Soundtrack for Writing – Gil Scott-Heron

Posted: September 10, 2010 in Anthologies, Music, Short Fiction

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.

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Comments
  1. “Frighteningly talented,” huh? I’m gonna remind you of that next time you give me crap about not liking outlines. “I don’t need an outline. I’m ‘frighteningly talented.'”

    It’s funny that you should describe “urban” as code for “black.” When I made the compliment I almost said something about “black urban culture” or something like that. But your stories are sometimes pointedly vague about ethnicity.

    If I remember correctly the physical appearance of the narrator in “Deacon Carter” is left intentionally vague.

    And with the excerpt from “The War at Home,” I didn’t catch any identification of what most of the characters looked like. I knew from talking to you in the past that the main character was black and so I assumed that his father was black as well. I had no clue about their neighbor across the street. You have a soulful sort of voice that made me think the neighbor was black, but I really didn’t recall any identifier.

    Really the only people that were identified in the scene with any sort of ethnicity were the thugs that had broken into the neighbor’s house. It was such a startling contrast to the rest of the story that it stood out.

    • It’s a sensitive subject for a lot of people. You hesitation for calling it “black urban culture,” is in some ways why I carefully avoid mentioning skin color in a lot of cases. For the most part, I’m not writing about race — I’m writing about culture. And while that culture has it’s roots in the black community, the culture has long outgrown that. Rap, hip-hop, and soul music are excellent examples of that — I’m looking at you Slim Shady and Justin Beiber.

      So while I identified the noble Deacon Carter as being African American, I very carefully didn’t do that for James Coffey, the main character, for two reasons. One, it didn’t matter what color he was, and by affixing a race on him, I could be accused of tying his more negative characteristics TO that race which was not my intention. The escapism and downward spiral of addiction and letting go of your dreams is NOT a race issue. It’s a people issue. And two, by leaving Coffey race-neutral, I made it easier for the reader to identify with him.

      With “The War at Home,” one of the key draws for the story was to defy some stereotypes. I wanted to show a Vietnam vet who wasn’t broken by the experience, but was definitely changed by it. And I wanted to work with the concept of avatars for the Cobalt City universe. The idea of making Thor, a God portrayed with Aryan features and sometimes attached to the whole white-power movement, into a black-power movement character was strongly appealing to me.

      I honestly don’t remember if I specifically mention the ethnicity of Cole or his father early on. But I know that Loki makes a big deal of it in the final showdown, so I don’t play too coy with it.

  2. I think perhaps a better description of what I noted was “urban poverty.” Which is often associated with African Americans, but is by no means exclusive to them.

    • You and I agree on this. When I think “Urban,” I think “urban poverty,” as well. However marketing gurus (media in general) have tended to use it as a synonym for “African American.” Maybe it’s because it’s faster to say, or maybe they’re just shrewd that way.

      Having seen urban poverty up close for the past decade (and not even the worst of it, I have to acknowledge), I know that it’s multi-ethnic. But the some of the best portraits that I’ve seen of this and it’s politicization, have been through soul music from the early 70’s. And that is not nearly as multi-ethnic.

      So that’s the long way around saying, “Yes, I agree with you.” 🙂

  3. Music Video: Gil Scott-Heron “New York Is Killing Me” by Chris Cunningham…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  4. […] posted about Gil Scott-Heron before. His music was essential in helping shape my world view and how I approached issues of race in my […]

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