wax Poetics
Marvin Gaye, living in a bread truck in Maui, Hawaii, in 1979. Illustration by A.Kid.

The Fire from Within

The conflicted journey and spiritual trials of Marvin Gaye




“For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart…
There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length.”

–Don Juan
from The Teachings of Don Juan
by Carlos Castaneda

published online
Originally published in Vol. 2, Issue 1, March 2021
By Travis Atria

Originally published in Wax Poetics Vol. 2, Issue 1, March 2021.

I. Taxes, Death, and Trouble

Hiding in an old bread truck on a Hawaiian beach, flying high on cocaine, fleeing persecutions real and perceived, Marvin Gaye fantasized darkly about what he called “the end of everything.” For nearly a year, he had been teetering between a psychic meltdown where he started each day with a noseful of “high-octane toot” and a lazy island vacation where he smoked weed by the tranquil seashore and, at least once, wandered the verdant island tripping on magic mushrooms. He was lost. It was 1979, and he had reached the end of an artistic bloom, a decade during which he recorded four masterpieces and outgrew his early days as a cog in the Motown machine to become a cultural and artistic icon in his own right. But trouble was never far away. The taxman wanted money, Motown wanted hits, and his second wife, Jan, who had suffered enough of his abusive mind games, wanted Teddy Pendergrass. Hawaii was a good place to disappear. 

Artistically, Gaye was facing a repeat-performance of his life’s opera—the clash of his sexual nature and his spiritual one. Blame it on his father’s old-time religion, which hung on his shoulders like a cross, no matter how far he ran, no matter how well he hid. Gaye had been sitting on an album of sensual love songs tentatively titled Love Man, but as he broke down in the bread truck, the same old questions began to eat at him: Was he really the prince of pleasure whose odes to carnal delight rocketed him to the height of creative and commercial success? Or was he the prophet whose pipeline to the divine inspired music that could heal the world? 

The desperate, dark, paranoid, and lonely days of his bread-truck living almost exactly mirrored his predicament a decade earlier, when, in 1970, he disappeared for the first time. Back then, he had grown tired of being Motown’s sex symbol while his people seethed in the ghettos and his leaders were slain in the streets. This crisis led to his greatest spiritual statement, the towering, indelible What’s Going On. Now, obsessed with Armageddon, the End of Days—specifically, nuclear war—he wondered if he could do it again. He wanted to create a new masterpiece, wanted to change those sexy songs into urgent messages about the inevitable doom of nuclear annihilation. Radiation underground and in the sky…

Then again, his sexual side was his hungry side—hungry for fame and money—and when the two sides were in conflict, money usually won. He felt this trap keenly. “There’s no doubt music can lead,” he reflected. “I know music can heal. On the other hand, music means money.”(1) Also, upon reflection, he admitted, “I’m awfully upset when I have to do things to achieve a certain amount of status…so that people will listen to me. If I have to do sex so they listen to social topics…I’ll do sex first.”(2)

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In a way, Gaye needed this chaos to create. Something about trouble sparked his muse, perhaps because he was so deeply troubled himself. Contradiction defined him: he was arrogant and humble, lovable and impossible, laid-back and bullheaded, candid and unknowable, self-aggrandizing and self-destructive, sexual and spiritual, masterful and uncontrollable. His life would have been a trope—the man who won the world’s love, but who could not love himself—if not for his vast, almost suffocating complexity. That complexity drove him to make some of the greatest music of the twentieth century, even as it tortured him. It was the genesis of his genius and the author of his demise. 

Writer David Ritz, who spent several years working with Marvin on an autobiography that was cut short by Gaye’s tragic death, says during our interview, “He didn’t know who the real Marvin was. He was going back and forth between the private Marvin, the public Marvin, the political Marvin, the sexual Marvin, the Christian Marvin, the secular Marvin. And yet, when you look at his masterpieces, you see his ability to harmonize all the contradictions of his life in his music. He was a mess, and he allowed this messiness in his art. But his craft and his chops were such that he crafted the mess into order.” 

After Gaye’s death, Ritz transformed the project into a biography aptly titled Divided Soul. It remains a touchstone of music writing, both because of Ritz’s ability and because of Gaye’s often excruciating self-analysis. Gaye understood the forces that tore him apart. He was fractured like a broken mirror, and to simply face the world through those fractures required mountains of cocaine and forests of marijuana, which Gaye consumed daily. And yet, when he stepped in the recording studio and began to sing, by some miracle, the fractures disappeared. His genius made him whole. 

How did he do it? How did a man so confused, so torn, and so uncertain see the world so clearly? How did he prophesy the wages of American racism and the coming ecological disaster with such foresight? How did he make music that still defines our lives after half a century, music that is even more vital in the age of Black Lives Matter and the Sixth Great Extinction, and in the wake of the trigger-happy policing that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and too many others to name? And how, living in that bread truck in Hawaii, did he come so close to creating one final, masterful message to the world, only to fall short of his goal? 

To answer those questions, to understand this man whose talent was the stuff of legend and whose life had the contours of a Greek tragedy, one must first understand the forces that formed him—and fractured him.

Photo by Jim Britt via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Photo by Jim Britt via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

II. Father, Father

Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was born into confusion. His father was a violent, cruel, cross-dressing, fire-and-brimstone preacher. To be a sexually ambiguous Black man in the 1940s was to live in a special hell of shame and secrecy, and as young Marvin watched his father negotiate that hell, he learned what it meant to be tortured inside. Adding to the confusion was the name Gay, which was a weapon in the mouths of Marvin’s schoolmates.

Marvin also knew what it meant to be literally tortured. His father beat him viciously and often. “Father liked mind games,” Gaye recalled. “He’d make me wait up to an hour while he jangled that belt buckle just loud enough. There was something inside him enjoying the pain he caused the whole family.”(3) Sometimes, Gay Sr. would even make his young son strip naked before the beating.

 Gay Sr. did not love his son. This is an enormous statement, made more horrifying for being true. “My husband never wanted Marvin and he never liked him,” Marvin’s mother, Alberta, said. “For some reason he didn’t love Marvin and, what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either. Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.” As Ritz puts it, “It was the most complex Oedipal situation I’ve ever seen.” Marvin also understood, as he admitted with astonishing insight, “My fight to win love would always be accompanied by pain.”(4) 

This pain, inflicted daily at home, found a powerful echo in religion. Marvin’s father preached at a church with the almost unbelievable name “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 practiced a bizarre, severe mixture of Orthodox Judaism and Pentecostal Christianity. The Gay family celebrated only Old Testament holidays and lived by Old Testament precepts, the only exception being belief in the divine Jesus.

“Me and Marvin felt we had three strikes against us from the start,” wrote Marvin’s younger brother Frankie in his biography Marvin Gaye, My Brother. “Our name was one strike….We also had to live with being black…but the biggest strike of all was Father’s religion. It was his life, so it became our life. As kids, it was difficult for us to separate Father’s religious world from the real world.” Gay Sr.’s faith was all-or-nothing, ecstasy or doom, heaven or hell. There was no gray between the black and white. 

The same was true of the world around Marvin. He was born into a sadistically racist nation, where Black and white were kept separate by law and custom. His first home was in the Fairfax Apartments, a Washington, D.C., slum where, as Frankie recalled, “We had to keep a coal bucket filled with stones inside the house to throw at the rats.” As if young Marvin didn’t have enough confusion around him, the very city of his birth was a baffling mixture of America’s loftiest promises and its harshest realities. “I remember visiting the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorial at different ages,” Marvin said. “I could appreciate the grandeur of the architecture. But I had the distinct feeling that these marvelous treasures belonged to white people. It was as though we could look but not touch, and never, never own. Coming up when I did, it was tough not to be cynical about America.”

The only escape was music. At the tender age of four, Marvin began singing in church, with his father accompanying him on piano. “I thought I could win his love through singing, so I sang my heart out,” Marvin said. If Marvin didn’t win his father’s love, he did at least find his calling. He began having a recurring dream in which he was singing for millions of people. The dream always ended the same way: Marvin Gay was acclaimed the greatest singer on earth.

Marvin Gaye, mid-1960s. Photo via Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images.
Marvin Gaye, mid-1960s. Photo via Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images.

III. Stubborn Kind of Fellow

After a stint with Harvey Fuqua’s doo-wop group, the Moonglows, a twenty-one-year-old Marvin Gay arrived in Detroit to break into the Motown mix. In December 1960, he found himself performing at a holiday party at the home of none other than Motown founder Berry Gordy. Gordy noticed the kid. So did his sister Anna. She had an imprint of her own, a precursor to Motown called Anna Records, and she hired Marvin as a session drummer, although she wanted this handsome, lithe young man with the heavenly voice for something else.

Here began the rise of Marvin Gaye.

Of course, Marvin’s talent was his own. With or without Anna, he would have had the same voice, the same looks, the same essence. But, by nearly all accounts, it was Anna who pushed Marvin to overcome his wounds and realize his potential. And it was clear from the start that Marvin was wounded. “Marvin was a troubled boy from the first day I met him,” recalled Thomas “Beans” Bowles, who played baritone sax and flute on many Motown hits and was road manager for the early Motown Revues. “He was a beautiful human being beneath all his complexes, but, believe me, he had lots of complexes.”(5) At Motown, those complexes, which revolved around his father and mother, found counterparts in Berry Gordy—the father figure, the man Marvin rebelled against like an angsty teenager—and Anna, who at seventeen years older than Marvin became a mixture of mother and lover. Marvin and Anna would marry in 1963, but their relationship was always strained, and their vicious public fights would become legendary. 

Marvin didn’t want to follow the well-conceived and well-received R&B footsteps of Motown’s stars and hitmakers like Mary Wells, Eddie Holland, and Bill “Smokey” Robinson. Instead, his dream was to be a crooner in the mold of Frank Sinatra, and Anna supported this rebellion against her brother, despite its inherent sexuality. “Every woman in America wanted to go to bed with Frank Sinatra,” Marvin said. “He was the king I longed to be. My greatest dream was to satisfy as many women as Sinatra.” Perhaps he meant this literally or perhaps figuratively—or both—but this dream would drive and torment Marvin for the rest of his life. He could never quite live it out, and he could never quite let it go.

Before he could be Sinatra, he needed a hit. His debut album, 1961’s The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, was a collection of standards that did nothing except add an “e” to his last name in a futile attempt to escape his sexual uncertainty. Even worse, while his first three singles flopped, he watched the Marvelettes score Motown its first number one pop hit with “Please Mr. Postman.”

In an era when record charts were segregated, hitting the top of the white pop chart was nearly impossible for a Black artist. It was also extremely important. It granted access to the mainstream of American culture, which meant money, status, and fame. It was a rigged game, a stupid game, a racist game, and the only game. For a man as competitive and insecure as Marvin Gaye, watching others win that game ahead of him was excruciating. “At that point, I knew I’d have to travel the same road as all black artists before me,” he said bitterly.

Gaye thought he’d be able to get over to the white crowd with his jazzy, urbane crooning, but it seemed the white youth wanted Black music, or at least a version of it. Gaye was gifted enough to play the game, so in 1962 he cowrote and recorded “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” a song with just enough grit to hit the top ten R&B, and not too much grit to keep it off the pop charts, where it sneaked into the top fifty. 

True to his nature, Gaye felt conflicted about his first hit. He feared how much power Gordy had over him, and he hated that his song didn’t hit the pop chart the way “Postman” had done. So began a career-long paranoid suspicion that Motown and Gordy were purposely sabotaging his career. Gaye continued acting out against Gordy, following the pattern of behavior he had learned with his father. Of course, Gordy wasn’t Marvin’s father. He truly loved Marvin and was protective of his career. Sadly, Marvin often couldn’t see it. 

Indeed, Marvin could rarely tell friend from foe, and this challenge only became more difficult with fame. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of Divided Soul, Marvin’s mother recalls, “So many times my son would call me and say, ‘If only father could throw his arms around me and squeeze me and hold me and tell me he loves me!’ [I’d say] ‘I understand what you’re saying darlin’, but it ain’t going to happen. So just put it out of your mind and think of all the people who do love you.’ Marvin didn’t believe me. My son didn’t really believe that anyone loved him.”

 It was Anna who smoothed and soothed Gaye’s divisions. Though their relationship was volatile at best, Marvin loved Anna, and Anna loved him, and for a time, that was enough. In fact, the volatility worked in his favor, giving constant grist to his creative mill. Meanwhile, as Berry Gordy watched his brother-in-law continue to score R&B hits and rake in money for Motown, he shrewdly realized that in this suave, handsome young man could be the label’s sex symbol. Maybe it wasn’t in the best interests of his sister’s marriage, but Gordy exploited the situation and made Marvin record duet albums with costars Mary Wells and Kim Weston, singing simple love songs like “It Takes Two,” feeding ear candy to American teenagers necking in cars to the scratchy sound of the radio, earning Motown the nickname “The Sound of Young America.”

But in the midst of this new identity as a sex symbol, Marvin’s other identity was starting to form. As young America became increasingly immersed in the civil rights movement, Gaye’s contemporary, Curtis Mayfield, was not just singing soul but moving souls with his social anthems “Keep on Pushing” and “People Get Ready.” Meanwhile, Marvin was still singing pretty little songs like “Pretty Little Baby.” But in the summer of ’65, as he was listening to that very song on the radio, the DJ cut in to break the news of the Watts riots. “My stomach got real tight and my heart started beating like crazy,” Gaye said. “I wanted to throw the radio down and burn all the bullshit songs I’d been singing and get out there and kick ass with the rest of the brothers… I understood anger that builds up over years—shit, over centuries—and I felt myself exploding. Why didn’t our music have anything to do with this?” he asked himself.

Sex symbol Marvin performing on TV with dancers, circa 1964. Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Sex symbol Marvin performing on TV with dancers, circa 1964. Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

More feelings came flooding back to Marvin. “Earlier in the year, another death got to me. Malcolm X,” he would later tell Ritz. “When they cut him down, I felt the loss inside my soul, and I knew that an age of terrible violence and suffering had just begun. I knew what my people were feeling—all the pent-up rage and anger. I felt it, too.”

“With the world exploding around me,” he wondered, “how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” But Gaye kept singing love songs. In 1966, while Cleveland, Atlanta, Dayton, and San Francisco burned, Gaye sang a slew of love songs with Kim Weston. During the Long, Hot Summer of 1967, when 159 riots erupted in Black neighborhoods across the country and President Johnson established the Kerner Commission, which conducted one of the most damning studies of American racism in history, Gaye recorded his next album of love songs, this time with his newest partner, Tammi Terrell. 

Marvin Gaye wasn’t yet ready to act on that feeling of social justice that erupted after Malcolm X’s assassination and the Watts Rebellion. He wasn’t ready to alienate his white audience; he still had that driving urge to be famous and stay famous. He knew that women were his money-making audience, and he knew “music’s supposed to sell.” Looking back, Marvin acknowledged his challenge: “Suffering and injustice are things which I’ve always felt deep in my soul, and I wondered what I was doing singing rock and roll in some dive instead of leading the marchers. I know I had that ability, but that wasn’t my role. My role was to sing. Years later when Bob Marley came around, I saw that both things were possible. His music caused political change, and that’s why he’ll occupy a high place in history.”

None of this is to denigrate the music Gaye was making. In fact, Gaye’s duets with Terrell are among his greatest achievements, and songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” are vital monuments to the Motown legend. He and Tammi loved each other like brother and sister, and that love shone through in the recordings. They were a perfect pair. Perhaps their closeness was born of shared pain: Tammi, like Marvin, was a tortured soul. She had experienced vicious abuse, especially from boyfriends James Brown and David Ruffin. Whatever the reason, they achieved real magic together, even if it was as characters they created, the ideal lovers.

But as the decade neared its end, Marvin could no longer ignore the world around him. And his mind changed forever when Tammi collapsed into his arms onstage during the summer of 1967. As her health declined, Marvin said, “My heart was broken…. I could no longer pretend to sing love songs for people.” Then, in the spring of 1968, exactly one week after Motown released “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Martin Luther King was murdered. The assassination came just as King was expanding his message of racial justice to include a strong stance against the Vietnam War, which, incidentally, Marvin’s brother Frankie was fighting. “Dr. King’s death confirmed my instincts about this country,” Marvin said. “America couldn’t deal with someone that was good and just. Suddenly everyone was going nuts. The riots in Detroit hit close to home. We could smell the smoke and hear the gunfire.”

By the end of the ’60s, Gaye and Anna were bitterly divided, the IRS was hounding him for back taxes, he hadn’t performed live in years, and he had developed a serious cocaine habit. “His torture went deep,” Ritz tells me. “Even in terms of his talent, he was deeply insecure. That’s why he hated to perform. He thought he’d be caught, that people would figure out he was not as good as he seemed. That’s why he was so comfortable in the studio, where he could control everything. Take him out of the studio, and he became a basket case before he went onstage.”

But even the studio seemed unsafe now. Music had left him behind, both in message and in sound. Gone were two-minute pop songs about how sweet it is to be loved by you. Long, rhythmic, percussive songs were now in vogue, songs that had something heavy to say, like Sly Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and the Impressions’ “Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey).” These changes had hit Motown too. The Temptations, after firing drug-addled lead singer David Ruffin, found a new sound and new message courtesy of the producer-songwriter team Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who had previously given Marvin the biggest hit in Motown history, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” They sidestepped Gordy’s disapproval of message music with Cloud Nine, on which both the title track and the ten-minute-long “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” dealt specifically with ghetto life. The song “Cloud Nine” also won Motown its first Grammy Award, proving the listening public was ready for more than teenage love songs. Meanwhile, Edwin Starr had a number one hit with Whitfield and Strong’s anti-war anthem, “War.”

Gaye didn’t know how to respond. “There were so many musical changes floating in the air, it was hard to find a handle,” he said. He couldn’t face the world. He could hardly face himself. He was becoming a recluse, just like his father, and it scared him. “I saw what was happening in this country,” he later mused, “and I wasn’t doing a damn thing about it…I was tired of going out and getting the women to scream. I had to be more than a sex symbol. I had to be an artist.” But where did his artistry fit in all this upheaval? 

As the decade ended, Motown released Gaye’s tenth album, the Norman Whitfield–produced That’s the Way Love Is, on which he performed a halfhearted cover of the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.” But the standout track was a cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” a soulful, painful, yearning version that hinted at the darkness brewing within him. Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be… 

Two months later, Tammi died, and Marvin broke down.

Promo shot from the <i>What’s Going On</i> photo shoot. Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Promo shot from the What’s Going On photo shoot. Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

IV. What’s Going On

 Marvin Gaye grew a beard. It was a political statement as much as a personal one. “Black men weren’t supposed to look overtly masculine,” he told Ritz. “I spent my entire career looking harmless, and the look no longer fit. I wasn’t harmless. I was pissed at America.” Gaye didn’t want to be Motown’s slick prince anymore, but he didn’t know what else to be. In his decade of recording and performing, he never had time to even consider the question. Now that he was taking the time, Gordy felt nervous. It was unprecedented for an artist to buck the system at Motown. How long would Marvin wait? “My phone would ring,” Gaye said, “and it’d be Motown wanting me to start working and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?’ The murders at Kent State made me sick. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me.” 

Then Frankie came home from war.

Marvin returned to D.C. to welcome his little brother home, and the two slept under the same roof for the first time since their youth. “Nights were the best,” Frankie recalled in his book, “and we really became kids again as we stretched out in our beds, telling stories in the dark. Only now, Marvin wanted me to do the talking. He was full of questions, and they all had to do with my experiences in Vietnam. He wanted to hear everything—what I saw, what I heard, what I felt.”

For weeks, Marvin listened to his brother’s voice in the dark, absorbing the experience of war, the horror of battle, the finality of death. “My blood started to boil,” Gaye said. “I knew I had something—an anger, an energy, an artistic point of view. It was time to stop playing games.” But it wasn’t just the war overseas that concerned him. “I sorta saw the country headed for modern-day civil war,” he said.(6) The pain, anger, and confusion that had been building inside him for years clarified his mind. He began to see the path forward: “I felt the strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men.”(7)

Around this time, Obie Benson of the Four Tops witnessed a clash in San Francisco between police and students at the University of California, Berkeley. “I started wondering what the fuck was going on,” Benson said. “What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?”(8) Benson began writing a song about it, but the Tops weren’t interested. Marvin was. These were the same questions he was asking of himself and of his brother.

From Benson’s sketch, Gaye created “What’s Going On,” a song about the suffering of the past years, about the war, about the mothers crying and the brothers dying. The song was a deft mixture of the personal and the universal. As Ritz says, “When he sings, ‘Father, father, we don’t need to escalate,’ he is talking about the war, but he’s also talking about the escalation of the antagonism with his father, which leads to his demise.” 

While the songwriting credit remains in dispute, Gaye had his own ideas of ownership, which he clearly was thinking about when he spoke to Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres in early 1972. “What’s Going On was my first production ever,” he said. “I conceived every bit of the music. I hate to brag and everything like this, but I had no musical knowledge, I can’t write music, can’t read music. But I was able to transmit my thoughts to another person, and David Van DePitte, through the graces of God, had enough talent to be able to receive it and put it on paper for me.

“I thought at one time that I would take off and go to school and learn to write music,” Gaye continued. “You know, I can go around all day and say, ‘Hey, dammit, I composed that album,’ and Dave can come back and say, ‘No you didn’t, I wrote it,’ and I’m going to take it to a judge and say, ‘Well, I thought it,’ and he’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, well, who wrote this music?’ Dave Van DePitte. Well, you get it; it’s yours. But I’m gonna learn how to write music, so I can do it. Why? Because I want all the credit.”

The question of ownership and authorship would follow Gaye until the end. “Marvin was largely a collaborator,” Ritz says. “Very few things he wrote alone. In the case of ‘What’s Going On,’ he had to be spurred by Obie. Al Cleveland got involved. Anna wrote some lyrics. In the case of Let’s Get It On, Ed Townsend had a huge role. Leon Ware had a huge role in I Want You. Here, My Dear was probably the album he had the least amount of collaborative help with. But he was indolent. He had this lazy streak. It took him a long time to get into the studio, and once he did, he didn’t always go to work. He liked being sparked by other people.” And yet, one thing remained true: no matter how much other people sparked his creativity, Ritz says, “Marvin turned it into his own.” 

To record “What’s Going On,” Gaye worked in a way he never had before, inventing a new vocal style that would define the rest of his career. Double-tracking vocals was common recording practice by 1970, but Gaye took it to a new place, layering tracks on tracks to create lush harmonies reminiscent of the doo-wop groups he sang with as a kid. He also sang several different takes of the lead vocal and left them all in the song, so that his voice—whether soaring falsetto, gruff growl, or smooth mid-range—was in conversation with itself. “I felt like I finally learned how to sing,” he said. “I’ve been studying the microphone for a dozen years, and suddenly I saw what I’ve been doing wrong. I have been singing too loud… One night I was listening to a record by Lester Young, the horn player, and it came to me. Relax, just relax.”

Gaye finished the song in September 1970, just as Curtis Mayfield released his monumental Curtis album, the first seconds of which feature Mayfield shouting the words, “Niggas…don’t worry—if there’s hell below, we’re all gonna go.” With “What’s Going On,” Gaye was no longer watching statements like Mayfield’s from the sidelines. He had a message of his own.

But Motown wasn’t interested.

It wasn’t that the song was political—again, Motown had already ventured into political music and had been rewarded with its first Grammy. The problem, for Gordy, was that Marvin was making a political statement. He chastised Marvin, saying, “Why do you want to ruin your career? Why do you want to put out a song about the Vietnam War, police brutality and all of these things? You’ve got all these great love songs. You’re the hottest artist, the sex symbol of the sixties and seventies.”(9)

And it wasn’t just Gordy. Producer/A&R-man Harry Balk, who was running Gordy’s rock imprint Rare Earth, received an acetate of “What’s Going On” by mistake. “I just fell on the floor when I heard it,” Balk recalled. “I loved it and made a tape of it before sending the acetate on. I listened to it over and over, and fell more in love with it. I started playing it for people who came into my office. Of course, everybody will tell you now how wonderful they thought ‘What’s Going On’ was, but I played it for the hot producers and got nothing but negative opinions. The only one that was really knocked out with it—the only one—was Stevie Wonder.”(10) Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any of Wonder’s masterpieces—and concept albums—of the 1970s without What’s Going On, but at the time his support didn’t help Gaye.

“It should’ve been my moment of artistic triumph,” Gaye said, “but Berry and the promoters in the Motown marketing meetings ridiculed ‘What’s Going On.’”(11) When they refused to release the single, Gaye threatened he’d never record for them again. Motown decided not to call his bluff. Although Gordy was reportedly furious when he heard the news in California, where he had begun spending most of his time, Motown released the hard-hitting mono single “What’s Going On” b/w “God Is Love” on January 21, 1971. The song instantly proved Gaye right, exploding to the top of the R&B chart and #2 on the pop chart. 

Gaye now had the blueprint for an entire album. Musically, he drew on the entirety of African American tradition, from jazz to blues, gospel to soul, doo-wop to R&B, adding Latin percussion to create new nuances. Vocally, he continued to stack take upon take, harmonizing with himself, testifying behind himself, weaving several impressions of the same melody together into one complex whole. Lyrically, he sang to his brother and through his brother, looking at America and the world through the eyes of a soldier just returned from Vietnam.

Wax poetics
Wax poetics

During the recording, Gaye came upon the idea to present the songs as one continuous, thematic piece. “At first, I was afraid,” he admitted, “because I didn’t know whether this had ever been done before, but when I got started I actually found that the process came naturally. It was easy. Don Juan was right: I was traveling down a path of the heart.” After reworking the title track, he continued the theme on the gorgeous “What’s Happening Brother,” a song sung from Frankie’s perspective, dealing with the difficult transition of a soldier who comes home from war to find money tight, jobs nonexistent, and America in shambles. That song then melted into Gaye’s chilling masterpiece on drug abuse, “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky),” which in turn melted into an extended spoken-word section, during which Gaye asked a series of super-heavy questions, including, “Who’s willing to try to save a world that is destined to die?” After another shift, Gaye presented a reworked “God Is Love,” which ventured into explicitly Christian territory, and then he ended side A with the immortal “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” lamenting the destruction of the natural world.

On side B, Gaye dealt with economic inequality in “Right On,” underlined the album’s Christianity in “Wholy Holy,” and added an exclamation point with the magnificent “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” It was one of three singles, all which charted in the top ten soul and pop charts between February and October 1971. While many critics didn’t initially embrace the record as a whole, this song was the standout for most listeners. Even notoriously salty Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, while lamenting the lack of new exciting music, said in his December 12, 1971, column, “If all of Marvin Gaye’s drawnout new stuff was as good as ‘Inner City Blues,’ I’d be glad to withdraw my reservations.” 

The result of Gaye’s musical vision was a seamless, flowing, stunning work of protest that stung and soothed at the same time. “His protest was encased in an irresistible and very seductive beauty,” Ritz says. “And that beauty is permanently beautiful. We don’t get tired of listening to Mozart or Schubert, and we don’t get tired of listening to Marvin Gaye because he’s so beautiful.” 

Gaye cut the album over a two-week frenzy in March, and Motown released it May 21, 1971. The conservative Berry Gordy might not have loved the album, but he was proven wrong about the public’s reaction; the album sold more than anything Gaye had yet released.

It wasn’t universally and immediately lauded as a masterpiece. Similar to Christgau’s critical reservations, Rolling Stone critic Vince Aletti wrote in the August 5, 1971, issue: “The lyrics here are hardly brilliant, but without overreaching they capture a certain aching dissatisfaction that is part of the album’s mood.” But despite the critical ambivalence, What’s Going On reverberated with the public and with Gaye’s peers. Curtis Mayfield remarked, “When I first heard What’s Going On I felt like Marvin had said everything there was to be said.”(12) Guitarist George Benson, in his February 2004 column for The Observer, recalled, “It was released in 1971 when I was living in Harlem, up on 125th Street by the Apollo Theater. You’d hear it on the sidewalks or floating out of people’s cars in the summer.” Benson further noted, “And when he sang, you knew that was the man himself you were hearing. Marvin Gaye wouldn’t try and fake something, and he wouldn’t only try and express an idea. Whatever he sang, it was completely him.” Original Supreme Mary Wilson, upon hearing the album, gushed: “He nailed life at that time, the movement of not just Black struggle but universal struggle. He nailed it.”(13) Marvin himself noted that the record was meant to be seen universally: “The word ‘black’ is not in my album from the A side to the B side,” Marvin told Fong-Torres. “I was very careful not to do any of those things.”

Soon after the album’s release, the NAACP gave Gaye their fifth annual Image Award, naming him the “nation’s most socially significant entertainer,” as well as the year’s best singer and producer. He was Cashbox’s Male Vocalist of the Year and won Billboard’s Trendsetter Award. He was given the key to the city in Washington, D.C.—“I wonder if it’ll do any good if I get stopped by a police officer,” he said in his acceptance speech—and even Berry Gordy eventually admitted What’s Going On was “probably the greatest album Motown ever put out.”(14)

In hindsight, in their April 11, 1974, edition, Rolling Stone called the record “an instant classic.” Although writer Tim Cahill added a caveat: “To be sure, it took some getting used to. There were strange, innovative production techniques. Gaye ran brass and strings on a single take causing a sound leakage that gave the record an infinite sense of space. The illusion was compounded by the rhythm, which floated about in the distance, four or five times up-tempo. The bass and drums were soul; the horns sounded of jazz; and Marvin’s voice came up soft and spontaneous, sometimes like a pop balladeer, sometimes like a tired bluesman.” Cahill astutely observed that Gaye’s spiritual side was instrumental to the album’s realization, concluding, “The stance was involved, passionate, political. The words had all been said before—‘Save the children,’ ‘What’s happening to the ecology’—but there was something in the trance-like production, the fusion of styles, the spirit in the singer that gave the cliches new meaning. What’s Going On was a masterpiece.”

Marvin Gaye was now rich, famous, loved, and respected. He renegotiated his contract with Motown for the unprecedented sum of one million dollars, making him the highest paid Black performer at the time, and he demanded unprecedented control over his music. He had achieved that rarest of combinations: critical acclaim and commercial success. If he hadn’t realized his childhood dream of being praised as the greatest singer on earth, he had come as close as possible.

And yet, the old demons always lurked nearby. After What’s Going On, Gaye confronted his father with his success, looking for the approval he had always sought and never received. He brought home an attaché case full of one million dollars and said, “What do you think now, father?” His father replied, “I still say, ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ ”

Not long after, while being questioned by Fong-Torres about how he created the album, Marvin would give a telling reply: “What you’re trying to find out is am I really a genius or a fake. And I think I’m a fake. A lot of people ask me that same question. ‘Tell me this, how did you put that damn album together? A nut like you, I mean, really, explain that.’ And it kind of bugs me a little sometimes, but then I say, ‘I don’t know; it just happened.’ It really did. It happened through divinity; it was divine. And somebody said, ‘OK, you’re divine. You be divine, and I’ll be rich.’ I say I like it better, I’d rather be divine.”

V. Where Are We Going?

Marvin Gaye had found his way out of paralyzing despair with an unabashedly religious and political album. His feet were on a new path, and he intended to keep walking it. In the 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, Fong-Torres asked if What’s Going On was “the beginning of a more serious work you’re planning,” and Marvin answered: “It would be nice if I could lead a million people out of despair, and I may try.”

Gaye’s next move proved the sincerity of his words. The day before Rolling Stone’s feature, “A Visit with Marvin Gaye—Honor Thy Brother-in-Law,” was published, Gaye released the self-produced single, “You’re the Man.” It was his most political song yet, based on the 1972 election, which pitted the love generation, represented by antiwar candidate George McGovern, against America’s twisted id, represented by Richard Nixon. 

Beginning with Melvin Ragin’s wah-wah guitar riff, the track struts heavier than anything on What’s Going On. Here, Marvin is in Curtis Mayfield mode, singing the entire song in falsetto. His lyrics, cowritten by partner Ken Stover, are more political than “Inner City Blues”—Your opponents always lie / Think about the mistakes you make / I believe that America’s at stake and Politics and hypocrites / Is turning us all into lunatics / Can you take the guns from our sons?—and more specific than “What’s Going On”: You know busin’, busin’ is the issue. The single charted on Billboard’s R&B chart for eight weeks, ultimately hitting #7.

It’s been said that “You’re the Man” was planned as the eponymous single of an upcoming protest album, which Gaye intended as the true follow-up to What’s Going On, but because the single didn’t cross over to the pop charts—and wasn’t pushed by Motown—he abandoned the project. Perhaps this is true, but it is also true that Gaye continued to record heavy jams, spiritual gospels, and funky sociopolitical tunes throughout the year, still searching for his next great statement. 

In June and July, he cut “Piece of Clay,” written and produced by Gloria Jones (an American who had made it big in the U.K. with “Tainted Love”) and Pam Sawyer (a British songwriter who wrote Motown hits like “Love Child” and “Love Hangover”). The gospel-like track is one of Gaye’s most emotional songs, and it’s a wonder he didn’t write the opening lyrics himself: Father stop criticizing your son.

That same summer, Gaye teamed up with two team members of Motown’s famed writing/production squad, the Corporation. Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell produced and arranged, while songwriting was partly handled by Fonce’s brother Larry—the three had worked together for years and would soon produce a string of Blue Note albums for Donald Byrd. They offered Marvin a song called “Where Are We Going.” The overall vibe and the world-weary lyrics—“Day by day, another war goes on”—play like a sequel to What’s Going On, but the production has that airy bump that would soon become the Mizell Brothers’ signature sound. 

Gaye also demoed a song called “Symphony,” and as he searched for lyrics, singing whatever came into his head, he began to simply repeat the words “what’s going on.” His last album, it seemed, was still literally on his mind.

The only problem was, he couldn’t decide what to do with these songs. They lacked the unifying vision and style of What’s Going On and never cohered into an album. Instead of comprising Gaye’s next major statement, most remained buried in the Motown vault until 2019’s You’re the Man compilation. 

But in 1972, there were other ways to make a statement. Mainstream American culture had become hungry for Black stories, and filmmakers stepped in to provide a feast. The genre that would come to be called blaxploitation was problematic and reductive, but it was also a boon for Black actors, directors, and perhaps most importantly, musicians. While Gaye floundered trying to follow What’s Going On, his contemporaries began scoring massive artistic and commercial success with film soundtracks, from Isaac Hayes’s Shaft, to Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly, to Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street. As Berry Gordy settled in Los Angeles, working desperately to break Diana Ross as a movie star, Gaye began to desire a film of his own. 

Along came Trouble Man. By title alone, it was a perfect fit for Marvin Gaye, and although most of the album is instrumental, what he did with the title track provided a fascinating glimpse of where his art was heading. Lyrically, “Trouble Man” can be read as a social statement, but it was also the closest Gaye had come to an autobiographical song. When he sang, “I come up hard, baby, I had to fight,” and, “There’s only three things that’s for sure: taxes, death, and trouble,” he was singing about his personal struggles. (It could be argued that half of Marvin’s political beliefs came from the fact that he didn’t like to pay taxes.) The song was evidence of an inner shift: he was becoming more interested in himself and his inner world than he was in the world around him. Call it growing up. “The older he got, the more self-consumed he became,” Ritz says. “I don’t mean self-consumed in a bad way. It was also introspective.” 

Trouble Man was another masterpiece, but by the end of the year, Gaye began wondering how much was left to say about the state of the world and how much money there was in saying it. “He was interested in hits,” says Ritz. “And he knew the sensuous Marvin was going to be the most commercial Marvin.” The old battle for his soul began rumbling again.

Marvin Gaye singing “Let’s Get It On” on <i>Soul Train</i> (Episode 89, February 16, 1974). Photo via Soul Train/Getty Images.
Marvin Gaye singing “Let’s Get It On” on Soul Train (Episode 89, February 16, 1974). Photo via Soul Train/Getty Images.

VI. Just to Keep You Satisfied

In 1973, with a film score under his belt, Gaye finally left Detroit and followed Motown to Los Angeles. There, he ran into songwriter Ed Townsend. Just as Obie Benson before him, Townsend had the outline of a song, but it needed the right voice and the right lyrics. At first, Gaye was still not ready to abandon his identity as the prophet of What’s Going On. He tried to fit political and religious lyrics to Townsend’s track, but the song begged for something else—something physical, sensual. And so, Gaye turned his focus from the spirit to the body, and created “Let’s Get It On.” 

Both the song and the album that bore its name were a natural mixture of the two phases of Gaye’s career. Rhythmically and vocally, they were the logical next step after What’s Going On—all multitracked vocals and polyrhythmic percussive force. Thematically, they were a return to the days when Gaye was Motown’s sexual, sensual prince—only much more so. Indeed, it is difficult to name a more sexually explicit album by a mainstream artist of any era, up to and including Let’s Get It On’s release in August 1973. 

The passion Gaye poured into the album was earnest. While recording it, he met a girl named Janice Hunter, and the two instantly fell in love. Here the morality becomes murky, and frankly, uncomfortable. Gaye met Hunter on the day of her seventeenth birthday (in a strange coincidence, Jan was almost exactly seventeen years younger than Gaye, while Anna was almost exactly seventeen years older). Early in their courtship, he would pick her up from high school in one of his fancy cars and take her back to his apartment, where they’d smoke weed and make love. He was still married to Anna, but that relationship had been on the verge of ending for years, and now there was no question it was over.

By today’s standards, of course, Gaye’s actions were taboo and even criminal. It seems even in 1973 several people close to Marvin found his relationship with Jan unsavory. But Gaye didn’t care. Soon he and Jan were living together, and the album she had done so much to inspire became another landmark of 1970s soul. One Motown executive estimated it sold four million copies on its release, saying, “We’d never seen anything like it before.”(15) Gaye had now recorded three masterpieces in three years—one spiritual, one instrumental, and one sexual. 

Though he had mostly avoided live performance even after the success of What’s Going On, he was now lured back on the road. He always hated the pressure of performing, and this tour was no different. He missed dates at will, lost copious amounts of money, and ingested dangerous quantities of drugs. “Touring always tears up my gut,” he said. “I do enough drugs in ordinary life but on the road quantities triple. And then I have to act like every woman’s lost lover so she’ll go out and buy three more copies of my latest record. Be serious, is this me?”(16)

It was him and it wasn’t him. There he was, torn again. Chasing the success of Let’s Get It On, he delved deeper into the sensual Marvin. At the same time, he also began toying with a suite of songs called “Life’s Opera,” a musical tapestry full of profound spiritual reflections on his life, which New York Times critic Jon Pareles compared to the B-side suite of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. As the song unfurls, changing tempo and style at will, Gaye calls out Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, exhorts his listeners to “keep on marching, marching, marching, marching,” and ends with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Here was another potential follow-up to What’s Going On, but just as with You’re the Man, Gaye couldn’t decide what to do with it. His recording engineer, Art Stewart, recalled, “I’d urge him to keep working on it, but he’d say, ‘Oh Art, that thing ain’t about nothing.’”(17) The song remained unreleased until 1985. 

Instead, he followed Let’s Get It On with an even raunchier ode to sex (and Jan) with 1976’s I Want You, which sold well despite being a critical letdown, and he went back on tour, feeling trapped by his image even as he continued to feed it. “He was a deeply sensuous man, and his music was very seductive,” Ritz says, “but the idea of being a sex god in public terrified him. He was shy when it came to women, and he liked demure women. Women who came onto him and chased him really frightened him. And yet this public thing that he did was something that he manufactured because he thought it was his responsibility as a performing artist.”

That perceived responsibility, which had always been a painful division within Gaye’s soul, now became an all-out battle. In concert footage from 1976, as Gaye gyrates onstage in a green pinstripe suit, it is clear how uncomfortable he feels. And yet, he is up there doing it anyway, sacrificing his health on the altar of his own image. Perhaps this is why he needed such quantities of drugs, but as Gaye’s former musical director Gordon Banks admits, “The drugs didn’t make life any better. People would try to get him off it, but he was Marvin Gaye. ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’ That ego was there all the time. He had people around him that didn’t really know him and were just trying to use him.” 

Soon Gaye was fighting other familiar battles. The IRS came calling again. So did his musicians. According to one close friend, Gaye had failed to pay at least thirty musicians since 1973. On top of all that, Anna finally wanted a divorce, and she wasn’t going to make it easy. She wanted more money than he could give, so in a unique divorce settlement, the judge ordered Gaye to record an album and give her the proceeds. 

Gaye intended to make a “lazy, bad” album. “Why should I break my neck when Anna was going to wind up with the money anyway?” he said. But once he hit the studio, the spirit moved him. Instead of a lazy album, he turned out an intensely, almost painfully personal opus on love and loss. “It became an obsession,” Gaye said. “I had to free myself of Anna, and I saw this as the way….I just sang and sang until I’d drained myself dry of everything I’d lived through.”

Musically, Here, My Dear was a perfection of Gaye’s synthesizer-heavy, sensual funk of the ’70s. Emotionally, it was as messy and profound as divorce itself. Commercially and critically, it was a failure the likes of which Gaye hadn’t experienced in at least a decade. His hot streak, it seemed, was over. 

“What’s interesting is, he gets off the commercial track with Here, My Dear,” Ritz tells me. “It’s really a way to tell Berry Gordy, ‘Fuck you. Not only am I going to do a personal album, it’s going to talk about your sister.’ It was like a corporate political act. And if it’s among his greatest albums, it’s because it’s a tribute to Anna. It’s the only double album he ever did. He’s really working for her. It’s indescribably beautiful and deeply profound. He’s working the anger out in the studio, trying to understand how anger is going to kill him. And ultimately, anger does kill him.”

Though Here, My Dear is now considered a masterpiece, its failure at the time sent Gaye into a depression. Without Anna and Motown, the two forces that kept his chaos at bay, he slipped into a mental and spiritual decline. In a desperate attempt to recapture the sex-drenched heights of Let’s Get It On, he began working on another sensual album, Love Man, but the IRS was still hounding him for nearly five million dollars in back taxes, so he put the album on hold and went on tour to alleviate his debts. The road had always been a trap, and during the tour he fell deeper into depression and drug-fueled paranoia. On the way home from Japan toward the end of 1977, Gaye’s plane stopped in Hawaii to refuel. He told his brother Frankie, “This is where I get off…I can’t go home.”(18)

Wax poetics

VII. The Artist Pays the Price

In the face of his troubles, Marvin Gaye fled. He backed out of the rest of his shows, bought a used bread van (as Marvin photographer Ken Grant recalled in Divided Soul, “I heard it was a bus or a motorhome, but man, it was nothing but a funky old bread van”), parked it on a bluff overlooking the ocean in Maui, and lived in it for nearly a year. “I was hanging onto the ropes,” Gaye said. “I was punch drunk. How many blows can a man take? I didn’t know how to react anymore. I kept telling myself that good news was around the corner, but there wasn’t anything around the corner except some big IRS dude ready to mug me.” 

Gaye was living out an old fantasy. “He envied bums,” Ritz says. “He wanted to be a bum. It was one of the themes he talked about over and over again. They have no responsibility. His living in the bread van on the beach was him being a bum. It was a pressure release.” Sometimes, while dipping his body in the ocean or eating a pineapple in the tropical breeze, Gaye felt this beautiful pressure release. Other times, trapped in his own squalor, he yearned to drug himself into oblivion. “It would be a slow but relatively pleasant death,” he said, “certainly less messy than a gun.”

What was supposed to be a short vacation turned into a seven-month breakdown, during which, as Ritz wrote, Gaye “took his assortment of nerve-racking fears and gathered them into one metaphor which he called the ‘end of everything.’ ” The end of everything included Gaye’s second marriage. He invited Jan to Hawaii to try to patch things up, but the attempt ended in a fight that escalated until he held a knife to her chest, wanting to kill her, and himself. Later, he nearly overdosed on cocaine. “In one hour I snorted up a full ounce of pure coke and knew I was dead,” he said.

Friends who came to visit were shocked at Marvin’s state. “He kinda like divorced himself from everyone,” said Smokey Robinson, who visited Marvin in the bread truck and turned down Gaye’s request for money. “He was really searching for something…himself really. Marvin was loved by many people, and I think that he knew that. He needed to be loved by Marvin. That was the problem.”(19)

The last time Gaye had been suffused in such gloom was a decade earlier, when he began writing What’s Going On. This time, the gloom sparked his imagination again, and he decided to rework Love Man. Unhappy with the songs, he wanted to recast the album as another serious message piece. Later, he recalled to Ritz: “Motown was yelling how they’d spent a fortune on the Love Man cover and here I was holed up in Hawaii telling them that the love man was dead. He was. The love man was me and I needed to stop that shit. No matter how much money Motown would give me to release Love Man, I couldn’t do it… So I started working on something else—a new album with a new concept—and suddenly I saw how silly I’d been. Who needed another record moanin’ and bitchin’ ’bout some woman? Why did I have to regain my throne as the sex king? Who cared about competing with Michael Jackson and Prince? Look what was happening with the world. I had a message to spread.”

Gaye was now deeply concerned with nuclear warfare and environmental decay, and he wanted to write about it. “I had to give a warning,” he said. “I saw it coming—I’d seen it coming for twenty years.” What Gaye saw coming was an eerily prescient picture of ecological collapse. “What is going to wipe out most of civilization is mother nature, when she decides to call enough,” he said. “The nuclear wars will then be seen to have been only a pittance.” He was also obsessed with the Book of Revelation, calling it “the book in the Bible Father stresses most,” and adding, “It’s the book I’ve studied most carefully. It contains the one script we’ll never be able to undo—the final showdown, the day when it all comes down. With that kind of knowledge up in your face, it’s hard not to go crazy.”

The new album was to be called In Our Lifetime?, and like What’s Going On, it was based on an open question. Part of the question was Gaye wondering if he’d see an ecological collapse within his lifetime. “The other part,” Ritz says, “was his apocalyptic beginnings in this idiosyncratic, extremely literal church he grew up in. His worldview was both very sophisticated and very unsophisticated. The sophistication was being able to understand how the crap that we’re making is poisoning the air and fucking up the environment. The other part, which you see among all kinds of branches of Christianity, was that we’re on the verge of the actual apocalypse.”

At Sea-West studio in Honolulu, Hawaii, Gaye began to revise the album. “He was flying by the seat of his pants,” says Banks. “He called the band over there and we started rehearsing.” Slowly, Gaye molded the sensual into spiritual, injecting songs with titles such as “Love Party” with warnings of the Apocalypse. But just when he hit his stride, he was betrayed.

Motown was unhappy he had given up on Love Man and was tired of waiting for him to finish its replacement, so one day, Marvin’s bass player, Frank Blair, stole the tapes and turned them in. Motown edited them without Gaye’s knowledge or input, and an album called In Our Lifetime was rush-released in January 1981. Gaye was furious. “Motown shafted me,” he said. “The first thing they did wrong was screw up the title. They left out the question mark. That was the whole point. The question was, Is the world coming to an end in our lifetime?” They also had the gall to tamper with a work in progress. But worst of all, they aborted Marvin’s final great statement before it could be made.

As a result, In Our Lifetime remains a frustrating, if illuminating, work. At first listen, it’s a funky, up-tempo, party album. The darkness in Gaye’s heart and soul seem to be missing completely, and nothing in the music matches the heaviness of the cover art, an illustration of two Marvins—one angel, one devil—playing chess in the sky, while below them, the planet cracks and explodes. But upon closer listening, the message reveals itself. On “Life Is For Learning,” he vocalizes his lifelong split between body and soul: The devil have his special plan to make hot songs for sinners, thank God we’ll turn it around and make good songs for winners. Then there is “Love Party,” which seems like a piece of light funk made for the discotheque, until Gaye sings: The world is not for long, baby / There’s only time for praying and singing and having a love party, and later, Revelation’s prophecy is nearly fulfilled. The song “Love Me Now or Love Me Later,” which by its title could have fit on Let’s Get It On, is actually an explicitly religious song dealing with God and the devil, the polarity of human nature, and the endless battle between good and evil. Finally, as the title track fades out and the album comes to a close, a barely audible Gaye says, Now, uh, folks have said the world is coming to an end, baby. I wonder…in our lifetime? Oh well, let’s make love.

While the album has moments of greatness, they are too few and far between to make In Our Lifetime hit with the power Gaye envisioned. It’s as if the album itself is unable to decide between the two identities that had always tortured him. Motown wanted the love man; Marvin wanted the messenger. For the first time in his career, these identities appeared next to each other in his work, not complementing each other, but fighting for precedence. Sadly, the album didn’t survive the fight.

Marvin Gaye at Royal Albert Hall, London, 1979. Photo by David Corio/Redferns.
Marvin Gaye at Royal Albert Hall, London, 1979. Photo by David Corio/Redferns.

VIII. Capsizing

Gaye spent the last years of his life in precipitous decline. While on tour in England in 1981, he began smoking cocaine. “Freebasing became another way of trying to kill myself,” he said. “For long periods of time I was in a fog, and wanted to stay there. I wanted the fog to close up all around me… I certainly felt ready to go under. My record was out, but I hated it, and as Berry was good enough to remind me, my stuff hadn’t been selling for years. Motown and I were through. I’d burned that bridge behind me and really didn’t care. Berry Gordy and I had reached a point of no return.”

A friend recalled, “He was stoned out of his mind and could hardly get out of bed… The apartment was filled with these dirty dog women. Drug dealers were running through and God knows who else. Marvin’s little boy was asleep in the next bedroom. I just couldn’t believe the scene.”(20)

Gaye briefly escaped his downward spiral in Ostend, Belgium, where he and Ritz wrote his final hit, “Sexual Healing,” in 1982. As Ritz recalls, “We were in his apartment and there was this cartoonish, arty coffee table book about S&M. I was looking at this book and telling him, ‘Marvin, this is some sick shit. What you need is sexual healing.’ Odell Brown had written this track and it was playing. Marvin was trying to find a story that went with it. When I said sexual healing, he said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘You fall in love with a woman, and it’s not about pain. You’re healed by the combination of love and sex.’ He said, ‘Write a poem about that.’ He took the words I wrote and sang them, and it was as if they each had a note attached to them. That’s how good he was. We did it in fifteen minutes.”

“Sexual Healing” became the biggest hit of Gaye’s career. It was certified platinum and won Gaye his first and only Grammy Award. The song was released not on Motown but on Columbia/CBS Records, which gave Gaye some satisfaction. “In a sense, it’s a coup de grâce,” he said. “In a great sense, I have had a measure of revenge in certain aspects, and those who know what I’m talking about, know what I’m talking about.”(21) And yet, it was an uncomfortable satisfaction. It seemed what the public really wanted from Marvin was sex. The love man reigned supreme, whether he wanted to or not. 

The success sent Gaye back on the road, which was the last thing he needed. He spent the tour in a state of near insanity, convinced someone was coming to kill him, often wearing a bulletproof vest and acting erratically. By the end of the tour, Gaye was broken. As Ritz says, “He came home from that tour to what should be his greatest triumph, and he really became ill. That’s when everything changed. He went mad.”

Gaye moved into the home he had bought for his parents in Los Angeles and lived with his mother and father as though he were a child again. “He was a scared little boy,” his mother told Ritz. He spent his days and nights high, paranoid, deteriorating, walking around in a bathrobe with a .38 revolver stuck in the belt.

On April 1, 1984, the day before Marvin’s forty-fifth birthday, his parents began fighting in his bedroom. He came to his mother’s defense, and for the first time in his life, he struck his father. Marvin once said, “Where I come from, even to raise your hand to your father is an invitation for him to kill you.” When he hit his father, then, he must have known what he was doing. “In his madness,” Ritz says, “there’s still a controlled drama in the way he gets to die. It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy.” After the fight ended, Gay Sr. left the bedroom, found a gun, returned, and shot his son to death.

⇼ ⇼ ⇼

    Marvin Gaye’s life and death were tragic, but his story is not a tragedy. The beauty and power of his work redeemed him. The price of that redemption was enormous, but as Banks says, quoting In Our Lifetime’s “Life Is For Learning”: “He was an artist, and the artist pays the price.” 

    Although Gaye himself often couldn’t see it, in many ways, his lifelong battle between body and soul wasn’t actually a battle at all. There is spiritual beauty in his most sexual work, and there is sexual power in his most spiritual work. “I think the irony of Marvin is that the inner turmoil that he had between the spirit and the flesh, the different voices in his head—one whispering love God, another whispering get everything you can—he was able to harmonize, literally harmonize, them in his art,” says Ritz. At the same time, without that battle as Gaye perceived it, and felt it, and fought it, he might not have created the work that still moves us, still speaks to us, still defines us fifty years later. As the man himself said: “I’ve spent my whole life fighting. The hardest fight has been with my own demons. That made me who I am.”(22)

    Travis Atria is the coauthor of Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield and author of Better Days Will Come Again: The Life of Arthur Briggs, Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison. His most recent album is Moonbrain (Gold Robot). Atria has been writing for Wax Poetics since 2009’s Issue 38, where he wrote about Trouble Man. He has written features (including six cover stories) on Smokey Robinson, KRS-One, Erykah Badu, Lamont Dozier, Bobby Womack, Solomon Burke, Billy Cox, Nas, Janelle Monáe, Swamp Dogg, and the Impressions.




    1. 1. David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye (Da Capo Press, 1985). All subsequent Marvin Gaye quotes are from Divided Soul unless otherwise noted.
    2. 2. From a 1983 TV interview on Raw and Honest.
    3. 3. Jeremy Marre, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye) documentary.
    4. 4. Ibid.
    5. 5. Ritz, Divided Soul.
    6. 6. Sam Pollard, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On documentary (PBS, May 2008).
    7. 7. Ibid.
    8. 8. Ben Edmonds, What’s Going On?: Marvin Gaye and the Last Days of the Motown Sound (Mojo Books, 2002).
    9. 9. Michael Eric Dyson, Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye (Civitas Books, 2005).
    10. 10. Edmonds, What’s Going On?
    11. 11. Marre, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On.
    12. 12. Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria, Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield (Chicago Review Press, 2016)
    13. 13. Pollard, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On.
    14. 14. Marre, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On.
    15. 15. Ritz, Divided Soul.
    16. 16. Marre, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On.
    17. 17. Ritz, Divided Soul.
    18. 18. Frankie Gaye and Fred E. Basten, Marvin Gaye, My Brother (Backbeat, 2003).
    19. 19. Pollard, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On.
    20. 20. Ritz, Divided Soul.
    21. 21. Raw and Honest.

    this is part of "The D" Story

    A collection of stories and interviews about the musicians hailing from and/or working in the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan, USA.


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