Gil Scott-Heron: A Writer of Words and Music

Gil Scott-Heron
When the poet, novelist, pianist and spoken-word recording artist Gil Scott-Heron died unexpectedly last May, at 62, he left behind a prickly and galvanizing body of work.

His best songs—"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," “Whitey on the Moon," “We Almost Lost Detroit"—are rarely heard on classic-rock radio; they're too eccentric and polemical and might kill a workingman's lunchtime buzz. But they'll still stop you in your tracks.


A Memoir By Gil Scott-Heron

Leave it to Scott-Heron to save some of his best for last. This posthumously published memoir, “The Last Holiday," is an elegiac culmination to his musical and literary career. He's a real writer, a word man, and it is as wriggling and vital in its way as Bob Dylan's “Chronicles: Volume One."

The Dylan comparison is worth picking up on for a moment. The critic Greil Marcus coined the phrase “the old, weird America" to refer to the influences that Mr. Dylan and the Band raked into their music on “The Basement Tapes." In “The Last Holiday" Scott-Heron taps into the far side of that older and weirder America—that is, the fully African-American side. This memoir reads a bit like Langston Hughes filtered through the scratchy and electrified sensibilities of John Lee Hooker, Dick Gregory and Spike Lee.

For a relatively slim book, this one gets a lot of things said, not just about Scott-Heron's own life but also about America in the second half of the 20th century. It encompasses Chicago, where he was born in 1949. There are sections in rural Tennessee, where he went to live with his grandmother after his Jamaican father abandoned the family to play professional soccer in Scotland. A few of these Tennessee passages are nearly as lovely as anything in James Agee's prose poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915." Later Scott-Heron's mother uprooted him to the Bronx.

This book is a warm memorial to the strong women in his life. One was his grandmother, who instilled in him a love of learning. The other was his mother, who came back into Scott-Heron's life after his grandmother's death. Both are electric presences in these pages.

In department stores in the 1950s, his grandmother refused to give up her place in line to whites. His mother fought for her son when he got into trouble for playing boogie-woogie music on a school Steinway, and when he was accidentally relegated to vocational classes. Administrators learned to fear and respect her. One said to the author: “Heron, your mother is a very impressive lady."

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