Sunday, May 25, 2014

“Borne On The Wings Of Strain”: On A Song By Gil Scott-Heron And Brian Jackson (on the third anniversary of GSH's death)

“Shah Mot” is one of the most infectious recordings Gil Scott Heron did with Brian Jackson. It first captivates with its slow funk; a perfect mesh of the rhythm section with the keyboards and vocals that establishes a tone of “cool” the polar opposite of the “angry (anguished) young man” stylings that characterize his earlier recordings on his debut “new black poet” albums of a decade earlier  (Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and half of Free Will). “Shah Mot” is Miles Davis cool, pre-disco Lou Rawls cool, and especially Bill Withers cool (it sounds great next to “Use Me, and, like that song, “Shah Mot” should have been a hit). It’s not a “tear up the dancefloor” kind of song, but every instrument, including Gil Scott Heron’s low, resonant, voice, contributes to establishing this pocket; in fact, much of the groove (as in hip hop) comes from the vocals as from the non-vocal elements.

Often Brian Jackson and Gil Scott Heron would both play keyboards. Their twin keyboard attack rivals any of more celebrated guitar tandems (or guitar/keyboard tandems for that matter) in the “album oriented” era. While guitar tandems often adhere to a by now conventional division of labor between lead and rhythm guitars (with some notable exceptions: at one pole, the VU’s tilt toward rhythm guitars and, at the other pole, the Allman Brothers dual leads), when GSH and Brian Jackson work together, GSH plays R&B/gospel stylings and Brian Jackson plays jazz chords and leads. Together, the combination is greater than the sum of it parts and provides a layered, yet explosive sonic burst reminiscent of Sly Stone’s early collaborations with Billy Preston, but which, for whatever reasons, have not been tried much since---certainly not with the success GSH and Brian Jackson had. In “Shah Mot,” Brian’s keyboards dominate.

Even though this song, and the album on which it appears, 1980, highlight the electronic synthesizer wizardry of producer Malcolm Cecil, it still has enough of that acoustic driven-sound to be a breath of fresh air compared to the slick overproduced disco and increasingly antiseptic “soul,” that was dominating radio, even Black radio, during this time. Hearing his warm, intimate, melodic talking vocals speaking from within the pocket, you can understand why GSH was always happiest playing small clubs. I would probably love this song regardless of its words. Yet the words and their meanings are such an integral, organic part of this whole, the song absolutely needs to be heard to understand the greatness of GSH’s art as an embodiment of The Black Arts aesthetic.

The message of the song could be summarized easily. As Rap says: “Shah Mot” is a poem and song by Gil Scott-Heron that aims to portray the similarities in the struggles of the Iranians during the Iranian Revolution and of Black Americans against the White man.” This is a good place to start, yet this summary is no replacement for the innovative, abstract, strangeness of its tone of lyrical address. With no need of specialized vocabulary, GSH comes off like a professor at an all-black school (like Federal City College, where he taught at until 1975 before his contract with Arista took up too much of his time), addressing the new generation of college-educated black petty-bourgeois of the 1970s Though the message is as revolutionary as anything from Small Talk, “Shah Mot” is not merely a didactic, preachy topical song. Its lyrics challenge the English-speaking listeners (including himself as listener) to think about who we are, and what our relationship to the then recent overthrow of The Shah of Iran has to our life (and it speaks to today).

Rather than simply making that international connection (as he had done in earlier songs like “Third World Revolution” or “Johannesburg,” Gil takes a different lyrical approach from the beginning, one that has the power to hook with its verbal rhythms, internal rhymes and alliterations that make you wonder who, or what, is speaking, who is being spoken to, and what is being spoken about. It begins with a riddle:

My name is “What’s your name?”
I am the voice of same
Remembering things that I told me yesterday
My name is what’s your name
I am inside your frame
We saw the devils had to make them go away
My name is what’s your name
You may reject my claim
But I expect that you won’t vary from the norm
My name is what’s your name
Ours is a single aim
And we can double recognize the needed form[i]

If we are not already clued in to the things that he told himself (on his 11 previous albums), this may all seem very abstract. While the first five lines of this verse employ the “I” speaking to “you” convention, the “identity” of this speaker is “in question” as the post-structuralists would put it: this “identity” is created by words, and is not a singular biographical “person,” but a question of conscience. Nor is it some “I Am The Walrus” wordplay. Every word has weight: it’s no mere schizoid split of subjectivity in an interior monologue, but an absolute identification with our “single aim” and the collaborative, mutual double recognition that must occur to find a necessary form to embody this aim. This “identity” is grounded, and made whole, by the use of the collective plural pronouns: “we” and “ours” as if to transcend the divided language of the double-consciousness which DuBois wrote is the perennial affliction of Black folks in segregated America.

In the lyrics, there is really no “I” (as standard English understands it), but an aim in search of that needed mutually created form. The aim, of course, is liberation, right here in the land of the free... and the home of the slave. Yet the song itself could be seen as one needed form; starting (‘strictly musically’) with a symbiotic “double recognition” between Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron beyond the reductive distinction between “arrangement” (arranger) and “songwriting” (song-writer), much less ‘words by Gil; music by Brian.’ Hell, don’t forget Malcolm Cecil, or the band who may very well prefer to hide behind Gil and Brian’s name (unless it’s played on a jazz station back in those days when they when they were still contractually obligated to name every jazz, if not r&b, musician). This form reaches outside of itself drawing the listener into it, but letting her expand it in many possible ways (outside the island the corporations and schools call ‘art’).

The music of this verse is just as slinky/funky as the groove that does not merely “accompany” it. As the song transitions to the bridge, the rhythm of the vocal phrasing changes seamlessly, and the call to action steps to the foreground:

Put it in the streets, tell everybody you meet
Do whatever you do whenever you hear the war drums beat
Put it in the air, spread it everywhere
Do whatever you do whenever
You know you got to be there..[1]

This is as much a call for solidarity and revolution as the lyrics to any Gil Scott Heron piece, but it’s also fun, ‘mellowed with age,’ if not quite ‘weary.’ Hence, cool. Contrast this with the more in-your-face confrontational emotionalized way the same message is presented in 1970.  “You will not be able to stay at home, brother.” The same aim. Older—maybe wiser—or just using a different sonic idiom to remember things he told himself back then---reminding himself as well as anybody else who listens of the single aim for a needed form (which could be called revolution or it could be a strong “foundation for black capitalism,” as “Brother” called for a decade earlier—the two are not incompatible if the single aim is liberation of all oppressed people).

The phrase “hear the war drums beat” is acted out by the drums on the recording, but’s it not the urgent congas of the spoken-word rhythm & blues pieces. GSH and Brian’s age in 1980 averaged only 29/30, but they grew up fast (this was GSH’s 11th album in 10 years!).  The war drums repeat with “You know you got to be there.” The propulsion seamlessly seques into the chorus to help answer the question that might arise: where? Where do we have to be? 

Shah Mot: You only take it as a symbol
Shah Mot: Look closely who does it resemble

You "got to be" in Iran, even if you just stay home (where the hatred is). Just as the segregated cities of Detroit, Philly and Oakland are like Apartheid South Africa, so can they be like those throwing off the yoke of Colonialism and Imperialism like Iran. 

Yes, the Iranians were victorious in overthrowing, or checkmating, the Shah of Iran, that puppet who was installed by American and Anglo-Iranian Oil Companies (the original name of British Petroleum was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company), and at the time GSH wrote this song, the movement was made up of a coalition of religious fundamentalists no more than it was college-educated secular socialists (before the former turned against the latter). This “symbol” could provide a blueprint for a needed form.

This strange thought-provoking couplet, rhyming “symbol” and “resemble,” is also the song’s vocal climax, as his slow intimate enunciated talk-singing edges closer to the call and response of the black church (as the background voices chant the Farsi-flavored title, and he responds with his long-drawn out near-shout to highlight the “symbol/resemble” rhyme).  After the bridge and the chorus grounds the meaning of the song, the second verse becomes clearer:

My name is what your name
If you can recall the change
Then you can dig that we’ve been put into a trance
My name is what you do
I am inside of you
I’ve been here ever since the day you learned to stand.
My name is what’s your name
Born on the wings of strain
Ours is the justice that has long been overdue
My name is what to do
But you already knew
And now the clouds of when and how come into view

I take the “change” he’s asking his listener to “recall” as the post-Civil-Rights-era white supremacist reaction to civil rights the black community and America experienced during the decade in which GSH was making albums. The corporate propaganda machine had become more subtly adept at devising strategies to put people into a “trance,” if you can dig that![ii] You many notice, too, that he uses the word “stand” instead of “dance” (which would be the more obvious proper rhyme); not that the GSH makes an absolute distinction between the two activities, although ‘stand’ does have more practical revolutionary connotations (Marley and Tosh don’t sing, “Get Up, Dance Up”---at least in that song; Sly Sone commands us to "Dance" as well as to "Stand!"). “Born on the wings of strain,” is a beautiful singular line to express the perennial struggle of Africans in the land called America.

Many of the phrases here echo, support, or flesh out, lines in the first verse: “The single aim” is the demand for “the justice that’s long been overdue” and the identity of “self” and “other” is evident when he tells us “I ain’t telling you something you don’t already know” (as Malcolm X would put it). The clouds of when and how” is a striking image that takes repeated listening to digest. Clouds are a vague, transient, form, they become more clearly visible in the chorus’ demand to put it in the streets, like a boombox more than an ipod, or maybe a megaphone. At the very least call for a National holiday for Martin Luther King, like Stevie Wonder was doing at the time (see GSH’s The Last Holiday). Still, GSH knows that “clouds” can only do so much.

These “clouds” of ways and means can take many forms, and he’s asking the listener to help lead him to help flesh them out, to give direction to the movement: that’s why he leaves this “needed form” vague: “do whatever you do whenever you hear the war drums beat.” Singing may be what GSH does, but you may do whatever, as long as you’re not so deep in a trance that you can’t even hear these drums.

After another Bridge and Chorus, he repeats a shortened version of the first verse, as if to summarize:

My name is “What’s your name?”
I am the voice of sane
Remembering things that I told me yesterday
My name is what’s your name
I am inside your frame
We saw the devils had to make them go away

He conspicuously avoids the word “pain” in these rhymes, but it’s there beneath the surface. The subtle change from “Same” to “Sane” here reveals the song’s hard won balance between anger, funk and the cool rational rhetorical mode of persuasion ostensibly more acceptable in ‘integrated’ America. “Shah Mot” thus becomes an intimate anthem for what D.H. Lawrence might have called “A Sane Revolution.” Repeating “I am inside your frame” de-emphasizes the internal conundrums by emphasizing the unity of “inner harmony” with “collective unity.” And “devils” is more likely used the way Malcolm X used it than, say, Frank O’Hara did.

After this, the song moves to its conclusion by repeating the bridge and chorus and a funky keyboard-driven instrumental comp, before ending cleanly, and with effective brutal dramatic finality, on the words “Shah Mot!” (you can hear the exclamation point; checkmate---but now with a knowledge that chess is not the ultimately needed form!)

GSH’s art and culture work is much more than this single song, but I devote so much time to this one to make a case for the brilliance and continued relevance of GSH for any understanding of both African-American culture and American Culture (including Poetry) in the last third of the 20th century. Music and poetry can provide a needed form to help push against this trance and help uplift the community and fight white supremacy---can it? The self-doubt comes doesn’t come until later…

 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson had been working relentlessly for over a decade, and after this album (whose final song ends with the phrase, “been out on the road one day too long”) was released, they decided too take a much needed 6 month vacation. Yet, during this time, the music business “suits” had finally succeeded in breaking up this partnership. Pushing him to go out on the road again, appealing to his need for money for his new wife and daughter, GSH found himself on tour with Stevie Wonder. While certainly GSH was happy to share the stage with one of his musical heroes, who was engaging in an important work of activism (and his performance on With Ossie and Ruby on PBS with a new band is an aesthetic triumph), yet there is a telling, and very sad moment, in his memoir The Last Holiday, in which he writes: “I still wanted to believe I was a better lyricist, but there was mounting evidence to the contrary on an album of surgical sensitivity called Hotter Than July.”(275) I think Stevie Would be the first to disagree with this self-assessment.

This may have challenged GSH to write some of his best work in the next few years—the great socio-cultural analysis of America that is “B-Movie,” for instance. But, by 1984, when he released “Re-Ron,” another track about “how we gonna open the door for 1984,” his label Arista had been bought by the conglomerate RCA—another sign of the times in this de-regulated merger-happy corporatocracy. To the executives, GSH had become a “re-run” who had never written that “crossover hit” they’d been at him for ever since Clive Davis took him to an Elton John class (never blaming themselves for not pushing his music more, or for the way they helped destroy the context from which he came).

More than many, GSH’s work has been the victim of the “biographical fallacy,” but if Artaud could argue that Vincent Van Gogh was “suicided by society,” certainly GSH, who created an amazingly multi-faceted body of work against much harsher social conditions that were occurring in America in these times, should be looked at as a man who survived while many people who dared to boldly speak the truths he spoke had been killed, shut-up, or bought-off. R.I.P GSH, your spirit lives and fights on.

[1] The one word I’m not sure about—does he say “spread” or “spit.” What do you think?

[i] The lyrical form tweaks what some musicologists call a “blues form” with its 3 line stanzas (AAB) in which the second line repeats the first (Shresta, 1). In “Shah-Mot,” the second rhyme repeats the first, but you can see the “resolution” or new statement on the last line of each triad. The rhyming structure of the lyrics could be diagramed to practical effect: First verse AAB AAB AAC AAC
Bridge & Chorus DDEED/FFEEF GG Second Verse AAH IIH AAI IIII. Rhyme is a mimetic device for a musician. The structure is tight, and for the most part mathematically precise. While many of the end-rhymes are based on words that rhyme with “name” (like strain and sane), the variations that occur in the second verse when he switches the question to “My name is what you do” and the rhymes “you,” “do” “knew” “view” become dominant. The mere sounds of these phonemes serve to open the lyrical address up to the “new” rather than the same old name. As in blues, the personal woes are subsumed in the harsh realities of the world under white supremacy.

[ii] And if you can’t dig it, here’s a passage from his unfinished memoir, published shortly after his death in 2012:
What was special about the 60s was that there was only one thing happening, one movement. And that was the civil rights movement. There were different organizations coming from different angles because of geography, but in essence everybody had the same objective. It came so suddenly, from so many different angles, things happening in so many different towns and cities at once, that the "powers that be" were caught off-guard.

Until the 60s, "the movement" had been the exclusive property of middle-aged and old people. Then it became a young people thing, and as the 60s opened up, the key word became "activism", with Stokely Carmichael and the SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], "freedom rides" [challenging segregation on interstate buses], and sit-ins. There was a new feeling of power in black communities. And once it got started, it was on the powers like paint.

But at some point a difference was created between "equality", "freedom" and "civil rights". Those differences were played up because something had to be done about the sudden unity among black folks all over the country. Folks got more media attention whenever they accentuated the differences. There were media-created splinters. Otherwise the civil rights movement would have been enough, and would have been more successful. Accomplishing the aims of the movement would have made "gay rights" and "women's rights" and "lefts and rights" extraneous.

But divide and conquer was the aim of programmes such as cointelpro COINTELPRO [the FBI's covert attempt to infiltrate and disrupt groups deemed "subversive"]. And even though it ended up working damn near backward, it worked. They separated the fingers on the hand and gave each group a different demand; we lost our way.  (290-291)

No comments:

Post a Comment