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Review

Gil Scott-Heron: The Last Holiday - A Memoir (Canongate Books)

Gil Scott-Heron: The Last Holiday - A Memoir (Canongate Books)

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UK release date 16.01.2012

The late Gil Scott-Heron was a complex and troubled man. His posthumous memoirs are not for the faint hearted. At times a gut-wrenching read, and perhaps a real insight into his fractious and fragile state of mind towards his last days.

But I get the impression thereâs a lot more he could have told us. So, did he choose not to? Or did he intend to revisit his life for a follow-up book to fill in the blanks? Sadly, weâll never know.

The irony is; in his five-decade career which spawned 20 albums, many seminal singles, two novels and his poetry; he had a lot to say about drugs and substance abuse in his uncompromising work. But he himself had been addicted to crack cocaine. He had struggles with drugs and alcohol, and spent 18-months behind bars from 2001, for cocaine possession.

HIV Positive, he was only 62 when he died last May in a New York hospital after becoming ill on a trip to Europe. A huge talent, lost for ever. A unique character and sadly missed. Usher stated "I just learned of the loss of a very important poet...R.I.P., Gil Scott-Heron. The revolution will be live!" Kanye West sang two songs at Gilâs funeral.

A pioneer. He was a street-wise poet, musician, novelist, savage satirist and activist. Often cited as the Godfather of rap, which he rejected, preferring to describe what he did as "bluesology" â "a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues.â He was the first to attack Apartheid in South Africa, before it became a shrewd PR angle for many other artists.

Chuck D said: âWe do what we do and how we do because of you.â

Eminem said Gil âinfluenced all of hip hop.â

Gil appeared at the WOMAD festival in Wiltshire in July 2010. The book tells us there is a picture of him from that gig on page 318, but it is in fact on page 316! Also in 2010, he released his first new album in 16 years, the critically acclaimed âIâm New Here.â

He irritated the heck out of the establishment, since he turned up in the early 1970s. He had a unique ability to mix empathetic observation, irreverence, political commentary and bare-faced cheek. Not slow to point out corruption and the Governmentâs failings. He had a dreamâ¦â¦âDr Martin Luther King had a dream. Stevie Wonder had a dream. This is a book about dreams.â Maybe subliminally, it is also a book about nightmares. Hisâ¦â¦â¦.

If you are seeking an uplifting, inspirational and humour-filled stroll down memory lane with Gil, then this ainât the book for you. It is a little like the literary equivalent of a foggy November Monday night in a Grimsby B&B listening to Leonard Cohen on your i-Pod.

It is also a little disorganised at times. We are promised the bookâs main focus will be the 41-city US tour in1980 he did with Stevie Wonder, as part of Stevieâs campaign to establish Martin Luther King Jr.âs birthday as a national holiday. âThe Last Holiday is Scott-Heronâs fascinating account of what took place, and how he came to be there.â But this topic is not mentioned at all until three quarters through. (The book is published on what is now Martin Luther King Day.)

He wrote this over a very long period, from the 1990s to 2010. The publisher adds a note, to say even calling it a memoir may be misleading, as it is âcertainly not a memoir in the conventional sense of the word.â So why, I ask, call it a memoir in the title then? That word âconventionalâ and Gill Scott-Heron are as unlikely bed fellows as Ian Brady and The Pope.

We are told the publisher rejected Gilâs first drafts, told in third person terms by a narrator Gil called âThe Artist.â So in 2004, he began rewriting it in his voice. In a 2005 letter, Gil said that he found it âtotally unnerving and self-serving at times.â The âInterludeâ chapter of the book is the only surviving part of the original manuscript. The final result was delivered in drip-feed fashion, and sometimes just notes. A big job to pull it all together in some semblance of order, and credit goes to Editor Tim Mohr for his skills in gluing it all together.

Gilâs mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, was an opera singer who performed with the New York Oratorio Society. Scott-Heron's father, Gil Heron, nicknamed "The Black Arrow," was a Jamaican soccer player in the 1950s, and he became the first black athlete to play for Glasgow Celtic FC. We get to hear about Gilâs younger days when he was at school. In his junior school production of The Mikado.

He speaks of High School teacher Nettie Leaf (I love that name!); lighting the fire in his heart for literature, who secured him a scholarship to a prestigious prep school in the Bronx. He writes about his time on a creative writing course, and his own early work, The Vulture and Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. He tells us about recording his first two albums.

He speaks about the civil rights movement, the Governmentâs âhypocrisy,â the music industry, New York and modern America. He tells us of the stroke he had in 1990 and the death of his mother.

He says he is not able to express love, but says he loved his (estranged) children and their mothers âas best I could.â He says their motherâs were all better off without him. I donât know about that, but I do suspect he was a man who needed help and love, and it seems did not get it before it was too late. As he himself sang: âPeace go with you, brother.â
Words SIMON REDLEY

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