The late poet, novelist, and soul-jazz songwriter Gil Scott-Heron had influence to burn. His song-poems created a new style, he was the first act signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records, and his best-known tune, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” almost single-handedly broke ground for the socially conscious wing of hip-hop. In 1980, Scott-Heron and his band joined Stevie Wonder on a massive tour they used to call for the creation of a national holiday dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sadly, Scott-Heron’s posthumous quasi-autobiography, The Last Holiday, hinges on his reverence for Stevie Wonder, which just underscores the missed opportunity that became his own life. Like his music, the book has flashes of brilliance, but too many unpolished stones cluttering the space between.
For fans of the performer or anyone interested in the tenor of the 1970s, The Last Holiday is still well worth sampling. Scott-Heron was a wordsmith first and foremost, and sweeps of writing here make his gift clear. Describing Memphis, the city where King was killed, he writes that the city escaped its “filthy foundation as a headquarters for whores and for humans sold to the highest bidder” with “the magic of musical melding.”
Born to a soccer star and an opera singer who soon separated, Scott-Heron was encouraged to audition for a school production of The Mikado. “I ended up getting the lead role as the executioner who doesn’t want to execute anyone,” he writes. “Seemed like I was getting typecast.”
He first gained recognition as a spoken-word performer with the 1970 album Small Talk At 125th And Lenox. It was produced by Bob Thiele, a record-industry player who recorded jazz albums by John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, and co-wrote “What A Wonderful World.” Scott-Heron saw more than a few cracks in the wonderful world, though, and his songs are well-known for their caustic social analysis. His music and verse have been heavily sampled over the years, by Black Star, Boogie Down Productions, Common, and many others. Kanye West, a big admirer who performed at Scott-Heron’s 2011 memorial service, prominently featured a Small Talk piece on a track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The Last Holiday has little to say about Scott-Heron’s impressions of hip-hop. It doesn’t have especially deep insight into his own music, either, and doesn’t say much about his longtime musical partner, Brian Jackson. About one of his better-known songs, “The Bottle,” Scott-Heron explains that he wrote from the perspective of a group of alcoholics he knew from the neighborhood when he lived in Washington D.C. “I found out that none of them had hoped to become alcoholics when they grew up,” he writes, with characteristic dryness.
By the 1990s, his career was suffering after his dependencies got the best of him. It comes as little surprise, then, that he preferred to focus his memoir on a moment of impact, that 1980 tour with Stevie Wonder. “We all need to see folks reach beyond what looks possible and make it happen,” he writes of Wonder, who used his outsize talent to push for something he believed in deeply. “We need more examples of how to make it happen.” Reading that, it’s easy to think Scott-Heron wished he could have sustained his own youthful knack for making things happen.