April 1st, 2004 was the anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s murder, an act that stilled one of popular music’s most gifted talents and ended the story of soul music’s greatest tragedy. Before his death he had made a spectacular comeback with Midnight Love, his final album and the centerpiece for his physical and mental decline. Its structure of exquisite singing, deliciously subtle sex ballads, and intricate reggae and new wave funk tracks suggested that Marvin had returned to the front of soul’s vanguard. For a time he did, selling over five million copies worldwide, garnering rave reviews and putting himself, along with Prince, up as one of the premiere soul practitioners of the early ’80s.
Its lyrical themes of spiritual cleansing, mental clarity, and great sex also suggested that, after years of struggling against drug abuse and a self-destructive streak that would give Stavrogin pause, Gaye was healing himself and heading for a positive ending to his life. But, as anyone with a faint knowledge of musical history knows, that wasn’t the case. Marvin Gaye’s death was one of the most haunting stories in modern pop’s history; a frightening decline fueled by drugs, dementia and schizophrenia followed by his father shooting him, an act that, to this day, R&B really hasn’t totally escaped from or forgotten.
As time passes and Marvin Gaye’s legend grows into a space between myth and reality, Midnight Love stands as a mirror of his soul – fiery crosscurrents between genius and madness, manic creativity and manic depression, clarity, dementia, and sexual dysfunction, all held under a facaade of sweetness and positivity. What makes Midnight Love & the Sexual Healing Sessions all the more tragic was that it shows that there was a chance that it needn’t have been that way.
By 1981 Gaye was a mess. Frail, mentally ill, and emaciated from a year-long crack binge, he was rescued and sent to Belgium by Freddy Couasert, a European promoter, restaurateur, and music fan. He had spent the past seven years snorting massive amounts of cocaine, building an eight million dollar debt, and alienating everyone around him. His records and singles at the time verged between too painful declarations of heartbreak and barely coherent funk numbers. Some of his records were among the best stuff ever done; some of his records were terrible. All of them had one thing in common; they sold miserably. So Marvin went to Belgium to get clean, resume his lifelong struggle to find himself, and figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
For a year he did get his life together and began to fiddle out ideas for a new album. The best thing about his 1981 clean period was that he got his eclectic musical ear back. In Trouble Man, Steven Turner’s biography of Gaye, it says that while experimenting with basic chord structures, he was listening to a lot of Talking Heads, Bob Marley and John Lennon. The music on the tracks, on which Gaye played everything except the guitars and the horns, backs that up. In his eclectic chord changes and the melodic tension in his fender Rhodes you can hear as much Eno, Franz, and Byrne as you can hear Stevie Wonder; and Marvin’s seemingly endless gift for off-beat layered rhythm patterns fit reggae’s herky-jerky chord structure beautifully.
Still, he only could gain label support and backing if he was to make a “commercial” comeback album. So he started the album thinking that if he was going to make pop music, he was going to do it on his terms and with a vengeance. His goal was to recapture his high artistic standards while storming back to America with a massive comeback. His Trojan horse for the invasion came in a suggestion from his biographer David Ritz after being startled at some of his porn magazines.
“You need sexual healing,” said Ritz. That line of inspiration led to one of the greatest singles in the history of the pop music. “Sexual Healing” is Marvin Gaye 101: clear, abstract, and visceral, created with pinpoint precision yet retaining an endless freshness and listenability. The music is a countrified Jamaican stew, aurally addictive rhythm patterns set along with an intricate-as-a-knitting-pattern reggae rhythm track and Gordon Banks’ fatback bass. Slithering, soulful, and sexy, the track itself blew the electro R&B, pop-funk, and crossover soul that was on black radio at the time.
Did I forget something? Oh yeah! He sang, too. As great as the music is, it takes second to his vocals, a near-biblical storm that ranges between a seducer’s charm, preacher’s cadence, and a sonnet from Apollo himself. His voice comes in waves, all starting with a “Baaaaby” sexy and bodacious enough to turn out a Dominican nun. He soars and shouts, turning notes inside out and right side over with a vocal inflection. Here Gaye begs, pleads, growls, caresses, and sometimes does all of the above at the same time. “Sexual Healing” is Gaye’s last masterful vocal performance. Cooke might have had a better tone, Redding could out-shout him and Green could out-seduce him, but no one could do all of the above as he could. This track is Exhibit A.
Yet for all its danceability and panache, it wouldn’t have lasted as long is it did if it wasn’t for its message. “Sexual Healing,” like all of Gaye’s great sex music, stands not because of its graphic nature, but the fact that it treats sex with adult and complex emotions. The thing you have to understands about Gaye’s greatest sex ballads is that they weren’t dimwitted pleas for libidinous behavior. His focus was for fidelity and all the grand, immense and overwhelming emotions that two people who are deeply in love feel for each other. “Healing” isn’t about a quickie or straight deadpan action, but a sexual cleansing, a kind of deep feeling that comes from years of knowledge and interpersonal conflict and resolution. And in an era where misogynist, crotch-grabbing jackasses are on BET and MTV every five minutes, his message has not only grows louder and more urgent.
The rest of the album shows that with a little more time, Marvin might have created something really special. “Joy” with its tent revival pace, funky as the dickens low bass and its JB’s-esque horns is the closest thing that comes to “Sexual Healing”‘s artistic and commercial success. The simplicity in its philosophical outlook (“…everything else hurts so let’s find the simplicity in little things like mom and church…”) can be grating at first; yet it’s augmented by the tracks and made truthful by his chops, to the point when he delivers this line in a storefront preacher’s frenzy:
I’ll overcome the darkest night, just to see your love’s alright
I got love to give, you know I love to live
It’s as holy as a sermon.
“Rockin After Midnight” is his last sexual interpersonal complex battle, a Gaye trademark. His inner sex-crazed misogynist prick and hypersensitive gentlemen do battle for four minutes, all while both trying to seduce his muse. There’s madness to it, as he switches poses by the second, being a slime-balled jerk one minute, sensual saint the next, then back again. He snidely invites her for a night of empty sex, then, with his multi-tracked voice operating as an angelic backing choir, tells her why it will be beautiful. Soaring with the bridge of his gorgeous vocals, it proceeds to resemble a sonnet more than a soul track.
But just after the gorgeous bridge, he lets his real intentions out of the bag. When he receives his muse’s permission, he lets his inner jerk out one more time to show her that the battle was just a hoax, that his angel and devil were in cahoots all along in the battle to get her to say yes to him. Filled with machismo, Gaye ends the track boasting and bragging that he’s “gonna get him some.” And this is where Marvin’s inner darkness can be seen; because this time, unlike in previous inner sexual battles, (“Baby Please Stay”, Come Get to This”, “Distant Lover”, Soon I’ll Be Loving You”, All the Way Around”) he lets that inner demon win. But, for its duration, the battle on wax is compelling listening.
So what happened? Why didn’t Midnight Love become one of Marvin’s greatest masterworks instead of a nice genre period comeback record? Three Ms: money, market, and manic depression. By 1982, the ever-so-slow-to-record Gaye was about six months past time to make an album, and the art funk tracks that were left didn’t jive with the top 40 at the time. Plus CBS, his new record company, saw that Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and the Temptations all had had great sales in the previous year, not because of their product, but by playing a perceived role to a retro-starved public. Marvin could make more money by playing Marvin Gaye rather than by being himself. And that’s just what he did. Stressed, back on coke, sheephish and unsure of his status, he turned what was becoming soul’s answer to Lennon’s Double Fantasy into a very nice singles album.
“Midnight Lady,” the very first track, is a prime example of his aesthetic retreat in the midstream of creation. The track, with its kazoo, hard-charging horns, and spicy reggae tracks is the funkiest dance number on the album. It’s also the most brainless song he’s ever put out on record. The man who made his reputation on deep emotional numbers about sex was now the horny old man at the club, wanting to get his groove on, his freak on, and his coke on. Libidinous junk food pop? Yes. Dumb fun? That too. All of those qualities have nothing to do with Gaye’s prior work, however.
“Till Tomorrow” might be the most beautifully sung narcoleptic kitsch that I have ever heard. His “gimme some morning sex ’cause I care about you” message just isn’t believable, and his sweet croon just puts layers of sugar over the bullsh*t that comes out of his mouth. But within two minutes, you’re too entrapped by the beauty of the vocals to care, and by the falsetto bridge you’re his, and he can croon that the sky is green and you’ll believe him. This song is like having sex with a crazy ex-girlfriend — half of the time you’re amazed at her bullsh*t; half of the time your amazed by her. “Third World Girl” is another botched job, with producer Harvey Fuqua turning what was a nice experimental reggae tribute to Bob Marley into a vegasized hyperspeed funk number, losing all its character in the process.
But the most egregious example of stilted musical growth is the devolvement of “I’ve Got My Music.” The vocal track, made famous as a sample in Erick Sermon’s “Music,” is one of the clearest, most emotionally compelling vocal performances from a man who has created nearly hundreds of them. It starts as a street corner duet, Marvin and all his doo-wop voices: his low bass, gritty baritone, angelic tenor, and feathery falsetto. With a vocal army behind him, Gaye proceeds to throttle his demons one by one, reaching for his family, grasping at his church influences, battling the questions in his soul and providing a five-minute commercial for the healing power of art. Here he communicates the idea that, with a devotion to his craft and a good heart, he can fix any of his problems, whether it be drugs, romantic pain, or scars from abuse.
As his vocals provide gorgeously melodic support, he rises above all of his struggles and grows stronger as the song rides along. And as his sermon reaches its crescendo, he builds a frenzy of mental and artistic clarity otherwise known as “being in the spirit.” Reveling in a childlike joy at the thought of personal happiness, blending the notions of sex, God, and love beautifully, Gaye takes the listener for a ride and leaves both parties with the notion that they have heard something holy.
With a dim funk track and a lot of cocaine “I’ve Got My Music” turned into “Turn On Some Music” a dim, barely coherent, four minute brag that he could screw for three albums long. Hearing the final draft compared to the first is to hear obfuscation snatched out of the jaws of clarity, a classic turned to filler right before your ears.
Yet in spite of its flaws, it isn’t the sellout album that most diehard Gaye-heads say it is. There’s still something ethereal even in its mirage of positivity. His vocals are breathtaking, and the music, even at its emptiest, is intricate and danceable. And though he was artistically flying at two thirds mast, at that time his two thirds were better than everyone else’s 100% in R&B except Prince. Even its flaws only seem to be as gaping as they are in comparison with the standard of Marvin’s own body of work, which is as high as any artist in popular music in the past 50 years.
But it was nowhere near the exhilarating comeback album that critics said it was, nor even close to the best album that he ever did. After getting rave reviews, and having “Sexual Healing” spend four months near the top of the charts, Gaye went into 1983 living in two parallel worlds. He received major awards, got more adulation, and embarked on a million dollar tour, all the while freebasing himself into an early grave. After he smoked his voiced away and embarrassed himself by dropping his pants on stage, he moved back to his mother’s house where he went on an eight-month drug binge/family struggle with his abusive father. On April 1, 1984 Marvin Gaye Jr. fought back against his father for the first time. A few minutes later Marvin Gaye Sr. shot him dead. He was a day away from 45 years of age.
It’s been over 20 years and male R&B hasn’t been the same since. With all the great soul queens out right now, it’s easier to forget some of the old soul divas or at least put them on the discussion back burner. Yet because the pickings of new male soul vocalists are so pathetically slim, fans always seem to find their way back to Marvin. There have been better vocalists and artists who have recorded better work (Stevie Wonder is an example), yet Gaye remains the man on soul fans’ minds. In his eternal quest to express himself, show his manhood, debate his contradictions, and define his sexuality, Gaye touched on so many nuances on what it means to be black and male in America, and struck a nerve with millions of soul fans black and white.
Yet for all the vitality of his work, the greatest factor that contributed to Marvin Gaye’s career is heartbreak – heartbreak for sexual and spiritual loss, heartbreak for a custom-made hell he created for himself. Despite his musical testimony to the contrary, the theme in Gaye’s final album is no different. The tragedy in Midnight Love is in its contrasting terms of spiritual fulfillment and depravity, and how depravity won in the end. The tragedy of Midnight Love & the Sexual Healing Sessions is that it shows the place where the heaven of that fulfillment and the hell of that depravity collide, the existential nightmare of a happy ending.