Dweez hasn’t stopped listening to Hotter Than July since July.
“It was hot, unnaturally so. You dig? The kind of heat that changes your mood and your attitude. A nondiscriminating hope-to-God-some-cold-beer’s-waiting-that-I-can-bathe-in hot. Like a combination microwave and a dame with big tits on Spanish Fly rubbing up against you like she wants to melt you hot.”
– Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday, page 69
I have only one regret and only one enemy.
That evil place so many of you are either migrating towards, retreating from, or avoiding at all costs this week is responsible.
I was given something on the first day of a music festival in 2010. Now, I consider myself a gentleman. I can generally handle myself but after ingesting a fraction of what I was offered, I lost my marbles. In the ensuing panic from campsite to music tent all hope was lost. My day’s intent went through a special brand of shredder, splicing both temporal and existential order into squirrelly spaghetti.
While I sought refuge in some ice cool corner, Gil Scott-Heron played the only set I cared to circle that day. Later, Jay-Z performed blandly and I fought nightmares until Day 2’s blistering sun ejected me from my tent-turned-oven like Ace Ventura out of the rhino in When Nature Calls. Is there any wonder why the word HELL sits happily inside my enemy’s name?
Gil Scott-Heron died the following year.
Most recognized today as having had the last word on Kanye West’s most acclaimed album and having his Bobby Blue Bland reconfiguration reconfigured by Drake and Rihanna, Scott-Heron came to me not through my classic-rocked parents but through Blackstar. I dug through his back catalog and found a poet, a pianist, and a philosopher.
Before he linked up with XL Recordings and Richard Russell for “I’m New Here” and the subsequent Jaime XX disc “We’re New Here,” he was a deity in my rap study. Yet, it wasn’t until reading his memoir, The Last Holiday, after his passing that I realized what I’d missed that devilish desert afternoon.
The oral traditionalist hops along the page the way a good crossover does on the hardwood. Here’s a man who released his first novel the same year as his first record (1970). Here’s a man who took his shots at idiot boxery (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) a quarter century before my own personal literary hero David Foster Wallace harped on about televised samizdat for over 1000 pages. Here’s the man who forecasted “winter is coming” (to America) decades before George R.R. Martin imagined his 1000-melted-swords throne games.
Alongside The Last Poets, who wowed Scott-Heron when they performed at his university in 1969, the man predates and originates in ways far beyond the confines of the “Godfather of Hip-Hop” and “Black Bob Dylan” name tags presentists staple to his coffin. For my money, Scott-Heron is the most literary of popular music lyricists both in content and configuration. His memoir’s language glows accordingly.
He’s got a knack for refreshing the absorbed metaphor:
– “He was like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs and the guys in the band were all talking about it before Clive’s arrival.”
– “It was kind of like roller skating through a minefield with a blindfold on.”
– “After all, between your office and the record company and the booking agent and promoter’s office and your band rehearsals, your time was eaten up like goldfish in a bowl with Jaws.”
– “On legs locked at the hips without knees, I was a metal man with no more flexibility from forehead to foot than the tin man frozen rust-rigid in a pose speaking of unfulfilled intentions.”
You can hear his languid, grandfatherly baritone echoing in your head throughout the book. Whether he’s lamenting about the music industry, his childhood, or the political times, The Last Holiday is worth its 319-page weight sentence for sentence, thought for thought.
Also: slap your favorite artist’s advice book. Scott-Heron delivers there too. “I think I was a better songwriter when I was teaching writing. When you work on songs, you have to tell stories in a limited number of words, just a few lines. You have to be economical. And when most people talk about good writing, they talk about economy.”
He’s also got a pep talk for those in the art/truth trenches:
“All I can say is that if the truth is important to you, understand that most things of value have to be worked for, sought out, thought about and brought about after effort worthy of the great value it will add to your life.”
Scott-Heron humbly concedes, “What you will need is help that exceeds understanding.” He strings well-thought-out and plainspoken personal truths that sing as much as his lighthearted narration does. It’s the same candid, albeit rueful, perspective his poems and songs showcased for over four decades.
Yet there is salvation in choice. The qualities here echo what I’m New Here (“No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / you can always turn around.”) did so well. Scott-Heron’s sadness feels redemptive:
“I am honestly not sure how capable I am of love. And I’m not sure why. The older I get, the more I tend to question the elements of emotion and intimacy as genetic parallels with height and hair color.”
It’s not quite, “Home is where the needle marks try to heal my broken heart,” but the palpability is there even if the despair isn’t. Scott-Heron’s fifteen year hiatus from the booth and stage is ever the elephant in the room.
“I hope there is no doubt that I loved them and their mothers as best I could. And if that was inevitably inadequate, I hope it was supplemented by their mothers, who were all better off without me.”
These are Scott-Heron’s last printed words. It’s impossible not to want more, not to want a resolution. An ending. Something. That elephant — his drug and jail problems — are excluded from the book. Who do we blame? Posthumousness? Ego?
The ending left me awestruck but not in an entirely bad way. Maybe in a way that makes proves the book’s point. I’ve never read anything written by a musician that I’ve liked as much. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t explicitly about Scott-Heron.
But Should You Read It?
I imagine people picking up this book aren’t just after the missing link between Langston and Lamar. They’re looking for answers too. Why did Scott-Heron quit? How did the drugs take hold? When? Where did he find solace? Who brought him back? How? As dexterously as he dodges these questions directly, in a roundabout way he answers them all.
From the opening poem, “Dr. King,” the author makes it apparent that this book isn’t about him. It’s about Stevie Wonder. Bob Marley was scheduled to appear on Wonder’s Hotter Than July tour in fall 1980 before the cancer that would kill him set in. Scott-Heron filled in temporarily at first, then permanently when Marley’s sickness took hold.
The tour, bolstered by the song “Happy Birthday,” galvanized attention for making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. It culminated in the most signed public petition in US history and a major rally in D.C. in early 1981. The book’s title should make sense now if it didn’t already.
Wonder started and mastered the trend for artist holiday campaigning. Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant did it for Harvey Milk Day in California later. Diego Luna and Michael Peña are trying to do it for Cesar Chavez Day nationally now.
That Scott-Heron did more than shout out Wonder’s effort in his acknowledgments section is a feat in itself. The typical entertainer memoir is so self-absorbed that even so much as a hat tip looks saintly. The entire book is anchored by the tour and Wonder’s role in it. It’s almost as if Scott-Heron becomes a gracious reporter, just happy to be in the room to witness Wonder’s work.
Mississippi and Alabama still celebrate MLK Day alongside Robert E. Lee Day. South Carolina only acknowledged it in 2000, even though Hiroshima, Japan observes the holiday as a day for human rights. These facts illustrate how big of a deal the Hotter Than July tour was and is. Reading Scott-Heron’s account makes The Last Holiday worth a read for any student of American history.
At the very least, it’s something to flip through around your Coachella campfire.
*Celebrating Record Store Day, “Nothing New,” (hyperlink: http://gilscottheron.net/) likely Gil Scott-Heron’s last album, is out today on XL Recordings. “All it contains is Gil’s singing and piano playing,” says Richard Russell. I couldn’t ask for more.
**Page numbers are taken from The Last Holiday by Gil Scott-Heron, 2012 Grove Press. That was the edition reviewed.