If you don’t have a special connection to Marvin Gaye, immediately I question your humanity. Chances are I’ll never like you. He left this earthly plane with a gunshot shortly before I turned 2 years old 32 years ago today, right before he turned 45. In just over 25 years, he evolved from being one of the Moonglows, to being effectively the royal torchbearer of complex post-war Black Masculinity after Sam Cooke was murdered in 1964, to being one of the socially conscious and personally tortured soul legends beyond the birth of cool. He remains such a sublime example of what happens when faith and nurturing is given to someone to blossom, yet what happens when you don’t heal complex demons deep down that eventually make your own castle crumble.
There’s the stories (that aren’t exactly uncommon) that he was dragged kicking and screaming into singing R&B. And why should he have jumped full fledged into the same fire pits of James Brown and Jackie Wilson when he was more, in his own estimation more sophisticated, less flamboyant, more a Sam Cooke contender or a junior Brook Benton?
He tried with sly winks to other pop stars and starlets with soft, sweet patriotic pop like his early flop “Soldier’s Plea” but that wasn’t whom he was destined to be. The blast of honesty, purely giving into being the Aries he was, stubborn as a ram can be came with where perhaps he was most comfortable: in the support of sister-mother figures. An auditory hug to wife Anna Gordy and supported by Martha & The Vandellas giving reasons for Dee Jays to call them vandals as they stole just as much attention from Marvin on his own record, the stubborn, almost contradictory revelations of his emotions, ever to get darker and wiser as his career pushed on through the rest of the decade.
This is where he deviated from Sam Cooke. Where Sam Cooke always expressed that Aquarian detachment; always the keen observer, Cooke more often than not kept his raw emotions guarded away. By force, reaction or challenge, Marvin set blazes to records and stages in that cardinal fire-starting way. Moody to the point that not one but two of his LPs literally said that; he was much beloved and also considered a massively stubborn asshole. He never quite gave up on his sitting on a stool Sinatra-meets-Nat King Cole ambitions. Even on straight ahead gospel-soul romps, now supported by the pre-Supernova Supremes, he tenaciously held onto those ambitions. I can’t help but be mesmorized looking at this mid 60’s clip, the power that *Oooooooh* he had with a simple snap of the fingers.
His 1960’s output is woefully overlooked in the vast body of his work. His work, like most of the Motown machine, documented Black Love in the not always sunny North, of 2nd and 3rd generation Great-Migrants, and all of the complexity and nuance that ran the scale. By the middle of the decade, the storm clouds started to send claps of thunder and rain down on the optimist parade. He went from being Doggone, to finding things Peculiar, and then One More Heartache broke it, seemingly he’d never recover.
Underneath it all, seems it was reflective of his actual life in a way some R&B stars lived Others put miles of distance between their persona and personal lives. Gaye’s gauge of his actual situation, his actual lot in life seemed to burble over in some remarkable allegory ways. There’s the nattering story of him agreeing to impregnate his niece that begot his first “adopted” son. There’s his fraught open marriage to Anna Gordy that defied standards of the time, but caused moral dilemmas for the guy with the cross-dressing, fire and brimstone father that was envious and highly judgmental of his son’s performing career. In this web of complexity, he started lashing out, writing his frustrations out, or finding reality in others words.
He blamed himself, weirdly, for being the kiss-of-death for each of his duet partners. Mary Wells and Kim Weston found themselves hitless for various other reasons other than not having the magic of Marvin on their side, and backstory says Tammi Terrell most likely started suffering from her brain tumor in her mid teens. Maybe a bit of ego goes a long way in building up self-pity, reclusiveness and disillusionment. But his duet work with each shows the heights that love and partnership can scale. They stand as ways that one can say yes in the most delightful ways and build worlds of fantasy into reality. Despite the despair he may have felt elsewhere, he co-created scripts for all of us to live up to in our highest ideals.
Perhaps the seeds of his eventual fall were planted by the late 60’s, and all of the work that came from Marvin in the 70’s and beyond was the 3rd act, the disillusionment of Camelot-era optimism. What’s Going On is such a plea in reflection to pull all the pieces apart so we can reassemble whole.
A whole person Marvin never quite figured himself out to be. It’s difficult to see yourself from such thrones. I guess that’s why I prefer to look back, in these bittersweet hours between the anniversary of his death and his birth to look at flowers, the blue sky and listen to his songs that look towards rebirth, to love as a healer, to being the initiator of Spring and new life.
That’s the Marvin Gaye that’s vital to me.