(Update: Link to the promo we made for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, with Gil’s blessing)
I heard some really sad news last week – don’t know if it’s true or not but it seems to be well corroborated online.
As well as being back in jail, Gil Scott Heron has admitted to being HIV positive.
I worked with Gil on and off for my whole time at Canongate, and was lucky enough to meet him a number of times and to go on tour with him whilst he was in the UK two years in a row, including a phenomenal gig as the Saturday night headline at Glastonbury’s jazz stage in (I think) 2001.
I won’t say working with Gil was easy – I was an inexperienced editor and publicist trying to look after one of the most notoriously erratic performers and get him to turn up to more interviews, broadcasts and signings than he would ever want to do – but it was rewarding and enlightening and to be absolutely certain – Gil knew exactly what he was doing the whole time and was in so many ways the consummate professional. (That he didn’t do things the way I wanted him to goes to show why I was the amateur.) I thought I’d share the follwing story as I’ve enjoyed telling it in the past.
One of these broadcasts, for the world service, was going out to 14 million listeners worldwide. The studio, in Bush House, had been set up with a Fender Rhodes, Gil’s weapon of choice, and the instrument there was one of the very few in working condition in the UK’s music hire shops and had been sourced at great labour and expense by a beleagured producer at the BBC. We were due to turn up 2 hours before broadcast to tune the Rhodes, soundcheck, rehearse and meet the DJ – who was clearly a major fan. The moment when we were still in the hotel in Camden, twenty minutes before broadcast, my mobile ringing off the hook from angry producers at the BBC, and Gil still in his room (as far as I knew) was probably one of the most streesful times of my life.
Then, calmly, Gil appeared, ready, denim jacket slung over his shoulder, and we sauntered out to the BBC limo that had been waiting outside for 2 hours (although my legs werelike jelly). We sat down in the car, and I couldn’t find any words to say, wavering between extreme anger / embarrassment at the idea of a no-show in front of 14 million primed listeners (and clearly, potential buyers of the book of lyrics and poems I was promoting) and yet feeling bad for hustling a man many years and degrees my senior (I was maybe 24 at the time) who also happened to be one of my all-time heroes. I had turned off my phone ten minutes before this, not having anything else to say to the producers and unable to handle the pressure. They weren’t to know if we were going to show or not.
Gil had his walkman on, and I took this as a diss to me, that I wasn’t worth listening to as all I’d done was hassle him all day long, and for that matter, all week long, and that he wanted to block me out. All I was was noise.
(I wasn’t about to argue with him. We’d been in residence at the Jazz cafe all week long – or at least once Gil and the band had cleared customs, security and immigration after missing flights, police dramas and the like. I’d been at the gigs, selling books by the barrel load, and partying with the band afterwards into the night before getting a minicab back to my flat next to a crack den in west london, my pockets stuffed with around �500 in cash each night. I wasn’t in the calmest of mental states, and i knew I’d been an earnest but stressy accompaniment to the tour.)
Then, in the back of the cab, Gil took one earpiece out, stretched a long limb out to me, put the bud in my ear and pressed play. It was a recording of a song (I think Work for Peace) from the evening before’s gig which had absolutely stopped the sold-out venue in its tracks. I told him after the gig how blown away I was by it. I hand’t heard the song before and was urging them to record it. We listened to the song all the way to Bush House, during which time I had an epiphany: Gil was in complete control, the shambolic appearance was my problem, and he was in complete control of his schedule too. Furthermore I read his playing that song to me as a peace offering, as a way of saying ‘relax, I’m on it’ and in some small way an acknowledgement of the work (or stress) I was putting into promoting a book which had required a similar amount of nerve to create. My mood changed in an instant.
We turned up at the BBC as the show started, came into the studio whilst an introductory number was played, and Gil tuned up the Rhodes with a screwdriver he pulled out of his pocket in a matter of seconds. He sat down as the interviewer gave him his cue, and proceeded to play solo, to 14m people, for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. At that moment I felt as if the whole world was listening to something incredibly powerful and immediate and I fell in love with the idea of radio. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life.
Afterwards we went out for a cigarette together at the back of Bush House, during the interval and accompanied by two or three runners desperate for us not to do another runner ourselves. I can’t remember what happened next although I guess Gil played a few more numbers, answered the questions with his usual candour, quick-wit and of course humour, and we went off to do something else. I’d love to find a recording of that show.
The next day, or a couple of days later, I had sorted out for Gil to do an interview on the BBC’s HardTalk. I knew it was a BBC4 show, and wasn’t going to be lightweight, and was so thrilled at the idea of him being on TV that I didn’t do my research into the show or its presenter. We’d been on breakfast TV in the week as well, which was hilarious as Gil was on the sofa with Englebert Humperdinck and the sofa chat was frothy in the extreme. It was only when we sat down in the studio – again with a dishevelled Gil – to do the live recording, that I thought I might have bitten off more than I could chew.
The interviewer went straight into it, asking about his drugs and wife-beating raps. I took a deep breath, but Gil was, as ever, in total control. I found the interview on YouTube a couple of weeks ago:
What’s my point? Gil proved himself a great man and human being in that time, and all the time I’ve known him. He’s been a big influence on my life before and since meeting him, and yet like any of us he has his weaknesses. His great, untold, story is of his campaign with Stevie Wonder to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday in the USA. It is also the story of his life, and I’ve read a lot of it. I urged Jamie Byng (of Canongate) last week to get the book edited and published soon as it’s been on the books for a number of years and has lost momentum. To all of his fans, Gil is a hero, but he deserves to be much better known and acknowledged than he is – beyond The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and the ‘godfather of rap’. Peace go with you, brother Gil.
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