And Whitey’s on the moon
Gil Scott-Heron takes you Inside Black. That’s what it says on the front of this album. It’s completely impossible, but of course that statement doesn’t claim it would be, and it doesn’t really make sense to write that Gil Scott-Heron takes you as far inside black as possible, just far enough to understand just a tiny bit of what it means to be black in America (whether in 1970 or 2021), and just the smallest bits of understanding will let you only understand how much you won’t understand.
And that’s probably as far as anyone will ever be able to take you inside black if you’re not. This album is more than fifty years old, and in light of how things developed over the last few years, especially in the eternally disgraceful relationship between white policemen and African Americans in the US, taking you inside black “where the anger burns” still is something Gil Scott-Heron is able to do better than anyone else. Fifty years after his first album, ten years after his death.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” he says right at the beginning of this album – and it will always be one of the most prominent messages he threw our way. Even if I write myself into some kind of shit storm right now – when I look at the massive PR around Amanda Gorman’s poem and the disturbing translation disputes that followed, this is what I am thinking – whatever is televised here, it’s not a revolution. It’s the stuff people want to hear when they think they have seen enough of that anger and need someone to tell them that the nation is great, the nation will be united, and things aren’t bad, they’re just not finished yet.
This is what Scott-Heron says on this album to introduce “Enough”: “Had a poem here somewhere called ‘Enough’ that I’d like to do because every once in awhile a brother gets shot somewhere for no reason, a brother gets his head kicked in for no reason. And you wonder just exactly what in the hell is enough.” Or gets choked to death under the knee of a policeman, for that matter.
The other day I watched “First Man”, the biopic about Neil Armstrong, and there’s this one scene where Leon Bridges recites “Whitey On The Moon”, one of the poems on this album. We all look at the moon landing as the amazing achievement of a nation, and Scott-Heron blasts this perception with just a few simple lines: “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).” This is how Scott-Heron takes us inside black. Just these few words are enough to make us understand that from his view all the flying to the moon and planting the flag is a white thing, something he doesn’t feel connected to. In 2021 people still drop into poverty and bankruptcy just because they got sick – and Whitey is planning to fly to the moon again.
“Small Talk At 125th And Lenox” is full of these moments, and if you ever heard anything by Gil Scott-Heron, you will know that his voice is inescapable, his eloquence is admirable and his poetry is reality. This is as raw and direct as he would ever be, an album that is mostly Spoken Word, and this is deliberately capitalized as it is only used for some sort of categorization, Scott-Heron doesn’t just speak, it’s a much more forceful and poignant delivery far beyond a mere utterance.
The words on the cover say that he “demands to be heard”, and regarding reception as a listener of this album that’s absolutely true. This is not something that just plays while you’re talking about the upcoming football season. This is not something to cuddle up to on the sofa and read a novel. This is not something you listen to while you wonder what to cook on Friday. “Did you ever eat cornbread and black eye peas, or watermelon and mustard greens?”
But when you start to listen he doesn’t need to demand to be heard. He is heard. And you are listening. Towards the end of the album he isn’t speaking or small talking or voicing anger in his inimitable way – he shows us what a great singer he is as well, soulful and insistent, with lyrics that are just as striking and immediate. A voice, a piano and a bit of percussion, that’s all he needs.
Here’s another quote that will let you understand just how little has changed in fifty years, how Scott-Heron’s poetry is in immediate contact with reality and not pointing towards some beautiful dawn somewhere in the oh so great future: “I hope you do not think that a vote for John Kennedy took you off my shit list. Because in the street there will only be black and white there will be no Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, Moderates or any of the rest of that shit you have used to make me forget to hate.”
Meanwhile, NASA is aiming for a moon landing in 2024.
Release for review:
GIL SCOTT-HERON – SMALL TALK AT 125TH AND LENOX – FLYING DUTCHMAN – FDS-131