Author Topic: GIL SCOTT HERON - MEMOIR  (Read 1470 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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« on: January 10, 2012, 09:30:33 am »


January 9, 2012
His Story: A Writer of Words and Music

A Memoir

By Gil Scott-Heron

Illustrated. 321 pages. Grove Press. $25.
.When the poet, novelist, piano player and spoken-word recording artist Gil Scott-Heron died unexpectedly last May, at 62, he left behind a prickly and galvanizing body of work. His best songs — “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey on the Moon,” “We Almost Lost Detroit” — are rarely heard on classic-rock radio; they’re too eccentric and polemical and might kill a workingman’s lunchtime buzz. But they’ll still stop you in your tracks.

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.”

The Dylan comparison is worth picking up on for a moment. The critic Greil Marcus coined the phrase “the old, weird America” to refer to the influences that Mr. Dylan and the Band raked into their music on “The Basement Tapes.” In “The Last Holiday” Scott-Heron taps into the far side of that older and weirder America — that is, the fully African-American side. This memoir reads a bit like Langston Hughes filtered through the scratchy and electrified sensibilities of John Lee Hooker, Dick Gregory and Spike Lee.

For a relatively slim book, this one gets a lot of things said, not just about Scott-Heron’s own life but also about America in the second half of the 20th century. It encompasses Chicago, where he was born in 1949. There are sections in rural Tennessee, where he went to live with his grandmother after his Jamaican father abandoned the family to play professional soccer in Scotland. A few of these Tennessee passages are nearly as lovely as anything in James Agee’s prose poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Later Scott-Heron’s mother uprooted him to the Bronx.

This book is a warm memorial to the strong women in his life. One was his grandmother, who instilled in him a love of learning. The other was his mother, who came back into Scott-Heron’s life after his grandmother’s death. Both are electric presences in these pages.

In department stores in the 1950s, his grandmother refused to give up her place in line to whites. His mother fought for her son when he got into trouble for playing boogie-woogie music on a school Steinway, and when he was accidentally relegated to vocational classes. Administrators learned to fear and respect her. One said to the author: “Heron, your mother is a very impressive lady.”

Scott-Heron’s account of his school years evokes the entire arc of the African-American educational experience during the past century. He attended segregated schools in Tennessee before, bravely, in 1962, becoming one of the first blacks to desegregate a junior high school. Later, while living in the projects in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, he began attending, while in 10th grade, the prestigious Fieldston School in the Bronx on a full scholarship.

It was not an overwhelmingly positive experience. “I can never accuse the people of Fieldston, neither the students nor the faculty, of being racist,” he writes. “I can accuse the students of knowing each other for years and preferring to hang out with each other instead of some guy who just got there. I can accuse the teachers of having taught my classmates for 10 years and me for 10 minutes.”

This book is finally a testament to his unfettered drive as an artist. He left the historically black Lincoln College in Pennsylvania in 1968, after his freshman year, to write his first novel. That novel, a murder mystery called “The Vulture,” and a book of poems, “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” were quickly published. He began to record his songs soon after and his first album, also titled “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” was released in 1970.

In 1971 he drove down to Johns Hopkins University — he describes himself at the time as “about 6-foot-2 plus three inches of Afro” — and talked his way into the creative writing program. He got a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins in 1972 and taught writing until his musical career took off.

Scott-Heron’s prose in “The Last Holiday” is jumpy and alert. Describing his childhood, he’s often as funny and alienated as a J. D. Salinger creation. “At morning Mass,” he writes, “it was standing, sitting, kneeling, wheeling, dealing, silent, on prompts from occasional mumbling from the altar. Phooey!”

His put-downs are beauties. About John Knowles’s novel “A Separate Peace,” read when he was in high school: “White noise about white people.” About the terrible acoustics at Madison Square Garden, he says, “When you played there you sounded like the Knicks.”

When he is touring in Scotland and appears on a TV show to discuss his father, who’d been a soccer star there, the three elements of the show constitute “a Scottish orgasm: there would be talk about soccer, nostalgia about soccer and living evidence that they had never allowed their racism to interfere with soccer.”

Occasionally the author breaks into verse, or stretches of consonance or alliteration. His grandmother, for example, “scrapped, scrimped, scrambled, scrunched, scrubbed, scratched, scuffled, slaved and saved until somehow all four of her children had graduated from college with honors.”

This book ends with scenes from the road, when Scott-Heron and his band toured with Stevie Wonder in 1980 after Bob Marley, whose band was supposed to be Mr. Wonder’s opening act, fell ill with cancer. Scott-Heron’s account of the tour is joyous, and his respect for Mr. Wonder — who at the time was campaigning for a national holiday in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — is palpable.

This book has some large gaps. There is little about his half-brother, his marriages or his three children. The book ends before his life began to go off the rails in the 2000s, when drug use (detailed in a 2010 New Yorker profile) and a sentence at Rikers Island for parole violation took a toll on him.

The book was pulled together by Scott-Heron’s editors from bits he wrote over many years, from the 1990s to 2010. “The manuscript he left had been sent to me in a very piecemeal fashion over a number of years and written on various archaic typewriters and computers,” his British publisher, Jamie Byng, noted in this book’s English edition. The result is not seamless, but neither is it an impressionistic jumble.

Much of this book’s beauty derives from its bedrock humility. Scott-Heron is fully aware of what he calls his “flawed makeup as a person,” his somewhat stunted emotional life and an inability to get close to people. It’s a book as much about those he admires as it is about himself.

About his own music, he could not be more simple or elegant. “I was trying to get people who listened to me,” he writes, “to realize that they were not alone.”

Offline Battle

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« Reply #1 on: January 10, 2012, 10:24:37 am »