“Gil was our brother, poetry-wise, politics-wise and pain-wise. We first came into contact after The Last Poets played a gig at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania [in 1969] – where I think Gil was studying at the time. Gil was in the audience, and after the show he came up to us and said, ‘I’d like to do what you do. How do I do that?’ and I just told him to speak. And boy did he speak. He was a powerful performer – intelligent and angry – and he knew so much about history, he had so much to get across to his audience.
I have so many stories about Gil – some of them really warm and some are really sad, tragic really, and you can’t separate the two. He was a beautiful guy, but a man with his own demons. Some of us get caught in certain traps that we can’t get ourselves out of. A lot of it goes back to our childhood – not just black childhood, white childhood; some people get trapped and they can’t deal. I had my problems myself, I was the devil in disguise, an addict, and I was sick for a long time. I had to go back and I had to deal with them and that’s why I survived. I was lucky. Gil just couldn’t go back.
The worst I ever saw him was in a hotel on 119th street, New York. [DJ, musician and activist] Gary Byrd sent me there to look in on Gil, because he heard he wasn’t doing so well. I knew the place where he was staying, I got tapped up a couple of times there myself, but you had to get past all these other people – these drug kids – to get to Gil. When I finally got in, the room was a shambles and there was Gil sat on the floor with a $42,000 cheque in his hand.
I know what it means to an addict when you get that money in your hand. You’re already thinking about how much drugs you’re gonna get, or how many hos… So I wanted to get him out of there, because he was looking so bad. I wanted to take him, feed him, give him a wash, you know? So I’m trying to calm him down and I made him promise to buy something to eat. So he promised – solemn oath – that we were going to go get some lunch. So we headed out and I made him bank the cheque apart from $1,000 – which we were going to get something to eat with. So we headed back towards the hotel – I thought we were going to find a restaurant or something – but then we go into this store. Small store. And Gil picks up a can of Coke, an orange soda and a Little Debbie cake and says, ‘Right, we’re gonna eat lunch.’ And I was saying, ‘That ain’t no lunch,’ but in his mind that was it and there was no changing him. He had promised me he would eat some lunch. This was eating lunch.
“A lot of people will remember Gil not for how tragically he lived parts of his life, but the beauty and the magic that he inspired”
Gil was going through changes – every time I saw him he was going through changes – and he said, “Leave me be, I’m not hurting anybody,” but come on, Gil, you’re hurting yourself. I know he went straight back to the bank and next time I saw him, poking his head around that same hotel door you could see the bones sticking out of his chest.
I think that Gil could have lived if he wanted to. Everyone tried to help him, but he just couldn’t seem to grab the branches we were holding out for him. In his last album you can hear him talk about death and the road he was travelling and nobody could turn that route.
A lot of people will remember Gil not for how tragically he lived parts of his life, but the beauty and the magic that he inspired through his music. Gil’s ghost’s going to be here for a while. I see his face every day and I’ll tell you what I remember… We were playing a gig together down in Phoenix at PillowTalk [a local performance-art and spoken-word club night]. Gil at the time was known for missing gigs – actually he was always known for missing gigs – and I couldn’t see this being any different. So I’m getting ready to put it out there that Gil’s not coming. It’s a big crowd and they’re going to be disappointed. So I go on stage with the mic, ready to break the news that one of the guys they’ve all come to see isn’t coming. Then he appears on stage, telling the crowd: ‘Tell Umar I’m here; tell Umar I made it; tell Umar I wouldn’t let him down.’ It was one of the most powerful nights we’ve played together. Gil was on fire, the passion was burning in all the right places.
People think of Gil as a poet or a spoken-word artist, but to me Gil was a blues man – he projected to blues, he lived like the blues, he lived on the edge like a blues man, died like a blues man, sadly. He was like Charley Patton, Bukka White and of course Robert Johnson. He lived at the crossroads.
Everyone talks about how sad Gil’s ending was, but his ending was wonderful. He doesn’t have to go through that disillusionment, frustration loneliness and pain any more. What was sad was how he lived.”
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