I am at Coachella in the hushed Gobi tent waiting for Gil Scott Heron, who is known in many circles as “The Godfather of Rap”. Given the political consciousness that lies at the foundation of his work, he is also considered the founder of political rap. I know this because I read Wikipedia.
All day, I have been struggling at Coachella, certain that I am the oldest person here, but in the Gobi tent, I have found a more mature crowd. These are socially aware people, who realize that we must come and pay homage to Gil, because you know – he’s old, and black, and once knew Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve read that his album Message to the Messengers was a plea for the new generations of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social condition. He called on them to be more articulate and more artistic. I’m not really sure that they heard him, but at least he put the message out there. I’ve also learned – rather recently – that he coined the phrase ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, which the Gorillaz (i.e. my pretend boyfriend Damon Albarn) paid homage to when they (i.e. he) wrote the post modern lyrics ‘The revolution will be televised’ on the title track of the Gorillaz latest release, Plastic Beach. This kind of continuity excites me.
Gil finally comes out, and he looks really old for sixty-one. Despite his musical success, he’s been in and out of jail for the last ten years on cocaine charges. No one’s perfect I suppose. He sits down at his Hammond organ, and starts tinkling around on the keys while he talks to the audience. It’s all very shuck and jive, and not in a good way. It sounds like he’s reciting a shopping list, “Corn dogs, apple butter, tomato!” he shouts.
The people are hanging on his every word. He says something like, “Hey, the tent is white,” and everyone claps.
Then he says, “I like a white tent. Better than an army tent!”
This time people laugh hysterically, even though it’s not funny at all. People are nervously second guessing their own comic taste, worried that there’s something brilliant going on. I’ve been around old black musicians and I’ve seen this game. He’s trying to get people to laugh at nothing. It’s a power thing. When I was a student at Manhattan School of Music, I lived next door to Eddie Locke who had gained fame as Roy Eldridge’s drummer. Eddie was a legend in the neighborhood, he was even in that famous Art Kane photograph A Great Day In Harlem that featured 57 of the most famous jazz musicians of all time. Eddie, loved to blather on and on, and young musicians used to flock to his apartment and sit as his feet as if he were some Jazz Shaolin monk. He’d make jokes that were awful, tell stories that had no ending, and everyone would just laugh and laugh. One day after they had all left he turned to me and said, “Hey, Pip…” (he called me Pip as in ‘pipsqueak’ because I was small), “Why don’t you laugh at my jokes?”
“Because you’re not funny,” was my response.
He unleashed the loudest laugh I’d ever heard, and when he finally stopped laughing, and gasping for air he said, “I like you Pip, you’re the only one around here that isn’t full of shit.”
After that he didn’t make me suffer through his bad jokes, instead he’d tell me really interesting stories about Harlem, and the Jazz Renaissance, and the nature of the Detroit welfare system (where he grew up).
Unfortunately, I don’t have this type of rapport with Gil, but he eventually stops torturing the audience, and begins to play an actual song. It’s very funky piano music, and his voice sounds great. I really want to hear him sing The Revolution Will Not Be Televised or New York You’re Killing Me, which contains the lyric, eight million people and I don’t have a single friend and reminds me of my time at Manhattan School of Music – although I suppose I did have Eddie – but Gil doesn’t play either of those songs.
Instead, he sings of broken homes, and alienation, and doing time. Everyone in the tent is dancing up a storm, which seems ironic considering the subject matter. I’m alarmed by their cluelessness, but I’m more alarmed by the fact that directly in front of me, gyrating away to Gil’s upbeat suicidal strains, is a very short, very young girl, wearing a very revealing, off the shoulder Flashdance style t-shirt. She looks just like my daughter’s friends Lily, who is the paradigm of sweet innocence. Lily is so sweet that my daughter claims to have a special little box in her heart, where she keeps her friendship with Lily. Now I’m stuck directly behind Lily’s doppelganger, complete with braces, and potentially no bra – I have been staring at her back for signs of a strap and I’m not seeing one – and she is grinding away on the leg of a dorky, yet socially conscious boy. I also smell a lot of pot and not your run of the mill variety. This is much more complicated, this is grass!
All I can think to myself is, where is this girl’s mother?
I am not the only concerned person. There’s another woman nearby. She looks like she’s maybe thirty, and she’s clearly disturbed as well. Meanwhile, Gil has just segued into I’ll Take Care of You. I take this as a sign that I need to intervene, but the thirty-year-old woman beats me to the punch, asking Lily’s doppelganger point-blank, “Where is your mother?”
She doesn’t stop gyrating for a moment, just rolls her eyes, “I’m twenty!” she laughs as if that’s license to walk around braless, or to dry hump the leg of your companion. As she continues to dance she turns and smiles at me through her metal mouth, “Everyone thinks I’m twelve. It’s such a pain.”
I have always looked young, so I know how she feels.
“I can’t go anywhere without people questioning me,” she shouts over the music.
I nod, “I know, but in the long run it’s really a good thing. I always looked really young but now that I’m fifty…”
Okay, I’ve panicked. I can’t believe I have just claimed to be fifty! I’m not fifty, I’m forty-one. But I was worried that I wouldn’t make my point.
She shakes her head, “I never would have guessed you were fifty.”
In fact, all the people in my area are amazed to hear that I’m fifty. I feel ridiculous, but at the same time, I think I might be on to something. Now I’m wishing I had gone higher. I wonder if I could get away with fifty-seven.
“My god,” says the thirty-year-old woman, “you’re only eleven years younger than Gil. You look like you could be his granddaughter.”
“Hard living will do that to you,” I nod enjoying my new found status as tent sage (after Gil).
I point to the twenty-year-old in front of us, “She may be twenty, but she should really be wearing a bra. Without proper support those things are going to be down to her knees by the time she’s thirty.”