If you don’t know or don’t like the music of Gil Scott-Heron, I suggest you stop right now and go listen to it [again]. Go and listen to ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, go listen to ‘The Bottle’, go listen to ‘The Vulture’, go listen to ”B’ Movie’, go listen to ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’, go listen to ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’, go listen to songs of his I can’t think of off the top of my head. Go listen to the man often described as the godfather of rap, go listen to a novelist and poet who became a megastar, a musician who combined influences from funk, jazz, pop and beat poetry and became a significant figure and invested Song with Message.
Gil Scott-Heron’s introduced description of ghetto lives, of black experience and firm political discourse into popular music. His songs are catchy but invested with meaning, his lyrics are powerful and accompanied by great musicianship and performed in a – what was then – original style. His music is not hip-hop as we now know it, but it is music where the lyrics are as important as the melodies. I’m a big fan of Scott-Heron’s music, but this isn’t a music blog, is it? This is a post about the man’s posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday, which offers an engaging – though rose-tinted – journey through the untroubled parts of a life that was broadly considered to be (especially its second half) deeply troubled.
Gil Scott-Heron wrote The Last Holiday on and off (according to the ‘Publisher’s Note’ at the end of the book) for around 20 years, changing styles and focus as he went on. The resulting piece – the final edit of which he did not see – is a short 300 pages, the first half about childhood and youth, the second half building up to a long description of Scott-Heron’s time as the support act on Stevie Wonder’s 1980-81 Hotter than July tour. This all ends successfully, happily, forwards-facing, then we get two chapters indicating that the rest of Scott-Heron’s life maybe wasn’t fantastic (a stroke in 1990, the death of his mother in 1999 and prompted reflections of how bad a father he’s been) and then we’re done, it’s over, with just Jamie Byng1, Publisher at Canongate, left to explain the book’s structure.
Scott-Heron wanted to write a book solely about the tour with Stevie Wonder, because he believed it was Wonder’s activism during this tour that directly led to the creation of Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday and the holiday of the book’s title. As Scott-Heron wrote about his time on the tour, he realised he’d have to write about how he got there, the paths that took him to the level of success he had reached by 1980. We get to see an infant Scott-Heron, who was raised by his maternal grandmother after his parents separated when his father decided to leave the USA to become Scottish football club Celtic’s first black player. His mother, who was University-educated, eventually settled with Scott-Heron in Jackson, Tennessee, for a few years, then they moved to New York, where Scott-Heron won a scholarship to a private school. From there he went on to University, where he took a sabbatical as an undergraduate to write a novel, The Vulture. Before he finished his degree, he’d had a second novel and a book of poems published, plus his first record – Small Talk at 125th and Lenox – released. He then went on to postgraduate study, became a lecturer whilst writing and releasing music, before quitting teaching to be a full blown rock star type, this went very well, he met lots of fascinating, talented people, then Bob Marley had to pull out of his support slot on Stevie Wonder’s tour due to the illness that would kill him, so Scott-Heron ended up playing to stadiums full of adoring fans and he lived happily ever after.
It’s a wilfully hopeful memoir, skimming over truly difficult moments and lacking – other than in the final chapter, which feels like a tonally different afterthought – any real introspection. Scott-Heron presents himself as hard-working, as committed to creativity, as articulate and as intelligent. He was all of these things, it is true, and though he came from the second generation of a University-educated black family, he was still raised by a single parent and was not wealthy. He was never destitute, but he was a black child in the era before the legislated success of the Civil Rights movement, so any criticism of the man as middle class faux ghetto would be offensive. His private education may have contributed to the confidence that led him to get two novels published before completing a undergraduate degree, but he was a young man who watched the world around him and paid attention, recording hardship and pain in the lyrics that would make him successful and famous. Scott-Heron is witty, here, and evokes himself as witty and sharp in the past. He is not arrogant, he spends more time praising other people than he does himself. He does not deny that he was lucky in some respects, but all the luck he had was only valuable because he capitulated on it with his intelligence and his talent. Scott-Heron’s youth and childhood was not a walk in the park, but nor was it a dangerous, corrupt, horror.
The problem is, though, that Scott-Heron’s life was a mess from the early 80s through to about 2007, when he emerged out of a multi-decade long cocaine binge having spent time in jail, contracted HIV and created very little. This is skimmed over. Also ignored is the break-up of his relationship with Brian Jackson, his early creative collaborator, also ignored is the break-up of all his romantic/sexual relationships, despite regularly citing his happiest moments as those spent with partners and children. Scott-Heron avoided, when writing this memoir, things that would hurt him. He didn’t meet his father (other than as a proper baby) until he was 26: this isn’t mentioned. He does mention why he, a 50 year old man who’d had huge success, was living in a flat with his mother when she died in 1999. He writes at the end about how much he loved his children and his wives, but how he was a toxic influence and it was best for them that he stayed away. But was it? How did he know this? The reader never finds out.
Hidden beneath the happy story of success that The Last Holiday recounts was a narrative of abandonment, loneliness, betrayal, addiction and sadness. Perhaps the book’s title has a secondary function and also draws attention to text’s use as a holiday for Scott-Heron, a holiday from the darker parts of his own memory.
In The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron offers a pleasing and relaxing look at his existence, but he is only ever an observer of the scenes his most powerful songs are about. He is a thinker and a speaker and a creator, but there is a man hidden underneath who was more flawed than he would have liked the reader to believe. His health and his addiction were not secret, and it is unlikely anyone reading a memoir of Scott-Heron is going to be ignorant of the unhappy twists and turns of his later life. But here, in this book, we’re not at those bleak points. We’re on the Hotter than July Tour, we’re the happiest we’ve ever been and the most content.
A reader would have to be cruel to reprimand Scott-Heron for wanting to think happy thoughts; cruel, but justifiable. This is a dishonest memoir, the tone not an accurate reflection of the life. As life-writing it is underwhelming, as an evocation of a life it ignores more than it explores. Scott-Heron’s prose is strong, veers between casual and complex, is playful and engaging, evocative and sharp. But this isn’t a nuanced portrait of his life, and The Last Holiday suffers for that. I enjoyed it, but I’m a fan of the man’s work.
Not a bad book. But not an honest one.
1. If you know anyone who works in publishing in the UK, ask them about Jamie Byng. They all seem to have stories. ↩