Like most people, I knew bits and pieces about Gil Scott Heron, simply because he was considered an important figure on the cultural landscape, particularly if you were interested in hip hop and black American culture. All I really knew, though, was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and a couple of tracks that my mate Al would put on mixtapes and I would secretly take the piss out of for their ‘shabba-dee-doo-da’ tendencies. (“The Bottle” and “Lady Day and John Coltrane” had their merits, but always leaned too far toward the second component of jazz-funk for my liking.) This changed when i watched a late night BBC4 documentary about him. At that point, I was using TV and films as a means of escape, trying to get away from the bad place that was my own head. That avoidance, perhaps, was what drew me to Gil Scott Heron. While I had become deeply disillusioned with the intersection of art and politics (largely due to a failed project that had cost everyone involved at least one pound of flesh), the idea of someone making it work was interesting. I expected to laugh at the mixture of poetry and polemic, but instead found that it wasn’t possible. You couldn’t dispute that this was someone making art with feeling that was about something. Those last two words were what I had been lacking. I watched a man, younger than myself, writing novels and recording albums and pouring his soul into art that sought to make meaning out of the wider world. And it made me feel ashamed, because all I wanted to do was make funny little things that would make people like me more.
As the documentary went on, we saw him get older and more broken. The voice became ravaged by the the crack pipe and the mind fractured by its effects. The youth and vitality was lost to age, as perhaps it always is, but the drive and passion became misdirected to fulfilling the ongoing demands of drug dependency. Although the film presented the collaboration with XL Records head Richard Russell as something like Johnny Cash’s creative rebirth under Rick Rubin, it wasn’t to be. “I’m New Here” wasn’t the beginning of a great final chapter in an artistic career, but a bookend.
Isolation and failure aren’t issues limited to just me or Gil, the manner in which they were expressed made the album feel like it wasmine in that weird way fans have about the art that connects them to the creator in a remote, but strangely personal way.
“I’m New Here” starts with a tribute to “…the womenfolk who raised me and i was full grown… ’till I learned I came from a broken home.” On it, he speaks plainly about being sent to live with his grandmother and being surrounded by surrogate sisters. What I live about this track is the manner in which he undercuts the temptation to idolise his grandmother as some mythical creature with a reserve of mysterious spiritual strength. Instead, the endurance is pragmatic. You survive because you don’t have any choice. It made me think of my mother, who looked after two young children while battling cancer she wasn’t expected to survive. I often wonder if she beat the odds simply through force of will, love of her children proving more effective at destroying cancerous cells than radiotherapy and surgery. But then I realise I’m idolising a parent who perhaps just proved to be very, very lucky.
The album goes on to present a ragged of broken beats and scattered ruminations from a man who had defined one generation and been forgotten by the next. Lost in the grips of addiction, Scott-Heron put together an album that was barely more than an EP by some artists standards, yet contained more truth and power in its short run time than many a bloated long player.
It was particularly resonant for me, as it touched on issues that had been preoccupying me for some time. I had managed to get through a nervous breakdown, the loss of my old life, career and friends and was in the anxious throes of early sobriety, wondering not only how I’d got to this point, but also what the rest of my life was supposed to look like now that everything I’d based it on had slipped away. It was all the same, but it was all different. I was staying in my mother’s flat, where I had lived as a child and now found myself back in, supposedly grown up but not feeling at all like a man. Lacking ability, but not ambition, I spawned plans to take over the world, despite the fact that I could barely tie my own shoelaces. That idea of being in a place you recognised, but it being utterly unfamiliar was strange and, at times, debilitating. I felt new here, too and even though I wasn’t in New York, I agreed that city living ain’t all its cracked up to be.
Musically, the album represents ameshing of Gil Scott-Heron’s jazz background with Richard Russell’s modern electronic production techniques. The tension is compelling and there’s a sense in which it feels as if the two men are digging through a crate of Gil’s old albums, looking for fragments to slice, warp and stretch into something new. Probably only 4 tracks could properly be called songs, but as a whole it becomes something larger than the sum of its parts. Although it’s his last album, it doesn’t wrap everything up in an easily digestible package. One gets the sense that this was as much as he could do at the time, there was still more to be done, whether it’s in the studio or the crackhouse. It’s the sound of someone still searching for something, even if he’s looking in the wrong places, and that desire to seek out truth – or something like it – is what makes not only this album, but Gil Scott-Heron’s body of work so vital.
I have no idea how well the album was received at the time. One year later, Jamie from The XX remixed the whole album, sanding off the edges and making it more of a proper album. This version tends to get more praise than the original and it’s sort of understandable why. Whereas the first version is a hodge-podge collection of oddities and out-takes, this actually a collection of songs, making the most of Scott-Heron’s often shambolic ruminations. Jamie XX takes the smallest element and spins it into an entire track. For that reason, if no other, it’s kind of a tour-de-force in the art of the remix, but it lacks that same creative tension that existed in the original. The XX version of the album is a six pack of beer, carefully and precisely packaged to make for a good time. The original, by comparison, is a broken bottle of spirits. While the former may be more conducive to a good time, the second tells a far more compelling story simply by virtue of its existence.
Recently, Spotify has been offering 30 minute ad-free listening windows if you watch one of their longer ads. Should you get one of these, I urge you to use 28 of them to take in “I’m New Here” in its entirety.