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Pieces of a Man

The life, not death, of the "Godfather of Rap."

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Musician and singer, novelist and poet, Gil Scott-Heron, "Godfather of Rap," spent the last 10 years of his life — he died, age 62, from an undisclosed cause last year — in and out of prison on drug charges and defending himself against a parole violation.

Yes, Scott-Heron performed onstage during these years, and yes, his final album, I'm New Here, appeared in 2010, but, no, you won't find an account of his last years in the pages of The Last Holiday: A Memoir (Grove Press).

It's a book that's been in the making since the 1990s, and here it is at last, in time for this month's Martin Luther King holiday — a holiday fought for by Stevie Wonder on his "Hotter Than July" tour in 1980. Opening act on that tour: Gil Scott-Heron and his Midnight Band.

Coverage of that tour we do indeed get in The Last Holiday. But what of Gil Scott-Heron the man? To borrow from the title of an early Scott-Heron album, it's more like pieces of a man — pieces, as in this quote late in the book (and under the influence of what, the author doesn't say): "Their cotton candy excursions into colloquialisms showed more evidence of the harm my sorties against their character and integrity had done than they could respond to in kind."

Never mind the context for that observation. And never mind much that Scott-Heron writes of in The Last Holiday's untidy closing pages — expressions of guilt that he wasn't a better father to his children and a more loving person in general. Better to go where Scott-Heron began and where he begins his memoir: his boyhood in Jackson, Tennessee; his move, along with his mother, to New York City; his transfer from public schools to an elite private high school.

These are events in the formation of Gil Scott-Heron that he describes with clarity. Less clear is his career leap into writing lyrics and performing them, backed by musicians, in a spoken-word delivery that every rapper known to man has cited as model. Some of those lyrics are reprinted in The Last Holiday, and they still stand as nimble, quick-witted rhyming triumphs on the issues of the day — issues to this day when you consider a song such as Scott-Heron's stinging cultural critique, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

I doubt that Gil Scott-Heron's last years will last long, if at all, in the public's memory. And I doubt that The Last Holiday will serve as the last word on Scott-Heron's life. For that life, in full, see some future biography. For the record, just listen to the man.

Killing Grounds

"Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow, but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between."

Those are the words of Yale historian Timothy Snyder writing in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books), and the key words here are "above all." For it was, above all, in Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and far western Russia that Hitler and Stalin did their murderous worst.

Snyder doesn't limit himself here to World War II: He goes from 1933, when Stalin began his politically driven forced famine in Ukraine, to the millions executed by the Germans in the killing fields, "starvation zones," and gas chambers of Eastern Europe during the war, to the more than 3 million German POWs and their allies in the labor camps of the Gulag, some of those prisoners unreleased until the 1950s.

This history, these numbers aren't new. What is new in Bloodlands is Snyder's dual analysis of the two forces at work, Hitler and Stalin, acting at the same time in geographically the same area and sharing in the same kinds of atrocities. Snyder's integrated examination of the period offers not only his well-researched perspective, it alters our own perspective, which is one reason Bloodlands was named among the best books of the year after its release in 2010.

Now is your chance to hear and meet Timothy Snyder when he opens the spring 2012 series of events presented by the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities at the University of Memphis. The date is Thursday, January 26th. The place: the U of M's University Center Theater. A reception for Snyder begins at 6 p.m., with the lecture at 6:30 p.m. and a booksigning to follow. This event is free and open to the public, and for more information, go to http://memphis.edu/moch or call Aram Goudsouzian at 678-2520.

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