heron, who celebrated his 19th birthday three days earlier, was studying English literature at Lincoln University. Today, he recalls, “It was a tremendous blow to what people’s optimism had been.” He adds, “The day that John Kennedy was killed is the day I’ve pinpointed as the day that started the Winter In America. The deaths of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were all part of that.”
Brian Jackson, a couple of years younger than Gil, was at home with his mother in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. “It was just a long series of assassinations” he explains. “So, by the time Martin’s came around, it was like, ‘Come on, man!’ I think that’s probably what they needed to do to convince people that they really should shut the hell up.” Brian believes, “It became obvious that if you were going to be vocal about something, you were going to pay — probably with your life.”
In the mid-’60s, both Gil and Brian were directly affected by the very changes Dr. King was implementing. Before reuniting with his mother in New York City, Gil lived with Grandma Lily in Jackson, Tennessee. There, he was one of the first black teenagers to integrate a white school. He experienced, “smaller classes, better equipment, more books in the library, better circumstances.” In New York, Brian was bussed from the black area of Crown Heights to a white school in Flatbush: “I had a couple of racial run-ins, but it didn’t affect me as much as watching the news.” Each day on television he witnessed, “People who look like me, look like my uncle and my cousin getting sprayed by fire hoses up against the wall, then beaten and sent to jail. Dr. King was being held responsible for all of that.”
Although Gil and Brian were oblivious to each other’s existence at the time of the Memphis murder, one year later in 1969 at Lincoln University, their paths intertwined, and they embarked upon an extraordinary partnership. For the length of the following decade — the dark, paranoid ’70s — their “storm music” chronicled the more cynical post-civil rights era which started the moment Dr. King fell to that motel balcony’s concrete floor in a pool of blood. Gil and Brian certainly didn’t “shut the hell up.” In their recordings, they sought to agitate and amuse, enlighten and edify. Together, from 1971’s Pieces of a Man to 1980, they documented the state of the nation – whether exposing racial bigotry or satirizing political crooks — with breathtaking acuity.
They were certainly more explicit than either Stevie or Curtis, two other musical combatants who didn’t stop fighting the Afro-American fight in the ’70’s. Gil and Brian’s critiques on Watergate, the Panthers, the destructiveness of drugs, Vietnam, illegal aliens, monstrous medical experiments, nuclear power — as well as their inspirational apolitical songs — were filtered through sounds steeped in the riches of soul, funk and jazz. Then, at the dawn of the ’80s, after recording nine albums together, this deep, personal and professional alliance cracked. Brian hit civvy street, Gil hit very tough times. Describing their separation, Brian concedes, “I felt the loss.”
Today, Gil and Brian’s contrasting physical demeanour reflects the very different paths they’ve travelled since the split. Gil, who’s battled with chronic cocaine addiction, creative stalemate and two stretches in jail, exudes a weathered disposition. His frame is cigarette-thin, his hair and beard a charcoal-gray. He’s been round the block so often, he’s lapped most of his contemporaries. Brian’s physique is fuller, healthier and he sports shoulder-length dreadlocks. Like Gil, he’s also cultivated a goatee. But if it wasn’t for the few wisps of silver in Brian’s beard, he’d look half Gil’s age.
Back in funky ol’ 1969, Lincoln, Pennsylvania’s black university was teeming with Afros – and pianos. “Everywhere you went there was a piano,” recalls Brian. “So I used to find all these places to play piano — as did Gil.” Both Gil and Brian were attracted to Lincoln because their literary champion, Langston Hughes, was a former student. Although they didn’t meet in the library wrestling over a weighty tome of Langston’s poetry, but in one of a multitude of padded practice rooms. Gil remembers, “Brian was a pretty private person — was and still is. He was all about playing the piano.” In fact, Gil spied him a number of times performing in the music school — but they didn’t speak.
Another student, aspiring vocalist and friend of Gil’s, Victor Brown, wanted to enter a talent show with some original material. Gil suggested Victor introduce himself to this quiet, enigmatic student who wowed him with his performances in the music centre. Gil: “I said to Victor, ‘This guy will play anything you want! Why don’t you talk to him?'”
Victor complied and was equally delighted with Brian’s piano expertise. He also thought Brian and Gil should meet. So, Victor ushered Brian into Gil’s practice room. They entered with Gil in mid-performance. Brian was immediately struck. “I really liked the lyrics. I was listening to his lyrics – man! And not only that, but he sings!” Victor suggested, “Maybe you guys can get together?” Brian then knocked out something rather brilliant on the piano. He remembers Gil admitting, “That’s pretty cool! I can’t play like that! Maybe you can play the shit I’m trying to play?” Gil was also “very impressed” with Brian’s melodic intuition.
This first encounter undoubtedly signaled a coupling of 2 compatible spirits. Brian: “We started hanging out. We hit it off immediately.” In fact, for Brian, it verged on epiphany. “I thought, ‘What a way this man has with words!’ All of a sudden I knew what my mission was in life. It was like, people have to hear this stuff! This kept on going through my mind.” He realized, “What I had to offer was the music. I figured if we can do the music right, we can draw enough people in to hear this.”
Gil and Brian soon forged an outlet to express themselves, forming a nine-piece band at Lincoln, the Black & Blues. Malcolm Cecil, the producer and engineer who worked with Brian and Gil from 1977, remembers hearing how the duo sometimes broke into practice rooms at Lincoln at night. “They would go to those sort of lengths — break into a building to get to a piano to work – that’s dedication, my friend! That’s ‘I really want to do this!'” But Gil also wanted to complete his book of poetry and debut novel, The Vulture. Deferring university for a year, he relocated two miles off campus to concentrate on writing.
Both The Vulture and his collection of poetry, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, were printed by World Publishing in 1970. They were received, by those who read and reviewed them, with approbation. Crucially though, Gil spied an entrée into the recording world: his publishing house was allied to Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records, the label Thiele established in 1969 after departing from ABC/Impulse! “I went by and introduced myself,” he explains. “I told him [Thiele] I was a songwriter and had a few songs I felt some of his singers might be able use.” Gil also presented Thiele with his poetry book. A couple of days later, the producer phoned, explaining he didn’t have enough money to finance a musical recording but, “was interested in doing some spoken word stuff.” If this generated the dollars, Thiele promised to record the songs.
Small Talk at 125th and Lenox hailed Gil as “A New Black Poet” on its cover. Cut in 1970 at the height of the Black Power era, Gil’s sleeve notes declared: “I am a Black man dedicated to expression; expression of the joy and pride of Blackness.” Recorded in front of an intimate crowd, his raw, lacerating rhymes, spiked with the rhythms of three percussionists, focused on the grotesque contradictions of American life. He also alluded to a multitude of black movers and shakers of the age. The Black Panthers, Mingus, Mongo Santamaria, H.Rap Brown, Coltrane, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Dr. King and Pharaoh Sanders were all name-checked.
Apart from three tracks, where Gil accompanied himself on piano, the style of the LP – proto-raps backed by conga hits — was somewhat indebted to the Last Poets’ debut on Douglas a year earlier. Today, he admits, “I had seen them. It was very exciting. The interplay between them and the drummers, and each other, was very theatrical.” But the hardcore street verse of the Last Poets was humour deficient. Gil, though, was often a laugh. In cuts like ‘Whitey on the Moon’ and the first version of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, he skillfully switched from sparkling satire to deadly solemnity in the blink of an eye. This was extremely compelling. Indeed, sales spawned the requisite cash to now record Gil and Brian’s music.
During the recording of Small Talk…, Brian was absent, back in Lincoln. But he got kicked out – protesting against the Eurocentric focus of his liberal arts degree – just in time for Pieces of a Man. Interestingly, the duo initially imagined themselves as a song-writing team, composing for other artists. But as Brian points out, exactly which singers were qualified to deliver such socio-political, satirical masterpieces like ‘The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues’? — “Who the hell are we going to get to do this?” he chuckles, “The Stylistics? The Chi-lites? Teddy Pendergrass?”
Although still just credited to Gil, Pieces of a Man was really Brian and Gil’s debut recording, with Brian co-writing 7 of the tracks. The LP kicked off with the seminal version of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. Boasting a magnificently muscular bassline, Gil fired off a flood of invectives, hitting a host of targets, including media pollution, political idleness, poseurs, hypocrites and frauds. Is ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ now something of an albatross for the duo? Gil laughs. “No more than Taxi Driver is for Robert De Niro!” Brian explains: “You get branded by the things that people know about you the most.”
The gritty funk of the first track didn’t actually mirror the mood of the rest of the album. What followed were ten gorgeous, reflective soul-jazz pieces, including ‘Lady Day And John Coltrane’. They were all highlighted by Gil’s distinct, ripe baritone emanating from his rangy frame. There was an extraordinary musical jump forwards from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Gil attributes this to one man. “You know, on the first one I was playing piano,” he explains, “And on the second one Brian was! There’s your leap right there!” Brian was also the arranger. According to Gil, it was his partner’s idea to incorporate the flute, which endowed their music with so much atmosphere. “That was something Brian was very definite about.” Brian, admits, laughing, “Who would think a flute could be that funky!” Today, Pieces of a Man is still rightly regarded as a stone classic. It’s an album of staggering maturity. Gil was 22, Brian just 19.
Brian remembers Pieces of a Man selling “20-30,000 copies easily.” Although he acknowledges, “Nobody really knew about us. But the people that did, they were very interested to hear more.” Their next album, Free Will, released in 1972, the same year Gil’s second novel, The Nigger Factory, emerged, was split — very effectively — into two distinct sides. The first emphasized their lyrical soul-jazz compositions, like ‘Did You Hear What They Said?’, the second side, the direct, confrontational raps that characterized Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. According to Brian, this balance — half music, half Gil’s street poetry — was reflected in their live shows.
Gil dubbed his raps, “survival kits on wax.” He explains: “The whole idea behind those sort of things at the time was to put some information in front of people that they couldn’t get any other way.” In ‘No Knock’, ‘Ain’t No New Thing’ and ‘The King Alfred Plan’, backed just by congas, jangling bells and the febrile whir of the flute, Gil debunked police power, J. Edgar Hoover’s Black Panther-obliterating COINTELPRO, white cultural theft — “We declare WAR on Eric Burdon!” — and the threat of racist detention camps. He was, in effect, exhorting his audience: “No, you’re not paranoid, this is really happening!”
Interestingly, Brian divulges, “I sometimes thought he was a little too blunt, he kinda beat people over the head with it. But you know what? Sometimes that’s good for you!” Gil’s approach just wasn’t Brian’s style. Although, when he wrote verses to augment Brian’s music, Gil acknowledges, “I rarely wrote lyrics for Brian Jackson melodies without Brian giving me a point of reference for direction.” When Gil created the initial chordal structure of a song, Brian often teased out a fuller, more complex orchestration. Gil also appreciated being vocally stretched by Brian’s compositions. “It would take work for anybody to sing Brian’s stuff. I think that my understanding of Brian gave me an opportunity that most vocalists don’t have.” Malcolm Cecil admits, “Brian’s got an incredible way of thinking about music and playing that I find totally unique.” He adds, “Gil is primarily a poet, secondarily a vocalist, thirdly a composer and fourthly a musician. That’s why he and Brian worked so well.” A robust sense of confidence undoubtedly existed between the two friends, as Brian recalls, “If I had some doubt whether something would work or not, I would just let him go with it, and vice versa.”
With Gil’s three-album contract at Flying Dutchman consummated, the duo departed for another classic early ’70s progressive jazz label — Strata East. Gil maintains their exit was, in part, provoked by Bob Thiele who “wouldn’t add Brian’s name to the album’s flag.” Brian admits he was actually quite happy with the credits he was receiving and, until today, was unaware of Gil’s plotting to include Brian’s name next to his. This is typical of Gil’s largesse – and modesty. Producer Malcolm Cecil agrees: “He’s always been a ‘we’ person, a team player, even though he’s the leader of the team – and he does know how to keep a team together.” Subsequently, the duo’s Strata East album, Winter in America, was credited to Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson.
1974’s Winter in America is a subdued, tender, melancholic masterpiece. Its songs often just feature Gil and Brian together. Gil: “‘A Very Precious Time’, ‘Peace Go With You Brother’, ‘Your Daddy Loves You’, those things were just Brian and I. They were put together that way to give people the further idea of what Brian’s songs were really about. I think they were really beautiful and we wanted to make sure his name was out front so that people could understand how much influence he had, not only on that one, but on Pieces of a Man.”
The album was also the high point of their love affair with the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Gil: “Brian and I, we couldn’t really afford a Fender Rhodes when we first started. We had a Farfisa, a Wurlitzer, we were just putting together whatever we could.” Brian first encountered the instrument – played by Herbie Hancock — on Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky. But he didn’t embrace the Fender Rhodes immediately, thinking he might be labeled a Hancock manqué. Luckily, though, he was soon “totally hooked — everybody was buying them!” Gil also remembers, “By the time we did Winter In America, Brian was a very good flute player.” Indeed, it’s Brian performance on this instrument which added such piquancy to the underground hit single from the album — ‘The Bottle’.
The lyrics to ‘The Bottle’ were actually inspired by a clique of alcoholics who congregated early each morning outside Gil and Brian’s communal house in Washington DC. Gil: “I went out and met these folks and found out that none of them had the ambition to be alcoholics when they grew up.” He realized they were victims of circumstance. “It was like, things along the way had arrived and turned them in that direction.”
Intriguingly, Gil and Brian originally planned the LP as a concept album called Supernatural Corner, which documented an Afro-American GI returning from Vietnam to an indifferent, prejudiced USA. Gil was to narrate the man’s experiences in the first person. But they sensed the initial recording was too lugubrious and it evolved into Winter in America.
There was certainly nothing lugubrious about the album’s penultimate track, ‘H2O Gate Blues’, one of Gil’s most famous and mischievous political satires — sometimes alluded to by hip American History professors. With his musicians encouraging him onwards, Gil chronicled a number of US atrocities in the last five years, mocking, “the economics of warfare,” “that cesspool Watergate” and the CIA in Chile. The song also included Gil’s first mention of his future bête noire — Ronald Reagan. The LP closed with the gentle coda, ‘Peace Go With You Brother’, a reprise of the first song. Ultimately, Winter in America is an album of extraordinary beauty, a balm for the black nation, struggling with the disintegration of the civil rights movement and the post-Watergate recession.
At the time of the album’s release, Clive Davis was industriously establishing a new label — Arista. Impressed with ‘The Bottle’, Davis recalls today, “I did see Gil in concert before we sat down to meet.” He remembers him as, “A striking, charismatic figure with unbelievable writing and rhyming skills. Gil Scott-Heron was an original — is an original.” He also sensed commercial potential: “I always felt that Gil could have hits that would really open up his career.” Lou Reed, the Grateful Dead and Patti Smith were amongst the first artists signed to Arista — so were Gil and Brian. They were certainly the first black act on the roster. Again, Gil was adamant he and Brian were billed as a twosome. Malcolm Cecil: “Even though Arista didn’t want to have a duo, Gil said, ‘Brian’s with me!'”
At Arista, Gil and Brian’s style of spiritual soul-jazz became fuller and more percussive. They were ably assisted by the Midnight Band, mostly friends from Lincoln University days, which included Victor Brown, Bilal Sunni Ali, a saxophonist up in the fiery Pharaoh Sanders class, and Barnett Williams, from the Society For The Preservation Of African Percussion. Their critical sweep also shifted a gear or two, concentrating on more global issues. Gil: “The black community was ‘I’-orientated. We weren’t really taking part in what was happening as far as the Third World was concerned, because we were always talking about ourselves.” The classic track, ‘Johannesburg’, a minor hit, epitomized this adjustment of focus. The dangers of nuclear power also surfaced on their agenda.
Brian remembers, “We always kind of lived communally, from college almost to the late ’70s.” In the mid-’70s, they bought a house together in Virginia. “We spent a lot of time hanging out, watching the news and checking out what was going on.” Their mission to educate through music and incite cultural insurrection was bolstered by their friends who all contributed to the pot of ideas. Brian: “It definitely wasn’t a vacuum. We had our sessions, we would sit up and talk.” He adds, “Gil would take all of that stuff we talked about and filter it through his incredibly literary machine and come out with these brilliant poems and songs.” They both sensed the creeping apathy and accepting political atmosphere of the age. Indeed, Gil sang, “What ever happened to the protest and the rage?” In the second half of the ’70s though, Gil and Brian never stopped protesting and raging. Tracks like ‘Guerilla,’ ‘Third World Revolution,’ ‘South Carolina (Barnwell),’ ‘We Almost Lost Detroit,’ ‘Shah-Mot,’ ‘Tuskegee #626’ and ‘Angola, Louisiana’ testify to that.
Their Arista albums were selling between 100-200,000, considerably more than their earlier works. But this heightened visibility provoked some unwanted attention. Brian, “We’d read enough issues of High Times and Mother Jones to realize that everyone was being bugged.” But were they under surveillance? Gil laughs. “I felt I ought to be!” At their Virginia home, Brian remembers, “You picked up the phone, it clicked once and then it clicks twice. I mean how many times can that happen?” He adds, “The idea is to create fear so we never dealt with it.” Nonetheless, Brian admits, “We weren’t actually saying the things that would make us friends of the state, but we certainly didn’t consider ourselves enemies either.” Although the news of the duo’s forthcoming performance at the massive No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden in 1979 probably didn’t thrill the eavesdropping G-men.
Malcolm Cecil, of TONTO fame, produced the duo’s last 3 albums for Arista, Bridges, Secrets and 1980, which focused increasingly on the synthesizer and away from the organic qualities that characterized their first three Arista LPs. Gil remembers, “Malcolm was someone who had worked with Stevie [Wonder] when Stevie was doing 80-90% of his own music. Since Brian and I played a lot of our own things, put a lot of our own stuff together, he seemed like a good choice.” Another hit, ‘Angel Dust’, helped them survive the decadent disco era whose insatiable appetite for the fluffy mangled most of their contemporaries’ careers. On the cover of 1980, the duo were photographed inside TONTO, Malcolm’s huge synthesizer podule, sporting bright jumpsuits and grinning at the camera. But for his next album, Real Eyes, Gil was billed as a solo act. This wasn’t because he had finally crumpled under the label’s coercion to exclude Brian’s name. Brian simply wasn’t there.
Of his exit, Gil states, “Brian had been drifting in a direction of doing things independently for quite a while. I thought that was good — to get to the point where you can do what you wanna do.” Malcolm recalls, “As far as I know it was fairly amicable.” But he adds, “There seemed some sort of stress there.” Brian, himself, admits, “I had been trying to move in a more progressive way.” Yet, after a decade of perpetual recording and touring – up to 200 gigs a year — he initially just wanted to stop and recharge. He suggested a six-month break. Gil agreed. A couple of months later, Brian was engaging in some California chilling. Then, “Gil called me and asked if I would do a rehearsal. I said, ‘Man! What about our agreement?’ He said, ‘Oh no. We really need to get back out there.’ I just felt burnt out. He just kept pushing, he never really looked up.”
In the following months, Brian remembers, “I saw him do a lot of things without me, like doing gigs and not mentioning it to me. I guess resentment started to build up. Then he went on and did another deal with Arista and I didn’t know about that either. I figured I needed to take that as some kind of signal.” Today, though, Brian now believes Gil was experiencing a lot of pressure from the label to pump out the records. And it was always Gil, not Brian, who dealt with the suits.
In the early 1980s, after freelancing for Kool and the Gang and Phyllis Hyman, Brian withdrew totally from the music biz, starting a career in computers. Today, he concedes, “I carried a lot of bitterness about how Gil and I parted.” Gil’s career, though, continued to evolve. He was part of Stevie Wonder’s huge Hotter Than July tour, which effectively campaigned for Martin Luther King’s birth date to be celebrated as a national holiday. His critically acclaimed Reflections was highlighted by the 12-minute hit single and quintessential President Ray-Gun lampoon — ‘B-Movie’. This LP also included ‘Gun’, where, with typical prescience, Gil’s gun law diatribe beat Michael Moore’s by two decades. Director Robert Mugge also filmed an impressive Channel 4 documentary on Gil, Black Wax. In 1982, another album, Moving Target, followed Reflections. The sun, it seemed, was shining. But in retrospect, Brian split just at the right time.
Since the release of Moving Target, — over 20 years — Gil has recorded just one studio album, 1994’s Spirits. By the mid-1990’s, Gil looked a haunted man, his face, gaunt and angular, his hair, a bushy shock of gray. It now seems that somewhere in the 1980’s, Gil tripped, then fell deep into the drug well. In the early 1990s, reports surfaced that he was struggling with chronic cocaine addiction. Arrests validated this. Then Gil started doin’ the ol’ Sly Stone — he just didn’t show up to some gigs. Indeed, the very length of his predicament certainly suggested, as Gil himself once sang, “down some dead-end streets there ain’t no turning back.” In 2000, he was arrested on New York’s Amsterdam Avenue for possession of 1.2 grams of powder cocaine and two crack pipes. In October, 2002, he emerged from a 12-month prison sentence which some thought he wouldn’t survive. One of the few positive aspects of this period was the approbation he received from a multitude of rappers, who anointed him the god-pop of hip-hop.
Over these last, tough 15 years, journalists have accused him of suffering from creative paralysis. Others were aghast that the very man who preached so poignantly against the destructiveness of hard drugs and their capacity to impede that very cultural liberation he and Brian anticipated, had succumbed to them so thoroughly. Brian: “I hadn’t really seen him until the ’90s. I was shocked when I did see him.” He adds, “I’ve never really asked him, ‘What the hell happened?'”
So what exactly debilitated Gil’s protest and rage? In retrospect, the early ’80’s weren’t quite as rose-tinted as they seemed. As the ’70’s became the ’80s, Gil’s marriage to Brenda Sykes broke up, the Midnight Band dissolved and Brian departed. Also, when RCA bought Arista, Gil fell out with the new proprietors. Gil: “I didn’t have any problems with Arista until Arista was sold to RCA. That was like in ’83, and I didn’t want to work in that way.” He adds, “I did some things that they didn’t appreciate, and they did the same.” Malcolm Cecil, who continued producing Gil’s solo albums, is more explicit: “We got funds cut off but not dropped from the label. So you’re not free to go to another label but you’ve got no budget to work — it’s freezing you.” This sticky impasse between artist and label certainly clarifies some of the “creative paralysis” gossip.
There was also another cause of artistic frustration for Gil. He wanted to focus more on poetry and prose. Gil: “You have to try to find a way to balance yourself between doing things that bring in some money and things that give you the opportunity to do what you wanna do, which is write. I tried to do that and it wasn’t easy. To keep musicians happy and with you, you have to play. And to keep time to do the writing you have not to play.” Indeed, his principal source of income over the last decade is from touring. Although in the mid-’90s, Malcolm Cecil helped procure him some voice-over work. Yes, it was Gil’s baritone that boomed: “YOU KNOW WHEN YOU’VE BEEN TANGO’D!” Malcolm recalls, “He was a little bit worried about that one because it was somewhat violently interpreted. Kids were going ’round bonking other kids on the head and going, ‘Ha! You know when you’ve been Tango’d!’ He did not like that.” Another voice-over followed to advertise a popular tire manufacturer.
Malcolm Cecil thinks Gil “feels somewhat victimized by circumstance,” just like the alcoholic down and outs who inspired ‘The Bottle’. Certainly, one imagines Gil must be excruciatingly conscious of the irony of preaching against hard drugs in the 1970’s and then emerging publicly as an addict in the ’80’s and ’90s. Even in the sleeve notes to his very first album, he wrote, “For the young to keep on searching, they’ve got to rid themselves of heroin and some of those other drugs.” But has his immersion in cocaine/crack undermined his earlier anti-drug messages, or simply made him a more tangible individual? In retrospect, in songs like ‘The Bottle’ and ‘Home Is Where the Hatred Is’ Gil actually attempted to write about the catastrophic situations from which addiction might arise or the hell of coping with a drug habit, rather than offer a patronizing anti-drugs tirade. In ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’ he’s preaching from a junkie’s desperate perspective. “You say ‘Kick it quit it, kick it quit it’,” he sings, before exclaiming, “But have you ever tried to turn your sick soul inside out?” The message is — beating addiction’s a bitch. It’s just tragic that circumstances in Gil’s life conspired to show him that what he wrote really was true.
Gil’s own attitude to his drug dilemma, though, is pretty ambiguous. After years of disputing it even existed — despite the arrests — he’s now almost nonchalant about the situation. He’s certainly still evasive. When asked about overcoming personal predicaments, Gil replies, “You know somebody who didn’t [have to], we’ll follow them.”
But perhaps his “white powder dreams” weren’t just an emotional analgesic for personal and professional anguish. Malcolm Cecil also implies Gil’s engagement with cocaine was partly an experiment in method-writing. He recounts an extraordinary episode from 1993: “Gil is into the concept, which is not necessarily unreal, which is how can he really write about things unless he’s experienced them? He’s expressed that to me a number of times. I said to him, ‘You talk about homeless people but you, as far as I know, have never actually been homeless?'” The very next night Gil telephoned him, asking Malcolm to meet him in Greenwich Village.
“So, I’m standing on the corner of 4th and 6th Avenue waiting for this cab I’m expecting Gil to show up in. I’m waiting and I’m waiting — half an hour, 45 minutes, almost an hour! Then I think, ‘I don’t get this, what is going on?’ Well, on the corner of 4th and 6th Avenue is 4th Street subway station. I thought, ‘No, he wouldn’t have meant down in the subway, surely? Well, it wouldn’t hurt to go down and look.’ So I go down the stairs into the subway station and there, sitting on the far side, on the inside of the cage before you come out, is what appears to be this disheveled homeless guy, right, sitting there with a Coke can, appearing to be asleep, with a hat out — a few quarters have been thrown in — and this pool of what looks to me like he’s peed himself. Then this one eye opens, he looks at me and says, ‘Took your time, didn’t you!'” Malcolm: “Gil said, ‘Well, I figured I’d find out what it was like to be a homeless person.’ And that night we did the vocal about the junkie – he was just getting into character!”
Sometimes Gil’s sweet, impish nature is unfortunately sabotaged by a pretty cantankerous element, as a number of journalists, radio and television producers and concert promoters will attest. Although quite how much of this moodiness is caused by the monkey on his back is debatable. Nonetheless, he’s never stopped praising the merits of his former partner, Brian Jackson. Gil was interviewed, somewhat incongruously, on BBC Breakfast News at the end of the 1990s, to promote Now and Then, his book of poetry. The interviewer obviously didn’t know who Gil was nor did she care. Yet 20 years after they stopped working together, as Gil talked, he was still bringing Brian into the narrative.
In the mid-’90s the frostiness between the two melted. Brian: “We’ve had our ups and downs, as friends do.” He adds, “I consider him my brother, he’s like a member of the family.” Although Brian still works full-time in the computer field, he accompanied Gil on his tour of South Africa in 1998. In January, 2003, Brian played two shows as a solo artist at London’s Jazz Café. Gil was released from prison in 2002, but he served a further three months in 2003 for violating a stipulation of his parole. His magnum opus, the autobiographical The Last Holiday, is approaching completion and a lot of people are hoping, praying Gil’s desperate hours are over.
4th October, 2003. At SOB’s, on the corner of Varick and West Houston in Manhattan, Gil is performing two shows tonight. Walking out onto the stage at 8.30pm, he sits down at the battered Fender Rhodes. Chatting amiably to the audience, Gil teases shimmering chords from the piano, before introducing Brian. Then just the two of them, with Brian on flute, perform ‘Your Daddy Loves You’ from Winter in America. It’s a sweet, intimate moment that precedes the rest of the band’s entrance.
Tonight, Gil’s vocals are extraordinary. His voice was always acutely emotive, even when he was just in his early twenties, but now it resonates with a deep, melancholic worldliness. It’s particularly poignant when Gil, hunched over his piano with eyes squeezed shut, sings for ‘Better Days Ahead’ or cries out repeatedly, “There ain’t no place that I ain’t be down.” Some members of this affectionate audience undoubtedly feel the sting of approaching tears.
After these rough few years, does Gil feel invigorated now? “I feel invigorated still. I’ve always been blessed. Blessings don’t stop because you run into obstacles, they just become more profound.” Brian believes that as a twosome in the ’70s they actually “sheltered each other” from the tricks and temptations of the music biz. Today, he acknowledges, “If I can get him in one place long enough, I want to do some more writing. I think it’s time for that.” He adds, “I think it would do us both good.”