Good-bye, Gil—Reflections on a Lost Genius

Good-bye, Gil—Reflections on a Lost Genius

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It was no secret to anyone who came across him in song or in life that Gil Scott-Heron was two things: a genius and a junkie. I say this simply and clearly because that's the way Gil was in everything he ever said to me.

In the anthemic and eternally poignant song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," the genius Gil was able to make us think about the world in a different way, laugh hysterically about the ironies of American culture, be angry at the hypocrisy of our political system--all to a beat that kept us on the dance floor, and with a voice and flow that kept you waiting with anticipation for the next phrase.

I had always considered Gil to be the godfather of modern rap and when I asked him if he considered himself the inventor of it, he responded with humility and truth: "I don't know if I was THE inventor of rap, but I was definitely there while it was being invented." In "Johannesburg," Gil kept us dancing to the revolution, while opening our eyes to the evils of South Africa's apartheid. In the a capella "Whitey on the Moon," Gil kept us laughing with nearly tongue-in-cheek lines like "I can't pay no doctor bill, but Whitey's on the moon/Ten year's from now I'll be paying still/but Whitey's on the moon." Even in his rage Gil delivered his lines through a smile, chuckle and baritone that made everyone feel connected to him.

To anyone who met Gil or saw him onstage, it was clear that he was an addict. The first time I met him in San Francisco in 1991, while working as a doorman at the Kennel Klub, my heart was broken to see a hero of mine barely able to make it to the stage; but when he got there he was clear as crystal while singing and dropping knowledge bombs in his between-song banter. His view of the world was so sad and yet so inspiring. He made me think about the man and musician I wanted to be and I always left his shows questioning my own beliefs and wanting to go out and change the world.

One night after a show in Emeryville, outside San Francisco, when Gil was particularly high, I asked him what it meant to be a rapper and he said, "Rap is poetry put to music, and the role of the poet in our society is to make difficult things easy to understand." I never forgot that phrase. He put his arm around me and said, "It's on you and your generation now."

The next morning, I got a call from his girlfriend. She said Gil had missed his flight and she asked if I would go to the hotel to check on him. I arrived at the hotel and tried to call the room, but there was no answer. I asked the hotel manager to take me to his room, but when I knocked on the door there was still no answer. I begged the manager to let me in the room because there could be a medical emergency. When he opened the door, I found Gil passed out on the bed in a mess of cash, drugs and candy wrappers.

I thought he was dead and was surprised when I shook him and he woke up. I told him he needed to get on his flight or he was going to miss the next show in Toronto, where the rest of the band had already arrived. I took him to I-HOP, got him fed and coffee'd up while he tried to pull himself together. I joked with him that my nickname for him was "Pills-Pot-Heroin." He laughed hard and said, "That's a good one Mike!" He kept thanking me, in between calls to his dealer, for coming to find him, all the while mumbling that he was so sad that I had to see him this way. I told him he should spend one more night in the hotel, but he insisted on going to the airport. He had lost his ticket by the time he got there and dropped $3,000 in cash for a first class flight to Toronto.

The next day I got a call from his girlfriend. He never made it to his connecting flight in Chicago; he went missing for three months. This was, unfortunately, the pattern with Gil. In his charm he left a wake of broken-hearted people to whom he was close.

Over the years, people have compared my musical style to Gil's. Early in my career, one of the worst reviews I ever received on a record said, "Franti can't rap as well as (Public Enemy's) Chuck D and can't sing as well as Gil Scott Heron!" It was meant to be a slight, but I was so thrilled to be named in a sentence with Chuck and especially Gil, that I read it as a compliment!

My two favorite songs of Gil's were his saddest and most personal—1971's "Pieces of a Man" and "Home is Where the Hatred Is." In the latter, he describes "home" as that place in his heart where it is so painful to live that he would prefer to never go there.

A junkie walking through the twilight
I'm on my way home
I left three days ago, but no one seems to know I'm gone…
…home is where the needle marks
try to heal my broken heart
and it might not be such a bad idea if I never, if I never went home again
home again

Gil Scott-Heron has finally gone "home," and I hope he has finally found a peaceful place in his heart. He brought so much excitement, empowerment, humor, politics, dance and wisdom to my life as a musician and a man. He was a great example of how to strive to be one's best and how to avoid being your worst. He was my "Beatles," my "Nelson Mandela," my "Richard Pryor," my "William Shakespeare." He lived way longer than I expected him to and far shorter than I ever hoped he would. I was deeply touched by every moment we had together. I am very sad today, and a better person for having loved him and his music the way that I always will.

Thank you and goodbye, Gil.

Michael Franti is an American poet, musician, and composer. He is the creator and lead vocalist of Michael Franti & Spearhead, a band that blends hip hop with a variety of other styles including funk, reggae, jazz, folk, and rock.