Sunday, October 26, 2014

Billy Joel and Gil Scott-Heron

You won't see those two paired together often. But both have been occupying my thoughts this week.

1. The newest New Yorker has a captivating profile of Billy Joel. I read with interest for a couple reasons. First, and foremost, he's a pug owner, and sure enough, the pugs make an appearance in the opening paragraph. Well played! Second, I've never quite understood him or liked him beyond an appreciation for his craft, so I wanted to learn more. I used to always get my back up when he was called a rock star. He's not a rocker, though some of his songs rock. I saw him as an entertainer and music pro kind of like Neil Diamond. Late in the piece, the author is hanging with Billy and tries to pick his brain about other songwriters, and he name checks Nick Drake and Townes Van Zant. These draw a blank from Billy. This is the key: Joel isn't a music writer's kind of songwriter; he's Teflon to anything hip, and I think that's just fine. He'll never be like Springsteen in that regard, but you know what? In the 25th Anniversary Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he rocked just as hard as Bruce. Fun fact: he's playing a monthly "residency" at Madison Square Garden and helicopters in from his Oyster Bay mansion in less than a half an hour. That's hip.

2. I've also been reading the Gil Scott-Heron memoir, The Last Holiday, published in 2012, a year after his tragic death. I was flipping around in the pages and nothing was sticking until I came to the part where he is interviewing to be a scholarship student at the Fieldston school on the Upper West Side., an "ethical culture" school, whose alums include notables such as Stephen Sondheim, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Diane Arbus, and way too many more to list. This bit caught my attention: During the interview, one committee member asked: "How would you feel if you saw one of your classmates go by in a limousine while you were walking up the hill from the subway?" Gil answered "Same as you. Y'all can't afford limousines. How do you feel?"

Scott-Heron is often called the Godfather of Hip Hop, or something like it. And with 1970s hits like "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" you can see why. But he didn't find that a compliment. He was really a practitioner of poetry, both spoken and sung, in jazz and soul and blues-based idioms. He called himself a "Bluesologist." He was great with a turn of phrase. One of my favorites is in the clip below, "We Beg Your Pardon," about the pardon of Richard Nixon. Nixon was famous for suffering from the medical condition phlebitus. Gil said, "Rats bite us, no pardon in the ghetto." 

So I started reading at the point when he was a teen, and learned some things, most notably how focused and socially and artistically ambitious he was from an early age. He dropped out after his first year at Lincoln College (Langston Hughes's alma mater) to write his first novel, The Vulture, which he actually got published. On returning to school he led a school-wide protest that led to the establishment of improved medical services on campus. Writing was his deepest love, and he did a masters at the John Hopkins writing program. And he became successful for his musical collaborations with Brian Jackson.

His music career peaked when he was the opening act for Stevie Wonder, when Wonder toured in support of the Martin Luther King holiday. Scott-Heron admired Wonder beyond measure for what he achieved in this regard. He was no cynic, despite the satire of his polemics. That's why I couldn't understand how he ended up a crack addict, vanished from the scene, and dead at age 62. This sent me scurrying to the shocking New Yorker profile from 2010, where Gil just goes ahead and smokes in front of author Alec Wilkinson. Maybe there's no other reason than that the drug got its claws into him and he couldn't get free. This reminded me, sadly, of the Philip Seymour Hoffman tragedy. Too soon gone, again.

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