On Jan. 16, 2012, the United Kingdom’s Canongate Books will finally publish the long-awaited “new” book by the late singer, songwriter, poet, author and storyteller Gil Scott-Heron.
Scott-Heron, who spent some time at Lincoln University in Philadelphia and who told me a few years back that he was originally going to use a drummer from Atlantic City for one of his early bands, passed away in May after a prolific career in music.
He will receive a posthumous lifetime achievement GRAMMY award in February, along with Steve Jobs and others, it was recently reported.
Although Scott-Heron’s The Last Holiday was intended (at least in recent years) to be a book about the historic 1980 tour he did with Stevie Wonder, where the pair urged the passing of a Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday observance on the American calendar — and succeeded! — it appears that the book was unfinished at the time of Scott-Heron’s death and the publisher has put together something assembled from different manuscripts and attempts at the book that Scott-Heron was able to complete.
In this 2010 interview for Atlantic City Weekly and Philadelphia Weekly, as Scott-Heron’s “comeback” album I’m New Here was hitting the world in the face, bringing all of Scott-Heron’s humor and genius with it, part of the Q&A went down like this:
When Richard Russell [of XL Recordings; Scott-Heron's last label] contacted you while you were serving time at Rikers— how did that go down?
Same way shit happens in [the record business]: you get a letter; you get a call. Someone calls and tells you that somebody’s been looking for you. I got a letter from him out there and he wanted to sit down with me and that’s the way shit happens. He said he wanted to meet up and that’s where I was so there was no chance of us meeting up any place else! [Laughter]
So was it the two of you behind the glass?
No man, it was face to face—downstairs. He’s a nice guy. He’s a friend of Jamie Byng. Jamie Byng is a good friend of mine. He’s the father of my Godson. He’s the guy who owns Canongate Books.
Is that the publisher you’re working on your new book with?
Yes. And Byng’s a friend of Russell’s. And that’s the right [kind of] reference for me. I’m saying I just don’t want to leap with everybody or anybody—fuck ‘em, you know? But Jamie’s a professional person so the fact that Richard used him as a reference was good enough for me.
Talking about the book, Scott-Heron always put things in perspective. Speaking to audience after audience at packed shows in Washington DC and Philadelphia, I heard Scott-Heron mention the new book several times, for several years, always including that the book was about the Hotter Than July tour with Wonder.
Sometimes I’d call him and he’d tell me he was working on the book — “the publisher wants me to cut it down a bit,” he’d say, in reference to the large body of work he’d created at his typewriter over the years — and that he had been going back and forth with the publisher with revisions and attempts at tighter versions of the book.
Well, early on in 2012, hopefully we’ll learn a lot more about one of the most talented (yet troubled) artists of the last century, in a book that reveals, recaptures and reminds us all of what a gift it was to live in a world with Gil Scott-Heron.
This is how we ended our February 2011 interview:
Are you in a place in your life now where you feel satisfied?
Satisfied? I don’t know. I don’t know if this is satisfied or not. I got some work to do. I better clean up this house! I don’t know if that’s satisfied or not.
Click here for information about ordering the book, downloading a free chapter from the book, and downloading an MP3 of Gil Scott-Heron reading an excerpt before he died.