Book Review: ” The Last Holiday A Memoir” by Gil Scott-Heron – posted 2/22/2015
When my friend Howard told me about Gil Scott-Heron’s posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, I did not know what to expect. I had not known he had written a memoir as well as a couple of novels. I had always loved Gil’s music.
Because of Gil’s political songs, I speculated that the memoir might be a political book. While Gil’s politics figure in, the book is much more a personal reminiscence about family with vignettes from various points in his life.
The good news is that Gil writes really well. The book is not conventional. I think it has a jazzy, riff-like quality. While it is somewhat chronological, Gil does jump around and there are many gaps and unanswered questions. Early in the book, Gil says the following:
“I have not always been proud of everything that has happened or that I have done throughout my life. But I consider myself fortunate. I was raised by two women – my mother and grandmother – who were both dedicated to my well-being and did everything they could to make sure I had every opportunity to succeed in life. They were dedicated to my book learning and were examples of what I should try to be as an adult and as a gentleman. The mistakes have been due to my own poor judgment both of people and circumstances.”
He doesn’t whitewash his problems but he doesn’t discuss them either. It is hard not to think about the tragedy of his early death. I don’t pretend to understand. I know he had big substance abuse issues and he did some time for possession of cocaine,possession of a crack pipe and violation of a plea deal. The drug charges dogged him until his parole in May 2007. And this was the person who wrote Angel Dust and The Bottle.
As I mentioned, there were some questions not addressed. What steps, if any, did Gil take to address his substance abuse issues? It appeared to have totally messed him up. In his personal life, none of his relationships lasted. He had three failed marriages and three children. He does write about his difficulty loving anyone and his resulting isolation. He describes a stroke he had in 1990. The circumstances of his death remain murky. He was apparently HIV positive. That is not mentioned in the book.
The book has a positive message though. Gil writes:
“We all need to see folks reach beyond what looks possible and make it happen. We need more examples of how to make it happen. We will all face difficult circumstances along the way that will challenge our self-confidence and try to disrupt our decisions about the directions we wish to choose.
I hope this book will remind you that you can succeed, that help can arrive from unexpected quarters at times that are crucial.”
Stevie Wonder plays a major role in the memoir and I think Stevie helped Gil enormously. Gil greatly admired Stevie and he traces Stevie’s musical growth. He performed with Stevie and the book includes a lot about Stevie’s long struggle to create a national holiday for Dr. King. Gil was very much a part of that. In the 80’s he sometimes opened for Stevie and toured with him. His love for Stevie and his appreciation for the joy Stevie’s music unleashed is pretty transparent. He includes some poems about Stevie. I like this one:
“That meant the harmonica on “Fingertips”
Was no sooner settling on Stevie’s lips
Than what inevitably came to their mind
For some reason was that the brother was blind.
Which obviously didn’t mean a helluva lot
‘Cause it said what he didn’t have but not what he got.
His music hit a certain chord
And moved you like the pointer on a Ouija board
Your feet made all of your dancing decisions
And didn’t give a damn if he had X-ray vision.
So why was it that people always remarked
“He’s blind” as though Stevie was condemned to the dark?
Suppose you looked at it the opposite way:
They had 20/20 vision and still couldn’t play.
And when they danced seeing didn’t help them keep time
And things like that made me wonder just who was blind.”
Gil tells some good stories about his experiences in school and college. Gil got recruited to go to Fieldston, an elite private school in New York and he does a good job describing the distance that Fieldston was from his everyday life. His mother got very sick the day of his interview for the school. He had to leave abruptly but he handled the interview committee so impressively and respectfully that he got accepted. Later he tells a story about a a conflict he had with a music teacher who had it in for him. Gil was written up and disciplined for playing the Steinway piano at the school. Gil does a beautiful job of conveying the disciplinary meeting. His mother came to the school to participate in the meeting. She deftly defended her son in a polite but most effective fashion.
Gil had anything but a traditional academic career. He went to Lincoln University and later John Hopkins for grad school. School always seemed to come second to creative pursuits.
He was such an important voice on a wide range of issues. Racism and anti-apartheid – think “Johannesburg”. Nuclear power – think “We Almost Lost Detroit”. Ronald Reagan – think “B Movie”. My favorite may be “Winter in America” which still seems so apropos.
While he is sometimes recognized as a precursor of rap because of his eloquent use of the spoken word, I don’t see anyone around filling his unique niche. Gil was a very accessible artist and he had a great talent for communicating his politics poetically to all kinds of people.
I would also mention he tells a bunch of entertaining stories about hanging around with celebrities. He was around Bob Marley, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Michael Jackson. You get some sense of what they were like.
From the memoir, it sounded like his personal hero was Thurgood Marshall. Surprisingly, he mentions Marshall a number of times. He clearly believed that to change America you had to change the law.
Check out this fine book. I expect it will change and deepen your perspective on Gil. I wish we had him now to be talking and singing about the world, its contradictions and absurdities. When I heard John Legend and Common sing “Glory” at the end of the movie Selma, I thought “WOW!” We need more of that. Gil brought that kind of power. His voice is so missed.