Like all of us, Gil Scott-Heron was a profoundly flawed individual, battling his demons while reaching out for a seemingly illusive truth. What worth is there in our lives for the well-grounded, immacutely groomed Oprahesque superhuman role model for us mortals who are constantly going off the rails? Scott-Heron was 19 years old when he composed arguably his most famous tune, ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’, recording it at 21. But by 61, one year before his death, he was an empty, wasted rotting husk of his former self, strung out on drugs, HIV-positive, with several jail spells behind him for cocaine addiction, and with drug and assaults charges against him pending.
Heron succumbed to the demons he often warned us about in his songs, such as ‘The Bottle.’ His measured and beautifully realised poetic musical wordscapes were in many senses dispatches from the frontline of living in the bleak, desperate innercities of black America, not too unlike our sad forgotten wastelands of the Cape Flats and the major cities in Jacob Zuma’s South Africa. As Chuck D from Public Enemy once noted: ‘Gil Scott Heron was like a kinda CNN for black neighborhoods’, laying the basis for musical expression for angry voices still to come in those lost ghettos and prefiguring hip-hop by many years. His ‘Winter in America’ – with its calm, restrained, seething rage, accompanied by an understated synthesiser solo – is the finest comment yet on the bleak Richard Nixon’s America in the 1970’s. And it could just as well be about the depressing, stark economic winters that stalk our townships, rain or shine.
However, Scott- Heron’s slim, disjointed and sometimes confusing memoir The Last Holiday contains none of the directness and clarity of his songs. His usual commanding and unflinchingly straight commentary is not in it. There is no indication of the craftsmith nor his faultlines, no greater insight into what gave us ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’; just vignettes that hint at but never reveal. But this may be its strength. Maybe indecision, doubt, contradiction, bad judgement, and bitter compromise are all that make up a hero-artist – as least one we can relate to. Like ours, Scott-Heron’s life was about bad choices and the context in which they were made. As the former slave and radical abolitionist Frederick Douglas once said: ‘A man is worked on by what he works on – he may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out as well.’ Like our own flawed and defeated socially conscious artists, such as Robbie Jannsen, Basil Manenberg and Brenda Fassie, their weaknesses and defeats were ours, frailties borne in the fire, singed and scarred in the heat of the struggle. Their joys and genius hum forever from the work they left behind.
The book essentially brings together Scot-Heron’s reflections of when Stevie Wonder invited him and his band on his 1980’s tour to galvanise popular support for the creation of a national holiday in honour of assassinated civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jnr. Obviously in awe of Wonder, Scott- Heron focuses on what took place on the tour and how he got to be there. When Scott-Heron started, he was hardly the only musician singing about racism, poverty and drugs but he was by far the most consistent. Glaringly absent is the Scott-Heron we grew to know, who pumped out of our makeshift stereo hi-fis with tender emotion and wicked satire, contained and devoid of flash and drama in his 20 or so albums and poems, yet capturing and soothing the listener, inviting us to match his clarity. His understated word economy of expression soothed and claimed the listener simultaneously.
In the book, he tells us something about his earlier life. He was deserted by his parents and brought up in poverty by his grandmother in Tennessee (the subject of his heart-rending final work ‘We New Here’ in 2011). Heron peaked early, and by the age of 23 had already released three albums, two novels and a poetry collection. By the mid-seventies, he was a cult figure – although you can’t tell that from this memoir. In his later years, he became known as the Godfather of rap, a title he detested. ‘I don’t know if I can take the blame for everything,’ he once famously commented. We live in a time when our temporary consumer culture is in awe of the next new thing and there is a lack of reverence for what went before. Often there are great things that lead to growth and innovation but often it comes diseased in the display a scant regard and disrespect for knowledge already acquired and devaluing of cultural resources that are our cultural inheritance.
In a perverse inversion of the natural order we must now keep pace with the young and discard the old — but there are times when we just want to listen to an elder tell his taleThe Last Holiday is about some of those tales at the fireside. When Scott-Heron started out, he was hardly the only black musician singing about racism, poverty and drugs. But Scott-Heron’s career showed all the difficulties of a political artist trying to sustain engagement in a fickle and shallow popular music industry where audiences move away from previously involved artists. Although Scott-Heron never met with large-scale commercial success we must celebrate his enduring influence and legacy as one of the most important and insightful political artists ever to walk the earth.