Saturday, December 31, 2011


I'll have much more to say about this in other venues, but I wanted to post a quick note here on the publication of Gil Scott-Heron's long-awaited memoir. I first heard of this book when Scott-Heron mentioned the manuscript to a reporter; like many others I was eagerly looking forward to this new book when I saw an announcement that it was forthcoming from Canongate -- but then it continued not coming forth, with no explanation. The book is finally out as a posthumous production, but it's important to keep in mind that Gil was not on the scene to make final decisions about the text. The American edition is from Grove, who are all too coy about matters editorial. While I certainly didn't expect a critical edition or a full scholarly apparatus, the publishers should tell us a bit more than we learn from the one line on the copyright page acknowledging Tim Mohr's editorial efforts.

This book is the traditional "good read." Gil uses the tour he did with Stevie Wonder in support of the HOTTER THAN JULY album and the cause of getting a national holiday in honor of Dr. King as a framing device, and this is effective. (Gil's own new album of the time was REAL EYES.) I think many readers will be surprised to learn that even after having a hit record with THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED, Gil's primary ambition was as a writer, and that he formulated a plan to become a university professor of creative writing even as his songs were taking off. (He talked his way into a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins creative writing program.)

The Last Holiday will frustrate readers on some scores; Scott-Heron really tells readers very little about some of the most important relationships in his life. We learn nothing about the parting of ways with his long-time song-writing partner Brian Jackson, or about what happened with his marriage. Then again, when readers get to the heart-breaking last chapter they will learn something of the possible cause of that reticence, and they will also see that this book is in many ways a testament to his mother. While the book goes on past the tour with Stevie, those final passages gloss over a decade without revealing much, and there is little to warn of what was in store in the artist's final two decades. The book is strongest on Gil Scott-Heron's school years and on the era of the seventies. At several points in the narrative the author breaks from standard prose and gives us couplets; you can almost hear Scott-Heron reciting these against a musical background.

This is a compelling book with much to teach us for all its elisions.

Canongate has posted an audio recording of Gil reading from an early version of one chapter, recorded in the 90s, a chapter telling of the night on tour when word came of the killing of John Lennon. You can listen to it here.

1 comment:

tyrone said...

yjsmld==ordering my copy now