Cork It: The Bottle by Gil Scott-Heron
Most famous for his satirical and incisive 1971 “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron is somehow far less heralded than he should be. He’s not a one-hit wonder exactly, but most listeners only know him now for one song. Gil Scott-Heron is frequently pigeon-holed as a proto-hip hop musician of the highest order—and certainly he did set the stage for the emergence of rap artists of the late 70’s and early 80’s. However, I would put him right up there with Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan in terms of scathing commentary on socio-cultural issues–and, in fact, unlike Dylan, who retreated inward, Scott-Heron stuck his neck out there on pressing issues of the day for his entire career. His lyrics were about social inequity–and, despite frequent irony, they pulled nary a punch (listen to “Whitey on the Moon” or “Winter in America,” where democracy is a kind of beggar as dried crop)--they still seem uber-prescient). Scott-Heron’s songs were like world-weary mini-op eds.
“The Bottle” from 1974’s Winter in America album, works in not just one but three ways: it critiques society’s dependence and reliance upon alcohol as a social construct–in general this applies universally–but also more specifically in poorer neighborhoods where a liquor store seems to linger on every corner, right there next to the pawn shop (as the song implies). And, in addition, Gil Scott-Heron presents evidence by virtue of the narratives of lives crushed under the weight of the bottle. Scott-Heron’s song is interesting and counter-intuitive because in the early 70’s drug-addled culture he could have focused his attention on heroin, for instance, as others did (and he has his own angel dust song). Instead, as Scott-Heron implies, alcohol is more damning—it is legal and ever-present and perhaps seen as a social-lubricant. However, when alcohol abuse runs so rampant, why should it be so easily dismissed? The song delves deeply and controversially into waters 99.9% of musicians would never touch. Why? Alcohol fuels most concerts and musical performances.
And what are alcohol’s sins according to the (highly infectious) song? It provides solace to the helpful (illegal) abortion doctor, but it ruins his mind. It destroys incomes and marriages. It devastates families. It places those vulnerable to its wiles in prison. It kills beauty–the “sister wuz fine before she started drinking wine.” It empties the soul. Alcohol is taken to task here vis-à-vis a laundry list of grievances. Scott-Heron takes us for a tour of the neighborhood–see this person, see that person. Heavy repetition is the order of the day, the word “bottle” popping up over and over. Even those who attempt to solve the problem, such as the preacher, suffer big time–he attempts to problem-solve and his thanks is being hit with a bottle.
Gil Scott-Heron pulls a sly trick in this masterpiece. The song is danceable and catchy, but deep down it condemns the ways in which we put blinders on to the real underlying problems of the day. The individuals appearing in “The Bottle” have one thing in common–alcoholism. We all know tragic figures who fit these molds. Yet the examples shared are not just individual stories–they are case-studies illustrating a larger pattern of societal-induced addiction. The song subverts–it may be a dance song but it is a downer dance song if you listen carefully to the words. That’s where he gets you. Happy on the outside, sad on the inside–in the same way that alcohol can seem to be the life of a party while it simultaneously is the source of destruction. Form meets function. Song meets subject matter.
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Thanks Nathan, I'm in. I'm among those who only know G S-H for "The Revolution...", so happy to be filled in. Interesting and insightful piece. I especially like the analogy between danceable happy music with sad subject matter, and alcohol which promises happy times but has dark actual effect. Happy on the outside, sad on the inside.
Looking forward to more posts. -FD