It was the fall of 1969. I was 16 and already in college. What the hell was I doing? I had skipped a grade-big mistake!-but it was too late to go home. I comforted myself by playing the piano; that’s where you’d find me, in one of the practice rooms. One day, a tall, lanky kid peered in and knocked on the glass window. I motioned for him to come in. He could hardly fit his Afro through the door. Seems he had heard about me on campus and thought he’d find out what I was all about.
The kid’s name made me chuckle. His given name sounded like breathing apparatus for fish, with a funny-sounding surname that reminded me of a bird in a suit of armor: Gil Scott-Heron. At any rate it didn’t take long for either of us to figure out what we were all about. We were about writing songs, and we did just that for the next 10 years.
It doesn’t seem like 40 years ago that we recorded our first album together-him not yet 22 and me 19 (so young that my mom had to sign the publishing agreement on my behalf). At the Grammy Awards in February, Gil Scott-Heron will receive a posthumous award for a lifetime of achievement. Posthumous. It still feels weird to say. You never think of the word “posthumous” as relating to your friends. And it sure as hell doesn’t seem like a lifetime ago that we did all of those things. I guess the award is for having been woven so deeply into American culture that, during one of the Occupy demonstrations, a marcher even held up a sign that said simply: “The revolution will be LIVE,” the last line of Gil’s best-known work, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I assume the award is also because of the albums that have been sampled by artists like 2Pac, Kanye West and Common, to name just a few. Almost every other week one of my students tells me they just heard another instance of one of our songs in someone’s new track.
At any rate, I can attest that there is something that happened in those years in the ’70s that folks, young and old, still hunger for. Lonnie Liston Smith, Mark Adams and I have been throwing down together lately, and even though audiences appreciate our new music, it’s the classics that really take them home. I can’t call it a night unless I do at least a few choruses of “The Bottle.” I guess it’s things like this that cause a lifetime to be celebrated as one of achievement. I certainly do.
It wasn’t easy being Gil Scott-Heron. When you have a guy with insight like his, who can boil lies and madness down into prose, you can get hooked on him to do your analysis. Suddenly he’s the go-to guy of tea-leaf reading: What do you think of Obama, Gil? What about climate change? The dangers of nuclear energy? What’s going on that we should pay attention to? It’s a lot of responsibility for any one man. I didn’t envy him. Gil and I used to talk about the news when we both lived in the Washington, D.C., area in the ’70s, and the results of many of the things we talked about often ended up in pieces we did. But I didn’t have to deliver the message, and everyone knows you don’t shoot the piano player. You shoot the messenger, right?
Maybe it was too much. Maybe it was the sadness of his childhood. By the time he was 9, he had lost the person he loved more than anything in the world. You don’t always bounce back from things like that. But somewhere near the end, I realized that there were two Gils: the one I knew when we were kids-the arrogant, funny, sensitive, nouveau-urban-straight-from-Tennessee (replete with white socks and Hush Puppies), sharp-witted, kind and insanely talented Gil-and the Gil that took over that young Gil, and would only let him come out once in a while, until there was less and less of the Gil I once knew, and finally hardly any at all.
People said goodbye to him last summer. I didn’t go to the funeral. I had already said my goodbye a long time ago. Now I’m saying it once more and for the last time: I miss my old friend, that lanky kid who busted into the Lincoln University practice room sideways to fit his hair in. I miss the laughs and the good times we all had on the buses that would break down; I miss the flights we would run for and the smiles we would see beaming back at us as we performed. We were where we needed to be when we needed to be there, and I think we might have actually done a little bit of healing, just as we had dreamed of doing so many years ago as young men. It was magical, and I’m sure I’m better because of it.