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Columns > Brian Robbins - The Maine Line

Published: 2011/07/07
by Brian Robbins

Gil Scott-Heron

We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)

We’d like to do an idea for you that was related to the “H-2-O-G-A-T-E Watergate Blues”. In March of 1973, we wrote the “Watergate Blues”, and some 17 months later, then-President Nixon resigned.

But the story didn’t end there, and so we didn’t stop there. We have prepared a sequel … and it’s called “We Beg Your Pardon, America”

We beg your pardon
Because the pardon you gave this time
Was not yours to give

They call it due process and some people are overdue
We beg your pardon, America

Somebody said
Brotherman gonna break a window
Gonna steal a hubcap
Gonna smoke a joint
Brotherman gonna go to jail

The man who tried to steal America is not in jail

Get caught with a nickel bag, brotherman
Get caught with a nickel bag, sisterlady
On your way to get your hair fixed
You’ll do Big Ben, and Big Ben is time

But the man who tried to fix America will not do time

Said they’re going to slap his wrists
Gonna retire him with 850 thousand dollars
And America was ‘shocked’
America leads the world in “shocks”
Unfortunately, America does not lead the world
In deciphering the cause of “shock”

850 thousand dollars, they said
And the people protested
And so they said, “Alright – we’ll give him 200 thousand dollars”
Everybody said, “Okay – that’s better”

I’d like to retire with 200 thousand dollars some day
San Quentin, not San Clemente
Do not pass go
Go directly to jail
Do not collect 200 thousand dollars

We beg your pardon, America
We beg your pardon because somehow the pardon did not sit correctly
What were the causes for this pardon?
Well, now … they had “phlebitis”
Rats bite us, no pardon in the ghetto
They had “national security”
But do you feel secure with the man who tried to steal America
Back on the streets again?

What are the results of this pardon, though?
Because remember, when there’s causes, there’s results
And the results is always deeper still
We now have Oatmeal Man

Anytime you find someone in the middle,
Anytime you find someone who is tepid,
Anytime you find someone who is lukewarm,
Anytime you find someone who has been in Congress for 25 years
And no one ever heard of him,
You’ve got Oatmeal Man

Oatmeal Man, straddling uncomfortably
Yards and feet of barbed wire
It’s hard to live in the middle all the time

Oatmeal Man, the man who said
You could fit all of his black friends in the trunk of his car
And still have room for the Republican elephant
Oatmeal Man

But there was no crime committed
Oatmeal Man says that, “America, in 1975
Your president will be a 1913 Ford”
Regressive
Circle up the wagons to defend yourself from nuclear attack
Oatmeal Man
Reminiscent of 1964’s “A-U-H-2-O”: Goldwater
Thank God he didn’t win
But Oatmeal man didn’t win
Did you vote for him?
I didn’t vote for him

But that’s the first result
And the second would be the dread Rockefeller
Doubtlessly being promoted for the job he did at Attica
43 dead and millions of Americans once again in shock
Doubtlessly being promoted for the job he did
On the streets of New York City
Where the pushers sell the drugs
That the government allows in the country
And then they do time
They do life
And death
Or life and death
Behind bars
While William Saxbe says he is going to dismiss
The Lorton furlough program
And brother Richard X of Buffalo, New York
Faces thirteen hundred and sixty five years
(“Did he say one thousand three hundred and sixty five years?”)
Behind bars for participating in Attica
And Rockefeller faces being the Vice President of this country
And all is calm and quiet
Along the white sands at San Clemente

We beg your pardon, America
We beg your pardon once again
Because we found out that
Seven out of every ten black men behind jail
(And most of the men behind jail are black)
Seven out of every ten black men never went to the ninth grade
Didn’t have 50 dollars
And hadn’t had 100 for a month when they went to jail
So the poor and the ignorant go to jail
While the rich go to San Clemente

We beg your pardon America
Because we understand now much more deeply
Than we understood before
But we don’t want to take the pardon back
We want to issue some more
Pardon brother Frank Willis, the Watergate security guard
He was only doing his job
Pardon H. Rap Brown
It was only burglary
Pardon Robert Vesco
It was only embezzlement
Pardon Charles Manson
It was only mass murder
And pardon us while we get sick
Because they pardoned William Calley
22 dead
And America in shock

And we understand all the more deeply
And we beg your pardon
As unemployment spirals toward 7 percent
And it seems like 70 percent in my neighborhood
As unemployment spirals
And as we watch cattlemen on TV
Shoot cows in the head and kick ‘em in the graves
While millions are starving in the Sahel
And Honduras
And maybe even next door

We understand all the more deeply
As Boston becomes Birmingham
Becomes Little Rock
Becomes Selma
Becomes Philadelphia
Mississippi becomes yesterday
All over again
We understand and we beg your pardon

We beg your pardon, America
Because we have an understanding of karma
What goes around
Comes around

And we beg your pardon for all of the lies
And all of the people who’ve been ruined
And who look forward to next year
Because they can’t stand to look at this one

We beg your pardon America
Because the pardon you gave this time
Was not yours to give

Thank you very much.

***

Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t speaking to me – a skinny 17-year-old white boy living on an island off the coast of Maine – back in 1975. But his words got inside of me and rattled around and shook some things up; shook some ideas loose; shook some questions clear. Like the first time I listened to (not heard – listened to) John Coltrane, I knew that the man was blowing the truth.

Over the years, Gil Scott-Heron and his work drifted in and out of my world. He was by no means a constant presence or source of inspiration, but every time his words crossed my path, I was reminded of the power I discovered back in the summer of ’75. The last in-depth look I had of Scott-Heron was a feature written by Alec Wilkinson that ran in the New Yorker last August. The story was well written, capturing the soul of the man, his life, his work, his virtues, and his faults in a manner that felt honest.

Obviously, Scott-Heron was quite comfortable around Wilkinson. The piece ends with him describing a novel that’s in his head – while putting a propane torch to a crack pipe.

The man had his demons, no doubt about it. It would be too easy to say they were the price for knowing the truth.

Gil Scott-Heron 4/1/49 – 5/27/11

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