As a parent I view the modern era of hyper-connection as an infinite opportunity for teaching moments. My children humor my pursuit, bless them. I do worry that they perceive their father’s aspirations as random outbursts of unconnected insights, barely distinguishable from the indecipherable utterings in Ezekiel’s visions, and vested with much less authority. Yet, I persist.
On a recent Saturday I became a taxi driver for my oldest son, and drove him home from the gym. Something by Gil-Scott Heron came up on the bop jazz channel on the car’s satellite radio. Heron’s rebellious expressions made him famous, but today the radio played themes of love. It was one of Heron’s earlier and milder pieces.
The jockeys experiment on this channel on the weekends, taking the music to the edges, though this hardly qualified as an edge. Though Heron is not regarded as a jazz pioneer in most circles, the beat poets influenced him, and he borrowed many of their rebellious forms for individualized expressions.
My son stared out the window, rendered silent by one of those adolescent moods in which sentences never exceed three words. Sometimes the mood can last for months.
Looking for an opening, I faked surprise. “Well, look at that.” I said with an upbeat tone, “It is Gil Scott-Heron.” This registered nothing from the passenger seat, not even a curious question, such as “Who is Gil Scott-Heron?” Was my son listening or descending into a month-long silence? He remained motionless.
A father has to be intellectual resourceful at these moments. I gambled, and issued an overstatement that I hoped might catch his attention. “Some people regard Gil Scott-Heron as the father of Hip-Hop and Rap.” If my son was at all paying attention, he would regard this sentence as a stretch, at best. The present song more closely resembled a male rendition of something acceptable to Ella Fiztgerald. Nothing about this love song would suggest such a radical interpretation. Still, the music contained enough rhythm to be catchy. My son stirred, and I sensed he was listening to me.
If the hook was in, then perhaps he would take the bait. “His most famous song was something called ‘The revolution will not be televised.’ Have you ever heard of that?”
“No.” My son shifted his weight while answering. Maybe I had him. This is what passes for a teaching moment in the suburbs.
“I will play it for you when we get home.” I promised, “You might like it.” No sound came from son, and we drove on.
My son once told me after visiting my classroom on go-to-parent’s-work-day that my classroom demeanor resembled my behavior at home. His lack of enthusiasm led me to imagine that he lay there motionless on purpose. “Don’t encourage him” he was saying to himself.
Not that his answer surprised me. He is only a sophomore and he attends a college-oriented public high school in a squeaky-clean suburb. As far as I could tell, this school taught only sanitized versions of rebellious texts, not something too dangerous, such as “Catch-22” and “The Autobiography of Malcom-X” and “Slaughter-House Five.” There is only so much intellectual discomfort most suburban families can take.
I still recall hearing Heron for the first time. A high school friend introduced me to it when we both were undergrads at Berkeley. It was one of those subversive things one friend does for another. I had never forgotten that moment. It came at a time when I was beginning to look at the world in a different way, when I began to wrestle emotionally and intellectually with the way others looked at the world. There was so much.
When Heron passed away last year, I learned that the poem had long ago passed into iconic status. I would have thought that iconic status might have allowed high schools to render his message in bite-sized forms that young minds could digest, safe from the complaining nannies of the neighborhood. Alas, no.
After we got home, and before my son retreated into surfing Facebook and other forms of online diversions, I went to the computer in the family room. All the other children were there watching the Disney Channel. I downloaded the recording, brought up the text, and told them to turn down the sound on the television. The three oldest children gathered behind me and looked at the text on the computer. The recording started. My youngest child did not like the interruption. He left the room, no doubt to find another television with Disney on it.
Gil-Scott Heron’s voice came out of the computer, recognizably forceful and assertive, with that distinctive sense of controlled rage. Yet, I was struck by it. He was almost polite by today’s norms. The delivery contained so much restraint and discipline.
Heron began to recite his work in the distinctive rhythm of beat poetry, with a saxophone in the background accenting it at pauses. The dissonant music set the atmosphere, suggesting irony, discomfort, and disappointment…
“You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip, Skip out for beer during commercials, Because the revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox, In four parts without commercial interruptions…”
The youngest of the three remaining kids had tolerated the first few sentences, but her perky eleven year old mind could not see the point. She had given up on it by the time Heron had mentioned Xerox. She listened a while longer, finally leaving to go find her younger brother. She later told me that she did not understand why I liked a poem that did not rhyme.
My two oldest children, dutiful to a fault, stayed on, and listened to the entire recording. That took some admirable patience, as the poem is actually rather long.
I also secretly cringed as the poem went on. Some of the allusions were dated. The poem satirized events and contemporary celebrities in ways shocking to Heron’s listeners, but these were meaningless to my children. Spiro Agnew, Nixon, Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen, Glenn Campbell, Tom Jones, and Englebert Humperdink – they did not know these names, did not identify with the pop culture of the 1970s, and did not know what these people stood for.
More to the point, the kids did not recognize the platitudes of the past. Commercial pop passed in stanza after stanza. Yet, these slogans of corporate America had long ceased to be pervasive. They were not recognizable.
“The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised. The revolution will be live.”
It ended. There was silence. My two oldest children stood there motionless. Their minds had not been expanded. They looked at me. I looked at them.
It was time to go for broke. Sensing the disconnection between the recording and their experience, I looked for whatever hook first presented itself.
“What was the big theme?” I said leadingly. Silence.
“Was he being sarcastic?” I begged lightly. They nodded in silence.
“Did you hear the jazz music in the background? Was that harmonious or dissonant?” Nodding in silence. Shrug.
“What was the big theme?” I tried again, adding a new question. “Did he really mean that it would not be televised?” Motionless.
I paused, searching for something that might resonate. “What will be televised if not the revolution?”
“Commercials about Coke,” said my son. I looked him in the eye.
I could see the struggle between two instincts. One instinct moved him to try to figure out what had made his father so animated, to solve the puzzle presented to him. The other instinct pulled him with all its force. It led to a similar place, but added desperation to the answer. Perhaps he could bring this moment to a polite end. His observation about Coke took more from the latter instinct than the former instinct. He was fishing for an answer, hoping to find a way out. He was throwing me the one concrete piece he grasped.
I was excited by the answer, and tried to ignore the tortuous aspects to the interrogation.
“If the TV is showing coke commercials, why won’t it show the revolution?” Both kids looked at me with blank looks. I looked back at them.
The teaching moment had passed with barely a step forward. Well behaved, sheltered to the core, and eager to please, my two teenage children did not understand the language of Gil-Scott Heron. He did not resonate with them. Neither of them knew the soul of rebellion, the struggles of the beat poets, or the loneliness of angry individualism. Neither of them was destined for late nights pouring over the phrases of Yeats, or Dickinson, or even Frost – that is, on their own volition. They might still do it if an instructor required it of them, or their Dad.
I was secretly grateful I was not raising tortured artists. The beat poets were never satisfied. Restlessness haunted their lives. My children did not appear destined for that path.
The Socratic instructor gave up, and I answered my own question. “Mainstream television would not know what to do with the revolution. Revolution falls outside of what it normally broadcasts. Heron is saying that it will happen anyway. It just won’t be publicized by the mainstream.”
My oldest daughter stood there, absorbing the explanation, still not sure what to make of the exchange between us. She did not get it. She wanted to please me, and she could see that I was doing my best not to appear crest-fallen.
My son looked at me, and a small sly smile slowly cracked one side of his face. “Ah, Dad, yes it will.” He said with confidence. I looked at him. His tone did not reveal irony, or insolence, or anger, or rebellion, or the views of an outsider, or torment on any level.
No, my son merely meant to signal that we needed to reverse roles. I was the one who did not understand. For a brief moment he would be the teacher and I the student.
He said it matter-of-factly, as if I had missed the obvious, as if Gil Scott-Heron described a world that no longer existed, articulated a problem that had been resolved. The revolution had come, and it was everywhere, in every device, and on many channels. It had been there for a while, even on something common, such as MTV.
He smiled with just a hint of the satisfaction that comes after solving a puzzle. I looked at him, and I could not think of comeback. At least he thinks for himself, I thought. Triumphant in posture, he turned, hinting at a giggle, and left the room.
My daughter looked at him walking away, and looked at me. She shrugged, turned to the TV, and turned up the sound on Disney.