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.