Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Gil Scott-Heron – The Last Holiday [Feature Review]

Page 2 – Gil Scott-Heron – The Last Holiday

The following year, I transferred to a gorgeous green campus, where almost all of my classes touched on social justice. If anything, the disparity between rich and poor looked more stark at the new college, but for the first time I found friends and allies. I took trips to inner city Chicago and Boston. My Mennonite professors lived more simply than I could imagine. I studied them, and studied my own outrage, my own posturing. When I grew anxious, instead of looking to my turntable, I walked in the woods.

In 1980 and 1981, my freshman year of college, Gil Scott-Heron toured with Stevie Wonder to rally for a new national holiday—The Last Holiday—the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifteen years later, he first drafted a memoir about that tour, to honor Stevie Wonder’s effort. Initially, Scott-Heron wrote in the third person, referring to himself as “the artist,” with the hopes of showcasing Wonder’s energy and drive. Since the third-person approach “created more problems than it solved,” Scott-Heron labored to overhaul the manuscript beginning in 2004, but his life grew increasingly complicated by cocaine addiction, HIV, and a string of prison stays. While the manuscript was still in revision, Gil Scott-Heron died in May 2011, at the age of 62.

The Last Holiday still seems very rough. Scott-Heron’s writing shifts locations without warning, puffs up with celebrity anecdotes, and some sections still speak awkwardly of the narrator as “the artist.” Scott-Heron did not intend to write about his final years, which leaves a substantial gap. In the final pages, Scott-Heron ruminates sadly that each of his wives was better off without him, and that sometimes he longs for a simple human hug. I wish this tone of reckoning could have been sustained for one more revision effort. While The Last Holiday shows some of the story of the man, I feel like I really meet him a few pages before the book ends.

Perhaps, however, the work of remembering Gil Scott-Heron simply cannot be completed on paper. It needs percussion and bluesology. You need to hear him to understand his legacy.  Here are a couple of places to start:

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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