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.

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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 Please help us spread the word about Book Post: your subscriptions keep us going, supporting writers and books and reading across America.

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

Marvin Gaye would have been eighty this past April. The U.S. Postal Service has marked the occasion with a resplendent stamp of Marvin in multicolored knit cap and red shirt against a bright blue background, peering upward and smiling radiantly—or, if you look an instant longer, his smile is perhaps about to be overtaken by sorrow, whether a sorrow welling up from within or prompted by some emerging catastrophe sighted in the distance.

If he had made it to eighty it is nice to imagine that he would still be making music, continuing as he generally did to draw deep strands of feeling out of sound, finding new ways to layer sounds one on another, new currents for them to flow in. The anniversary is one more reminder that he didn’t make it past the eve of his forty-sixth birthday, shot dead by his father in what was alleged to be an act of self-defense. I can’t place where I was when I got that news but do recollect how grotesquely inappropriate it seemed for the source of such transcendent beauty to be brought down that way, as if all the music was going to be marked forever by that image. The mind flashed to the plaintive cry near the beginning of “What’s Going On”: “Father, father, we don’t need to escalate.”

In 1984 I didn’t know all that much about Marvin Gaye apart from his music. The music was enough. What’s Going On and Trouble Man and Let’s Get It On were a constant and necessary soundtrack throughout the seventies, most likely played late at night when nothing else would do, even as one wished there were more, since nothing else was quite the same. The earlier sounds of “Can I Get a Witness” and “Pride and Joy” and “How Sweet It Is” were still encountered happily on radio and jukebox. But I hadn’t followed closely the ongoing dramas hinted at in music magazines. That he had a drug problem was well known, but this did not seem unusual at the time. I had lost touch with the music since “Got to Give It Up,” the haunting dance hit of 1977, in which his falsetto chanted above a churning rhythm track, cutting through the ambient bustle of radio hits like a far-off siren.

Since Marvin’s death there has been an outpouring of biographical information and commentary—among them David Ritz’s Divided Soul, Steve Turner’s Trouble Man, Ben Edmonds’ particularly good What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye and the Last Days of the Motown Sound, memoirs by Marvin’s brother Frankie (Marvin Gaye, My Brother) and his second wife Jan (After the Dance, co-written by Ritz)—along with the steadily increasing availability of music from a generous trove of the unreleased, unmixed, remixed, alternate, and unfinished. The most recent compilation is You’re the Man, an assortment of tracks from the year following the revolutionary breakthrough of What’s Going On in 1971, by no means a cohesive work like its predecessor, but filled with beauties, among them two different versions of the title song, his most political; the remixed but potent ballad “My Last Chance,” with Marvin going deep into his doo-wop roots; the retrospectively poignant “I’m Going Home”; the somewhat eerie instrumental “Christmas in the City”; and another seasonal offering, the plaintive “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.” One wonders how much more there is to hear.

It now becomes possible—in a way unavoidable—to revisit the Marvin Gaye oeuvre in a biographical light, not only to trace the development of his art in more granular detail but to locate recording sessions alongside specific moments of upheaval and crisis, the music lifting in counterpoint to the downward trajectory that increasingly became the story of his life. The life emerges above all as a doomed struggle to free himself from the father who dominated and abused him as a child. Marvin Gay Sr. was a Pentecostal preacher from Kentucky—himself the survivor of a harsh upbringing. A charismatic healer at the House of God (in its full name, as cited by Jan Gaye in her memoir, “The House of God, the Holy Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, the House of Prayer for All People”), which he eventually broke from, he was known to his family not only as the proponent of peculiar and fiercely upheld religious tenets but as an often unfaithful, sometimes cross-dressing alcoholic and brutal disciplinarian. His son once compared Gay Sr. to a “changeable, cruel, and all-powerful king”; at another moment, he declared in a Rolling Stone interview that “my father loved, I imagine he overloved me, if that’s possible.” Outside observers were less ambivalent. A Motown colleague remarked that “Marvin had this totally love/hate situation with his father, but from the father’s end there wasn’t any love that I ever saw.”

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Marvin rebelled against his father and distanced himself from him for long stretches, but the battle with his father’s influence was lifelong. In the gathering chaos of the years after What’s Going On—as he engaged in another kind of battle for autonomy and creative control with Motown’s founder and owner Berry Gordy, as his marriage to Gordy’s sister Anna (seventeen years older than Gaye) unraveled, as his subsequent marriage to Jan (seventeen years old when their affair began) spun out into oceans of cocaine, sexual obsession, and oppressive jealousy, and as Gaye increasingly imagined himself the object of assassination plots—the religious themes of his childhood emerged in inward confrontations of the divine and the demonic, with Gaye envisioning himself on both sides of the divide. His delusions had once prompted him to give up music for a career as a boxer or football player (at the height of his fame he trained to try out for the Detroit Lions), but now they took a more apocalyptic form.

“About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he remarked in a late interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic.” The rueful understatement suggests a momentary detachment, even a hint of luminous calm at a juncture when he had reemerged into public view with a Grammy-winning single “Sexual Healing” and a hit album (Midnight Love). In February of 1983 he sang an incantatory version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All Star Game, accompanied only by a pre-recorded drum machine track. In a video of that moment he can be seen standing alone in blue suit and tie, a figure of vatic inwardness, apparently ready to liberate the national anthem from all constraints of form and send its transfigured elements radiating outward.

After that things collapsed rapidly. Marvin, wrestling with cocaine addiction, moved back with his parents, intervened to protest his father’s verbal abuse of his mother; the altercation turned physical; and the father, pummeled by his son, came back at him with the very handgun with which Marvin had entrusted him. Gay Sr. served a suspended sentence for voluntary manslaughter. According to Ben Edmonds, some familiar with the atmosphere of Marvin Gaye’s last months read in the circumstances of his death “a provocation tantamount to suicide.”

Such a life will inevitably be interpreted as symbolic drama … [to be continued]

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 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 Elizabeth 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. 

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Diary: Lucy Ellmann, On Not Going Into Bookstores

I know how impossibly brave it is to run a bookstore in this rudderless, readerless age. I applaud people for persisting with it. Booksellers are a conscience-poking rebuke of philistinism. And yet, and yet … to my shame, I hardly ever enter a bookstore unless somebody else drags me in.

Bookstore stress triggers:

☙ Self-hatred, about my own ignorance of writer’s names and whole divisions of human thought: theosophy, astronomy, archery, accounting, Antarctica, animal husbandry, systems analysis, sequins, Manga, orchids, forensics, and party-planning.

☙ Embarrassment, about how slowly I read and therefore how curtailed my reading has been over my lifetime.

Bewilderment, when I can’t find my way around. This happens to me no matter how small the store is.

Amnesia, trying to remember all the books I meant to seek out.

Fear, of not finding what I want or, if I do find it, begrudging the cost.

Disappointments, especially common in those bijou bookshops that only have one copy of no more than a hundred titles, “curated” for the color of their covers and how good they look facing outwards on the shelves. (Once though, strangely enough, I found just the thing I was looking for in a store like this, and was even praised for my choice by the bookseller. I still can’t figure that out. Was I unusually lucky, or were that store’s offerings dependent on genuine magical instinct? I’d hate to think there were algorithms involved.)

Geriatric affronts, when they don’t have the children’s books I remember.

Bruising encounters with bookstore staff. Some are so gruff, some suspicious, some are eager beavers, some are never off the phone. There used to be a great guy way down in the basement at my nearest branch of the Waterstone’s chain, who’d order anything for you and even discuss the book with you—in a non-threatening way—when you came to collect it. But he’s long gone. He probably went off in search of a living wage. (I just signed a group letter in support of Waterstone’s staff campaigning for an increase in salary, but it seems the only thing on the rise there is the gender pay gap.)

Déjà vu, with all the usual suspects filling the shelves, as lurid as detergent packets: cookbooks, thrillers, bestsellers, sci-fi, exhaustive accounts of wild swimming; the same in their audio versions. A good bookshop should teach a little taste, not just load you down with genres and adultery advice.

Disgust, finding books like The Lovely Bones or anything by John Grisham given pride of place and a personal recommendation handwritten by an overworked junior bookseller. While real novelists languish for want of a dime! In reality, though, fiction doesn’t sell. Cat books sell.

Surprise, in realizing how prolific other writers are. Some people sure can pound these things out.

A sudden sense of defeat, following such shocks. Feeling crushed, I start to plod, searching the shelves for unlovely bones.

I never feel too sure what I’m doing in a bookstore.

These are places for bookish people, people who can’t get enough of books—I have plenty of books at home that I haven’t read yet. Bibliophiles wallow in the smell of books, the look of books, the aura of books, the passive readiness of books to be found and bought and absorbed. Or collected, anyway. Books mean a lot to me, or they do in retrospect, but when confronted with a plateful, I take them with a pinch of salt.

Bookshops I have known:

I’ve had no deeply traumatic experiences in bookstores, not enough to explain my timid attitude to them. Books never fell on my head or anything. I have never been waterboarded in a bookstore. Some bookstores are admittedly a bit grim, but others sparkle with warm lighting and woo you with trinkets when you get tired of books. There’s the thrill of finding books in English in a foreign bookshop, or at least cooling off. From afar, bookstores seem pretty innocuous.

A Waterstone’s bookshop in London—I did a reading there, and during the questions afterwards, a member of the audience asked me how I’d put the disparate elements of my novel together. Being incapable of giving a sensible explanation, and thinking of Schoenberg’s witty answer to a similar enquiry in Hollywood about his 12-tone scale, I said cheerily “That is none of your business”—for which I was thoroughly scolded later on by my editor. And, subsequently, by a friend of my editor. And maybe even a few other people too. I was just trying to be funny.

Bookstore readings are one of the more pointless activities invented by humankind, right up there with hanging upside down for twenty minutes a day, flying your own miniature model plane, and poking holes in Styrofoam with a cigarette. (I recommend doing all three at once.) There’s only so much you can read out loud to people in one evening, only so much stationery interrogation you can endure, and the fifteen-minute question period always falls flat. What purpose does it serve for the writer to show his or her face in public?

If publishers gave writers acting lessons, and a glad-rag allowance, things might go more smoothly, if more fraudulently: the mumblers might speak up more, the hacks would dazzle, and the shy might channel their inner Pavarotti. Instead, most writers are forced on stage willy-nilly, for the sake of sales, like overgrown, exhausted Shirley Temples, minus the curls and winsome ways. It’s in your contract: Shirley it up or else. It’s a new form of slavery.

I hate attending readings as a customer too, for pity of fellow slaves. But I admit it was a thrill to glimpse the aged Bette Davis in London once, as she made her way into Hatchards, Piccadilly, for some book launch of her own. Now, there’s a gal who knew how to handle an audience.

A Glasgow bookstore—this one was dangerous, but not in a good way. It was a fire trap, and felt like an overgrown tomb. There was just one room, piled high with books and magazines from floor to ceiling. I think a bulldozer probably dumped a new ton of books straight in through the front window every few days. People had gradually carved paths through the mess but, to examine any single book, you risked a hundred pounds of literary material collapsing at your feet. It was unlikely that you could find your way alive to a book you actually wanted, even if they had it, which was impossible to tell.

Stromness Books and Prints—after a ghastly three years spent at the University of Kent, where we mistakenly tried to teach Creative Writing (which should never be taught), we upped and quit, thrillingly, and immediately retreated to the other end of the British Isles, the top end. To Orkney, a set of islands off the coast of northern Scotland.

One of our chief amusements there, besides fish and chips, singing to seals, and filling hot water bottles (our only leaving present from the university), was a weekly visit to Tam MacPhail’s compact but worldly, even cosmic, bookstore. Every time we went in there, we made unexpected finds. There was a sharp-edged bookshelf island right in the middle of the store, with all the sharpest publications in it. As Tam said himself, the place was a work of conceptual art, with him at the center. The most quotidian thing he sold was a dictionary. We bought that too. And a joke book.

We didn’t know if we’d survive. We were broke, the heating in our house was perplexing, Orkney is extremely windy and that winter was particularly cold. For a few weeks our stove was on the blink. We didn’t know if we would just blow away one day. It now feels like we were sustained by books—as many Orcadians are.

For more, order a copy of the chapbook,  “I Dated Graham Greene,” by Lucy Ellmann, hand-bound and printed on 70-pound Zephyr laid in a limited edition of 1,000 for Independent Bookstore Day by the Biblioasis Book Store and Publisher in Windsor, Ontario, from which these passages are drawn. Copyright © Lucy Ellmann

Lucy Ellmann’s seventh novel, Ducks, Newburyport, will appear with Biblioasis in September.

Book Post is a by-subscription book-review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to subscribers’ in boxes, and other tasty items, like this one, to those who have signed up for our free posts and visitors to our sitePlease consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend! Recent reviews include Brian Fagan on the life of the wild honeybee and Joy Williams on discovering Merrill Gilfallan. Coming up we have Geoffrey O’Brien on Marvin Gaye and Elaine Blair on Sally Rooney. Visit our archive for more.

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