Review: Geoffrey O’Brien reflects on Marvin Gaye (Part II)

Marvin Gaye, 2019 Forever Stamp

Contemplating Marvin Gaye’s biography you could imagine a biopic that will probably never be made, depicting as it would have to a descent too painful and irretrievable for comfort. His contradictions—his shyness, his self-display, his ambition, his generosity, his frankness, his evasiveness, his competitiveness, his brilliance, his delusiveness, his humor, his compassion, his messianic impulses, his final paranoia—emerging not only from the memoirs and biographies but from records like Here, My Dear, his extended revisiting of his painful divorce from Anna, and the apparently self-mocking “Ego Tripping Out,” suggest a vast interior territory inhabited by a multitude of selves, so many and so rapid in their changes that he himself could scarcely keep track of them himself. The song “Sparrow” makes a direct plea to the bird in question—“Sing to me, Marvin Gaye, before you fly away”—almost as if he expected a reply that would shore up his identity.

Or you could try to put biography to one side and find in Marvin Gaye’s music his other and permanent life, still setting in motion something like a sonic paradise, even as it distills pain, anger, outrage, unfulfillable longing, and foreboding. For me its point of entry remains the unshakable memory of hearing “What’s Going On” for the first time in January 1971, when it was released as a single with the early version of “God Is Love” on the flip side. This was from the first instant a new sonic experience in an era when there had been so many new sonic experiences it was hard to imagine being surprised. Yet we were, being brought into a party where voices in mid-conversation were overtaken by an alto saxophone sounding like a cosmic wake-up call and by who could say what else, vibraphone and bongo and violins and chorus and Marvin Gaye’s multitracked voice in complicated dialogue with itself.

We were tuning in to something that had been going on for a long time and had found a channel. There was ethereal lift-off and in the same moment the awareness of unexpected tears: “Mother, mother …” “Father, father …” The depth of contact was immediate. A surrender to hidden feeling was not demanded, not even elicited, it was inescapable. To listen was to dissolve into the world that had been brought into the room. Both sides of the record were played in constant rerun that year, because it was a long wait before the full album that came out in May, a further miracle as it seemed.

There had been at that point nearly a decade of Marvin Gaye recordings, his voice a familiar and always welcome presence going back to “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Can I Get a Witness.” Smokey Robinson’s poetry and flutelike falsetto may have been more rarefied, but it was Marvin who became the male lead of Motown, his singing powerful, precise, nuanced, beautifully clear. He could lend himself to any kind of song, any kind of role: defiant assertion (“Stubborn Kind of Fellow”), supplication (“Baby Don’t You Do It”), caressing tenderness (the haunting “Pretty Little Baby,” a harbinger of his later sound), whatever was called for.

At the center of every performance was a sense of control in the midst of overwhelming feeling. The magnificent “Ain’t That Peculiar” from 1965, for one, managed to describe a masochistic love relationship with equal measure of torment and wry self-awareness: “Every chance you get you seem to hurt me more and more / But each hurt makes my love stronger than before.” Smokey wrote the song with a few of his fellow Miracles, and the themes were not unfamiliar, but Marvin Gaye’s exactly calibrated rendering became an unsparing self-portrait. With “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” assisted by Norman Whitfield’s heavy-treading production, the effect became nearly operatic. This was yet another voice, another persona, animated by a gathering mix of grief and rage that would smash the song to pieces if pushed any further. The intensity of what was only just held back drove the beauty of his voice to a new level of controlled power.

“Grapevine,” which on its release in 1968 became the best-selling Motown single to date, had been withheld for over a year by the decree of Berry Gordy. Marvin—who had first come to Motown’s attention as a session drummer and pianist and a singer with the Moonglows—spent years sparring uneasily with Gordy, alternately submitting to his authority and pushing back. The songs that made him a top star at Motown were songs that Gordy pressured him into recording, a success Marvin savored even as he chafed against the tight regime of assigned songs, assigned arrangements, assigned performance routines, assigned public image. He had never aspired to being a rock-and-roll star and, with his hand strengthened by his marriage to Gordy’s sister, he managed in the first years of his career to release four albums aimed at realizing his original self-image: a jazz singer, a purveyor of classic standards, along the lines of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra or (as much for his unassuming cool as for his singing) Perry Como.

Subscribe now

Nothing came of those efforts, and few have shown much enthusiasm for them, but they have their fascination and their moments of expressive revelation, however hemmed in by a role that seems borrowed. The album A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole—released around the same time as “Ain’t That Peculiar”—is so determinedly faithful to its source that if you hear it from another room you might mistake it for Cole. It’s as if Marvin’s offering up the beauty of his own voice in tribute to his model, as a statement of admiration, the enunciation of an idea of singing. He sounds so much older in these albums, staying in the middle range of a supper club singer, with hardly a hint of the vocal possibilities he went on to explore with such freedom—as in the ceaselessly worked-over ballad album released after his death as Vulnerable, an intensely, almost hermetically personal project never quite finished, perhaps because he never wanted to stop looking for some further layer or grace note, to get all of himself into the mix.

Setting out from a derivative notion of singer as interpreter, he made his way toward the assurance of singer as creator. In the end he had so many voices, so many tones for so many personas, falsetto, mid-range, growling, whispering, crying, rapping, conversationally speaking, all listening to one another, responding, expanding into a chorus. In Trouble Man, his most underrated work, he turned his score for a 1972 action picture into his own kind of symphony, tough and sorrowful and shimmering, his voice weaving in and out among instrumental layers that seemed extensions of it, all one endlessly listenable whole.

One cannot ignore the enormous contribution of the long list of instrumentalists and writers and engineers who were intrinsic to Marvin Gaye’s records of the seventies and early eighties. He drew in collaborators almost voraciously, but what emerged was unmistakably his. Music was alchemy that might transmute anything. In a 1972 interview with Ben Fong-Torres he ventured: “There has to be another dimension. Why are there cracks in the keys on the piano, for instance? There’s some music in those cracks. Why couldn’t there be another musical system in fact, a whole new system that I could invent. And why is it that when something is out of tune, it’s not music? It’s still a note. Can get a little complex, you know, but that’s the area, the unknown area, that I want to get into.”

The Unknown Area. The longer I live with Marvin Gaye’s music the more apt a designation that seems for the territory it inhabits, a territory quite a bit more than one degree removed from the world as he found it.


Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th CenturyStolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film, 2002–2012, and, most recently, a book of poems, The Blue Hill.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in box. Thank you for your subscription! As a subscriber you can read our full archive at bookpostusa.com. Please help us spread the word about Book Post: your subscriptions keep us going, supporting writers and books and reading across America.

Coming soon: Was Letitia Landon the female Byron? Àlvaro Engrigue on Gabriel García Marquez.

The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, is Book Post’s spring partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent booksellers and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. 

Follow us: FacebookTwitterInstagram

If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”

Loading more posts…