Gil Scott-Heron was already a published author with a master’s degree in creative writing when he started making records. He had a keen sense of history, both musical and generalized, which he alluded to in his music. “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” for instance, was a pick-me-up from feeling down. “Pieces of a Man,” with the beautiful bass work of Ron Carter, has always been another favorite.
Gil also wrote songs about bad habits and addiction, warning people of the dangers of getting high and checking out. “The Bottle” was one, as was “Angel Dust.” When I recently heard his 1972 song “Speed Kills” on the French internet radio station FIP, I initially thought it was about methamphetamine given the title. Plus, coincidentally, there had been a big anti-drug radio campaign around the same time in the early 70’s that was also called “Speed Kills,” which was sponsored by the “Do It Now” foundation. The anti-drug campaign featured artists such as Jim Morrison, Alice Cooper, and Grace Slick. Frank Zappa also recorded the terrifying warning that speed “will make you just like your mother and father.” So I thought Scott Heron’s song might be about meth, but I realized as I listened that it wasn’t, except perhaps as a metaphor. As Scott-Heron wrote it, the song was just about slowing down and taking time to smell the roses and enjoy life.
I interviewed Gil on December 9, 1980, in our old studio in the middle school. I remember the date because we talked about John Lennon, who had been murdered the night before. Gil was touring as the opening act for Stevie Wonder, and had just come down from San Francisco to perform at the Forum. He was shocked and subdued.
Given his songs, it’s ironic and sad that Gil Scott-Heron’s career was later derailed by crack addiction. He just kind of disappeared from 1982-1994, only to return with a few new albums that reflected a shadow of his former self. To me, it proves that anybody could get hooked on crack. Gil was such a strong voice for young African-Americans and had a positive message for everybody. All that was stopped by addiction.
Miles Davis once said that quitting smoking was worse than quitting heroin; crack cocaine, however, doesn’t take any prisoners. When incarcerated (for drug possession), Scott-Heron actually enjoyed being in prison because he could stay away from his demons and get off dope. But once he was out, the first thing he did was to score. For anyone interested, there was a long and revealing article in the New Yorker about Scott-Heron in a 2010 piece by Alec Wilkinson. I also recorded a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron when he passed away in 2011.
Here is his song “Speed Kills.” The lyrics might seem to be saying not to live your life too fast or drive recklessly, but I still suspect there is a darker meaning lurking underneath.