The Last Holiday: A Memoir
Music legend Gil Scott-Heron's poignant memoir.
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Though Gil Scott-Heron lived – and even toured – until the spring of 2011, he chooses to frame his memoir around events that occurred in 1981. That year Scott-Heron stepped in as the opening act for an ailing Bob Marley, on Stevie Wonder's Hotter than July tour. Far more than music was at stake. The tour also served as a nationwide barnstorming campaign in support of a Martin Luther King, Jr. observance – something Wonder passionately advocated in his song "Happy Birthday".Skip to next paragraph
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The "last holiday" of the book's title refers to the adoption, just two years after Wonder, Scott-Heron, and others made their case, of Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday. But one can't help also reading the title with other lasts in mind: word, hurrah, will and testament.
Closing his book at this transitional moment – the dawn of a decade, the beginning of a new presidential administration, the end of a musical era – makes perfect sense on an organizational level. It also allows Scott-Heron to evade the messiness of the three decades that followed, which would see him struggle with addiction and depression.
One can easily imagine quite a different book emerging from the material Scott-Heron's life provided him. It might have read something like a first-person rendition of the New Yorker profile from August 9, 2010, which focused on his struggles with crack addiction. This could have been the memoir of a bitter man, turned against himself and the world around him. Indeed, from the outside looking in, the arc of his life seems bent toward tragedy.
The Last Holiday centers instead on celebration. Even the darkest chapters of his past – his absentee father, his childhood estrangement from his mother, his setbacks on his road to success – are rendered without self-pity. On the page, Scott-Heron's voice is by turns witty and insouciant, wise and humble. The book achieves what the best memoirs always do: It reveals the author as a familiar; it fosters empathy across distance.
But like Scott-Heron himself, his memoir is at times prone to excess. He has a taste for extravagant similes, some of which come across as contrived. A pause in conversation, for instance, "hung in the air between us like a condor" and a New York City winter is "as cold as a whore's heart." More often, though, his writing remains in key. He displays a remarkable ability to sketch a character in a single line, as he does when he describes his Uncle Buddy as "a sober elder statesman who never said four words when three would get it said."
"The Last Holiday" is a feel-good story written by a man who knew what it was to feel bad. Read it with Scott-Heron's music in your ears (try 1974's Winter in America to start). Read it with an open mind. If he can produce such light amid the darkness that surrounded him, then the least we can do is let that light shine in.
Adam Bradley is the author of "Ralph Ellison in Progress" and the co-editor of "Three Days Before the Shooting...," the posthumous edition of Ellison's unfinished second novel.