The Last Holiday: A Memoir
Grove Press: 321 pp. $25
It's impossible to pass through Gil Scott-Heron's memoir "The Last Holiday" without "hearing" it in the musician's own voice — the pitch and cadence of his unmistakable burnished baritone; the declarative positions and improvisational digressions that wander deep into a thicket.
Scott-Heron's death at 62 last spring unleashed a wave of global remembrances from all manner of self-described inheritors — politicians, poets, musicians, teachers, writers — who spoke not just of influence but inspiration: a paradigm for not just thinking but speaking out and taking action. He was after something, both in content and form, that couldn't always be simply categorized, and he preferred it that way. While boomers found a slogan in the refrain of his hit "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," the post-soul generation found a template in both his delivery and his reportage from the streets, dubbing him the "Godfather of Rap," a title he'd once famously dodged with the response "Don't blame me for that."
In later years, the image of him as the forthright griot-activist with the nimbus of Afro reporting, in "speak-song," on societal ills — poverty, alcoholism, big government, corruption, racism — became more complicated as Scott-Heron's public profile transformed. News reports on cocaine possession and time served for a parole violation replaced interviews and album reviews. He became a cautionary tale, zero degrees of separation from the ripped-from-the-headlines feel of his own compositions. It was heartbreaking for anyone who remembered the fire and force of his declarations, the proud profile he worked mightily to build.
Consequently, this posthumous recounting allows a chance to cast light on some corners of his thinking — particularly when it comes to politics and writing and the place that they intersect in his music. It's a document he says he hoped "is a chance to share some things with people," particularly his three children.
"The Last Holiday" is as much about his life as it is about context, the theater of late 20th century America — from Jim Crow to the Reagan '80s and from Beale Street to 57th Street. The narrative is not, however, a rise-and-fall retelling of Scott-Heron's life and career. It doesn't connect all the dots. It moves off-the-beat, at its own speed. It lingers on certain life chapters he preferred to recall (playing piano for his grandmother's sewing circle in Tennessee, getting lost in books, taking a leave from school to work on his first novel, "The Vulture," meeting his long-time collaborator Brian Jackson at Lincoln University). The rush of checking out the Last Poets. He slides over the problematic others (the final years and their ravages). Memory, he acknowledges, is tricky: "The raw feelings, like shock or sharp pain, or fear, suddenly grabbing your heart, are the closest to the top, easiest to reach. They return to me unbidden at times."
This approach to revelation lends the book an episodic quality, like oral storytelling does. It winds around, it repeats itself. It's as vivid as it is lyrically elliptical: "Words have been important to me for as long as I can remember. Their sound, their construction, their origins."
While "The Last Holiday" allows the reader in on Scott-Heron's process — his obsession with language, reading and writing, his game-changing heroes (among them: Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, John Coltrane) — tying that to the "holiday" that the title references is a tremendous leap. In the prologue, Scott-Heron explains that the book's "central focus" is his friend Stevie Wonder's campaign to make the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. And though the last quarter of the book is by and large dedicated to his time working with Wonder, that story may have been the impetus, but it's not the engine.
"The Last Holiday" unrolls the blueprints. Pieces of a man come together; a foundation is laid down. Scott-Heron was part of the first wave of students to integrate the formerly all-white public junior high school in Jackson, Tenn. He had been deeply influenced by the long season of violence — lynchings, beatings, assassinations — that preceded and followed Freedom Summer in 1964. By the time he'd returned to New York to live with his mother, the rituals and stories of the South were deeply rooted in him.
"There were regular gatherings on the front porch.... It could include any number of people from the neighborhood.... And no matter where the conversations started, they would end up speaking on race. What was happening here and there. What they had read in the papers. What information had come through from the men and women who worked on the trains and knew what was going on from Miami to Chicago...."
By the time Scott-Heron stepped into a recording studio in the late '60s-early '70s, he was in a sense mirroring that ritual — trading stories, identifying problems, casting about for solutions. He set those words to moods. "I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation and the poetry came from the music. We made the poems into songs," he writes, "and we wanted the music to sound like words." Bound within it all, they were setting forth powerful ideas.
Journalists would probe: "How do you see yourself? … [J]azz or poet or singer or …" "I started looking for them to ask, 'vegetable or mineral?'" He was reaching for something new beyond easy description or category, which in many ways, was a metaphor: "I felt people who wrote about me and Brian should have looked at all we did. It was pretty obvious that there was an entire Black experience that didn't relate only to protest. We dealt with all the streets that went through black America," he writes. When he'd speak to the audience after his shows, he learned, "the songs that people wanted to talk about were ... more personal than political, more private than public, more of an emotion than an issue."
Just as Scott-Heron was neither "vegetable" nor "mineral," it's fitting perhaps that "The Last Holiday" eludes a standard definition. Nor will it explain the "whys" of the latter years, but it is true to the man who shrugged off the limits of labels. Though, nearing the conclusion of the book, there are hints of darkness, his later interior struggle, he decided that this was the story he wanted to tell, one that is less official accounting than one long, open-hearted solo.
George is a Los Angeles-based journalist and an assistant professor of English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University.