The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.

 

That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

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