by Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff REeyes Design, Maplewood, N.J.)
Gil Scott Heron (1949-2011).
Visionary? Genius? Prophet? Grandparent of hip hop? Addict? Who was Gil Scott Heron?
I’ll tell you who Gil Scott Heron was.
In 1987 or 1988 I was thrilled to be in attendance for a concert appearance of Gil Scott Heron at Seattle’s Bumbershoot arts festival. You paid a set fee to enter the Seattle Center grounds and any and all entertainments were free, although concerts were on a first come, first serve basis. When I got to the venue for Gil Scott, the line was already snaking along the building for quite some distance (and I thought I was early!). It didn’t matter. I was there for Gil Scott! When the time came to open the venue, the line trudged along for several minutes while the attendants funneled the people into the building. At a certain point, the line stopped. I was maybe, a dozen odd paces from the entry. After a few minutes passed we, the remaining legion of devotees, began to realize they’d reached capacity! Oh no. As resignation began to seep into our collective consciousness, some of the folks in line began to wander off in search of some other show, but quite a good number of us remained (this put me now close to the front of the line), perhaps around 250-350 people. It didn’t indicate in the Bumbershoot schedule that Gil Scott was scheduled for any other shows that weekend, and certainly not that night. “Maybe they’ll do another show” we naively muttered amongst ourselves. Various attendants poked their heads out, somewhat wide-eyed at the amount of people remaining. Usually it’s around that time that a stage manager or spokesperson would emerge to tell us, “sorry, the show’s full, go on about your business.” Instead, it looked as if they were taking a head count—well, maybe we were hoping they were taking a head count.
We waited. The concert inside had started already. “Maybe they’ll do another show.” Late afternoon became early evening and we remained, stubbornly, foolishly, inexplicably, for a “just in case.” Surely, we’d heard urban legends of concerts adding a “second show” to handle attendance overruns. Surely, the promoters would feel uncomfortable they’d scheduled Gil Scott Heron in an undersized concert hall, underestimating his popularity. In any case, I was 25 or 26 years-old. I had nothing better to do. What was a couple hours sitting on the pavement, thumbing through a copy of The Rocket anyway? A couple of hours passed. An attendant or two had emerged from time to time, one volunteering they’d “see what they could do” but were adamant in not seeming too optimistic. The hours passed. The venue doors opened, and the lucky concertgoers who got in were leaving, many glancing at us with puzzled looks. “What are they in line for?”
Several minutes passed. Suddenly, Gil Scott Heron himself emerged from the building with someone who looked like he was vaguely in charge and took a look at the lot of us, suddenly aghast to see the man himself. Quite calmly, with an air of cool that was as reassuring as it was impressive, he said, “Give me a half hour to catch my breath. Y’all come on in.”
That’s who Gil Scott Heron was.
Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson LP sleeve cover
Arista Records, 1977
Design/Illustration: Stan Zagorski
Art Director: Steve Feldman & Myron Polenberg
“I been diggin’ life through my window,
that’s the way it’s always been.
Snow n Nashville, rain in Philly,
get back on the bus again.
Hello Sunday! Hello Road!
Let me try the optimistic side;
Me and Stick done seen a lotta babies
dancin’ to The Bottle while we ride.
But it’s sho’ ’nuff good bein’ with the brothers,
carry good news w
Let me get myself together, man,
Hello Sunday! Hello Road!”
My failing memory wants me to say he performed solo. I have a strong recollection of him chilling out on stage by himself at the piano, as we were taking our seats, just speaking with a couple of staff people every so often and thinking, did he just let the band split since it was HIS decision to perform again? I never spoke to anyone (that I knew) who’d attended the earlier show that evening to know whether it was set up that way from the get go, or if it’d been a full band gig. Though that part of my recollection is a little hazy, I can tell you we did NOT walk out of there disappointed. It was the coolest, tightest show. Full set list (we were in there as long as the prior audience).