Gil Scott-Heron is one of my favourite artists. I was introduced to him by late Jasmine Minks roadie, Mark (Scars), and I always think of him when I play Gil Scott-Heron records. Mark Allan was one of my closest pals – we were pals when we were at primary school and I’d go round to his house and play out on the street with him, his sister and brother and other kids or we’d go over to the field with Tom (Minks drummer) and play football until we were exhausted. He moved to England for his secondary school years but returned to Aberdeen when he was 15 years-old, staying with Tom and his family until he got his own place. The Allan family were big supporters of The Jasmine Minks and, by the late 80’s there would be Mark, his sister Dawn and his mum, Eileen, at lots of our gigs. It was definitely a family affair. Eileen would tell me off if I swore between songs and compliment me on my mouth organ playing, “I never knew you could play that”.
Mark and I moved down to London in 1981 but he didn’t stay for long and headed back to Aberdeen where he worked in a record shop and became a well-known character in Aberdeen. Mark didn’t hold back from expressing his views on music he didn’t like, so there was hell’s bells if you asked for a record he didn’t like – he’d point you towards something he thought more worthwhile and he had been known to kick people out of the shop if they asked for certain records. One-Up was one of the record shops that gave weekly sales for the Indie charts and he would insist that Jasmine Minks record sales were much more than they actually were, allowing us to stay in the charts for longer – hardly the 50’s US chart fixing scandal but we certainly found it amusing. By the mid-80’s Mark was back down in London where he stayed with me and my girlfriend at our flat just behind Crystal Palace’s football ground, Selhurst Park, so you can guess what we did on Saturday afternoons. Between watching football matches and playing in a Sunday morning football league team (eventually managed by another Minks roadie and organiser, Pat Burke) we would spend hours listening to records and discussing the merits of them. Mark said I should check out Gil Scott-Heron. I knew of his song The Bottle as it was a staple for soul and funk all-dayers and some guys I worked with had lent me lots of records from that scene (Ohio Players, Marvin Gaye, Slave, Cameo etc.)
Around that time we went to a festival at Clapham Common (coincidentally where we played our home Sunday morning football games) and saw Scott-Heron live – he looked so cool in a white kaftan and the music was beautifully played with his band grooving along nicely. Scott-Heron was a towering presence and he got the crowd on his side with current political references and his cool, jazzy baritone voice. I bought Scott-Heron’s latest album, Moving Target, and never looked back. Mark and I would listen to all the albums I bought in the next few months. I picked up nearly all of his LPs from a wee second-hand record shop, opposite The Ship pub in South Norwood High Street (where we would hang out and Ed de Vlam and I would play live for £50 a night). The earlier records were abrasive and full of attitude (Whitey On The Moon, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised). But those and his later 70’s and 80’s records blended this with love songs about family and reflections on addictions (Angel Dust – one of the most amazing live performances I’ve had the good fortune to witness in my life), tributes to great Black musical artists (Is That Jazz, Storm Music) and strong anti-nuclear power stories (Shut ‘Em Down, We Almost Detroit).
Gil Scott-Heron was an fantastic poet, novelist and social commentator. His lyrics are of the highest quality and draw me in every time, whether it be political poetry…
“Watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor
But just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams
Never had a chance to grow
And now it’s winter in America”
or human stories…
“Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams
Home was once an empty vacuum that’s filled now with my silent screams
Home is where the needle marks try to heal my broken heart”
As Scots we grab onto anything that joins us with other cultures around the world and Mark was no exception to this rule. Whenever talk about Scottish football or Black culture and its relation to Scotland would come up in conversation, he would open up his wallet and proudly show everyone a newspaper clipping about the first black player to play for Glasgow Celtic, Gil Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, who joined the club in 1951. As Scott-Heron put it,
“My father still keeps up with what Celtic are doing. You Scottish folk always mention that my dad played for Celtic. It’s a blessing from the spirits… two things that Scottish folks love the most – music and football – and they got one representative from each of those from my family.”
I’d like to say that The Jasmine Minks tried to emulate Gil Scott-Heron musically, but his musicians were light years ahead of us. But we did slow down our frenetic style, always mixing healthy doses of left-leaning politics in our songs, while trying to make lyrics somehow universal – and bringing a modicum of something that Gil Scott-Heron had an abundance of to our songs – HUMANITY.
I offer his most popular song, a subject exposing a major problem to the Scots as well as young black Americans, alcohol…