Close watchers of the career of Gil Scott-Heron, who died last year at 62, might approach his posthumous memoir, “The Last Holiday,” with trepidation. He spent his last years in and out of jail for drugs, reportedly had HIV and, in the concerts I saw him perform in 2007 and ’08, his speech seemed slurred, the result of a stroke. When he released “I’m New Here” in 2010 — a chilling yet brief collection of original songs, monologues and cover versions — the album represented his first new recordings in more than 15 years.
I came to Scott-Heron’s work late, living proof that illegally downloading a few tunes can lead a listener to legally purchase an artist’s entire collection. Scott-Heron’s songs, poems and riffs, with their memorable blend of autobiography, astute observation and outspoken social and political commentary, resonated with me in a way that only a few musicians’ work ever has.
I was so moved and inspired by his songs “Winter in America,” “The Bottle” and “Angola, Louisiana” that I wrote him a fan letter at the Collins Correctional Facility in Erie County, N.Y. (where he was serving a sentence for possession of cocaine), expressing my admiration and gratitude. Not only did he write back, but his response was lucid, observant, generous and witty. Whatever personal demons may have been tormenting him, they did not seem to have damaged his memory or his gift for the written word; we began a brief correspondence.
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,” a mostly chronological series of autobiographical episodes interspersed with digressions and recollections, sometimes recounted in verse.
The book follows Scott-Heron from his youth in Chicago and Jackson, Tenn., and the Bronx to his emergence as a revered spoken-word artist and musician touring with Stevie Wonder to garner support for establishing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
In its most effective sections, the memoir reminds us that, before he became known as a recording artist, author in particular of the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” he was a precocious writer who published his first novel, “The Vulture,” before he had graduated from college, gotten his master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins and taught literature and writing at Federal City College in Washington.
Scott-Heron is particularly entertaining when recounting fish-out-of-water stories about how this son of a broken home in the South found himself studying on a scholarship at the exclusive Fieldston School in the Bronx. Asked by a member of the school’s admissions committee how he would feel if he saw one of his wealthy classmates arriving at school in a limousine, the young Scott-Heron responded, “Same way as you. . . . Y’all can’t afford limousines. How do you feel?”
Showbiz memoirs tend to be most effective in their earliest passages, before their authors attain success; they flag shortly after the memoirist finds stardom, detailing soporific litanies of tours, recording contracts and struggles to cope with fame. Scott-Heron’s memoir is no exception. Although the book’s title suggests that its focus will be on the tour with Wonder, save for a few memorably witty asides, this section is the book’s least engrossing. In fact, what’s most notable about the final third of “The Last Holiday” is what it doesn’t contain. Scott-Heron’s addictions, his troubled marriages, his estrangement from his children, his difficulties with the law and the evaporation of his creative output are only hinted at. These sorts of incidents are the ones that tend to be found in another familiar form of memoir, the one about how an author managed to conquer his addictions and inner turmoil. Scott-Heron did not survive to write that story, which provides a cautionary, unspoken postscript to what is in large part an inspiring and triumphant memoir.
Langer’s most recent novel is “The Thieves of Manhattan.”
THE LAST HOLIDAY
Grove. 321 pp. $25