I don’t think it’s addictive,” Gil Scott-Heron told the Village Voice last July after his court appearance for cocaine possession. “I think it’s only psychologically addictive. But I haven’t had enough money to get any. I think you have to have quite a lot of money to get psychologically addicted to those things.”
Even a man with the verbal agility of 52-year-old musician, poet, author and activist Scott-Heron couldn’t make that defence stick. Whatever the nature of his addiction, or the state of his personal finances, he had been wrestling with an on-off cocaine habit for many years when he was arrested on New York’s Amsterdam avenue in November last year in possession of 1.2g of powder cocaine and two crack pipes.
At his July court date, he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and accepted a plea deal of 18 to 24 months in rehab on his return from a European tour. After the tour, during which his gaunt, ragged appearance betrayed his troubles, he failed to appear in court. Four weeks later, he was arrested in New York and sentenced to one to three years in jail by state supreme court justice Carol Berkman. “You’ve had all these opportunities to help yourself, and you just don’t seem to care,” said an exasperated Berkman. Many of Scott-Heron’s friends and fans share that frustration.
In the long, messy history of musicians and their bad habits, most have either been killed or cured. Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison became rock’n’roll legends by dying before drugs had a chance to annihilate their talent and looks. Alternatively, rehab alumni such as Courtney Love, Eric Clapton and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler sought help in time and bounced back, aglow with health. Even Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, whose heroin habit ensured him a regular seat in the last chance saloon during the mid-1990s, knew an ultimatum when he saw it. Threatened with jail, he finally cleaned up in 1996.
Scott-Heron’s story, however, is not the stuff of rock mythology. It’s a messy tale of poverty, creative paralysis and the mundane horrors of thousands of drug addicts whose fates do not make headlines on MTV News. Most depressing is the fact that a man who spent 30 years dispensing advice to black America – about escaping the ghetto, taking control, dodging poverty’s pitfalls – ended up ignoring it.
Born in Chicago in 1949, Scott-Heron had a difficult, itinerant childhood. After his parents divorced he was sent to live with his grandmother in Lincoln, Tennessee. A civil rights campaigner, she introduced him to both music and literature. But the young Scott-Heron endured constant racial abuse as one of only three black children picked to integrate an elementary school in nearby Jackson. Returning to New York to live with his mother, he got a different perspective on oppression in the housing projects of the Bronx.
But he was too bright to settle for less. After publishing an acclaimed novel, The Vulture, at the age of 19, he won a place at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, the alma mater of his hero, black poet Langston Hughes. He dropped out after a year to pursue a career in poetry. In 1970 producer Bob Thiele convinced him to set his first collection, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, to music; the album’s conversational style and funky percussion earned Scott-Heron the tag of “the godfather of rap”. He once joked, with typical insouciance: “I ain’t saying I didn’t invent rapping. I just cannot recall the circumstances.”
Classic protest songs such as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Whitey On the Moon were fuelled by a keen, angry intelligence. His back catalogue also boasts several articulate dissections of an addict’s mindset, including The Bottle and Angel Dust. On 1971’s Home Is Where the Hatred Is, he sang, “You keep saying kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it, God but did you ever try to turn your sick soul inside out so that the world can watch you die?” It has never been clearly established when Scott-Heron became addicted to cocaine; looking back on his works about drugs, it seems the line between empathy and autobiography was blurred throughout his career. Even in recent years, he has used his ready wit to fudge the issue of his drug use.
Apart, perhaps, from glue, there has never been a drug more impervious to glamour than crack cocaine; there is no “crackhead chic”. For the typical rock casualty, fame provides both the psychological pressures that create a drug habit and the funds to feed it. But crack whiffs of the ghetto, rather than the hotel suite. In jail for crack possession, Scott-Heron is not a victim of the high life. It is almost as if he never left the housing projects in the first place.
In a letter faxed to Justice Berkman this year, Scott-Heron’s ex-girlfriend, Monique de Latour, painted a grim picture. She wrote that he “spends around $2,000 a week on cocaine, he does not have a home, he’s been living in a crack house for a year,” and owed $20,000 for his mother’s funeral. She further alleged that she once came home to find her partner “buck naked with a bunch of $2 crack whores” and that he would remove all the lightbulbs in his apartment because he was convinced someone was spying on him. In 1999, she obtained a restraining order against him after he hurled a table at her.
Scott-Heron accepted the restraining order, but denied her other claims and refused to concede the need to enter rehab. “To rehabilitate for what?” he asked the Village Voice. “For some people to call the judge and say things I can’t defend myself against?
Regardless, the state of his career speaks volumes. From 1970 to 1982 he released a new studio album almost every year. Since then, he has managed just one, 1994’s Spirits. He paid the bills by voicing the classic Tango ad (“You know when you’ve been Tangoed”).
It’s conceivable that prison might shock him into recovery, but equally possible that it may worsen his plight. “I have heard drugs are easy to get in jail,” de Latour wrote to Berkman, pleading for clemency. “If he could be put in a drug programme in a place where he cannot leave for at least a year or more, this may save his life.”
That option is now gone. The bleakest diagnosis comes from Scott-Heron’s own Angel Dust: “Down some dead-end streets there ain’t no turnin’ back.” It would be a relief if on that point one of America’s most insightful lyricists was wrong.