Singer Gil Scott-Heron is also to varying degrees a poet, novelist, entertainer, producer, and most of all a messenger, if not messianic. He came of age in the ferment - he might say revolutionary upsurge - of the '60s, which spawned a black, self-conscious, left-ordiented and street-wise intelligentsia who made a folk art out of putting down Uncle Sam in public.
The strategy, spontaneously and broadly arrived at, was to rouse "the people" to action by being bold and bad enough to say in public what many were afraid to feel in private. The presecriptions were radical because the problems were perceived as such. It must have seemed to much of white America that a whole generation of young black men, at least the ones they saw on the 6 o'clock news, had a burning desire to "express themselves" as aggressively as possible. They were labeled agitators and H. Rap Brown (you may recall) was the most provocative. Gil Scott-Heron, having survived well into the '70s, has perhaps been the most successfull.
Scott-Heron eschewed the role of militant leader for that of popular artist/entertainer. Beginning with "The Revolution Won't Be Televised," he found a formula that would work.He penetrated not only the "hip, progressive black FM market" but the homogenized AM land of Overboogie. His messages managed to reach at least some of the "people" a good deal of the time; he has been just enough singer and musician and more than enough lyricist and producer to make his polemics marketable.
With "Bridges" (Arista AB 4147), his fourth project on the Arista label, Scott-Heron seems to feel the need to consolidate his base in the "ghetto" while (as "Song of the Wind" and "Racetrack in France" testify) getting out and spreading the word.
This is a record about the road, the vagabond life of a musician on the way up, done largely in the first person, drawing its iagery from autobiography. The opening number, "Hello Sunday! Hello Road!" introduces a sense of personal odyssey that is woven throughout the album's other eight songs. It was on a Sunday and on the road that Gil Scott heron (separated from his family in infancy) met his father, two sisters, brother and stepmother for the first time. They were reunited only last year when Scott-Heron and the Midnight Band played a club date in Detroit.
The somber blues of "We Almost Lost Detroit" therefore carry a personal overtone along with their reference to the fact that the Enrico Fermi plutonium plant in Monroe County, Mich., almost blew up in October 1966. Scott-Heron's personal discovery has led him to broach a much larger issue; obviously, had that tragedy occurred, his loss would have been much greater than he could possibly have known. He concludes matter-of-factly that "when it comes to people's safety/Money wins out every time." His message is personal, and specifically that of a black person, but clearly Scott-Heron is speaking to whoever will listen.
According to his liner notes. "Hello Sunday!" is "about the Midnight Band 'Bus Era'" and "dedicated to the survivors." This era was dues-paying time: "Manager we had just couldn't manage. Midnight managed right along. It got me out here with my brothers and that's the thing that keeps me strong."
Unfortunately, the brothers aren't much in evidence this time around. This is a production record; bottom-heavy rhythm, synthesizer programming, keyboard atmosphere and a sprinkling of guitar licks have been substituted for the Midnight Bank. The celebration of African and Caribbean rhythms performed with such exuberance by Barnett Williams, Tony Duncanson and Reggie Bribane are nowhere to be found. The Coltranesque reeds of Bilal Sunni-Ali and the pyrotechnique of Delbert Taylor on trumpet are limited to funky unison lines in the manner of a parody on "Vildgolia (Deaf, Dumb, and Blind)." The textures that result - largely devoid of melodic development and harmonic reference - enhance the gravelly poignancy of Scott-Heron's rough-hewn baritone.
In that way, perhaps the gap is bridged for those among "the people" who value crooning, if not for its musical content, as an end in itself. In any event, this minimalist appraoch accords with much of what is pumped over the airwaves to the people every day. But for Scott-Heron the music (no matter how much he respects the work of Lady Day and John Coltrane) has always been a "common denominator." This time, he has opted for the least common denominator, but it is only a tactical change. While dampening his drums and muffling his horns, he has not short-circuited his message.
The succinct and stark "Tuckeegee-636" is about a tragedy that was continued deliberately for years - the syphilis experiments conducted on dozens of unwitting black men around Tuskeegee, the Ala. under the aegis of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In "Delta Man," Scott-Heron's sense of betrayal leads him to "The point I'm tryin' to make movin' from the place/ and time to time . . . Put a little revolution in your life/ and you'll understand where I'm comin' from." To understand what he means by "revolution," you must read the liner notes, but his lyrics serve well their purpose; they point the finger at reality as he interprets it, "closer than your nose."
Gil Scott-Heron has forged his recent experiences into a powerful chapter in his struggle to rescue the popular disc culture aimed at Afro-America and the rest of America from the suffocation of bubblegum romances and orgiastic self-indulgence. Whether the watering-down of the Midnight Band's music will serve that end or will ultimately result in the watering-down of the messenger is yet to be known.