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The Last Holiday: A Memoirby Gil Scott-heron
Before his death in 2011, the great Gil Scott-Heron was enjoying somewhat of a resurgence in popularity and success. His 2010 album, I'm New Here (his first in 16 years), was released to wide acclaim from fans and critics alike, and both of his novels, 1970's The Vulture and 1972's The Nigger Factory, were about to find their way back into print. As a new generation of listeners were discovering the poet/musician/proto-rapper's nearly two-dozen albums, Scott-Heron emerged from a tumultuous decade marked by drugs and prison.
Scott-Heron began writing some form of The Last Holiday in the '90s, originally about his 1980-1981 tour opening in support of Stevie Wonder and Wonder's ongoing efforts to have Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday recognized as a national holiday. Canongate Books, Scott-Heron's longtime U.K. publisher, was set to publish the book in 2003, but it never came to fruition. Around the same time, Scott-Heron began reworking the book as a first-person narrative, keeping the Stevie Wonder/MLK material but expanding it in an autobiographical vein more inclusive of his childhood and early career.
Scott-Heron's memoir begins with his early years in Jackson, Tennessee, and his experiences with the racism one would expect out of the South in the 1950s. Upon his move to the Bronx just prior to his teenage years, his life appeared on the cusp of a trajectory that would lead to his success as both musician and writer. As he chronicles some of the more important events of his young life, it is evident that Scott-Heron, despite some adversity, was both creative and ambitious. He reflects on his time at college (as an undergrad and graduate student), especially when he, with the aid of his fellow students, closed down the campus in response to inadequate health-care facilities that contributed to the deaths of at least two students.
At times, the writing in The Last Holiday is strong and characteristic of the talent he had displayed previously in his novels, poetry, and songs, yet elsewhere it reads as hurried and sometimes uninspired. When Scott-Heron allows his prose to flow, however, marked by his trademark alliteration and rhythmic incorporation of verse, his writing often shines. When describing his love and admiration for Stevie Wonder (who affectionately referred to him as "Aries"), it is apparent that Scott-Heron held him in great regard and respected his work deeply.
The Last Holiday, in its final form, is a somewhat disjointed memoir, full of anecdotes sometimes seemingly chosen at random. Scott-Heron omits almost all insight into the last 20 years of his life, save for a brief chapter dealing with the passing of his mother (and the subsequent realizations he came to about his lifelong troubles dealing with love and intimacy). Nowhere does he mention his problems with crack cocaine, his resulting imprisonments, or his HIV diagnosis. A bit more self-reflection or introspection would have perhaps revealed a side of him inaccessible from his music alone.
Omissions aside, The Last Holiday is an illuminating book about one of our greatest and most influential artists.
Sociology and every other inexact approximate science of odds and oddly negative prognostication be damned. Those sciences of vague, uneven basis and potential seemed to have been discovered to generalize and generally discourage humankind from being the kind of humans they could really be.
Recommended by Jeremy, Powell's City of Books
Synopses & Reviews
The stunning memoir of Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday has been praised for bringing back to life one of the most important voices of the last fifty years. Now in paperback, The Last Holiday provides a remarkable glimpse into Scott-Herons life and times, from his humble beginnings to becoming one of the most influential artists of his generation.
The memoir climaxes with a historic concert tour in which Scott-Herons band opened for Stevie Wonder. The Hotter than July tour traveled cross-country from late 1980 through early 1981, drumming up popular support for the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Kings birthday, January 15, was marked with a massive rally in Washington.
A fitting testament to the achievements of an extraordinary man, The Last Holiday provides a moving portrait of Scott-Herons relationship with his mother, personal recollections of Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Clive Davis, and other musical figures, and a compelling narrative vehicle for Scott-Herons insights into the music industry, the civil rights movement, governmental hypocrisy, and our wider place in the world. The Last Holiday confirms Scott-Heron as a fearless truth-teller, a powerful artist, and an inspiring observer of his times.
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