I was talking to my writing friend the other night, the frighteningly talented Jeremy Zimmerman, when he mentioned my ability writing in an urban motif. Urban, which anyone paying attention in the past decade, is code-word for “black,” is an element in a few of my short stories for the past year or two. He was referring specifically to the very-well received “Deacon Carter’s Last Dime” and to “The War at Home” which will be in the upcoming Cobalt City Timeslip anthology, both of which prominently feature characters of color. I don’t tend to make a big deal out of race. Everyone has their family lineage. We all come from somewhere, right? (For the record, my “somewhere” is largely Irish by heritage with a bunch of other UK countries tossed in, and an upbringing in the American south-west.) Thus far my biggest character is a Mexican detective/vigilante with a panda sidekick, so let’s just say I like to mix it up.
So when Jeremy commented about much he liked those particular stories and how I tackled the tone, it was a kind of odd moment. My immediate reaction was, “Well, I’ve been listening to a lot of Gil Scott-Heron.”
Which brings us to our musical segue for the day.
I discovered Gil Scott-Heron pretty late in the game, all things considered. I really can’t be held responsible for that, in a lot of ways. They didn’t play his music in my small Colorado town when I was growing up, and he was a bit later stylistically for my dad to have been listening to (his jazz roots being a at least a decade earlier). So it wasn’t until moving to Seattle and getting a bit of culture and music history under my belt that I stumbled upon his classic “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” For many people, if they know Gil’s work at all, they know this song. But his catalog is vast, his sound varied. Thanks to Pandora, I was able to sample a wide range of his music, quickly purchasing a few hours worth of tracks that I found indispensable in my musical education.
It wasn’t an overnight immersion. I’ve been listening to him and a range of contemporaries for 4 years now. While I would never claim to fully understand the world he sings about, I understand enough that it’s there, that it’s real, and it’s a rich soil for creative inspiration. And opening my world up to glimpses of other lives both very different and painfully similar to my own makes my world a bigger place. And that richer experience is indispensable to my writing.
How indispensable? Remember “Deacon Carter’s Last Dime?” That story was inspired by the songs “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues,” and “Whitey on the Moon,” by Gil Scott-Heron, filtered through the lens of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi. Without one, there would not have been the other.
Most importantly, Gil challenged me to see more, experience more, and to live life without boxes and borders. Check out one of my favorite Gil Scott-Heron tunes, “Is That Jazz” which is likewise about defying labels. Best off, there is a stunning 3.5 minute instrumental intro that really rips.