It’s surprising that anyone can expect anything of his or her perspective in someone else’s memoir. The clue is in the title. Memoir. When we look in the mirror we see an image but we never see what the mirror sees. So when the mirror writes a memoir it never turns out the way we expect. “Where am I in this memoir. I was with the mirror everyday?” we exclaim. But we are not what the mirror saw. What is revealed in the memoir is the mirror’s fascination with light, which on reflection is all we are. What is not in the Memoir is as beautifully written as what is. What is a description of light is a reflection on the darkness.
“I had felt somehow like the prince of the neighborhood, who knew everyone and was cared for by all” – Gil Scott-heron
Gil Scott-heron’s life was haunted by death since childhood when snowball crawled under the porch to die. Even The Last Holiday, that steals the title of this book, was to commemorate a dead man. The spirits. Maybe all black Americans of his generation are haunted by death. There’s a reason Gill has so few pictures of his family. The photo album is a normal thing to us who were not grandsons and granddaughters of slaves thrown into the stormy waters as in Turner’s Slave Ship or left hanging from the trees for the crows to pick. Death was part of the past of his family life like a photo album is to ours. Gil Scott Heron’s life was like the ancient mariner, treading the shadow of his foe.
Last Holiday, like that poem, is a photo album for his children and their generations to come. Gill holds them with his skinny hand and glinting eye then walks them back into his early years to the beginning of the voyage, to the family from a land of trees. Equally he gives a fascinating record of American Life. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s Beloved when I hear the family names from Scott-Heron’s home in Jackson Tennessee; Uncle Buddy, Uncle Counsel and Aunt Sissy who would “hug me and call on African spirits”. His aunt Sissy’s only child died of curvature of the spine. Scott-heron recalls “ aunt Sissy running her bony fingers up and down my spine was not searching for ancestors. She was looking for Jimmy Doe, and happy he wasn’t there”
As one of three children to first enter a desegregated school in his Tennessee “Bob Scott’s son” (which he wasn’t) broke new ground from his beginnings. Tennessee means “land of trees” and considering their legacy their strange fruit, who he was and what he could be was never far from his mother Lilly Scott’s plans. Later when the road out of town got built he was on it and away like Langston Hughes described in The South “ So now I seek the North/The cold-faced North/For she, they say/Is a kinder mistress/And in her house my children/ May escape the spell of the South.
I bathe in his childhood in the North and the south so much so that I didn’t really want to get to his career. I was fearful of what would come. I was hooked in his memoir. And I felt myself releasing any need to hear anything other than what the next sentence delivered. But there are enough revelatory stories of how songs got written and how recordings got done to satisfy me. The book leads to when Stevie Wonder embarks on a campaigning tour for a public holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King. Gil does the tour. His relationship with Stevie from his youth is a wonder. Lennon dies mid tour. The book is worth buying for the description of Michael Jackson’s appearance while Gil was on stage with Stevie. You could say the book is a love letter to Stevie Wonder but it’s so much more than that.
Reading Last Holiday is a one on one experience with Gil. It’s as if he is sitting in his chair on stage with in a spotlight that illuminates him but cuts out the crowd from his line of vision. He is the man in the mirror. He wants the gig to be special so he imagines the audience to be his real children, all three of them. It’s his last gig too. He knows it. They don’t. The crowd hushes “this is how I see it. This is how my life has been” he says. Like everything he did, it’s personal.
Note: I haven’t talked about his style of writing, his uncanny love of alliteration, the twist in The Intruder chapter that feels like part of a Walter Mosley novel. I haven’t talked of the peppering of poetry throughout the book. I haven’t written about his relationship with Brian Jackson. I haven’t written about his relationships as such. I haven’t written about the incredible way Jamie Byng has built this project. I slept on it. And I woke this morning with a resounding sense of having experienced something special from the day before. I woke with the feeling that I knew him a little more. I haven’t got a sub. The notes to accompany this blog are pages and pages of referrences to quotations from this book that I haven’t used in this review. I’m not a reviewer. I am happier having read this than I was before and I can’t ask more than that.