What becomes a legend most? Less often it is a litany of daring accomplishments and important people met than it is an understanding of what makes a person a legend in the first place. In poet Gil Scott-Heron’s posthumous memoir The Last Holiday, we see the legend emerging from humble beginnings — early life in Jacksonville, Tenn., and his lifelong closeness with his mother; ludicrous discipline for playing a Steinway piano in school; early skillful stabs at developing his voice as a poet and writing his incisive long-form insights on race and the human condition in his ’70s novels The Vulture and The Nigger Factory.
He had the hits — with the 1974 album Winter in America and its anthemic “The Bottle” — as well as the philosophical smash that came with the poems “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon” on his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
The regional FM radio successes of these counterculture riffs caught the eye of Clive Davis at Arista Records, launching Scott-Heron into an entirely different sphere of influence. “I have never been very fond of doing interviews,” he admits, although by the way he casts his mind back to those days in the relaxed, yet impassioned way the he does, he must have been saving all that insight up for The Last Holiday.
He reminisces about the just-unfolding jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and his days on the road touring with his words and music. Expanding on his memories as only Gil Scott-Heron can, he peppers the narrative with poems written during white-hot moments when life and politics inextricably intertwined. The pinnacle of those challenging times comes when he tours with Steve Wonder in 1980, culminating with the January 15, 1981, concert rally in Washington, D.C., on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. King’s birthday was not at that point a national holiday, but the push to make it so was launched at that rally by Wonder and Scott-Heron with their music, poetry and petition drive that gathered a still-unmatched 6 million signatures and delivered them to Congress.
It seems faintly strange, but not entirely untrue, to consider the triptych of The Last Holiday as a series of events in one man’s life, the sole purpose of which was to lead to one event in particular. That’s the immediate impression one comes away with after reading Scott-Heron’s memoir. Clearly, the Stevie Wonder concert for Dr. King made an indelible impression on Scott-Heron; conversely, there’s precious little in the book (20 pages or so) about the 30 remaining years of his life and accomplishments past 1981. This was apparently a conscious decision he made when submitting to his editor the various manuscripts comprising this memoir. There’s nothing here about his late-period poetry albums of the ’80s, nor of his problems with drugs, not even a passage about his final 2010 album, I’m New Here. Controlling one’s image is one thing, but effectively erasing three decades’ worth of art and work lends a peculiarly anticlimactic cast to an otherwise peerless work of retrospective introspection. As a window into America’s political and cultural upheavals during the ’60s and ’70s, The Last Holiday is inescapably vital as it unfolds, courtesy of Scott-Heron’s always-engaging perspective.
The glimpse he does offer of his own life, however, is that of the man and not necessarily the artist — the after-effects of his blinding 1990 stroke, as well as his mother’s death in 1999, are mentioned in brief, deep moments of illumination that are as private as they are fleeting. And yet The Last Holiday is ultimately more about the man than it is the artist; and that man has every right to tell whichever story of his life he sees fit to tell.
This isn’t to imply that Gil Scott-Heron presents a prevarication. Rather. it is to unveil that great truth banished from the vast majority of biographies written today: that privacy is still an option, that there is dignity in that option, and that a man can take some things that have happened to him to his grave. Just because it’s a memoir doesn’t mean that it always has an obligation to tell you absolutely everything.