The late Gil Scott-Heron wore many hats—poet, proto-rapper, singer-songwriter and provocateur — so it’s fitting that his new memoir The Last Holiday: A Memoir also tells many stories. It’s not an autobiography but more of an ambling path through parts of Heron’s life. In fact, in reading this book, I came to appreciate how thoroughly “southern” Heron was. I had always considered him a New Yorker; given the urban nature of his best-known songs and he did, in fact, spend time in New York, but it’s clear that it is Tennessee and the South that formed him. He’s in no hurry to give you the “greatest hits” of his life, instead carefully choosing the words to sketch details and add color.
He winds his way though childhood and into a prestigious private school, and on to college (where he engineers a sit-in) to pursue his love of writing. He writes of literally finding Bob Marley and three other dreads, who had let themselves into in his hotel room, smoking herb and relaxing. Heron goes into greater detail about his friendship, respect and affection for Marley’s opening act Stevie Wonder, who he would then open for on the Hotter Than July tour after Marley had to pull out due to his cancer diagnosis.
The perception of Heron leans heavily on his more political and “black power“ work, and there is clearly a direct connection to someone like Chuck D; check out his classic “Whitey On The Moon” or “The King Alfred Plan” from 1972’s Free Will for proof. Or ”Ain’t No New Thing,” where he catalogues the cultural contributions African Americans made, only to be “robbed by white folks.” However, it is also clear that Heron himself only views those songs as part of a larger piece. Consider his take on the reviews for his first LP Pieces of a Man:
“The new version of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ …tended to be the focus of the talk about that album, Pieces of A Man. But it was followed on the LP by a song called “Save the Children,” and that was followed by “Lady Day and John Coltrane.” Then came “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” and “I Think I ‘ll Call It Morning.”
“When people picked ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ to decide what kind of artists we were, they overlooked what the hell the whole albums said. We didn’t do just one tune and let it stand, we did ideas and all of those ideas were significant to us at the time we were working on them.”
Heron discusses some of his music, but this is not a “and then I wrote…” read. His prose is littered with street hustle, black philosophy and his poetry, and it often feels like the reading equivalent of listening to one of his LPs, shifting subjects, tone and ideas. If you are a fan of Scott-Heron’s, this final story, is exactly the kind of book you would have hoped for…and expected…him to write. It is truly a shame we will not be graced with a second volume of his wonderful writing voice. Heron stuggled mightily with “the bottle,” a major crack addiction and eventually died in 2011, widely thought to be of complications from AIDS.
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