Sunday Diary: RIP – Gil Scott Heron

Memorial Day Weekend. Quiet Sunday morning. Early. The boy is snoring behind me. Everyone is asleep here.

Restless artist arises from bed to wonder the apartment in repose. Time for a blog post.

Not much interest these days in playing around on the computer. Generally I sit here to do actual work. Other than that I find myself either playing solitaire or perusing the news headlines. The one that stands out for me today is the recent passing of Gil Scott Heron. I have always been a lover of Heron’s music. I connect with his anger. As an irrate jew growing up in Queens, I have always been partial to angry black men. It has always been apparent to me that their anger really needed (and needs) to be the voice of all the people. If the system is unfair to any grouping, it is unfair for all. Everyone is cheated. That is my song.

My first exposure to “Have you heard, from Johannesburg?” I was hooked on the voice of Heron. He represented a form of outrage. Not just for the blatant racism that exists all over our planet, but the obvious affects of it. Here are the lyrics to “Whitey on the Moon” which probably made many a white American a little squeamish:

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)
I wuz already payin’ ‘im fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,
Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is goin’ up,
An’ as if all that shit wuzn’t enough:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an’ arm began to swell.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

I cannot speak with extensive knowledge of Heron. But I have always appreciated a creative, angry voice. Creativity is a wonderful outlet for outrage. Many times, I have ventured into this dark territory. I am always careful though, to maintain my grounding. There is a simple truth to express. Life in this world is upside down. As the above lyrics express, priorities are all screwed up. We can send a man onto another planet, but we cannot take care of our own people. We cannot get good medical care, or good housing for all of our people. ALL OF OUR PEOPLE. And nothing has changed much from the time when Heron wrote this. The underlying truth that the world sleeps while greed runs amuck.

I am rereading Howard Zinn’s “The Peoples History of the United States.” Zinn’s voice is that of an angry white man. Is there really any difference? I say no. What Zinn reflects in his book is the history of the people. Alongside large events in our growth as a nation, there were many things happening that have fallen out of the curriculum of teaching a comprehensive history. So while the revolution was happening, white farmers were revolting, because there were many in our nation who felt that a war with Britain was of no benefit to poor farmers. As always, these events benefit a few rich white men. It seems that behind every great event, there were revolts. Some would have us believe that they were minor. But in Zinn’s documentations, they were not. From mutinies in the ranks of the starving soldiers in Washington’s battalions, to slave revolts which numbered in the hundreds and thousands, taking up arms against plantation owners. Deserters in the Mexican-American War. Rent revolts against greedy land holders. The list goes on right up to this very day where we watch a mere 1% of our country usurping every shred of resource for their own profiteering. Oil and gas prices rise as oil companies record massive profits and we pay for it at the grocery, or in the lack of work that has become so prevalent because so many budgets have been reduced to fragments. And all this happens while the fools fiddle and Rome burns, or as Heron put it, “with Whitey on the Moon.”

The unfortunate aspect of all this is how Heron deteriorated prior to his passing. He was still young by most modern accounts. How he descended into drug addiction and became a symptom of his own expression. This is the difficulty of being an artist with a vision. One needs a firm grounding in the real world, and I believe, a spiritual practice. Otherwise the demons that one is seeing, the sad truth of the world, can begin to eat away at one’s purpose. The demons can destroy your being. The observed becomes one’s own source of destruction. And then we become useless as a creative voice. We become an excuse as to why what we see should not be acknowledged, other than as some creative fancy. Thus it would seem that it would be better to be naive, than aware of the our condition. Drug addiction is a rabbit hole which is hard to come out of. Unfortunately, drugs have made a lot of great music and poetry in our time. They are also a way of removing the pain one feels in experiencing reality. My quest is whether it is possible to make great work, express anger at social injustice, and still be a practical voice of change, without the numbing of my senses. It is hard to accept that though one sees many things wrong with the world, much of it will remain unaffected by our outrages. What could help is living healthy and becoming an example of what you are seeking: balance. And the one thing I have found to be true about balance is that you are always trying to find it.

My sadness over the loss of Gil Scott Heron is not that he will sing no more. It is the fact that his vision has been undermined by how he departed this world. But he has left behind much for us to think about. Because nothing has changed. So in feeling this, how does one keep going with a positive feeling?

As my previous post suggests, it is enough to be content with the simple things that make life wonderful and curious. I was greeted once again this morning by our local mockingbird, although he has moved off somewhere else to entertain another artist, I hope. My son sleeps quietly in the bed behind me and I am grateful for his presence in my life. The day promises to be beautiful. And I am still healthy enough, and sane enough, to be more creative at this stage in my life, than all the previous periods combined. And it is due to a dedication to finding a stillness that can exist within all this madness. Life has meaning. And the continued struggle to understand that ever changing truth, makes it worth getting up every morning to experience it. I am sad that Gil Scott Heron is unable to join me in this endeavor.

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2 Comments on “Sunday Diary: RIP – Gil Scott Heron”

  1. […] Sunday Diary: RIP – Gil Scott Heron […]

  2. John Webber says:

    His death hurts, too young.


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