"There ain't no peace on earth, man," sang Gil Scott-Heron on his legendary 1971 album Pieces of a Man. "Maybe peace when you die." The groundbreaking jazz musician and poet was only 22 when he recorded those lines, but he seemed to know what lay ahead: While his brilliant career would forever change the face of American music, he spent much of his later life dealing with addiction and chronic health issues.
Scott-Heron died on May 27, 2011, at 62; the cause of his death has never been made public. Although his fans and admirers may never know if he found peace, he did leave behind one final gift. His memoir, The Last Holiday, is a singular triumph, one last act of love from the man often called "the godfather of hip-hop."
The Last Holiday begins in Jackson, Tenn., where he was raised by his mother's family. Still a child when he lost his beloved grandmother, he had learned, at a young age, to steel himself against loss and pain — although he had been "beaten up again and nearly blown over, stunned and stomped on," he already "had run out of tears."
Despite the tragedies that marked his youth, he would eventually become a successful student at Lincoln and Johns Hopkins universities, recording his best-known song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," at the age of 21; and publishing two critically acclaimed novels (The Vulture and The Nigger Factory) before he was 23. The Last Holiday essentially ends in 1981, when he joined Stevie Wonder, with whom he'd been touring, for a Washington, D.C., rally that was instrumental in the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Scott-Heron's music, literature and activism had ensured that America would never really be the same, but he never stopped thinking of himself as just "a piano player from Tennessee."
It's that kind of humility, combined with his gift for charming, unforced prose, that makes The Last Holiday such a fascinating memoir. Scott-Heron relates the stories of his brief time at an exclusive private high school; the successful student protest he led at Lincoln; and his and Wonder's longtime friendship, with grace, charisma and a winning sense of humor.
But as another jazz legend, Thelonious Monk, once said, "What you don't play can be more important than what you do." And it's hard to ignore the stories that Scott-Heron leaves out: He doesn't mention his struggles with addiction, the months he spent in prison for drug possession, and the years he spent living with HIV. The passages about his partners and children are fleeting and tentative, which makes the book's final chapter — a painfully honest reflection on his life as a husband and father — so beautiful, heartbreaking and unexpected.
It's hard to expect complete candor from anyone, and The Last Holiday suffers little from what the author chose to leave out. In "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," Scott-Heron sang, "God, but did you ever try / To turn your sick soul inside out / So that the world ... can watch you die?" Most of us haven't; most of us have never had that kind of desperate courage. Gil Scott-Heron did, baring his imperfect soul to the world for decades. We're poorer for his loss, but richer for his words.