Gil Scott-Heron Memoir: Scenes From a Fragmented Life
When I finished reading musician, poet and author Gil Scott-Heron's posthumously published The Last Holiday: A Memoir, I felt all at once exultant and angry, deeply moved and maddeningly frustrated. But mostly I felt an odd, pensive twinge of regret, a bit like the one that I got at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when the two legendary but fading outlaws make one last, fatal charge with their guns blazing.
Like Butch and Sundance, Scott-Heron, who died in May at 62, was a desperado, but he performed his feats of audacious daring with a typewriter and a piano. Even at the peak of his fame, when he was touring with Stevie Wonder in the early 1980s, he never had more than a cult following. Unless you're part of the latter, chances are that you're probably familiar with just his best-known song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a searing spoken-word take-down of the hypocrisy and phoniness of the Nixon-era mass media, set to a hypnotic funky synergy of electric bass, drums and jazz flute. He wrote this enduring classic at age 19 in 1968.
Scott-Heron's 2011 NPR obituary described him as "one of the progenitors of hiphop," and you can see traces of his influence -- from his clever alliteration to the vivid, gritty power of his descriptions of inner-city hardscrabble existence and defiant questioning of the status quo -- in a succession of performers that stretches from old-schooler Kurtis Blow to Kanye West, who sampled Scott-Heron's voice on a 2010 album as a tribute. But Scott-Heron himself never was comfortable with that label; as The Last Holiday details. He saw himself more as part of an older African-American literary and musical tradition, influenced by blues, jazz and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In his memoir, he says that one of his best spoken-word pieces, "Whitey on the Moon," was written under the influence of Langston Hughes' 1940 poem Ballad of The Landlord (PDF).
Unlike some of the rappers he paved the way for, Scott-Heron wasn't all about get-rich-or-die-trying. Born in 1949, he was the son of Bobbie Scott, an honor student from Lane College in Tennessee, and her then-husband Gilbert St. Elmo Heron, a Jamaican-American factory worker and gifted athlete who left his wife and son behind to play professional soccer in Scotland. Scott-Heron spent his childhood in a working-class community where he and his grandmother raised vegetables in the backyard until construction of a highway obliterated their neighborhood. He then reunited with his mother in New York City, where he hustled for badly-needed dollars by delivering groceries and newspapers on his bike and working as an underage dishwasher in a Bronx steakhouse. When he went to the local playground to play basketball, other young men made fun of him for not being able to afford the Converse All-Star sneakers that were the 1960s status-equivalent of Air Jordans. But Scott-Heron didn't care: "I had what I needed to get by." That included a wardrobe of his uncle's second-hand clothes, a few broom handles to use as stickball bats, a basketball, a collection of Marvel comics and an AM radio that enabled him to listen to Mets games.
Despite being an impoverished teen, Scott-Heron's agile intellect and way with words made him stand out. He was awarded a full-scholarship to Fieldston, a prestigious prep school (even after he deliberately tried to flunk the math portion of the entrance exam because he was wary of being thrust into an upper-class white milieu). During his time at the school, he incited the music teacher's wrath by sneaking into the auditorium to play rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll hits on the new Steinway piano, and tried songwriting for the first time. He went on to Lincoln University in Philadelphia, where he boldly chose to drop out for a semester to write a detective mystery novel, The Vulture, and then snatched back his manuscript from a publisher who was willing to pay him the then-princely sum of $2,000 if he agreed to rewrite the "ghetto-speak dialogue." (Scott-Heron ended up finding another publisher, who not only didn't butcher his work, but also gave him a much larger advance.)
Around that time, Scott-Heron's musical career began taking off as well. He hooked up with Bob Thiele, a former producer for jazz great John Coltrane and founder of a small regional record label. While still a college undergraduate, he wrote and recorded some of his finest songs, including "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," "Home is Where the Hatred Is" and "Pieces of a Man." He soon got airplay on the hip free-form FM stations of the era, and by the mid-to-late 1970s, he was playing arenas and touring internationally. Somehow, he also found time to write another novel, earn a masters degree in the writing program at Johns Hopkins University, and teach writing at Federal City College in Washington. DC. "I was a better songwriter when I was teaching writing," he recalled.
By 1981, Scott-Heron was touring with his onetime idol, Stevie Wonder. His memoir takes its title from Wonder's crusade to have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday designated as a national holiday. From there, unfortunately, Scott-Heron's book races awkwardly through the next two decades of his life, pausing only for disconnected vignettes about the death of his mother, his reconnecting with his son Rumal, and an unsettling account of the stroke that he suffered onstage in 1990. There's nothing about Scott-Heron's fall from grace in the 1990s and 2000s, when his drug use escalated into a paralyzing problem, and his writing and musical output dwindled to almost nothing. When New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson profiled Scott-Heron in 2010, about a year before his death, he found him living in a grim first-floor apartment in Harlem, gaunt and grizzled. At the time, the singer was struggling to reclaim his momentum and exorcise his demons, tapping out The Last Holiday on an ancient floppy-drive word-processor. It's no wonder that the book has an incomplete, first-draft feel to it.
Even so, The Last Holiday has enough traces of brilliance that you should read it. Scott-Heron's deft, nuanced depiction of growing up in the segregated 1950s and early 1960s South make The Help seem pale by comparison (pun intended), and he had a rare gift for crafting potent metaphors. I can't help but think that if his life had taken a different turn, he might have not only written more great songs, but stood on the pantheon of contemporary black novelists alongside Walter Mosley and John Edgar Wideman. That's why The Last Holiday left me beset by such a tangle of conflicting emotions. I'm glad to have had the chance to experience a little more of Scott-Heron's genius. But I still can't help but wonder what caused him to squander the rest of his once-dazzling promise.
The New York Times recently published this excerpt from The Last Holiday, in which Scott-Heron lyrically describes his stint as a teenage dishwasher, and how it influenced his future path as an artist. Here also is a video of one of his final songs, "New York Is Killing Me" from his 2010 CD I'm Still Here.
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