Lady Day & Gil Scott-Heron

You’ve changed
That sparkle in your eyes is gone
Your smile is just a careless yawn
You’re breaking my heart
You’ve changed

One of the last songs Billie Holiday recorded, accompanied by strings, horns, and an angelic female chorus singing high soprano, a delicate arrangement that only enhanced the delicate state of her voice.  Her delivery of those words tears right through you.  She spent her whole career living the blues through her life and music, making each performance an event, a moment, until her body just couldn’t do it anymore.  A year after recording this track, she was gone.

Just a few weeks ago, after hearing one of his tracks on KCSM Jazz 91, I googled Gil Scott-Heron.  I found a chilling article on Black Agenda Report:

From the start, he was weak and weary, like whiskey watered so far down that only the barest hint of its kick remains. We winced at his pain, glaring naked in the spotlight, and at the death-mask smile he flashed, which made him look like the Grim Reaper. Even as his high was intensified by the thrill of making music, he seemed to be mocking our enjoyment of his performance, our witnessing his once prodigious gifts now so threadbare and wan.

TaRessa Stovall, May 4, 2009

Stovall later remarked that her mother had a similar experience seeing Billie Holiday in one of her last performances.  And then came the bombshell:  Scott-Heron had contracted HIV.

In 1970 he sang about the evils of substance abuse in “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” and “The Bottle.”  In 2009, on his first album in 15 years, a voice cracked and aged rasped “Me and the devil, living side by side.”  He had lived the life he warned about 40 years earlier and it showed in his art, warts and all, making it that much more powerful and depressing.  On the same album he sang “New York Is Killing Me” and that he wants to be buried in Tennessee.

And now he’s gone.

He sang of fear and hope and love and pain and freedom and slavery.  And he lived it all for us to see.  Sometimes we watched wide-eyed, sometimes we winced through our eyelashes.  He informed us through his art and his life until his body just couldn’t do it anymore.

Fortunately, his art will continue to inform us for many years to come.

Ever feel kinda of down and out and don’t know just what to do?

Livin’ all of days in darkness, let the sun shine through

Ever fell that somehow, somewhere you lost your way?

And if you don’t get help you won’t make it through the day

You could call on Lady Day!

You could call on John Coltrane!

They’ll wash your troubles, your troubles away

“Lady Day and John Coltrane” Gil Scott-Heron (1949 – 2011)


© 2011, gar. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.