Somehow, I had overlooked Real Eyes in my investigation of Scott-Heron’s discography. I first became aware of the U.S. jazz poet, lyricist, singer and composer (as well as acknowledged precursor of rap) and his caustic social commentary a few years later than Real Eyes. 1981’s anti-Reagan song-poem B-Movie certainly helped me ‘realize’ much about the state of affairs in America - racial and economic inequality and the simplistic Cowboys ‘n’ Indians foreign policy that was dangerously reintroducing the prospect of nuclear showdown. The sequel Re-Ron (released as a one-off single in 1984 in the hopes of reversing the inevitable tide of Reagan’s re-election) even surpassed the first part, with even more biting lyrics and state of the art production by jazz-electro-avantrock-worldbeat fusionist Bill Laswell.
Sadly, this salvo would be Scott-Heron’s last release for 10 years. He was dropped from his then label, Arista, and ceased recording, although he continued to tour. Rediscovered by the audience of the ‘conscious’ and political rappers he inspired, Scott-Heron enjoyed a recording comeback in 1994 (with Spirits and the chastisement of gangsta rap Message to the Messengers). Drug problems sidelined him again, but in 2010 he bounced back with the widely acclaimed I’m New Here. A rare disenchanted critic bemoaned that Scott-Heron sounded like he was backed by moody British dubstep producer Burial. That’s actually not a bad thing, further evidence of Scott-Heron’s ability to highlight his signature voice and concerns within a conducive contemporary soundscape - be it Laswell’s brachial electro-funk in the mid-80s or the sparse, skeletal and spooky accompaniment on I’m New Here.
Rewind three decades. Real Eyes is a transitional album. It was Scott-Heron’s first with a new backing band, the Amnesia Express, and minus his co-billed collaborator, pianist Brian Jackson. (Jackson does lend his smoky playing to the initially unwieldy-seeming but ultimately engrossing love song Combinations.) Some tracks strongly foreground Scott-Heron’s jazz background while others focus on funky basslines and Scott-Heron’s ever smoother crooning (as opposed to the poetry recital or sprechgesang of earlier songs). Lyrically, socio-political issues share center stage with personal concerns. The Train to Washington is the latest of Scott-Heron’s ongoing criticisms of how out of the Federal government is out of touch with its citizens. How demoralizing it feels to be Not Needed is vividly conveyed in the song of the same name from the point of view of a recently fired longtime employee. The Klan (a cover version of a song popularized by 1960s folk singer-songwriter Richie Havens and co-written, pseudonymously, by Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin) is an outraged history lesson while Waiting for the Axe to Fall is a bleak description of the 1980 status quo. In any case, the post Civil Rights Movement despair was a ticking timebomb, and Real Eyes captured this mood.
The album also had a lighter side (even at their darkest, Scott-Heron’s lyrics are always characterized by witty wordplay). ” …he had more romances than doctors got bills. He had had more romances than Beverly got Hills,” so imagines himself the self-styled Casanova in Legend In His Own Mind, presumably unaware of how Scott-Heron is poking fun at 1970s leisure suit Lotharios and their inflated macho egos. Real Eyes ends on a hopeful note - Your Daddy Loves You (For Gia Louise), Scott-Heron’s promise to his infant daughter that he and her mother will work it out. (That’s Gia Louise on the album cover.)
While none of Real Eyes’ tracks became signature tunes the order of, say, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Johannesburg, Winter in America, The Bottle, B-Movie or Angel Dust, it is a rewarding album. Maybe this year’s re-release will spark a reassessment.
Mash-up of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with The Dead Kennedys’ California Über Alles