The Enduring Howl of Gil Scott-Heron’s “B-Movie” (first published in the Oyster Boy Review)
“Because it seems as though we’ve been convinced that the best minds of my generation, starving, hysterically naked.”
— Vee Fusiller
Of his 1981, three-part “Movie” poem, “B-Movie,” poet and self-described bluesologist, Gil Scott-Heron said when he wrote the poem he was “armed with a bunch of words” and a “vague structure.” This is quite a modest assessment of a poem that is the highest achievement for modern poetry, a triumph of poetry’s “spoken word” tradition fused with music perfectly. It is literature as orchestra; the blues as the evening news.
Gil Scott-Heron, of course, died on May 27, 2011. But “B-Movie,” his magnum opus, cries out for attention at least one more time. Our American politics, silly and hate-filled, demands we re-discover the poem that will one day save us all.
If Allen Ginsberg’s famous 1956 poem, “Howl,” is “the poem that changed America,” then Gil Scott-Heron’s “B-Movie,” is the poem that killed America. The America of yesteryear. The one that cannot return no matter how hard many try.
We have to compare “B-Movie” to Ginsberg’s “Howl” (and there are surely other poems as well) when we examine the historical and political relevance of “B-Movie” because “Howl” is also a poem of bravery and a poem that is a moment as opposed to just a literary work. Ginsberg’s “Howl” brought about a trial for obscenity; few poems can say that.
“B-Movie” is dangerous like that and probably more so because it is far more cunning and direct. It is a work of art that refuses to accept the propaganda of petty conservative politics and sets the stage for poetry’s “spoken word movement” that would emerge in the 1990s with an energy and fervor that continues today. As Scott-Heron famously says in “B-movie” to an unremitting blues groove: “Civil Rights. Gay Rights. Women’s rights. They’re all wrong. Call in the calvary and disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. First one of them wants freedom and then the whole damn world wants freedom.”
This is the difference between the poems: “Howl” was a call for freedom; “B-movie” is saying there are some who hate your freedom and want to take it away.
“B-Movie” is presented in three parts and begins with a now famous line: “The first thing I want to say is, mandate my ass.” This sentence is so popular now it should be a question on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT exam).
Duke Ellington would say Scott-Heron stated the theme with that line, as in jazz, and Scott-Heron has because this line, most of all, is the message of “B-Movie.” It is repeated over and over, rhythmically, specifically and in the abstract in different ways: the political mistakes made (“America has changed from a producer to a consumer”) and the dreamy, sick goal of the times (“America wants Nostalgia”) that has given us “Ronald Raygun,” star of a second-rate western flick. Considering, the U.S. can’t go back to that innocent time and be saved at “last possible moment,” according to Scott-Heron, it has gone forward with “Raygun” because “John Wayne was no longer available.” Raygun, flawed as he is, serves as a balm for the wounds of a nation battered into betterment but now strangely resisting to be better.
With the table set in Part I, and with his band grinding out an ever compelling rhythm track, Scott-Heron, in Part II, gives us what he calls “The Poem.”
“Come with us back to those inglorious days before heroes were zeros,” he says, “Before fair was square. Where the calvary came straight-away and all American men were like Hemingway, to the wondrous ‘B’ movie.”
You can taste the satire; it is multilayered.
The dressing down continues. America’s political elites are appropriately slimed with comedic horror: Casper Weinberger, Defense Secretary is “the defensive”; Secretary of State, Alexander Haig is “Atilla the Haig”; George Bush, Vice President is “‘Papa Doc’ Bush.” And the star of the movie, Ronald Raygun, “is “Bogart tough,” a “Madison Avenue masterpiece,” and a “cotton candy politician.” This is poetry with its own rules, the kind we must respect.
Yet, there is poetic tradition in “B-Movie” as well; our condition as a nation upon this strange moment is like Wall Street numbers data: “Racism is up. Human rights are down, Peace is shaky. War items are hot. The House claims all ties. Jobs are down, money is scarce and Common sense is at an all time low with heavy trading.”
Part II’s satirical excellence gives way to Part III and Scott-Heron improvises. This is solo; poetry as free jazz, the original theme encapsulated again. “This ain’t really life . . . this ain’t nothing but a movie . . .” he chants as perpetual echo. It asks: how could we have done this?
In a January 7, 1982, review of Gil Scott-Heron’s now famous poem, “B-Movie,” Los Angeles Sentinel critic Bill Lane wrote:
“He has taken a bitter commentary comparing and contrasting the U.S. leadership to others, to promises, to aims, to people, everything.” The Atlanta Daily World, in various reviews in the early 1980s, described “B-movie” as “explosive,” “an electric indictment of our American President.” The paper also declared Scott-Heron to be an artist who is always “ahead of the times.”
“B-Movie” was so powerful when it was released, black radio played the song even though it lasted 12 minutes, an abomination for commercial radio. The Washington Post reported that legendary New York DJ Frankie Crocker once played the epic four times in a row.
Arista Records, Scott-Heron’s label, surely felt their special artist had hit a homerun with “B-Movie.” The label sent copies of the song to all members of Congress upon release; some praised was received.
“B-Movie,” like “Howl” and other such poems, is more than just a poem; it was and is a moment. The earth moved. We moved. Poetry moved, if only for a moment.
Sure, after “B-Movie,” poetry went back to being safe, an art form necessary, it seems, but unnoticed, tucked away very quietly in academia, or only heard in dark bars and cafés late at night in our big and small cities. But in 1981 when Gil Scott-Heron took a “vague structure” and created a masterwork, America was never the same again. America, that nostalgic place some long for, was dead.