SNL, Gil Scott-Heron and the Persistence of Memory
Last Friday night, I saw and heard a stellar performance by Low, who are touring in support of their new album Drums and Guns, with my friend Pedro. I’ve been too busy lately with work and travel to make it to a record store, but I woke up on Saturday determined to make my way over to Hyde Park Records to purchase D&G as well Blonde Redhead’s newly released 23. As my stack of goodies was being rung up, I noticed a DVD set behind the counter and made an almost impulsive purchase. I say “almost” because the item in question has been on my Amazon wishlist since I learned about it while driving home for the holidays last December.
That item was SNL, 1975–1976: The Complete First Season. I know this is probably a generational judgment, but the original Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players were the best cast that show ever had. Over the last couple of decades, I have occasionally tuned in to see what newer casts are doing and have found them to be profoundly dull. In contrast, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner were inventive, topical and, above all, consistently funny. The evidence is spread over the beautifully captured eight discs that comprise the set. Even more, the set contains each episode in its entirety—including the musical interludes that have been cut from most syndicated broadcasts. Back then, an artist didn’t have to be on a major label or in the top 10 to be booked on the show, so the mix of artists in that first season was pretty eclectic. Obvious guests like Abba, Joe Cocker (w/ John Belushi!), Bill Withers and Carly Simon performed. Additionally, some less obvious artists—including Betty Carter, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Leon Redbone (twice)—graced the airwaves.
The most pleasant surprise I got came last night as I looked through the set’s sparse documentation. The seventh episode, which first aired on 13 December 1975 and was hosted by Richard Pryor, featured Gil Scott-Heron performing two songs from his then forthcoming release From South Africa to South Carolina.Not only do I remember watching that episode that evening, but I knew ahead of time that it was going to be special.
A few months before then, my father had started strongly encouraging me and my brother to listen to the student-run station at Fisk University. Its DJs played music from all over the African diaspora. It was on that station that I first heard the Crusaders, Weather Report, Nina Simone, Bob Marley and, of course, Gil Scott-Heron. So, on the day of the broadcast, I either heard one of the DJs mention that Scott-Heron was going to be a guest on SNL or got that information from the newspaper. Either way, I begged my parents for permission to stay up until midnight so that I could watch the whole show. I also asked for a cassette tape, so that I could put a cheap Radio Shack tape recorder in front of the tele to record whatever songs he did (in case you’re wondering, I was six at the time, and there were no mass market VCRs then). My parents were cool enough to grant both requests. Thus it was that I had fairly low-quality recordings of “Johannesburg” (which I knew from the radio) and the album closer “A Lovely Day,” which was unfamiliar to me. (Recently, there were clips on YouTube, but they were removed by request of the copyright holder, NBC Universal.)
Over the next several weeks, I listened to that tape over and over again. I really loved “A Lovely Day” and worked painstakingly to learn the lyrics and the melody. It turns out that was a very good idea because by mid-January my older brother decided that he needed to tape something, so he took my tape and erased it to record something that could only have been trivial. But here’s where things get more interesting.
Once I was old enough to buy records for myself, I started looking for the album, which had by the mid-1980s gone out of print. Every time I did find a copy in a used record store, it was simply too expensive (i.e., the proprietor wanted $50 or more for it). So I would slink away, hoping someday to find a bargain. I finally did, but that was in 1998 when TVT reissued Scott-Heron’s 1970s recordings with bonus tracks. I still remember taking the CD back to my office at the University of Michigan (the closest place to the record store with a CD player), putting the disc in, and singing along perfectly with a song that I hadn’t heard for over 20 years. The persistence of memory, indeed.
I wouldn’t have remembered it if it weren’t such an amazing song. It starts with alternating seventh chords played on an electric piano with congas providing rhythmic support. Soon enough Scott-Heron enters singing some of most evocative and hopeful lyrics of his career. Each chorus is a variant on these words “All I really want to say / Is that the problems come and go, / But the sunshine seems to stay / Just look around / I think we’ve found / A lovely day.” Things turn somber only in the darker, harmonically descending bridge, but in the end the song is about being inspired by the hopeful things around us to keep moving on. (And yes, Sinan, I recognize the not-so-subtle impact the feel of the song has had on my songwriting.) If I weren’t sure I’d immediately be slapped with a removal order, I’d post the song here, but you can get it via all my favorite legal music download sites (e.g., eMusic and, of course, iTunes). I hope you find it as enthralling as I did back then and still do now…