Off The Books: “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man”by Marcus Baram

Alex Dwyer reads another book on Gil Scott-Heron to disheartening results
By    January 23, 2015


This is what happens when Dweez listens to the spirits.

“You can’t just start screaming at everybody. Everybody knows there are things wrong with this planet. But in order to make it through all the things that are going to happen to you in your life, you need to maintain humor. It’s the most important aspect of yourself.”

– Gil Scott-Heron in an interview with Wax Poetics, Pieces of a Man page 76

I have this photo of my father. It’s him, lying down unconscious, with a pool of blood oozing from his head on an afternoon-baked Southern California sidewalk. I thought he’d died when I snapped the photo. I didn’t know what else to do at the time. I remember thinking it could somehow help the authorities when they arrived at the scene but there was also a hint at having some kind of final word in the whole mess.

I had hurried to capture something I felt necessary to review. It was a huge mistake. The image has haunted me in ways the worst parts of my nightmares and memories can’t touch.

The event turned out to be a false alarm. He’d overdosed and fainted in the sun, cracking his head on the concrete. He survived it as he has other drug episodes over the years with the same luck anyone close to a real addict can attest to witnessing.

I say all this to show my bias in reading this biography. Consider it my full disclosure: I’m as big a Gil Scot-Heron fan under thirty you’ll find but I am also the son of a long-derailed drug addict.

Art by Barbara Muerdter

Being able to frame addiction in a way where humor survives is the only way story’s like Gil’s and my father’s can find any dignity. Humor becomes, as Gil says, the most important aspect of yourself. Somehow the new biography Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man cut that part out, leaving neither artistic nor personal dignity intact. It’s an attempt at factualizing a dead man’s life just like, I don’t know, trying to take a photo of a corpse.

What Works:

Marcus Baram’s stripes as a veteran newsman come in handy during the interviews with more than 200 people during his research. The scope of these conversations helped him unearth the above minutia that lazier biographers might miss. Some of biographer Marcus Baram’s most nudge-worthy findings can be bullet pointed here:

  • Father was Black Arrow, the Jackie Robinson of soccer in the U.S.A. who later played professionally at big clubs in Europe including Glasgow Scotland’s Celtic
  • Once criticized Stokely Carmichael’s meal choice of McDonald’s as non-revolutionary in an encounter
  • Packaged by record baron Clive Davis as both the Godfather of Rap and the Black Bob Dylan, both titles GSH rejected outright
  • His 1975 hit “Johannesburg” was perhaps pop-music’s first antiapartheid song
  • Stevie Wonder personally offered to pay for GSH drug rehab after personally handpicking him to replace Bob Marley on the Hotter Than July Tour
  • Was the first guest for the first black host on SNL Richard Pryor
  • Had at least one big cocaine extravaganza with Rick James at a place called The Farm
  • Had a stroke at 42, which caused the slurred baritone we later heard on I’m New Here, and required he only eat ice cream for a period of time
  • Spike Lee was at Morehouse for the last Midnight Band show and later used a financially desperate GSH’s “Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for a Nike commercial with KRS-ONE 
  • Family members went as far as plucking hair from his coffin at his funeral for DNA tests in the fight for his estate

What Doesn’t:

While the factoids might be above the wiki-grade in research, they certainly weren’t in delivery. In fairness it’s always a tough exercise in meta-physics to write about brilliant writers, as evidenced by my own DFW fumbling. Still, despite all that legwork, somehow the book’s production feels rushed.

Baram’s maiden voyage at the helm of a book is about as smooth sailing as his cliché’s and pamphletty language allow: “From the page to the stage,” “They’d come a long way from playing gigs before a few dozen people in the student union,” “They vowed they wouldn’t give in to the allure and power of the music industry.”As a run-of-the-mill biography for a dead bassist in some 1990s band it might fly but for a writer and poet with the literary command Gil carries it reads wildly underwritten. It sounds nitpicky but it all adds up and gets worse.

After a face-to-face meeting with his father Gil Sr. after decades of neglect, Baram surmises, “It took Gil two years to express his feelings about the actual reunion, in the only way he really knew, through song lyrics.”

There are all kinds of clumsy drug addiction forecasting in early chapters, undercutting his own sources immediately after quoting from them, and focusing too much on conversations with people that seem far too peripheral to be insightful about Gil’s life. Some of the most pointed commentary comes from a lighting designer that, without much context given to even if he was important to Gil, reads like the psycho killer’s neighbor on the evening news who tells reporters, “Well, I always knew he was a guy who could just go nuts, ya know?”

The publication feels amateur. The cover is lazy. The St. Martin’s Press staff were either focusing all their attention on perfecting Jeff Chang’s Who We Be or they were as bored with the book as I was. Hopefully the final page’s “abt” typo was left in for (sic) purposes but it’s the exact type of inconsistency that makes one unsure about the validity, not just of that instance, but the entire book. It leaves no room to wonder about what happens when a publisher green-lights a book based on a three-page proposal (acknowledgments confession) to a guy who has never written one before.

But Should You Read It?

The book is largely a joyless read. As much as Baram is at fault for the clunky delivery even the most surgical and equipped biographer would have a tough time with Gil’s darker periods and contradictions. There is a reason that Gil’s memoir ended in 1981. The last 80 pages of the book cover those unproductive decades that followed.

The only other value available from stomaching the biography in full comes in a test of whether your affection for songs like “Pieces of A Man” can survive Baram’s hammy handling when he forces the song’s lyrics to “poignantly echo” in the ears of Gil’s children as they bring their father home in four little ash boxes.

It feels redundant to rehash that burden of a public life where we witness the gruesome details that normal people don’t have to share. Our mothers, fathers, or siblings that are addicts or our buddy that died in his sleep after the wrong kind of substance cocktail; these stories stay mostly on our own personal bookshelves.

Not many drug-destroyed celebrities with estate chases get to have the last word on their lives. Maybe Gil doesn’t deserve that either but he left The Last Holiday for us to have a choice in who tells his story. The living can’t always be trusted to capture the dead in a way that helps any of us.

Whatever his mistakes, I’m prone to give him the last word on his life.

If you are going to read one book about Gil Scott-Heron’s life read The Last Holiday. If you are going to read two, read The Last Holiday again. In all seriousness, that book took decades for Gil to write and it reads like it. If you get around to wanting to hear the tale a third time then maybe pick up Baram’s book.

*Page numbers are taken from Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man, 2014 St. Martin’s Press. That was the edition reviewed.

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