Thursday, January 12, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "The Last Holiday: A Memoir" by Gil Scott-Heron


Anyone interested in reading the memoir of the late Gil Scott-Heron already knows the brother has a way with words.

The telling of Heron’s story in his own words brings a lot of potential. This book achieves some of that potential, while missing out on other aspects of it.

By now you’ve probably heard about the missing contents; Heron doesn’t speak of his years of struggling with drug addiction, his incarceration, or dealing with HIV. Most fans of Heron would welcome some of that content. Not from the standpoint of sensationalist gossip; always a danger in the telling of the story like his. But rather as important aspects of Heron as a person and his story. Ultimately, I respect Heron’s right to keep these experiences to himself, and the tales he does unfold in detail still satisfy.

The book is seasoned with Heron’s unique manner of speaking and what he himself points out as a corny sense of humor. Initially, I feared Heron might overuse these elements as a “crutch” in telling his story, but they – along with seemingly free-styled poems incorporated into some of the anecdotes – actually endear him to you.

You can easily tell that Heron felt a great deal of pride in his intellect and success as a student and writer. The first half of the book describes his journey from Tennessee, where his grandmother raised him, to New York, where he lived with his mother, following his grandmother’s death, and his journey through private school, college, and graduate school. One can easily understand his pride; I didn’t realize Heron published his first novel and recorded his first albums while still in college.

As a fan of the “revolutionary” side of Gil Scott-Heron, I had hoped for more content in that area. While he does rail briefly against racism and includes a section on how he personally “shut down” Lincoln University following the preventable death of a black student, he keeps most of the content personal, rather than political or overly socially conscious.

The publisher has thus far promoted the book as an account of the tour Heron participated in with Stevie Wonder in 1980, launched with the aim of raising awareness of the proposed holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. While Heron does touch on this content, he presents the material as more of a personal history within that time frame, rather than an explanation of his own thoughts on Dr. King, the necessity of the holiday to honor him, or his personal involvement in effort to create that holiday.

I wondered a few times why Heron included certain stories, but you can tell they matter to him. That’s one thing that comes through, throughout the entire book; this material mattered to Heron. His work mattered to him. His academic career mattered. His personal relationships mattered – though, as he points out, he often sacrificed them to complete the journey that “The Spirits” had him on.

While the story lacks details on some parts of the journey (obviously giving the memoir an incomplete feeling), Heron details the journey with love and masterful storytelling.

Gil Scott-Heron presents a heartbreaking, endearing, and somehow comfortingly familiar story. I’ve used the term “journey” a lot in describing this book. More than most biographies, this narrative feels truly like that; not a story, but a journey.

A broken and wiser-for-it Heron looks back on the path he took as a promising and ambitious young artist struggling along his way, telling the good and bad of the journey, and realizing the toll it took.

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