In Search of Gil Scott-Heron is a fine new graphic novel about the life of a great artist. Or more accurately, as with the movies Round Midnight or Searching For Sugarman, it is as much about the life of a fan as the life of a special artist. French documentary maker Thomas Mauceri documents how he fell in love with the politics and music of the Godfather of Rap (a term Scott-Heron was not that keen on) during an academic stay in the United States. As a fan, he had experiences and met new people that he could not have done otherwise. The novel is beautifully drawn by Seb Piquet and the lettering for the English edition is expertly done by Lauren Bowes. In addition to the recollections of Mauceri, the book is interspersed with biography and observations about Gil Scott-Heron and his life as a pioneer and leader, and the less celebratory parts of his life. Much of the book is set around the time of the artist’s death in 2011. For those who saw him on his final tour, completed not long before his death, it is very poignant. We could see the fire and the talent, but also the losses that Scott-Heron heavily bore. His final album I’m New Here is a testament to that loss.
Even for a fan, there is new information in there. One key observation is that, at the time of his death, Scott-Heron had a small, well-maintained apartment in New York City. Given the chaos of his addictions and spells of imprisonment, this was a surprise. His friends note that the royalties from Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s hit song “The Bottle” gave him a steady income throughout the last 30 years of his life. Included on the 1974 album Winter in America, it is Jackson and Scott-Heron’s best-remembered hit, although “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” might be the most influential.
A dancefloor-filling hit song about crippling, chronic addition, “The Bottle” is a beautiful, contradictory creation. It has upbeat Caribbean rhythms wrapped Scott-Heron’s mellifluous voice. Brian Jackson brings a beautiful flute to the whole piece, infusing it with light and air, along with his other instrumental parts. The stories within it are dark but the music is light. Scott-Heron’s stories of the addicted are garnered from discussions with the visitors to a liquor store near Washington DC. We can imagine why he was there.
The song has been covered many times throughout the years by artists trying to capture the different themes. Here are five that capture the messages in a novel way.
Fusion Syndicate – The Bottle
The most recent and definitely one of the best “The Bottle” covers, if not the best. The Fusion Syndicate collective brings together many artists from the world of progressive rock, jazz and other genres to jam and record together. The latest track to appear under the name, in preparation for a new album, features funk legend Bootsy Collins and Gil Scott-Heron’s 70’s collaborator Brian Jackson. They break the song down and reconstitute it as something other-worldly. In Bootsy’s cosmology he acknowledges higher beings, and he seems to be chiding them for allowing crippling addiction to happen in our world, the confused tone in his voice questioning the fairness of it. Brian Jackson, familiar with the song and all that drives it, nevertheless looks at it fresh and comes up with something new and fantastic.
Tony Gordon – In the Bottle
With a simple rhythm and no up-tempo embellishments or flute parts, we are left with the darkness of the words alone, further obscured by the processing of the vocals. The Bottle here is a protagonist, and a malevolent one. An anthromorphized Gotham baddy, stalking the streets at night looking for victims–of which there will always be many, unfortunately.
Joe Bataan – The Bottle (La Bottela)
One way to deal with the incongruity of the distressing lyrics and upbeat dance tune is to dispense with the lyrics and leave only the uplifting part. Joe Bataan was one of the first to do this, and his salsa-infused version for the legendary Salsoul label is a superb Nuyorican version, which augments the Caribbean flavors of the original even further. David Sanborn replaces the lyrics with lyrical flavors from his saxophone.
Brother to Brother – In the Bottle
Like many tracks rescued from obscurity by Northern Soul fans and restored to the dancefloor from obscurity, this track was recorded by session musicians, this time from St Louis. The version hews quite closely to the original in many ways, but the different aspect is the female vocalists. Although all are susceptible to alcohol addiction, and one of the stories features a woman who turns to The Bottle when her partner is incarcerated, the female point of view is more fully acknowledged with these vocals.
Paul Weller – The Bottle
Paul Weller has always acknowledged the influence of classic soul on his career. The Jam’s 1982 version of “Move on Up” is an excellent rendition. For his 2004 covers album Studio 150, Weller produced a more driven, less danceable version of “The Bottle,” among tributes to Weller’s eclectic influences. Guitar takes the lead, although the flutes and horn section are still there. He acknowledges the universality of the theme, and no doubt the presence of the song on a hit album contributed to Gil Scott-Heron’s later royalties, allowing him to maintain his apartment. In later years Weller has acknowledged that his relationship with alcohol was not always positive, so this version will always carry the message of the song.