During the 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron applied his satiric wit to the nation. He wrote opinionated songs he half sang and half chanted in a rhythmic style that made him a forerunner of today's rappers. He sold albums.
But it's almost as if Scott-Heron vanished from Earth around 1979. That's when the "Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature" last mentioned him, citing a review in Downbeat, the national jazz magazine.
Calling Scott-Heron a "funk-folk minstrel," the magazine's writer went on to say that Scott-Heron, keyboardist Brian Jackson and their Midnight Band could "light the urban fire in the remotest of locales."
Jump ahead 11 years. Scott-Heron, 41, is rekindling those flames with something called the Amnesia Express, due in San Diego tonight and Tuesday for 8:30 and 10:30 shows at Elario's.
"The Amnesia Express started after the Midnight Band closed up," said Scott-Heron, who lives in Alexandria, Va. "When Brian decided to go out and do his own thing, I started the Amnesia Express with (saxophonist and former Midnight Band member) Carl Cornwell in 1980 or '81." (Cornwell is no longer with the group.)
Scott-Heron's last release in this country was the 1984 single "We Don't Need No Rerun," an election-year commentary on the idea of re-electing Ronald Reagan, not recorded with the Amnesia Express. His last American album was a compilation of 1970s material titled "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," released four years ago.
"I continued to perform, but this group is interested in doing live material. Most of the U.S. recording companies are looking for studio projects."
So the live-oriented Amnesia Express has never released any music in the United States. A live album ("The Tales of Gil Scott-Heron and his Amnesia Express") came out in Europe last fall, and a single ("Space Shuttle") was released there in February. A U.S. distribution deal for the album is in the works.
Scott-Heron plans to play some of his best-known Midnight Band songs, plus a variety of Amnesia Express material, in San Diego.
"Since we haven't done a lot of recording, and much of my recorded material has been discontinued, the letters we get are from people who want to hear the songs that made us important when we were doing most of the recording: 'Winter in America,' 'Johannesburg.' "
Some of the new songs sound promising.
" 'Space Shuttle' " has to do with expending money for weapons of war as opposed to some things that would benefit people. What we found out was, since the space shuttle launchings, there's been a drastic change in the weather." Scott-Heron laughed. "We tried to hook up the weatherman with the Pentagon.
"We could do, 'Beam Me Up, There's No Intelligent Life Down Here.' We wrote that quite a while ago, but never recorded it.
"Or, 'You May Not Be in a Class by Yourself, But It Don't Take Long to Call the Roll"--for women who think more of themselves than we do.
"What we've done, even in the case of older material, is re-arrange it to where we feel it'll be a new experience even for those who are familiar with our stuff."
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," his cynical 1971 look at how blacks are treated in America, became his first radical anthem. Starting with the "Pieces of a Man" album in 1971, including that song, Scott-Heron began his collaboration with Jackson. Their popularity crested in 1974 with the "Winter in America" album, which sold more than 300,000 copies.
Jackson and Scott-Heron recorded several more albums together, but these are difficult or impossible to find in music stores. However, all of his 1970s work is soon to be re-released on CDs.
Besides his music career, Scott-Heron is a poet and fiction writer, with a master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University.
His first novel, a mystery titled "The Vulture," was published in 1970, and he followed with a volume of poetry titled "125th and Lennox."
On Sept. 1, a new book of poetry titled "So Far, So Good" is due in bookstores, published by Third World Press in Chicago.
"The title refers to the fact that we started off with a very difficult row to hoe and managed to survive. We, meaning us black artists. To be pro-black is not to be anti-white. With my background, it would be very difficult to be anti-anything," Scott-Heron said, referring to his late father, who was a Jamaican soccer player and his stepmother, who was born in Scotland.
With his long history of sniping at America, you might not expect Scott-Heron to hold much hope for the nation, but he is surprisingly optimistic.
"Some of the people who were not open-minded in the '60s are still not open-minded, but I think society has changed a great deal for the positive. There is more understanding between everybody. Those who learned to communicate in the '60s are having a positive effect on young people.
"As far as old people, who never wanted the communication in the first place, they're still the folks who run things. But a lot of young folks have come to see a positive side of communications."