Thursday, July 16, 2015

Book Review: Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story

Published in The Sunday Gleaner,  June 28, 2015

Book Title: Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story
Book Author: Leslie Gordon Goffe
Book Publisher: LMH Publishing Limited

Sometimes words fail to convey the potency of a literary work. Sometimes a book hits home with such force and beauty that it is difficult to describe or relate it to another.

Enter Leslie Gordon Goffe with his literary offering, Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story. His is a telling that sheds light on the lives of two significant, albeit little-known, characters of Jamaican heritage: Gillie Heron, the father, and Gil Scott-Heron, the son. With a fresh tone and unique writing style, Goffe draws parallels from two disjointed lives, pulling readers into the world of the broken black man, and chronicling with painstaking detail the journey of two searching souls in an era riddled with tensions of class, race and gender.

Goffe has clearly done his homework: his extensive use of historic references and depth of detail create a compelling picture of the world his subjects had to endure. Every account is steeped in vivid contextualisation - from newspaper reports to the first-hand retellings of those who lived the stories as they unfolded.

His chronicling of time is fluid. The prologue starts, "I'll begin at the beginning." The final chapter declares, "I'll end at the ending." In-between, Goffe buoys readers along on wave after wave of an epic tale that lays out the lives of two men fighting vices.

Both were outstandingly gifted: Gillie Heron was the first black person to play professional football in the United States, while Gil Scott-Heron, called 'the godfather of rap', was awarded the 2012 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

But both men struggled with drugs, women, and questions of identity, giving credence to Scott-Heron's potent line: "My life has been one of running away just as fast as I can. But I've been no more successful at getting away than was my old man." In fact, the theme of escapism is rife throughout the book.

Everything about Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story, delivers artistry - from the design of the cover to the smooth prose, written like jazz beats punctuated with quotes and rhymes - a unique style that reads like a story-song. The tone is set from the foreword, written by popular jazz musician, Brian Jackson, who urges his audience to, "Read on, read on and you will find out what is behind the microphone, behind the music, behind the man, behind the men ... ."

Each chapter is presented with dramatic flair, with titles taken from some of Scott-Heron's most well-known works, such as Pieces of a Man (the title of his debut album) and He Was New There (based on the title of his 2010 album, I'm New Here). The start of each chapter also features quotations from a wide range of persons, including Scarlett O'Hara, Muse, B.B. King, and Snoop Dogg.

Who knew a whole book could countenance music through prose? In one rhythmically versatile creation, Leslie Gordon Goffe has delivered a history lesson, a jazz concert, and a poetry recitation.
In a sense, the book makes for easy reading because the language is so simple. However, the poetic resonance echoing through its pages carries a depth which may not be readily appreciated by non-literary audiences. Also, the roughly 229 pages of lengthy reading may prove laborious for those who want to get to the heart of the story without the embellishment of such a sing-song literary style.
Redemption comes in the fact that each chapter is broken down into digestible subsections, and for the visually inclined, there are eight pages of photos chronicling the history of the Scott-Heron family.

Despite the many smiling faces in these photos, Goffe makes it clear that Scott-Heron's history has been fraught with ups and downs, ins and outs, reflective of the yin and yang of life. Was he right in some of the choices he made in his life? Was his father?

The book itself ends with a hauntingly ironic quote: "It ain't right and it ain't wrong. It just is."

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