“One of the things that was evident to me way back when I’d gotten into John Coltrane’s music was that you had to keep reaching. I think when you stop reaching, you die.” Gil Scott-Heron’s words are powerful when you think about the impact of the poet, author, musician and activist, (who would have been 63 years old this month), which produces a list as extensive in range as the profound gifts he shared with the world. His social anthems “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, “The Bottle” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” not only elucidated the plights and resilience of black Americans, but were progenitorial inspiration for hip hop’s modern messengers like Public Enemy, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and fellow Chicago native, Common. That his impact is perhaps even greater than we may have understood during his lifetime is what is most resounding in his posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday (Grove Press). The book’s title refers to Scott-Heron’s experiences as the opening act of Stevie Wonder’s 1980 tour which primarily served as a vehicle to create awareness and garner support of a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King. The first and only federal holiday honoring an African American, Scott-Heron gives a touching and vulnerable account of the experience, as well a reminder of the integrality of Wonder’s work. “Somehow it seems that Stevie’s efforts as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten,” he says. “But it is something that we should all remember.”
Scott-Heron devotes much of the text to his 20s and the women who greatly impelled him. Raised by his fiercely confident grandmother in the Jim Crow South, Scott-Heron was one of three black students to integrate his junior high school, and broke similar barriers in high school when he and his mother moved from Jackson, Tennessee, to New York in the mid 60s. His views of America undoubtedly shaped by these experiences, they also gave young Scott-Heron tremendous insight to what was possible, evidenced by his becoming a critically acclaimed novelist and recording artist before his college graduation.
Throughout the book, he seems to purposely clarify that his first and greatest love is writing. The words on each page make a perfect argument for his passion as a mix of prose, poems, alliterations and vibrant analogies make for total assimilation. His words glide right off the page as he describes highly inspiring accounts of time spent at Lincoln University, turning down his first book publishing offer, and his ingenious method of gaining a writing fellowship at John Hopkins. We see his earliest signs of activism his freshman year at Lincoln, when a bandmate of his future longtime collaborator, Brian Jackson, died an avoidable death when the ill-equipped and poorly run campus medical facility failed to aid the student who was suffering from an asthma attack. Scott-Heron led a school standoff which subsequently shut the school down until a list of personally crafted administrative requests had been met.
Fans of Scott-Heron’s music will appreciate details shared about his relationship with Jackson, whom he credits throughout the book, describing him as both friend, and essential and talented partner. Recalling the studio session to record “John Coltrane and Lady Day” he writes, “All I’d had for that song at first was a bass line and a chord thing with it. I never would have been able to really hook up that progression properly if Brian wasn’t there…I didn’t know anything about suspended fourths and all that.”
Although appropriately credited for his influence on hip hop, Scott-Heron seems most purely connected to jazz. “I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music.” His mentions of Miles Davis are noteworthy, and there is a definite sense of adoration for him as a cultural figure. His words are boyishly charming as he tells stories about first hearing a Fender Rhodes on Miles in the Sky, or how meeting Michael Jackson some years before he would make a surprise appearance on the MLK tour was “not as electric” as meeting the trumpeter icon. Scott-Heron also must have admired Davis’ band. Asked who he wanted to work with on what would become the seminal Pieces of a Man, by veteran producer Bob Thiele, Scott-Heron’s wish list of Ron Carter, (along with Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie) was materialized.
There are a few frustrating points in the book in terms of resolution. Readers may be left wondering what happened to his relationship with Brian Jackson, or why he grazes over the last 20 some-odd years of his life, making little to no mention about his personal, yet public struggles. It’s hard to tell if this is a matter of editing or Scott-Heron exercising his right to let the reader in on as much as he is willing to divulge. Either way, the areas that he chooses to delve deep are well worth the read and diminish any gaping. Though Gil Scott-Heron died last May, he will be remembered as one who never stopped reaching, and through this memoir, for the man who “didn’t want to get stuck doing just one thing”, that reach may become longer than ever.