Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir (Grove Press 2012)
Gil-Scott Heron’s death last year took away a voice that, looking back, meant more to us in its eloquence, compassion, and wit than perhaps we had realized. It seems we’d been listening all along to what Scott-Heron had been saying, and, with the arrival of a hip-hop sensibility in the mainstream during the 1990s, the man frequently cited as the “godfather of rap” looms ever larger in the shadow of his death. All the more happy we should be, then, to have such a vibrant, personal record of Scott-Heron’s life in his memoir, The Last Holiday.
As much as Scott-Heron was known for his poetry and lyrics, he began his life as a writer with the publication of two novels early on, The Vulture (1970, when he was 21) and The Nigger Factory (1972), and there’s a third novel (Circle of Stone) sitting in the archives at Johns Hopkins, where Scott-Heron earned his MFA in creative writing. A publisher’s note explains that The Last Holiday was “written over many years, starting in the 1990s and all the way up to 2010, and during this period the book has undergone some significant transformation. Even calling it a memoir may be misleading, because it certainly is not a memoir in the conventional sense.”
For all of the occasional shifts in tone and style, The Last Holiday engages the reader with a fascinating structure – the narrator’s particular journey to fame as an artist, and the larger framework of the voyage to have Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday. The Last Holiday was published, after all, on King’s birthday very same day this year. Maybe, the title suggests, a day commemorating King will be the last one America needs if we can all reach the full promise of social justice and freedom that make up the nation’s professed ideals. And that’s just the kind of sardonic, poetic twist you’d expect from Scott-Heron.
The earliest parts of the book are strongest – those that deal with Scott-Heron’s family life in Jackson, Tennessee and his relationship with his extended family in the South, his coming East to live with his mother in New York even as the city was sliding into urban decay, and his negotiation of the educational institutions of Fieldston and Lincoln University – in short, his youth. Certainly, by the time Scott-Heron signs with Arista records and releases The First Minute of a New Day, about 1975, the book loses its focus, as his life may have lost focus in the rush or recording and touring. But, as he notes, "I signed on for the shows. I saw where I had to be and when. I came in after 1 a.m., called the desk after 2 a.m., asked for a wakeup call at 7 a.m., and got over my amnesia about 7:05."
The latter parts of the book have moments of clarity at but a few points: touring with Stevie Wonder in 1980 and the election of Ronald Regan, as well as the death of Scott-Heron’s mother. The factors that contributed to his death – drug use, primarily, as well as some rough patches and prison time in the last decade or so – aren’t touched on much in the book. Maybe Scott-Heron would have gotten around to that in another work. It makes you wonder what's in that novel sitting there in the archives at Johns Hopkins. Let's hope some wise publisher gets around to releasing Circle of Stone some day.
So take as a guiding principle the title of the work, The Last Holiday, the day set aside by the nation to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As Scott-Heron argues, it’s not just that King led a successful movement of resistance to injustice, it’s that it was nonviolent. As Scott-Heron knew well, to speak truth to power was one thing; there were many preparing to fight back with fists and blood and bullets. What King did, he argues, is to save us from another civil war. That is something to celebrate, and a victory as important for what it prevented from coming into the world as what it did. Scott-Heron should know; he was there to see it all happen. That alone makes this artful, human, provocative and brilliant book well worth your time. And it will make you wish that Gil Scott-Heron – writer, musician, activist, and a compassionate soul – had a little more time on this Earth.
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