Gil Scott-Heron In San Diego

Michael Steinberg

Remembering Gil Scott-Heron performing in San Diego in the 1980s, and the times he lived in.

It was my birthday, circa 1984, during my second stint living in Ocean Beach.

Name? Location? No recall. Only that it was in a nondescript building in a notably unremarkable part of town.

Not that many years before, in 1979, Gil had brought the house down at Madison Square Garden while performing at the No Nukes Concert there.

During those times no Movement house party was complete without a wall shaking recorded rendition of his anti-nuke smash “Shut ‘Em Down,” and his anti-apartheid anthem “Johannesburg.”

I’d survived such parties from Insurgent OB to Mighty Baltimore.

As we rolled up to the club, I fished my ticket out of an undoubtedly marijuana flaked pocket.
“You got a ticket?” someone teased, probably Rick.
“Of course,” I crowed. “It’s my present to myself. You mean you don’t?
It turned out I was the only one who had printed material guaranteeing entry to the show.

Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised brought Black Power to black vinyl grooves and broke down the color barrier on emerging white FM rock stations. No one had heard a voice quite like his or words quite like this:

The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightening, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom,
A tiger in your tank, or a giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

Other raps like “Whitey on the Moon” demonstrated Gil Scott-Heron’s biting wit as he talked about the oppression of his people in new ways, backed up by ancient drum beats:

A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey’s on the moon
I can’t pay no doctor bill
But Whitey’s on the moon
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still
While Whitey’s on the moon

Gil went on to create one revolutionary musical rap/blues/jazz gem after another: “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “Pieces of a Man,” “We Almost Lost Detroit,’ Living in a Bottle,” H20Gate Blues,” and more.

But with the ascension of the Reagan Revolution in the 80s, even the Gil Scott-Herons among us were shoved back to the margins, where repression and infamy ruled more than ever.

As I arrived at that club in San Diego during one of those Orwellian years, I wondered how Gil would be dealing with it.

“Man, they’ll be plenty of tickets left,” one of my buddies in the car bragged.

“Who remembers Gil anymore, y’know?”

“The kids never even heard of him.”

We pulled up to the curb and saw all the people in line in front of the club. Someone we knew spotted us and shrugged. “It’s sold out!” he called.

Silence took possession of where we were at. “Thanks for the ride,” I murmured and hopped out.

“Happy birthday,” my friends mumbled.

Things seemed to be going that way in general

San Diego had become a prime component in the Reagan military buildup.

The region was the center for the R &D, construction, deployment and testing of the sea launched Tomahawk Cruise Missile. Locally based Navy ships and subs were test-firing them off regularly.

Some of those same Navy vessels also menacingly cruised off the coast of Sandanista Nicaragua.

The Camp Pendleton Marines were training for the next US invasion while Reagan was comparing Death Squad Contras in El Salvador to the US “Founding Fathers.’

Not to be forgotten were the Top Gun Fly Boys at Miramar and the cut throat Navy Seals in Coronado.

All strike forces dying to kill.

In addition nuclear weapons abounded on Navy ships and subs, and were stored in “special weapons” bunkers right at the mouth of San Diego Harbor on North Island.

I walked away from the car feeling lonesome. Not buddies to celebrate my birth or the magic of Gil with. Looking up at the end of the long line I was trudging towards, I saw myself slumped in the back of the room with an obstructed view and a two drink minimum.

Just then someone called my name with a voice I recognized. I turned to see Alana, my co-worker at OB Peoples close by.

After I hurriedly explained my plight, Alana assured me that there was room for me at her table.

We walked past the line and right into the club. Her table was right in front of the stage.

Gil Scott-Heron and his band were in top form that night. Being that close to them was almost like being in the band.

They transformed that insignificant place in a military metropolis seized by war fever into a sacred space, filling us with joy and hope.

Gil knew just how to take us there. After a too profound rendering of “Winter in America,” brought us down, he refused to let the depression of festering in Reagan AmeriKKKa take hold.

At just the right moment he called on us to applaud a young local man in the audience who was being prosecuted by the federal government for refusing to register for the recently resurrected draft.

When the young man (Ben?) rose to join Gil in the spotlight, we all felt again that there was hope, that we could still make that revolution happen.

Later, during “Angel Dust,” Gil’s bluesy ballad about a bad drug, he came down among us, putting the mic to our mouths for the chorus, to show what we could do if we all put our voices together.

I’d never been so happy to have been born.