By his early 30s, Gil Scott-Heron—who died at age 62 in May of 2011—had written two novels and a book of poetry and released 13 albums of straight-talking, stylistically eclectic, politically charged music. His albums, which mixed spoken-word, jazz, blues, soul and funk, provided stark, direct commentary on a wide range of social issues, including the policies of Nixon and Reagan, alcoholism, drug addiction, the dangers of nuclear meltdown, the injustice of the prison system, the plight of the next generation, the difficulties faced by immigrants and the inhumanity of apartheid.
When he began, he wasn’t the only black musician singing about racism, poverty and drugs, but he stuck to the social criticism when many of the big names moved on.
Scott-Heron called himself a “bluesician”—saying in his 1976 song, “Bicentennial Blues,” “…we have assigned ourselves the task of defining certain… trends and certain situations, and in such, have become, I guess, more so than musicians, bluesicians….”— and his style differed from that of other black singers of his generation.
He did not express James Brown’s visceral anger or Marvin Gaye’s tender ache. He had clear, calm dynamism, an evenness and economy of expression that soothed and calmed while simultaneously forcing listeners to match his clarity. Over time, his voice became smoother. This made his directness even more commanding, the tragic stories unflinchingly reported and devoid of excess drama. Scott-Heron and his long-time musical partner Brian Jackson concocted fat, basic grooves driven by synthesizers and bass, and his lyrics unfailingly engaged the political and social issues of the time.
The relationship between popular music and social commentary has always been a difficult one. The blues originated in the experience of oppression, slavery, and Jim Crow laws. As Scott-Heron noted in “Bicentennial Blues,” which discussed the history of the blues on America’s 200th birthday: “The blues has always been totally American … Why should the blues be so at home here? Well, America provided the atmosphere.”
Other strains of popular music gained inspiration from or rejuvenation through contact with political moments. Woody Guthrie helped transform folk music into a form of protest, once writing to the musicologist Alan Lomax that “…a folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it.”
The Civil Rights movement both influenced and received reinforcement from soul music and the more versatile template of funk. Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye recorded entire albums related to the struggle for racial equality, and James Brown released a series of charged singles. Towards the end of the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, some punk and hip-hop groups (most notably, The Clash in the ‘70s and Public Enemy in the ‘80s) channeled anger into music that embraced social commentary.
While political engagement is an artistic choice, attaining political relevance depends to some extent on the engagement of the society as a whole. Artists reflect the social movements and upheavals of their listeners, a symbiotic relationship in which artists influence the public but are also influenced by the interests and aspirations of their audience.
Scott-Heron’s productive period, which lasted from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, began during a time of intense interest in political engagement among minorities and young people swept up in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. A variety of artists, from Bob Dylan to James Brown, contributed to these movements and achieved popular success by giving expression to the anger and angst felt by their audiences.
Social engagement in popular music, however, has always been difficult to sustain. For many listeners, enthusiasm for politics follows a cyclical pattern (and generally hums along at a lower level in the U.S. than in many other countries). As audiences move away from engagement, artists tend to move with them. Marvin Gaye went from “Inner City Blues” to “Let’s Get It On.” James Brown set his sights on the increasingly popular genre known as disco. Musicians can hedge against being perceived as failed activists by dabbling in social commentary as one of many styles. The repetitious nature of the political message may be seen by the audience—or by the artists themselves—as a kind of artistic rut, a lack of artistic imagination and inspiration. Artists may also worry that they sacrifice individuality by associating with a larger movement over which they have no control.
Tension often exists, moreover, between popularity—or commercial success—and social engagement. The latter may not sell records to consumers who listen to music to escape, not to experience political reality. Commercial success itself sometimes makes it difficult for an artist to convincingly sell progressive or anti-establishment themes to listeners.
Scott-Heron always had the songwriting chops necessary to craft the type of songs that achieve popularity while also delivering commentary on the state of his world. He got some radio play in urban areas, and he enjoyed a few brief hits in the latter half of the ‘70s with songs like “Johannesburg,” “The Bottle,” and “Angel Dust,” all placing in the top 30 on R&B charts.
But Scott-Heron never crossed over to a large audience. Why? Is large-scale commercial success ever irreconcilable with ongoing political engagement?
The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released (posthumous) “memoir,” leaves this question—and many others—unanswered. A combination of pieces written at different times during the last 20 years, this uneven, strangely organized and evasive book is in many ways the opposite of Scott-Heron’s songs. We get irregular and often vague discussion in place of the direct communication that characterizes Scott-Heron’s music.
The writer warns of this in his prologue: “I always doubt detailed recollections authors write about their own childhood.”
Well, here’s reason to doubt. The prose switches from poetical, full of strings of alliteration (his grandmother, e.g., was “a sane, sensible, settled, serious, solid, single-minded survivor”), to funny, to funky, sometimes to tiresome. We have a text focused on Scott-Heron’s tour opening for Stevie Wonder combined with a rewrite that expands on the original, changing the perspective from third-person to first-person, and adding interjections of rhyming poems. A letter describing the book’s origin comes along with the English but not the American edition, adding to reader confusion.
The Last Holiday presents Scott-Heron’s life as a scatter-plot graph, with significant gaps and odd concentrations of emphasis between data points. The son of a soccer player of Jamaican descent and a woman from Jackson, Tenn., both absent from his early childhood, Scott-Heron grew up under the tutelage of his grandmother in Jackson.
Bit players in the country’s move towards desegregation, Scott-Heron and two other black children desegregated a Jackson public school. At age 11, after his grandmother’s death, his mother came back to take care of him. He moved with her to New York City two years later. In school, he suggested he could write more than “white noise about white people,” and a white teacher encouraged him to take an examination for Fieldston, an elite private school. He didn’t do well but got another interview, impressed the admissions committee and obtained a full scholarship.
From here, the memoir turns to successes achieved, for the most part, through an almost dazzling combination of personal ambition and persuasiveness. After high school, he attends Lincoln University, “because it seemed to be a place where Black writers had come to national prominence.” (Langston Hughes was a graduate.)
At Lincoln, he meets with the school psychiatrist and easily obtains approval for a leave of absence to write his first novel. He talks his way into an editor’s office and gets the manuscript of the novel accepted. He doesn’t see eye-to-eye with that editor, so he takes his manuscript back, only to find another writing deal—for both his novel and a book of poetry. His next big break comes when he walks into Flying Dutchman records, connects with its owner and walks out with a record deal for an album of spoken-word pieces. All this happens while he’s still in college.
When Scott-Heron graduates from Lincoln, he meets with the head of the master’s writing program at Johns Hopkins and talks himself into the program, even though all the spots are filled. Then on a train, he sits next to a professor at Federal City College, in D.C., and ends up with a job as a teacher of literature. A certain amount of good fortune drives these events, but Scott-Heron’s self-promotion and magnetism make deals appear to be simply a matter of showing up.
Before Scott-Heron hits college, the narrative of The Last Holiday proceeds in a straightforward manner, a first-person, chronological coming-of-age story. During his time at Lincoln, the narrative begins to disintegrate. The reader hears a third-person story from the college years in which “the artist” crashes a car full of guns and ammunition. In another instance, Scott-Heron appears to meet with Nixon’s attorney general to talk about why he helped shut down Lincoln. Both threads quickly drop.
Later in the book, Scott-Heron watches Jesse Jackson campaign for president. Jackson calls him out of the crowd to speak, and then the episode just ends. It happens again when Scott-Heron finds his mother in her apartment with a gash on her face. We get no explanation. The life he describes becomes increasingly fragmentary. Unlike his songs, which never shied from the political, Scott-Heron often fails to detail political happenings in his life.
As the narrative becomes more diffuse, the memoir becomes notable for what it leaves out. While Scott-Heron occasionally talks about his voice and his songwriting, which attempts “to give a very personal and constructive viewpoint,” he rarely addresses his music. After his first few records, he barely mentions the release of his albums. He does not discuss the shift in his musical styles or the end of his relationship with Brian Jackson (his musical collaborator and the man responsible for much of the instrumentation behind Scott-Heron’s vocals), who is waved out of the book with a sentence and never seen again.
After releasing an album almost every year from 1970 to 1982, Scott-Heron stopped recording almost entirely. Why? Don’t look to this memoir for an answer. The links between music and social and political experiences, so palpable in his songs, prove largely AWOL.
Similarly, while his grandmother and his mother appear as strong presences in The Last Holiday, he ignores his wives, lovers and children for much of the book. When they do appear, Scott-Heron seems to have little of interest to say about them. The reader first meets two mothers of Scott-Heron’s children deep into the book in a short, three-page chapter. They show up only occasionally afterward.
In one baffling story, the mother of his son asks Scott-Heron not to tell anyone that he is the father, and Scott-Heron seems perfectly willing to disown his child. It may be true that, in his oddly defensive words, his wives and lovers “were all better off without me,” but he appears to have little self-consciousness about his relationships with these people.
And then there is the matter of most of his adult life. The Last Holiday effectively ends in the late ‘70s. Most of the last third of the book concerns a 1980 tour with Stevie Wonder that lasts for a few months and seems to have been a time in life Scott-Heron finds particularly interesting. He obviously liked and admired Wonder, both for his musical ability and for his push to get a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King. Still, most of these pages have little to do with Scott-Heron. After the tour comes to a close, a few brief pages lead to his mother’s death in 1999.
The tragedy of Scott-Heron’s life, glaringly absent from The Last Holiday, is his transformation into one of the characters he depicted musically with trademark starkness: the addict.
Between 1982 and his death last year, Scott-Heron recorded only two more albums. The last, I’m New Here, released in 2010, he barely acknowledged as his own, describing it in an interview as “Richard’s [the producer’s] CD.” Unlike most of Scott-Heron’s music, it felt short, harsh, bare.
In this period, he spiraled into drug abuse, with reported intervals of jail time and an incident of domestic violence, all omitted from the memoir. As Greil Marcus wrote of another bluesician, Robert Johnson (whose song “Me And The Devil” Scott-Heron covered on his final album), “Blues made the terrors of the world easier to endure, but blues also made those terrors more real.”
The Last Holiday does little to dispel any mystery surrounding Scott-Heron. In the song “Angel Dust,” from the 1978 album Secrets, Scott-Heron pleaded with children to avoid drugs:
Please children I know it’s hard to listen but
I ain’t tryin’ to run your life
Might just seem like one more good time
But down some dead-end streets there ain’t no turning back
He ended up on that dead-end street himself … and as a writer that street led him away from the things that made his music so affecting. Yet Scott-Heron believed that “…the reality, of course, was that people were not helpless or defenseless or without the means to effect change,” and his recorded voice continues to land smoothly but hit “like a subway car with a flat wheel.”
Despite the erratic nature of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s music retains his clarity, his poignancy and his strength of purpose.
Elias Leight will be starting a Ph.D. program in politics at Princeton in the fall. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.