A Scottish Story of Spirit and Grace
Sunday Times, December 7th 2008
Gil Heron’s death at the age of 86 marks the demise of not just a trailblazer who was the first prominent black player in Scottish game. It represents the passing of someone who not only gave the world his footballing skills, but the gift of his son, Gil Scott Heron, musician, author and campaigner, who was one of the forefather’s of modern hip hop and rap.
Scott Heron wrote music that was socially engaged, politically conscious and emotionally literate, miles away from the Bling and gun culture of present day rap. He wrote about division in America, black history, and the responsibilities of black men, and in so doing gave the world some of its most memorable music of the last few decades, from ‘B Movie’ about Ronald Reagan, to ‘Winter in America’ on Nixon, and the hugely sampled, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.
Gil Scott Heron had always been a hero of mine from the moment I saw him play Dundee Jazz Festival in the mid-80s. By this point, in retrospect, Gil was past his musical peak, but his charisma, smile and way with words (and music) stood out. I was transfixed by these wonderful songs from a far-off land, many of which somehow spoke to me in the decade of Thatcher and Reagan.
It was a bit of a surprise to find out a few years later that there was a genuine Scottish connection, which meant that we could claim Gil Scott Heron and the whole genre of socially engaged hip hop and rap as ‘Scottish’.
Gil’s father, Gil Heron had played for Celtic in the 1951-52 season. Known as ‘the Black Arrow’ for his style and speed, he scored in his debut for the Hoops against Greenock Morton. However, despite having previously been a boxer, Heron found it impossible to adapt to the physical and intimidatory manner of the Scottish game.
While living in Glasgow, he cut a sharp image not just as a young black man, but in the clothes and attire he wore, dressing in zoot suits, trilby hats and yellow shoes, and by all accounts being a bit of a ‘dandy boy’. He took great pleasure, reflected his son Gil earlier this year, at making people stop in their tracks and standing out in a city filled with industrial grey.
Heron went on to play for spells at Third Lanark and Kidderminster Harriers, the former no longer with us, the latter, which still has many fond memories of him and a prominent picture in the official history of the club.
Earlier this year I went out to the States to meet Gil Scott Heron in his home in Harlem, New York City. I had by this point spoken to him a couple of times on the phone and was a bit nervous on the Monday evening in April as I ascended the stairs to his flat. ‘Never meet your heroes’, a friend advised me before I made the trip. ‘Some of my best friends are my heroes’, I replied, but I knew what he meant.
The years since I had first seen Gil had not exactly been kind to him. He had been plagued by drug abuse, and had to endure two stays in New York State Penitentiary. He had been dropped by his record label, Arista in the mid-80s, and had not recorded in over a decade.
Knocking on the door of Gil’s flat, just off Broadway, I had all sorts of feelings. The man behind this door had literally changed thousands upon thousands of lives. What stories lay behind the bashed, run down door? When he opened it I knew everything was going to be alright. There he stood. The tall, slim man I remembered from years ago. The same hat, hair and beard, a little greyer. The same frame, a little thinner. And the same infectious, glorious smile.
He led me down a narrow, long hall, and after we passed one door, he indicated we turn second right into his bedroom. This was his main place of work. A disorganised, dishevelled room, but a place where Gil sought out some peace and sanctuary.
I wondered where to sit, and Gil motioned that the bed was fine, so as I perched on the side of his bed, taking in the state of the room, he went off to get some drinks, and the house cat, ‘Paris’, came in and checked me out.
I am meeting Gil to give him the recording of Michael Marra’s ‘The Flight of the Heron’, a tribute to his father’s days at Celtic, to be released later next year, along with a handwritten note from Michael about writing the song.
I sense that this is a special moment of anticipation. Gil puts the track on his home entertainment system and opens Michael’s letter. When the opening words begin, ‘When Duke was in the Lebanon’ in Michael’s evocative, soulful Scots voice, I realise that I am at the scene of something profound, and that I am part of it.
As the song reaches its second verse, ‘From Jamaica to the Kingston Bridge’, I know that Michael’s music has touched Gil’s heart. There is as the song closes a moment of silence, and both of us are close to tears.
After a second or two Gil begins typing a short note of thanks to Michael for me to deliver. He then comments that he is so moved by the song that he would like to record a version of it on his own album he is working on.
Across an hour and a half of talk ranging from Gil’s comments where he was misunderstood to be a Rangers fan because he was wearing a Celtic and Rangers scarf (he has always supported Celtic), his decision not to play the Clinton inauguration (he was touring Japan), the neglect of his music in the 1980s by radio, and his hope for Obama to at that point win the Democratic nomination and Presidency, Gil comes across as someone of intelligence, wit and sense of grace.
He had been separated from his father from an early age, but knew well that the Celtic connection of his father playing football at Parkhead mattered. ‘My dad always looks for the Celtic results’, he said, before acknowledging the unique quality in the Scots that puts such a pride in ‘music and football’. He feels a powerful bond with Scotland to this day, seen in Canongate’s publishing of his novels, ‘The Vulture’ and ‘The Nigger Factory’ and he being godparent to Jamie Byng’s children. I had in a small way added another chapter to the Scots story.
Gil walked me to the subway to bid me on my way, and told me he was looking forward to May 23rd, because at that point he would be one year out of prison and his parole conditions would ease.
At this point I heard myself say something along the lines of ‘I wish you the best’ and then, as a self-confessed agnostic, I found myself saying and knowing that I meant it from the heart, that ‘T will say a prayer for you’. ‘Thank you’ he said quietly as we parted.
Gil has that affect on people. A man who has given so many people hope, voice and pride. A man of quiet dignity and spirits. Travelling on the subway, I reflected on the ways Gil and Michael, two unique creative forces brought together by the power of music and football, were with all their differences, very similar. Both were wiry, thin, physically fragile, self-depreciating men, touching some of the big issues of what it is to be human. Both are in their way Scottish spirits.