Essential Reading: ‘The Last Holiday: A Memoir’, Gil Scott-Heron (2012)
You should go into Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir ‘The Last Holiday’ expecting to leave with even more questions about the life and mind of one of the greatest contemporary poets and influential musical figures of the 20th century.
In fact, even calling ‘The Last Holiday’ a ‘memoir’ is perhaps a bit misleading.
I wrote the last sentence and, since I read the book a few months ago, I took it out again to fact-check some things with the publisher’s note. The third sentence is: ‘Even calling it a memoir may be misleading, because it is certainly not a memoir in the conventional sense of the word.’
‘The Last Holiday’ was published a year after Scott-Heron’s sudden passing in 2011 and consists of his writings produced between the 1990s and 2010s. They were sent to publisher Jamie Byng in bits and pieces – accounts of happenings in mixed up chronological order, ‘written on various archaic typewriters and computers’. Some of the stories were originally written in the third person with Gil – the narrator – being called The Artist but were later re-written in the first person to the advice of Byng.
Scott-Heron’s original intention with ‘The Last Holiday’ was to tell the story of touring with Stevie Wonder’s 1980-1981 ‘Hotter Than July’ tour – a tour marked by Wonder’s campaign to establish the 15th of January, or Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday, as a national holiday.
It was Gil’s belief that Wonder never received enough recognition for his activism and it would be a lie if we said that wasn’t true.
However, writing only about the ‘Hotter Than July’ tour proved difficult, for ‘it was only by opening up his own past that he felt he could properly explain why he had ended up on the tour with Stevie Wonder’.
This is how we receive an invitation into the world of Scott-Heron’s life – his childhood in Jackson, Tennessee and his close relationship with his grandmother Lillie, the life story of his absent father, the move to the Bronx at the age of 12 where he lived with his mother for the first time.
Most of all, the realities of socioeconomic background and race issues that he was suddenly faced with – realities which shaped the mind and art of an exceptionally sensitive and intelligent young man.
Furthermore, we learn about his days at Lincoln University, the social and political activism he got involved with there, the writing of his two novels ‘The Vulture’ and ‘The Nigger Factory’ and tiny bits and pieces of his personal life – arguably the storyline which raises the most questions that ‘The Last Holiday’ leaves unanswered.
Had Gil Scott-Heron not passed away at the age of 62, it is possible that ‘The Last Holiday’ could’ve been a memoir in a more traditional sense.
But it’s not the gaps in the story or the chronological jumps that make the book the intriguing piece of literature that it is – it is Scott-Heron’s exceptional way with words, the gift and legacy he will be remembered for, the opportunity to relate the man’s first-person narration to his songs and poems, that will leave you wanting to know more.
It must be true then, that the mark of a genius is that you can never truly know them. That’s one message that ‘The Last Holiday’ conveys very clearly.
The Mo’ Fidelity bloggers usually buy their books through second-hand book vendors on Amazon or from local book shops and independent music shops. ‘The Last Holiday’ was purchased from Rough Trade East, London.
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