The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.

 

That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Joe Henry, Stripped

Joe Henry is best known in service to others, a writer of songs for stars (Madonna “Don’t Tell Me To Stop”) and producer to everyone from Meshell Ndegéocello and Ani DiFranco to Elvis Costello and Mose Allison. His own recordings tend to be noisy affairs with confessional, expressionistic poetry set to pop-savvy melodies framed in cartoonish cacophony. Over the years, he’s included jazz musicians including Brad Mehldau, Don Byron and Ornette Coleman to bring added spark and soulfulness to match his often surreal words. Reverie manages the soulfulness without the static. It’s stripped down Henry with even more obscure lyrics (“I keep wooden boxes like traps strung with wire/In the light of old ties, piled and on fire”). The acoustic quartet of guitar, piano, bass, and drums is occasionally decorated with pump organ, added guitarist Marc Ribot’s ukulele, and backup vocals from Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. The effect is even more melancholy than the often down-beat singer has conveyed in the past, and with reason. “Room At Arles,” dedicated to the late, tragic Vic Chesnutt, is particularly somber (“The curtains wave a flag to say/This afternoon is done/And giving in to evening who has/Beat him like a brother”). Despite the mood and minimalism, Reverie is still “raucous and fractured and noisy” as he asserts in the liner notes’ dedication to his parents. And that’s just the way we Henry fans like it.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Playlist: 11/27

REINCARNATION OF A LOVE BIRD, Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band ; JMT, recorded June 1994. Motian had a way of layering his sound against the ring of electric guitars and for a while in the ’90s had bands that doubled up on them and saxophones (see Garden of Eden, below). Here’s it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wolfgang Muthspiel adding sustained atmospherics and plucky bebop lines. This may be the best example of Motian’s skill at choosing and reworking jazz standards, taking them from innovators including Monk, Miles, Mingus, Bird and Gillespie. And while there’s only one Motian original, “Split Descision” performed twice, beginning and  end, it illustrates how Motian, that most color-conscious drummer, was extending the moods and harmonic construction of the greats he covers. Would we have pulled this out if the man hadn’t passed? Eventually. Motian’s in our infrequent rotation list, someone we return to again and again as time rolls on.

GARDEN OF EDEN, Paul Motian Band; ECM, recorded November, 2004. We pulled this out a couple weeks back when the man was still on the planet and haven’t let go. Another example of Motian’s two-guitar,-two sax ensemble; this time with seven Motian originals of the kind that send us (the drummer also gets great contributions from his sidemen; hear Muthspiel’s “Waseenonet” from Reincarnation above, saxophonist Chris Cheek’s “Desert Dream” here. What we said before: “Paul Motian plays drums like Bill Evans played piano. Here’s it’s in support of a larger group; the tangle of guitars (Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, Jakob Bro), brother saxophones of Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, the try-this-on-for size bass of Jerome Harris. Some Mingus, some originals from the band. But it’s Motian’s “Mesmer” that has a mesmerized. It’s like an Ornette tune at half-speed; inviting, entrancing and ultimately about the human condition.” I forgot to mention the great rework of Mingus’ “Pithecanthropus Erectus.”

MICHAEL TIPPETT DIVERTIMERNTO ON “SELINGER’S ROUND,’ LITTLE MUSIC FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, THE HEART’S ASSURANCE, CONCERTO FOR DOUBLE STRING ORCHESTRA, City of Londo Sinfonia condcuted by Richard Hickox; Chandos, recorded March, 1995. There’s a variety of music here, indicating a range not often associated with the 20th century English composer. Sure, the dancing  “sprung” rhythms of the Concerto catch our off-beat ears but it’s the audible empathy for simple lives, especially heard in the Lament from “Sellinger’s Round” that sticks with us, so much that tenor John Mark Ainsley has to wrestle us back in “The Heat’s Assurance” with a display of  compassion (the music ponders a woman’s suicide, inspired by poets killed in World War II) and passion lost.

APPEARING NIGHTLY,Carla Bley and Her Remarkable Big Band; ECM, 2007. Lively, playful, wonderfully arranged music that jumps jives and gets serious all in a matter of moments. Full of respect for the tradition as well as inside jokes and running gags, the bulk of them perpetrated by trumpeter Lew Soloff. The 25 minute suite that lends the disc its title is a historical overview with the band shouting jive to accent the period feel. “Greasy Gravy” and “Bad Coffee” burns with sax and trumpet reflux (although at different tempos). Emotional highpoint: when the trombone (is it Beppe Calamosca?) blares a warning above the groove and shimmer from Bley-mates bassist Steve Swallow and Karen Mantler on organ. Did I mention Steve Swallow? Who else could play with this noisy of a band and sound like an entire section on his own?

Mosley’s Memory

Walter Mosely’s meditation on his first memories in The New York Times is a detailed account of awakening consciousness. Mosely, at the age of three — the year most likely is 1955  —  opens his eyes in front of the television in his parents’ home. He is suddenly flooded with images and sensations. He says, “in some essential way,” it was the beginning of his life.

“There was a sense of excitement tingling in my shoulders and thrumming at the back of my head; an electricity that made me want to laugh out loud, but I didn’t laugh…There was dark blue carpeting beneath my knees and the room I was in, the living room, was bright because of daylight that came through the windows and also from the front door of the adjacent dining room. This door was open but the screen was closed.”

What might have been stolen from this memory had the television been on?

That Mosley’s visual memory of  specific events some 55 years past are so acute and detailed isn’t so surprising in light of his fiction, which is also acutely visual and focused. His 2010 novel, The Last Days of Ptolmey Grey,  centers on a nonagenarian who suffers the consequences of reviving lost memory. But it’s safe to ask:  Does Mosely really remember all this detail? Does he really remember the floral pattern of his mother’s dress, the “spiky” feel of the grass beneath his bare feet, the paleness of the violet dahlias his father was digging with a hand trowel?

I’ve often been credited with unbelievable recall of my early years. I astonished my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles with details of an overnight stay in Children’s Hospital, a horse sticking its head through unshuttered windows one humid night on  distant cousins’ south Texas farm, the events surrounding my sisters birth; all occuring just before and when I was three. As I picture these things well over a half century later, I remember the times I remembered them and wonder if my memory is just recall of the memories, something akin to imagination, and not the memories themselves.

Mosley’s account, clearly remembered as he states, recalls the same kind of awakening Chris Ware illustrates in his last couple graphic novels as the pixels of toddler consciousness gather into image.  But Mosley goes on to express doubt at the depth of his formative memories. Nor does he attribute recollection to the mind:

The boundaries have become smaller as I have aged. The passions have receded and the sun shines less brightly. But none of that matters because the primitive heart that remembers is, in a way, eternal.

In the way a poet might, Mosley ties imagination, a creative function, to a symbol of the human spirit. It’s a brilliant piece, poignant and meaningful to our experience as well as his. —Cabbage Rabbit

Philip Levine – Poet Laureate

Welcome news today that Philip Levine has been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. I enjoyed Levine’s 2010 collection News of the World with its recycled memories and working class tales as well as its plain-spoken language , something often required of American poets; see Ted Kooser but, not so much, Levine’s predecessor W.S. Merwin. I’m hoping this will result in an updated collection of the 83-year-old poets work, so we may chart his aesthetic course even as his poetry springs more and more of memory.

The Messenger: Gil Scott Heron

Gil-Scott Heron, dead today at 62,  was equal parts social commentator, freedom fighter and pop star. Known as the Godfather of Rap, a title he vehemently denied in an interview I had with him in 1995, he none-the-less influenced generations of rappers and was sampled dozens of times. Most rappers ignored his plea to “not lean so heavily on rhyme and concentrate on the message” (and he meant the socio-political message).

When I talked to Scott-Heron that first time, he had just ended 12 years of recording silence with Spirits. The opening track, “Message To the Messengers” (“if you gonna be teachin’ folks, you gotta know what you’re sayin’…”) was directed at the hip-hop generation, asking them to see where their movement had come from and what it should be about. I was in New York and was hoping to talk to Scott-Heron in person on his own turf.  Complications ensued and I suspected, not without reason, that the man who wrote “Angel Dust” and “The Bottle” was chasing his program, whatever it might be (what did Elridge Cleaver say in Soul On Ice about the sensitive and their vulnerability to drugs?). Most likely,  despite a new recording, he just didn’t want to spend time with a reporter from L.A., or anywhere for that matter.  There was a certain irony in our cellphone conversation as he pursued something around the city’s Upper Westside. The signal kept cutting out.

“Message To the Messengers”  is a lecture of sorts, a plea for peace in a movement that had turned on itself (“they’re glad we’re out there killin’ each other…”). Scott-Heron’s was asking the rap community to remember what had gone before, to show respect and generational brotherhood. It’s also a call to action : “what we did was to tell our generation to get busy/because it wasn’t going to be televised.” Knowing that the revolution has not and will not be televised is as appropriate today as it was in 1972 and 1994: the media is not our message but theirs, we are in this together but not everyone is together with us. “[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

One of my favorite Scott-Heron tunes, “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” addressed the power of music in our lives. Scott-Heron’s music, socially relevant and politically charged, brought truth to that power. Sing on.   — Cabbage Rabbit

Krazy Love

Now here’s something: a collection of poetry inspired by a comic strip. Monica Youn’s Ignatz is surprisingly like George Herriman’s classic cartoon: suggestive, surreal, catty. It’s focus, despite its comic derivation, is the caginess of love,  it’s impact on psychology and our perceptions. There are two voices speaking here, Krazy Kat and Youn; and when in “Ignatz Pursuer”  it’s wished she could spit out her heart into her palm, we hear both.

If we’re to truly understand the Kat whose love prompts her (his?) beloved to fire bricks at her head, we must see the relationship, like Youn, as symbol, as a panoply of images and sounds.  In Krazy Kat’s world, love is both blind and a vision. Like the shifting scenes  in Herriman’s strip, Youn’s poems present us with ever-changing backgrounds holding unmoving characters. Krazy Kat’s love will never change. Ignatz mouse’s disgust with the same won’t either.

With doses of wit (“Weight/is the end//of wanting”), Youn makes Kat’s obsession serious, deep and unfathomable. She avoids Herriman’s phonetic spellings but not the phonetics: “O my dear devoir/O my dour devour”//Your name:/an arrow/with a rope attached/could pull/this raft/across this river.” The comic’s focus on unrequited love is made substantially dark, its humor dependent on the hope seen in hopelessness.

Yet somehow, hope persists. Each of the book’s four sections begins with an love poem (Krazy’s Song) in verse. “O Ignatz won’t you meet me/by the blue bean bush?” Each of the four sections ends with a  poem entitled “Death of Ignatz,” and it’s here that the weight of love squeezes perception. “The mesas/sink to their knees//and let the snickering dunes /crawl over them.”  Could the absence of an unloved mouse change the landscape like this?

Indeed, background is permutational. In “Landscape With Ignatz,” six views of the same place — “The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky… The blistered thumbs of the canyon tracing the blue-veined throat of the sky.” — all frame “your soft, your cerulean eye.” Youn’s ability to create and link images distinguish her poems. “The clockwork saguaros sprout extra faces like planaria stoked by/a razor,” she says in “Ersatz Ignatz.” The connection of time and regeneration in the desert setting is held in a man’s shaving. Sound and vision share symbol: “Chug chug say the piston-powered/ground squirrels.”  And always the hand of Ignatz and his creator:

The yuccas pulse softly under grow-light sconces.

Here is the door he will paint on the rock

Here is the glass floor of the cliff.

He’ll enter from the west, backlit in orange isinglass, pyrite pendants glinting from the fringes of his voice.

These poems are so smartly worded (“isinglass” is a collagen obtained from sturgeon bladders used to clarify wine), so true and smoothly constructed that it’s apparent Youn could make something meaningful out of any subject. That she chose Krazy Kat’s voice to represent her own gives her collection natural entry into a variety of comic and tragic themes: the foolish and obsessive qualities of love, the errors of action and the delicacy of perception.

Like heart-on-its-sleeve Krazy Kat, Youn also invites us to examine her heart, there, in her poems, in the palm of our hand.–Cabbage Rabbit