Gil Scott-Heron’s career as a poet, novelist, and musician was well underway before I discovered him – but I can tell you just exactly when he spun my head around for the first time.
Summer of 1975. The gap between my junior and senior years at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. I spent my days either out on the water tending lobster gear or shoreside working on it and my nights beating the dog snot out of a hand-painted turd brown Jazzmaster just to make sure I wasn’t supposed to be a rock ‘n’ roll star instead of a lobsterman.
The radio down in my brother Stevie’s workshop was always tuned to WBLM in those days – one of the early FM stations here in Maine. And that’s when ‘BLM sure sounded like a bunch of furry freaks in a trailer on a hill playing just exactly what they wanted to. And it was great.
That’s where I first heard Gil Scott-Heron – and probably WBLM was one of the only chances a kid on the coast of Maine would have had to do so in the summer of ’75. It was a live cut – a piece called “We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)”, which Scott-Heron had written in response to then-president Gerald Ford’s pardon of disgraced former president Richard Nixon (whose berth in the White House Ford had taken over).
If you were around during the time of Watergate, you must have your own memories of that period in our country’s history. Mine are mostly visions of my folks’ old black-and-white TV back in 1973: scenes that resembled the Nuremberg Trials as Nixon’s henchmen were grilled by Senator Sam Ervin and the Watergate Committee. You couldn’t have hand-picked a better bunch of character actors to play Nixon’s twisted goons … and, even as a 15-year-old kid, I had to wonder how much evil was still out there. (That’s an answer best left for another day, I guess.)
If Watergate was before your time, you can find better sources than me to give you a history lesson. The quick version is, a little over a year after the Watergate hearings – with impeachment looming – Nixon resigned as president, handing the country over to Vice-President Ford. (Nixon’s first VP, Spiro Agnew, had bailed in October of ‘73 amid a scandal involving money laundering, bribery, and tax evasion. Go figure.) And a little over a year after Nixon retreated to his lair in San Clemente, CA, Ford issued a “Full, free, and absolute pardon.”
And that’s when an outraged Gil Scott-Heron put pen to paper and wrote “We Beg Your Pardon”.
As with so much of Scott-Heron’s work, the anger in the piece was balanced by a bittersweet humor – wit that was solidly backed by truth.
A spoken-word segment on WBLM wasn’t unheard of – quirky Firesign Theater and Monty Python skits aired at all hours of the day and night – but it only took a few moments of hearing Scott-Heron’s voice and words to know that this wasn’t your usual head humor.
Any mistakes or misinterpretations in Gil Scott-Heron’s words below are mine; and to get the full impact, “you should really listen to them”:
I won’t try to explain all the period references and names – you’ll research them for yourself if so moved.
I remember thinking when Scott-Heron joked about Nixon’s phlebitis, “Oh, man … they’re going to get him.” And I really thought they might.
The truth has its consequences.