Category: Obituaries

In Praise of Gil Scott Heron

Gil Scott Heron, 1971

Gil Scott Heron, 1971

Gil Scott Heron died on May 27, 2011 at the age of 62. Some obituaries have referred to him as “The Founding Father of Rap”, but as the BBC put it in their coverage of Heron’s passing, “He was quick to reject some of the more grandiose epithets such as the ‘Godfather of rap.’” I think it proper to refer to Heron as a griot. In the traditions of West Africa, a griot is an itinerant musician and storyteller who keeps alive a people’s history through song and poetry. That was certainly Heron’s role in life, and his works had an enormous influence on my generation.

In explaining his artistry, he once said; “For the longest kind of a time, I have felt that people who said that they did not care anything about politics or were not interested in it were making a political statement in and of itself. The new poetry that evolved in our society, concerned the fact that folks wanted to use both words that people could understand, and well as talk about ideas that people could understand.” I shared Heron’s belief that art, in no small sense, sprang from an awareness of the world, and his music was the iconic soundtrack for my life as a politically engaged artist throughout the 1970’s and beyond.

I first heard Gil Scott Heron in 1970, when he released his debut album, A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a searing piece of vinyl that castigated American consumerism, racism, and pseudo revolutionaries. The album contained Whitey on the moon, a poem set to music that brought attention to the contradictions of spending vast amounts of money on the space race while social and racial inequality festered in America’s urban slums. But the album’s real gem was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a raging spoken word piece set to conga drums that damned America’s commercial media and advertising empires and the somnolent effect they have over a confused population…

“The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised became anthemic in a way, its truth immediately grasped by all those who imagined a different type of society, this is still true today. The song’s title has entered the English lexicon, defining the chasm between real social events and the fallacious spectacles broadcast by capitalist mass communications. As Heron himself put it in an 1990s era interview;

“The first change that takes place is in your mind, you have to change your mind before you can change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film, it will be something that you see and all of a sudden you realize - ‘I’m on the wrong page’, or ‘I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note, and I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.’”

After his 1970 debut album I enthusiastically followed Heron’s artist output, which matured dramatically. But it was his 1975 album, First Minute of a New Day, that really got my attention. The jazz and blues oriented masterwork was a collaboration with longtime musical associate Brian Jackson. It heralded the African Liberation struggle then blazing in our collective consciousness with an infusion of African rhythms and instruments held in a jazz and blues structure. The record included the song Winter In America.

Winter In America was a devastatingly melancholy ode to the true condition of the United States. The song addressed the entropy many were sensing at the time; Nixon’s Watergate debacle was in the news but there was no resolution, America’s war on Vietnam was being lost and would totally collapse in ‘75; the powerful Black Liberation, student, and antiwar movements were dwindling. “And I see the robins perched in barren treetops, 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.” Oddly enough, Heron’s elegy seems all too relevant to our current situation.

First Minute of a New Day also contained the evocative Guerilla, and We Beg Your Pardon America, a scathing indictment that lambasted the pardoning of Nixon by Gerald R. Ford - the only U.S. president recognized by official circles not to have been elected. For many of us, the righteousness expressed in Heron’s spoken word piece would be the only semblance of justice to come out of the Watergate fiasco. The album also contained the song, Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman, a still relevant warning to those who believe that a political superhero will come to our rescue.

If First Minute of a New Day put us in touch with the African Liberation Movement, then the 1976 From South Africa To South Carolina spurred us all into action. The album contained Johannesburg, a call to actively support the freedom fighters then battling the vile racist South African apartheid regime. “Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’, but I’m glad to see resistance growin’.” Listening to that song for the first time I knew I would become actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement; some years later when distributing my Free South Africa poster at demonstrations against apartheid rule, protestors chanted a refrain from Heron’s song; “What’s the word - Johannesburg!” (a video of Heron’s live performance of Johannesburg can be viewed on the BBC’s website).

There are many other brilliant musical diatribes from Heron that are etched upon my mind, his caustic Jose Campos Torres (1979), the anti-nuclear Shut Em Down (1980), the anti-Reagan Re-Ron (1983). Heron’s discography is much too extensive to list here, and I have not even mentioned his most recent recordings; those unfamiliar with his output are urged to take a closer look. His best works will no doubt become eternal, and it is difficult to imagine that there will ever be another Gil Scott Heron - yet times demand that other singer/songwriters step forward to play the role of griot.

The Death of Franklin Rosemont

ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion - Cover art for the 1989 edition. Franklin Rosemont was editor of the journal, which hailed from Chicago, Illinois.

ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion - Cover art for the 1989 edition. Franklin Rosemont was editor of the journal, which hailed from Chicago, Illinois.

Though he passed away last April, I feel compelled to note the death of the American surrealist artist, historian, author, poet, and activist, Franklin Rosemont (Oct. 2, 1943 – April 12, 2009). The few press accounts taking note of his passing wax lyrical about a colorful figure whose journey through the late 20th century put him in intimate contact with the counterculture of the U.S., from the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to the Beat poets and beyond. But Rosemont will surely be remembered for his role in familiarizing Americans with the actual founder of surrealism – the French poet André Breton.

 On my bookshelf there are two works by Rosemont. The first being, What Is Surrealism?: Selected Writings What is Surrealism: Selected Writings of André Breton, a compilation of essays and theoretical writings from Breton that were brought together and first published by Rosemont in 1978. Already well versed in the tenets of the surrealist school, I acquired Rosemont’s tome the year of its publication, and reading it cover to cover was nothing less than revelatory. What is Surrealism is the antidote for all those suffering under the illusion that Salvador Dalí best exemplified the surrealist movement. No greater tribute to Rosemont can be offered than to quote from the foreword he wrote for What is Surrealism;

“I hope no one seriously expects surrealism to have any positive meaning except to those who are aware that the existing order cries out to be negated and transformed. That there is no solution to the decisive problems of human existence outside proletarian revolution is, for surrealism, a first principle that is beyond argument. Nothing would be more difficult than reconciling surrealism to bourgeois culture.

I know that everything continues normally today, as yesterday, as if life were an IOU punctuated now and then with a yawn, a shrug of the shoulders or a punch in the nose. Immobilized beneath a seemingly inflexible net of counterfeit hopes and fears - hopeless and fearless at the same time before a destiny that could hardly be more ruinous to the free development of the human personality - men and women go on fabricating illusory foresights and pitiful afterthoughts as if nothing more important were at stake than the price of cigarettes.

But in this grim charade, fortunately, nothing is foolproof. A split second is sufficient to say no, to let the lions escape, to open the wounds of reality, to stop the assembly line, to set out for the unknown. Accidents do happen. With surrealism the phoenix of anticipation emerges unfailingly from the ashes of everyday distraction, rising defiantly on wings of vitriol and amber, putting to shame the musty compromises that provide the glue with which the existing agony adheres to so many passing thoughts. Dispelling the mirage of futility, traversing the mirror of fatality, surrealism is resolved to stop at nothing.”

The other book by Franklin Rosemont that has a place in my library is an edition of ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion, a compendium of surrealist poetry, art, diatribes, and histories published by Black Swan Press and edited by Rosemont. Whenever I crack open the large paperback brimming with bizarre dream-like graphics, nonsensical prose, and frenzied invective against “reality” - I am always heartened. I acquired this specific edition of the long running periodical when it was published in 1989, eighteen years after the first copy of ARSENAL made its appearance in print. While the journal is filled with ecstatic giddiness and lunacy, it is far from being frivolous, in fact it possesses the steely earnestness and intensity one expects from a revolutionary tract. Again, Rosemont’s own words best serve as his eulogy - these taken from “Now’s The Time”, the opening editorial he penned for the ‘89 volume of ARSENAL;

“Most assuredly, if surrealism continues to develop it will be because surrealists continue to develop it. And even if every one of those who call themselves surrealists today threw in the towel, the fight would hardly be over. Surrealism’s questions, in any case, remain defiantly and even horribly open - the festering wounds all over the bloated body of christian-capitalist hypocrisy - and quite unphased by the would-be curative incantations of those whose job it is to reassure society’s self-appointed managers that surrealism, like working class emancipation, is safely obsolete.

Even were we to join the inane conformists’ chorus that sings surrealism’s death, it would make little difference, for those who resolve to pursue these questions must sooner of later discover for themselves that inevitably it lives again, albeit perhaps in forms not immediately apprehensible to the pontifically glib horn-tooters of total counter-revolution.

(….) Surrealism continues to advance today, and to make a difference, because it refuses to compromise with unfreedom, because it holds true to its own irreducibly wild and untamable means, outside all repressive frameworks. Anti-statist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-religious, anti-anthropocentric, anti-academic, allergic to Western civilization and its values and institutions, surrealism passes with flying colors what John Muir, one of the greatest of American presurrealists, called the test of the wilderness. ‘And how do we reach this truly free society?’ Start by dreaming. Those who don’t know how to cross their bridges before they come to them will never get anywhere.”

Frank Cieciorka: RIP

On November 24, 2008, artist Frank Cieciorka (che-CHOR-ka) died from emphysema at the age of 69. Starting in the 1980s he began to be recognized for his watercolor paintings of northern California landscapes, but it would be one of his early graphic art designs that assured him a place in history.

The iconic clenched fist has long been a symbol of the international left, its usage going back at least until 1917. But the symbol was transformed and revitalized in 1965 by Cieciorka, whose rendition of the pictogram struck a cord with a new generation of activists involved in the civil rights and antiwar struggles.

Photo of Frank Cieciorka

[ Cieciorka as a young Freedom Summer volunteer in Mississippi, 1964. Photo, estate of Frank Cieciorka ©. Source - Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website. ]

A New Yorker, Cieciorka came to California in 1957 to attend the arts program at San Jose State College. Upon graduation in 1964 he became a volunteer in Freedom Summer, the major civil rights campaign launched in ‘64 to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. That same year the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped, tortured, and murdered three Freedom Summer volunteers - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. From 1964-65 Cieciorka also served as a field secretary in Mississippi and Arkansas for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - pronounced “snick”), one of the primary civil rights organizations of the day.

Frank Cieciorka's iconic clenched fist graphic

[ Hand - Frank Cieciorka. Woodcut. 1965. "One of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s".]

Cieciorka returned to the San Francisco Bay area in 1965, and created a woodcut print inspired by his experiences as a civil rights activist in the deep South. His image, simply titled Hand, made its way onto posters and flyers, but according to the artist, “It wasn’t until we made it into a button and tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies and demonstrations that it really became popular”. I wore one of Cieciorka’s buttons as a sixteen-year-old, and I still regard his woodcut print as one of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s.

For more on the life and times of Frank Cieciorka, visit Lincoln Cushing’s Docs Populi.

RIP: Ray Lowry - Clash “War Artist”

Artist Ray Lowry passed away this past October 14, 2008, at the age of 64. While touring America with The Clash in 1979, Lowry was nicknamed the “War Artist” by the band’s front man, Joe Strummer. The Clash had invited Lowry to tour with them as an official artist when the group made its first incursion into the land of Coca-Cola, and the resulting sketches made by the punk war correspondent were striking.

Artwork by Ray Lowry

[ The Clash - Ray Lowry. An artwork from Lowry’s sketchbook, made while the artist toured America with The Clash in 1979. Signed Limited Edition prints of artworks from Lowry’s Clash sketchbook, are available from the See Gallery. ]

I was at the February 9th, 1979 premiere concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium when The Clash assaulted Los Angeles during their “Give ‘Em Enough Rope Tour”. Hollywood’s original punk venue and den of iniquity, The Masque, closed for that evening; left hanging on its dilapidated front door was a hand-scrawled sign that informed the club’s nonconformist regulars that everyone had gone to see “the only band that matters”. It seemed that every punk within 500 miles attended that landmark concert, which also featured special guest stars Bo Diddley and The Dils (still one of my favorite original 1977 punk bands from San Francisco).

Thinking back to that wonderfully cacophonous show, I cannot help but think of Ray Lowry. He was roaming the concert hall, all the while furiously drawing away in his sketchbook, trying to capture the rage and excitement of it all. Upon returning home to the UK after the tour, he would design the album jacket for London Calling, the Clash’s third album. It would become one of his better known images, a brash tribute to Elvis Presley’s first album, linking punk to early rock and roll. Later in life Lowry would publish, “The Clash: Up-Close and Personal” a book of sketches made while touring in America with the band in 1979.

London Calling Elvis Presley

[ LEFT: London Calling - Album cover for The Clash, 1979. Designed by Ray Lowry; photograph by Pennie Smith. RIGHT: Elvis Presley - Album cover, 1956. Designed by Colonel Tom Parker; photograph by William S. Randolph. ]

But Lowry was much more than just an artist who worked with The Clash. He was an accomplished cartoonist, illustrator, and writer who contributed works to numerous English publications, including The Face, Punch, The Guardian, and New Musical Express (NME). In fact, I first become familiar with Lowry’s cartoons as they ran in NME during the early 1970s. Lowry was also a painter, and a retrospective of his urban landscapes opened in October, 2008, for a month long run at the See Gallery in Lancashire, England. Sadly, it has all come to a most untimely end - but I will never forget the works of “War Artist” Ray Lowry.