Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Gil Scott-Heron's "The Last Holiday"

"I was trying to get people who listened to me to realize that they were not alone and that certain things were possible." - Excerpt from The Last Holiday 

If there was a man who had a way with words, it was Gil Scott-Heron. The revolutionary poet and songwriter, who mixed jazz and poetry together, was an iconic figure in the 1970s. His songs and poems were the backdrop of the post-civil rights era and were the early inspiration for hip-hop and rap music. His poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was a big hit and has been named one of the “Top 20 Political Songs” by The New Statesmen.

The Last Holiday was posthumously released in January after his death in May of 2011. In 2010, his career was on a comeback after a decade of drug problems, health issues, and incarceration. He released his first album in several years that was amusingly titled I’m New Here--the album was praised by critics and sparked an interest in his previous recordings. He started touring again and played the big music festivals around the world.

He begins The Last Holiday discussing his family’s origins. He has warm memories of his grandmother who raised him after his parents separated, he talks about his father’s career as a professional soccer player, and he talks about how all of his maternal family were educated people. There is no doubt that Gil Scott-Heron was an intelligent person, and we learn just how intelligent he was as a child when he discusses his full-scholarship to a preparatory school, his college years at Lincoln University, and Johns Hopkins where he received his masters degree in creative writing.

He discusses his music career with stories from the road and playing in various cities in America. One of which is where he talks about playing a benefit concert against nuclear energy put together by Jackson Browne, where he went on stage to an audience screaming for Bruce Springsteen, who was scheduled to play later on that evening. In one amusing tale, he talks about how we walked into his hotel room to find Bob Marley and his friends sitting in there after being given the key to his room. Touring with Stevie Wonder and talking about Stevie Wonder’s benefit to establish Martin Luther King Day included a story about meeting Michael Jackson, and when he and Stevie Wonder learned about the assassination of John Lennon.

The one problem I had with The Last Holiday is that it’s a collection of stories being told in chronological order as they happened. There were a lot of moments where I found myself wanting to know more and what happened next in transition, but you end up starting a new story when you turn the page. It’s as if you’re getting samples of his life at times and that you want him to emphasize more on what he’s sharing. I came to a part towards the end where he said that when he used to teach creative writing courses before he became a musician, he would tell his students to write about an event that they could remember in vivid detail, and it seems that’s how he decided to write his memoir. The memoir ends around 1999 when he talks about his mother’s death. We don’t get to hear anything about those lost years that followed where he was struggling with drug addiction, with arrests, and his fight to attain sobriety where he decided to revive his music career again. The one thing that he eventually admitted to in a later interview was that he was HIV-positive.

For music fans or anyone who has heard of Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday is definitely a delight to read. For those who are just being introduced to his music, it’s a good place to start. The Last Holiday is the climax and last testament of the life of the man who changed how he listened to music and how we experienced poetry. 

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