The Last Holiday: A Memoir
Grove Press, hardcover
Not long ago, I mentioned The Last Holiday: A Memoir, a new, posthumously published book by musician, poet, and writer Gil Scott-Heron, to a (much younger) co-worker. “Who is Gil Scott-Heron?” he asked. How do you explain Scott-Heron—a man who is both well known for his 40-some-year trajectory of culture-shaping work and is, at the same time, oddly obscure—to a fan of a hip-hop star like Drake?
Scott-Heron’s landmark single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and other works from his early albums stitched together 1970s political/cultural revolutionary poetry with a thriving protest-music movement. The idea of sharing ideas publicly through song harks back to a griot tradition that is older than written history and, at the same time, contains the seeds of hip-hop. As a longtime crate-digger and collector of vinyl, I recognize him in the roots of much of the music I love.
But before his musical career began, Scott-Heron had published a novel and a book of poetry (the performance of the latter formed the basis of his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox), and he was at heart a storyteller. Although he opens The Last Holiday by casting doubt on the “detailed recollections authors write about their childhoods,” the stories that make up the book seem fresh, recent. Scott-Heron writes conversationally, and the prose is peppered with jokes and warmth.
The events in the book are organized roughly chronologically, from his childhood and early family life to the touring, performing, and band-hopping he experienced during the 1970s and into the ’80s. He navigates worlds, taking us with him through publishing, the music industry, parenthood, performance. We get as much a sense of who Scott-Heron is through what he doesn’t say as from what he does—this is not a particularly introspective memoir. It is a peek into the experiences he chooses to share rather than an exploration of his inner life, a chronicle of his troubles with drug addiction, or a passionate reimagining of lost loves.
But those experiences are fascinating, in no small part because of Scott-Heron’s positioning in history. He surfed the cusp of some of the most important waves of social and cultural change that swept through this country during the second half of the 20th century, and his stories and remembrances, while personal and specific, also skew toward the historic. He was one of the three students who integrated the public junior high school he attended in Jackson, Miss. (He writes that he didn’t fully realize the impact of this decision until the Civil War came up in history class, and “it was like reviewing it from the loser’s locker room.”) An interstate highway cut through his late grandmother’s neighborhood the way they cut through and displaced so many middle-class black communities in cities throughout the South, chasing Scott-Heron and his mother north along the last currents of the Great Migration. After taking a year off from college to write a mystery novel, he posed as a member of the Black Panther Party in order to get his manuscript read by the editor of Eldridge Cleaver’s recently published Soul on Ice.
The title of The Last Holiday refers to Martin Luther King’s birthday, and Scott-Heron’s efforts to assist his good friend Stevie Wonder in getting it onto the national observance calendar. His connection with Wonder highlights a theme that was central to Scott-Heron’s life: the interplay between culture and politics, and the ability of music/art/literature to galvanize the passions of many and effect change.
Much as he did in concert, Scott-Heron wanders a bit from the traditional path between point A and point B in The Last Holiday. But the tangents are so engaging it’s possible to forget about the narrative as a whole until he loops around and you find yourself back there. Questions are answered, or unfinished threads of narrative are picked up again, in later chapters. The effect is of sitting at the bus stop with an elder who is sharing stories with you, watching the buses pass by.
The United States is notorious for disposable culture. We are constantly looking for the Next New Thing, and display a general lack of reverence for what has come before. Sometimes this means innovation and growth. Sometimes it means a lack of respect for knowledge already acquired, or a loss or devaluing of cultural resources that should be ours by right. The cultural norm has become someone older trying to keep pace with someone younger, an inversion of what seems a more natural order. Sometimes, one wants to just find an elder and listen to their stories.
I had the honor of meeting Scott-Heron a couple of times, but as has been well documented, at the end of his life his health and clarity were not at their best. He came alive onstage, even as his fans wondered after every gig whether this one would be his last. Scott-Heron died in May of last year. The Last Holiday is the conversation we never got to have with him.