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    Marvin Gaye: Troubled Soul  
 
Nightbeat (Mikal Gilmore)


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  More than any other artist of the pop generation, Marvin Gaye rose to the emotional promise, stylistic challenge, and cultural possibility of modern soul. In fact, he was often cited as the man who singlehandedly modernized Motown: a sensual-voiced man full of spiritual longings (and spiritual confusion) whose landmark 1971 album What's Going On commented forcefully yet eloquently on matters like civil rights and Vietnam--subjects that many R&B artists, up until that time, had sidestepped.

Though that eventful record was in some ways the apex of Gaye's career (he would never again return to themes of social passion), Marvin remained a resourceful performer up through the time of the last work released in his lifetime, 1982's Midnight Love (Columbia). Watching him command the stage at 1983's Motown Anniversary TV special, or seeing him graciously accept his first Grammy Award a few weeks later, it felt as if we were witnessing the rejuvenation of a once-troubled man, who learned to transform his dread into artistic courage, even grace. Hearing the news of his violent and improbable end -- shot to death on April 1, 1984, by his minister father -- it seemed likely that rugged emotions and rampageous fears were never far from the singer's closest thoughts, after all. According to David Ritz's 1985 biography of Gaye, Divided Soul, Gaye remained deeply troubled and ungovernable toward his life's end -- indeed, a doomed and restless man marked by fear, debt, sexual violence, religious guilt, jealousy, and, ultimately, a self-loathing so active it almost purposely created the circumstances of his own murder. The facts presented in Divided Soul weren't pretty: Gaye abused cocaine to a degree of madness; he often struck and ridiculed the women in his life; he claimed to envision a violent death; and he even took a crack at suicide during his last weeks. On the surface, Gaye's art seemed passionate yet well proportioned; behind that surface, in the man's life and heart, it was all turmoil and craziness.

But then Gaye always understood the tense play between fear and rapture uncommonly well, and at times that knowledge overwhelmed his music. In part, the worldly-spiritual insight was a product of the singer's upbringing. Back during the period when his father, Marvin Gaye, Sr., was an active apostolic minister in Washington, D.C., Gaye grew up singing in an evangelical gospel choir, though he also spent much of his youth privately listening to the more secular forms of be-bop, doo-wop, big band jazz, and R&B. Both the spiritual and early influences left an indelible impression on the singer, and following a term in the air force, he returned to Washington and began singing in street-corner R&B groups, melding the passion of gospel with themes of ever-suffering worldly romance (which, in that period, was a refined metaphor for sex).

In 1957, Gaye formed his own vocal group, the Marquees -- a polished harmony troupe -- and with the support of Bo Diddley, the group recorded for the Okeh label. In 1958, Harvey Fuqua enlisted the group as his backing ensemble in the Moonglows, who recorded for Chess. In the early 1960s, while playing a club in Detroit, Gaye's breathy, silken tenor caught the interest of local entrepreneur Berry Gordy, Jr., who signed him to his then-struggling Tamla-Motown label. Shortly after, Gaye married Gordy's sister, Anna, and began working for Motown, primarily as a quick-witted, propulsive drummer (his bop-derived rhythmic drive can be heard on the early singles of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, among others).

In 1962, Gaye scored his first Motown hit, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," and throughout the decade recorded the most extraordinary body of Motown singles -- all rife with a definitionally sexy-cool brand of vocalizing and a sharp, blues-tempered backbeat. Working with every substantial Motown producer of the period (including Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team), Gaye yielded a vital body of dance hits and sex-minded ballads that still remain as popular and indelible as the finest work of his prime songwriting competitors of the period, the Beatles. Gaye's best-known hits from the epoch included "Hitch Hike," "Baby Don't You Do It," "Can I Get a Witness," "I'll be Doggone," "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You," "Ain't That Peculiar," and his most successful 1960s recording, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." In addition, he advanced a romantic duet style with label-mates Mary Wells ("Once Upon a Time" and "What's the Matter with You"), and in the 1970s, with Diana Ross.

But Gaye's finest duet work -- perhaps the most passionate singing of his career -- was with Tammi Terrell, with whom he recorded such late-1960s standards as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," and "You're All I Need to Get By." In 1967, Terrell -- who had developed a brain tumor -- collapsed into Gaye's arms during a concert performance. Three years later she died, and Gaye, reportedly shattered, began rethinking the importance of a pop career. As a result of Terrell's death, he remained an infrequent and reluctant live performer until his 1983 tour (the final tour of his life).

When Gaye reemerged, it was in 1971 with the self-written, self-produced politically thematic What's Going On. The record not only forced soul music to deal with the unpopular realities of a hardened sociopolitical scene (though Sly Stone had also started to do the same in his music), but was also among the first albums to establish a soul-pop star as a major artist of his own design. The effect was seismic: Within months Stevie Wonder was fighting (successfully) for the same brand of creative autonomy that Gaye had achieved with Motown's factory-minded structure, while such other venerable R&B artists as the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield began recording social-minded soul-rock that had been inspired and in no small part made possible by Gaye's breakthrough achievement.

But Gaye refused to remain adherent to that one aesthetic-political epiphany, and in many ways that made for a varied but also wildly unsettled late career. In 1973, he turned his attention to purely erotic matters with Let's Get It On, which introduced a manner of sexual explicitness to mainstream pop that, for such inheritors as Prince, certainly had tremendous impact. In the meantime, Gaye's stormy marriage to Anna Gordy was coming to a rough end, and the divorce settlement (which caused Gaye to file for bankruptcy and eventually leave the United States for asylum in Belgium) was the subject of his most personal work, the two-record Here, My Dear, which the singer released to satisfy his overdue alimony payments (though his ex-wife later considered suing him over the record's contents). In 1981, Gaye released his final Motown work, In Our Lifetime, a haphazard but oddly compelling meditation on love -- and a tortured, hell-fire vision of death.

By all accounts, Gaye was a despairing man during this period (by his own admission, he once attempted suicide by overdose of cocaine), and when he left Motown for Columbia in 1982, even his staunchest admirers surmised that his prime work was behind him. But Midnight Love (1982) was not merely an elegant, stylistic rebound, it was also the most hopeful and celebratory work of his career. Gaye wrote, arranged, produced, and performed all the music himself, and though on the surface Midnight Love seemed merely a reprisal of the sex themes and rhythms of Let's Get It On, the singer clearly pursued physical and spiritual notions of fulfillment on the album as if they were mutually inseparable ends. Gaye seemed to regard sex as a way of renewing will and spirit after debilitating emotional setbacks, and as an interesting if somewhat puzzling way of asserting his religious desires. "Apparently beyond sex is God..." he told Mitchell Fink in a 1983 Los Angeles Herald Examiner interview. "So one has to have one's fill before one finds God."

It is not likely that Gaye found his fill before his sudden, grievous death, nor is it likely that he was even close to peace of mind or to his God's grace. Just the same, his fans were not ready to witness the end of such an ingenious and alluring sensibility. Gaye's 1983 tour of America seemed to promise something more than a wildly enjoyable comeback: It seemed an act of brave reclamation -- Gaye's way of reasserting his musical preeminence, and making sense of all those counterpoised notions of joy and anger, pain and ecstasy, that made up the character of his singing and writing for over two decades.

He was a major artist of our passage from pop innocence to social unrest, and he was just beginning to illuminate a new, even more complex, sensual temperament. Perhaps, as biographer David Ritz suggests, Gaye wanted nothing more than a way out of the madness and pain of his life -- but perhaps he may have found that way in kinder terms, had his life not been blasted from him by his father. To our everlasting loss, we must live with what now seems -- along with Sam Cooke's terribly foreshortened brilliance -- the most hurtful of soul music's unfinished promises. But if anything can blunt such pain, it is the wonderful and transcendent legacy of Marvin Gaye's music itself. Though it was his friend Smokey Robinson, and not Gaye, who sang "I gotta dance to keep from crying," it is in such times s Gaye's murder that those words assert their deepest meanings.
 
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Excerpted from Night Beat by Mikal Gilmore. Copyright © 1997 by Mikal Gilmore. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.