The Last Holiday: A Memoir, by Gil Scott-Heron
Mar 10, 2012
The Last Holiday: A Memoir, Gil Scott-Heron (Cannongate)
A decade before the first rap hit, Gil Scott-Heron was making records like ‘The Bottle’ and ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’; records that crossed poetry with R&B in a way that now seems like hip-hop’s harbinger. His lyrics spoke angrily – yet with a leavening humour - of the human condition, explicitly from the viewpoint of an African American. In the seventies there was no one like him.
But by the time hip-hop arrived, Scott-Heron had been and almost gone. After 1982 he would make only two more albums. His live performances became erratic. He was arrested several times on cocaine charges and did stints in prison.
During those wilderness years he began writing what has now appeared as The Last Holiday. Re-worked several times by Scott-Heron but never finished, and eventually assembled by his editor after the author’s death last year age 62, it is a memoir of his life and the events that shaped it.
Scott-Heron’s maternal grandmother, with whom he spent his early years in Tennessee, emerges as a particular influence: a strong, stern woman who refused to give up her place to whites in supermarket queues, and bought him his first piano.
After she died, he went to live with his mother, who supported him to become one of the first black southern students to attend an integrated school. They later moved to New York, where he thrived academically, winding up in prestigious Lincoln College. His first novel was published when he was just 20, the same year he released his first album. At 21 he led a political strike on campus.
Scott doesn’t exactly play down these very significant achievements; he just doesn’t seem to derive much joy from them. Instead, he celebrates his friend Stevie Wonder, whose successful campaign to have Martin Luther King’s birthday made a national American holiday is, oddly, presented as the central event of the book.
Scott-Heron zips through his own final decades in just fifteen troubled pages, which harrowingly take in the death of his mother, his uneasy relations with his children and ex-partners, and the stroke that left him temporarily blind. There is no mention at all of the drug addiction, imprisonment or H.I.V condition he lived with for many years.
Did he intend to write more about these things? Or does their conspicuous absence explain the way the triumphs of his early life, while vividly and sometimes movingly told, seem to be cast in shadow?