Master Class – Gil Scott-Heron “Pieces of A Man”

Gil-Scott-Heron-Pieces-of-a-ManThis song was another one that haunted me when I was a kid.

I knew it meant something.

Something deep, something real and resounding.

I knew it was powerful. I just didn’t know why.

The melody is beautiful. Musically it’s just a simple series of piano chords but when coupled with the lyrics it becomes an amazing piece of work.

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You can’t simply call Gil Scott-Heron a poet, or a singer or even the forefather of Rap: he’s all those things but his ability to capture and reflect the pain, the plight and inner turmoil of a people, of a time and to present it in a voice plainfully and not maliciously is the kind of artistic gift that still amazes more than 40 years after first emerging.

The anger and contempt are there but it doesn’t drip, it doesn’t burn; it doesn’t even singe. It pricks, it prods … it begs introspection and reflection

When I was a kid I knew I was listening to something heavy, but I didn’t know why.

But even then I saw the men in my life in the song, felt their struggles were being depicted in the words and played out before me … but I just didn’t know why.

I couldn’t put it into words because I didn’t have them yet. I hadn’t experienced “it” yet.

Life was young and so was I.

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Now that I’m grown and have children of my own, have experienced and continue to experience the rising and falling of life and what it means to be a man, a Black man in this world I more than understand.

Though inevitable, this living, this seeing, this understanding, it still saddens me.

The third verse, “I saw the thunder and heard the lightning!/And felt the burden of his shame/And for some unknown reason/He never turned my way”, so powerfully conveys the powerless feeling of letting your Loved ones, your family, your children down it makes me tear up.

I know that feeling.

I didn’t when I was a child, but as a man, knowing how hard you’re trying and how you can’t seem to get a good grip on life, that the things you want, that your family need are just beyond your grasp … that they seem to slip through your fingers like sand or water, leaving granules in their wake or wetness, their residue confirming that you actually held them – had them! – for a moment however long, however fleeting, is the kind of pain that confirms that you are alive.

I hate that feeling.

Not a lot has changed since Gil Scott made this song.

It makes me sad. But at least I understand the men that were and are in my world, now that I am one.

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I met him once – twice, really. The first time in the living room of one of the men of my life, chilling, smoking, talking with Kwame Toure’. After saying hello and nonchalantly walking through the living room I came back in – awestruck – to greet two men who weren’t yet really my heroes, but magnificent, majestic monoliths all the same.

He was as cool as the shade on a hot southern summer day. With an easy smile, easygoing manner and his gravelly voice he made me feel more at home in the place that I was staying – just passing through, really – than I had my entire freshman year, there in a place I felt anything but at home.

Years later I’d see him in passing, but I don’t really think he remembered me or the time we’d met and he gave an young aspiring artist some encouraging words.

It didn’t matter.

I remembered him. His words. His smile. His warmth.

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I’ve been listening to GIl Scott, to this album and this song in particular a lot lately. I guess I’m just trying to put the pieces (back?) together again.

“I saw him go to pieces …
He was always such a good man
… always such a strong man
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces
I saw him go to pieces

Thanks, Gil.

“Pieces Of A Man”

“Pieces Of A Man”

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Jagged jigsaw pieces
Tossed about the room
I saw my grandma sweeping
With her old straw broom
She didn’t know what she was doing
She could hardly understand
That she was really sweeping up..
Pieces of a man

I saw my daddy greet the mailman
And I heard the mailman say
“Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today”
He didn’t know what he was saying
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man

I saw the thunder and heard the lightning!
And felt the burden of his shame
And for some unknown reason
He never turned my way

Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom
They don’t know what they are doing
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man

I saw him go to pieces
I saw him go to pieces
He was always such a good man
He was always such a strong man
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces
I saw him go to pieces

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