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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

Music legend Gil Scott-Heron's poignant memoir.

February 6, 2012

The Last Holiday By Gil Scott-Heron Grove/Atlantic 384 pp

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Reviewed by Adam Bradley for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Gil Scott-Heron was not the Godfather of Rap. But when he passed away last year at the age of 62, nearly every obituary honored him as such. His posthumously published memoir, The Last Holiday, unsurprisingly touts Scott-Heron's hip-hop connections as well, with back cover blurbs from Chuck D, Common, Eminem, and others. But never in the book's 321 pages does Scott-Heron mention the words rap or hip-hop.

To term Scott-Heron's music as proto-rap is to misapprehend the nature of his broad influence upon the freewheeling space of American culture and the particularly liberated zone of African-American music. Scott-Heron was just as much an aggregator of influence as he was a purveyor of it. Seeing him in concert, one might hear the preacherly inflections of the Baptist pulpit, the stand-up insouciance of a young Bill Cosby, and the smoothed-out patter of a late-night radio DJ, all woven together.

Rap carries on only a part of Scott-Heron's legacy. "I've always looked at myself as a piano player from Tennessee; I play some piano and write some songs," Scott-Heron writes with characteristic humility and directness. Scott-Heron was a musical surrogate father of sorts: to hip-hop as well as to the spoken-word movement; to black rock, funk, and folk; and to a host of politically minded and soulful artists who, like the man himself, defy the tidy characterizations of genre.

On every page, "The Last Holiday" proves that to understand Gil Scott-Heron's life, you must embrace his music. His sound is polygeneric, mixing soul, blues, jazz, funk, folk, rock, and even a little reggae. "We are miscellaneous," Scott-Heron was fond of saying. On songs like "Is That Jazz?", he lampoons those frustrated by their inability to pigeonhole him. Though unclassifiable, his style was equally unmistakable: "a voice," Scott-Heron writes, "with a low end that rumbles along like a subway car with a flat wheel." What defined his aesthetic above all else was his refusal to admit barriers. A writer, a poet, a spoken-word performer, a lyricist, a musician, a singer – Gil Scott-Heron demands to be seen as nothing less capacious than an artist.  

For all of this, his body of work is often reduced to a single stance of protest and even a single song, the iconic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", which he first recorded at age 19. Even a cursory glance through his catalog, however, reveals that he and his composing partner, Brian Jackson, wrote songs about so much more than politics – partying, loving, mourning, remembering. "I felt people who wrote about me and Brian should have looked at all that we did," Scott-Heron asserts. "It was pretty obvious that there was an entire Black experience and that it didn't relate only to protest. We dealt with all the streets that went through the Black community and not all of those streets were protesting."

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