The Idea of a Commonwealth, and a Poem About Montreal
Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir (2012)
Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir is a bit of an odd book: he originally wrote it to chronicle the time he spent as part of a tour with Stevie Wonder advocating making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday (hence the book’s title) rather than as a conventional memoir. In the course of writing about the tour, however, he ended up writing about his childhood and youth as well. The process shows through in the structure of the book, which begins with Stevie Wonder, then suddenly leaps back in time to his parents and his childhood, and then gradually works its way forward to Stevie Wonder again, with various jumps and detours along the way. The book doesn’t really touch on the last years of his life at all (see below).
His relationship with his mother is powerfully conveyed, and his experiences as a campus activist and young author trying to get published are sharp and often amusing. And of course there are the backstage anecdotes you expect from a book like this – smoking gigantic joints with Bob Marley and so on. He seems to have stumbled more or less by accident into being a musician, by way of writing poetry and then making what would now be called “spoken word” albums – at least based on what he describes in the book.
If you’re a fan of his music, it’s definitely worth reading. There are even a couple of references to Canada.
That Sophisticated Land to the North
This passage is from a description of Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, who, we have already been told, “was originally from Jamaica”. It describes him at the time he met Scott-Heron’s mother, Bobbie, in Chicago:
Gil Heron was young, exotic, and worldly, a veteran of the Canadian Air Force. He was also physical and athletic, and went all out when he competed. The Aries fire lit up his face and made it glow. The joy of winning brought a smile that made you feel like you were standing in a bright, warm sun. Sometimes he was romantic and sometimes thoughtful, brooding over the quality of his competition and teammates who couldn’t get the ball to him when they were pressed. He loved to talk about soccer, past games, teammates, opponents ridiculed as their pointless, desperate pursuit of him always ended the same way: Goooooaaaaal! (19-20)
Heron played soccer in the United States until:
…the Scottish national team visited Chicago for a “friendly” match, an exhibition game, and were impressed. In fact, after the game members of the coaching staff spoke to him and made an informal offer for him to come to Scotland to play. He was, after all, already a citizen of the commonwealth.
My mother and father separated when I was one and a half years old, when Celtic, in Glasgow, Scotland, offered him a formal contract. My father decided to take an opportunity to do what he had always wanted to do: play football fulltime, at the highest level, against the best players…. To play with Celtic was also a Jackie Robinson-like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of Blacks. (21-22)
The way the words “veteran of the Canadian Air Force” immediately follow the word “worldly,” as if to provide an explanation, implies that his time in the Canadian Air Force is part of what has given him this air of worldliness, and we can be flattered by the idea that spending time in the Canadian armed forces turns you into a sophisticated cosmopolitan. At least to Scott-Heron’s mother, at that time, Canada was not the boring provincial backwater we see in some portrayals, but rather an exciting and perhaps slightly romantic country.
Beyond that, it’s fascinating to see how the idea of a larger commonwealth citizenship, one that transcends nationality, runs through the passages about Scott-Heron’s father: though from Jamaica, his family immigrated to Canada (easier because both were commonwealth countries?) and he joined the Canadian Air Force; later, when an opportunity arises to play soccer in Scotland, being a citizen of the commonwealth smooths the way again. (Heron became the first Black player to play for Celtic – you can read his Wikipedia entry for a little more information about him.)
Montreal In Verse
Scott-Heron often drops little (or sometimes large) chunks of verse into his narrative as a way of telling his story. A visit to Montreal for a concert inspires one of his longer poetic passages:
Montreal, November 7, 1980
I had no choice aside from moving quick
An ex-country hick whose image was city slick
The last one they would’ve ever picked
When I was in school doing my weekend stick
Compared to my classmates I couldn’t sing a lick
And through record store windows when they saw my flick
On the cover of an LP they wished for a brick
Because it wasn’t just out there it was actually a hit
And what they were wondering was what made me tick
It was that in spite of themselves they could all feel it
In reality I was heading for work
In the back of a cab I was changing my shirt
My Mickey Mouse was saying it was five to eight
So theoretically I was already late.
Next to me in the backseat were my daughter and my wife
And I’d probably say never been happier in my life.
Light rain was falling on the Montreal streets
And I slipped on my shoes and leaned back in the seat
As we pulled up to the Forum where the Canadiens played.
Tonight: “Stevie Wonder” the marquee proudly displayed
But not a word about me or my “Amnesia Express”
But I was feeling too good to start getting depressed.
It was only four days since I had found out for sure
That Stevie wanted me opening the rest of the tour.
News of Bob Marley’s illness was a helluva blow
I thought. And the eight o’clock news came on the radio
It looked like a sellout though the weather was damp
And fortunately no cars blocked the underground ramp.
As the cab took the curves beneath the old hockey rink
I was lighting a Viceroy and still trying to think
Of how Hartford had sounded and the tunes we should play;
Made mental notes of the order and felt it was okay
Keg Leg, my man, stood near the security line
‘Cause I never had I.D. and couldn’t get in sometimes
I was carrying Gia as we moved down the hall
And I nodded and smiled as I heard my name called.
Things were getting familiar and I was finding my niche
But I didn’t want to give producers any reason to bitch.
I told my brother to get the band ready at eight o’clock
And it was damn near ten after when I moved into my spot
James Grayer gave me a smile and tapped his Mickey Mouse
The lights went down and the crowd perked up
Because I was finally in the house. (262-3)
To clarify a couple of points: Gia is Scott-Heron’s daughter, the “Amnesia Express” is the name of his backing band, and he got his place as the permanent opener on Stevie Wonder’s tour when Bob Marley became too ill to perform and had to drop out. And a Mickey Mouse, I assume from the context, means a watch: interesting as Mickey Mouse watches were one of the items of desirable Americana mentioned in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which we considered recently.
I don’t know that we can conclude a lot from this poem; there are a couple of local references (the Forum, the Canadiens) but other than that it focuses on what is going through Scott-Heron’s mind on the cab ride; he’s not making statements about Montreal or the impression it creates on him. And perhaps that’s just the point: to Scott-Heron, Montreal is just another city, another stop on the tour, and the fact that it is in Canada isn’t even particularly meaningful to him.
Except for the fact that it is Montreal, and not some other city, that he chooses to memorialize in verse.
Left Unsaid (Unrelated to Canada)
It seems difficult to leave this book without glancing at the question of what Scott-Heron leaves out. There are some oblique references in the final chapter to not being allowed into his mother’s apartment, but nothing is ever clearly explained. I do recall reading a harrowing article about him in The New Yorker years ago, however, and I managed to track it down: called “New York Is Killing Me,” it is a portrait of Scott-Heron a year or two before his death.
It’s not a pretty picture, obviously, but if you’re thinking of reading The Last Holiday, the article makes a useful companion piece in terms of filling out the story of the latter part of Scott-Heron’s life.
Of course, there has to be music. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is Scott-Heron’s most famous song, but we’ve already featured it, so I’m going to put up my personal favourite, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”:
I also like this one, which is a little closer to his “spoken word” roots:
And finally, we might as well have Scott-Heron’s tribute to a couple of jazz greats:
And that’s that.