The Last Holiday: A Memoir

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Happy New Year! Lots of good news coming in for Gil Scott-Heron and THE LAST HOLIDAY.... The Grammy Awards will honor Gil Scott-Heron with a Lifetime achievement award at this year's ceremony on February 12th. And last Sunday the New York Times magazine ran a fantastic excerpt from the memoir ( attached ). Publishers Weekly named it their pick of the week and raved in a starred review "Even after his death, Scott-Heron continues to mesmerize us in this brilliant and lyrical romp through the fields of his life. . ...

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Happy New Year! Lots of good news coming in for Gil Scott-Heron and THE LAST HOLIDAY.... The Grammy Awards will honor Gil Scott-Heron with a Lifetime achievement award at this year's ceremony on February 12th. And last Sunday the New York Times magazine ran a fantastic excerpt from the memoir ( attached ). Publishers Weekly named it their pick of the week and raved in a starred review "Even after his death, Scott-Heron continues to mesmerize us in this brilliant and lyrical romp through the fields of his life. . . . [a] captivating memoir." And keep an eye out for reviews in the New York Times Book Review (January 15), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Rolling Stone, and much more to come.

Just wanted to make sure you all saw Dwight Garner's wonderful review of THE LAST HOLIDAY in today's NY Times (cover of the arts section)

"Leave it to Scott-Heron to save some of his best for last. This posthumously published memoir, "The Last Holiday," is an elegiac culmination to his musical and literary career. He's a real writer, a word man, and it is as wriggling and vital in its way as Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume One.""—Dwight Garner, NY Times

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Often called the godfather of rap, Scott-Heron released 20 albums and many singles, including the deeply influential “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Now, even after his death, Scott-Heron continues to mesmerize us in this brilliant and lyrical romp through the fields of his life. He carries us from his birth in 1949 and childhood in Jackson, Tenn., just east of Memphis, to his coming-of-age in New York City and his many and varied musical adventures with recording industry executives such as Clive Davis of Columbia Records. Scott-Heron recalls his grandmother talking to the junk man one day and the next thing he knew, an upright piano was being carried into the house; his musical career commenced when he started learning to play hymns on that piano. When the family got a second radio, he was able to listen to WDIA in Memphis, where Carla and Rufus Thomas and B.B. King were on-air personalities. When the interstate highway paved over their neighborhood, Scott-Heron and his mother moved on to New York, where his musical career took flight and soared. Scott-Heron’s memoir also gracefully calls out Stevie Wonder and his initially attempts and eventually successful campaign to establish Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. In this captivating memoir Scott-Heron movingly gives thanks for the “Spirits,” those intangible influences in his life that moved him and helped direct his life and to whom he gives back so fully through his gift of lyrics and music. (Feb.)
Library Journal
This isn't just a memoir of Scott-Heron's being raised by his grandmother in Jackson, TN, and eventually becoming a preeminent musician/songwriter, often called the godfather of rap. More important, it's also about his joining a 41-city tour in fall 1980, organized by Stevie Wonder, that aimed to build momentum for the creation of a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Alas, Scott-Heron died in May 2011; his book remains an important testament to a life lived in—and beyond—music.
Kirkus Reviews
A posthumous memoir that evokes Scott-Heron's (1949–2011) voice but leaves too many gaps unfilled and questions unanswered. The distinction between memoir and autobiography is clear in this narrative by the author (Now and Then, 2000, etc.), a once-prolific poet and recording artist who had all but disappeared from the culture for more than a decade, before his revival with 2010's I'm New Here, a well-received comeback album. At that time, a resurgence of publicity cast light on his hiatus, as his crack addiction and incarceration for cocaine had silenced a voice that had been strong and prophetic, with cuts such as "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" having a profound influence on the most socially conscious hip-hop. A few months later he died. There isn't a single mention of the artist's struggles with drugs and the law here, almost nothing from the last decade of his life and only spotty accounts of the 30 years that transpired after his 1980 tour with Stevie Wonder. Oddly enough, that tour and Wonder's efforts to establish a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. provide this book with both its focus and its title. There is also plenty about the author's formative years, after his soccer-playing father left his mother and Scott-Heron was raised by his grandmother in Tennessee, before moving to Manhattan to live with his mother. The author writes with a wit and warmth at odds with what he perceives as his image of "some wild-haired, wild-eyed motherfucker." He came from a well-educated family, received a postgraduate literary education, became a student militant during the early '70s and taught writing while establishing the fusion of jazz, groove and spoken word that would prove so influential. Yet his partnership with musical collaborator Brian Jackson ends without explanation, as does his wife's transition to ex-wife. Of his third child, he writes, "How I became a father again at nearly fifty years old is a story I will save for another time." The author ran out of time, leaving plenty of stories untold.
Dwight Garner
Leave it to Scott-Heron to save some of his best for last…The Last Holiday is an elegiac culmination to his musical and literary career. He's a real writer, a word man, and it is as wriggling and vital in its way as Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One…This memoir reads a bit like Langston Hughes filtered through the scratchy and electrified sensibilities of John Lee Hooker, Dick Gregory and Spike Lee.
—The New York Times
Adam Langer
Stories are numerous of people approaching Scott-Heron and finding in him a willing listener with genuine respect for fans and fellow artists. And it is with both relief and happiness that I can report that this is the Scott-Heron who emerges from The Last Holiday…in large part an inspiring and triumphant memoir.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

Gil Scott-Heron was not the Godfather of Rap. But when he passed away in 2011 at the age of sixty-two, 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 It 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 nineteen. 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."

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."

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. He is also co-author of One Day It'll All Make Sense, the memoir of the rapper and actor Common.

Reviewer: Adam Bradley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802129017
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S.
  • Publication date: 1/10/2012
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,111,203
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

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