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Dyson’s ‘biocriticism’ of Gaye bombs

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I said I would be writing about two bad books earlier this week. Both are books about Marvin Gaye, the singer many socially conscious people consider a cultural critic of his times. I discussed the pitiful biography of Gaye’s younger brother, Frankie, in my last entry. It fails as biography, and is interesting only as an artifact of a man unable to face reality. Black studies guru Michael Eric Dyson stops short of calling his book a biography, though it is partly that. Unfortunately, Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye, also falls short as an intelligible and intelligent examination of Gaye’s life. The review at Publisher’s Weekly is the most accurate I have encountered.

Dyson, a leading figure in black studies who is as comfortable discussing Tupac as Malcolm and Martin, offers a “biocriticism” that reflects on the themes of Marvin Gaye’s music and personal life. Too much of the analysis, however, relies on nitpicking earlier critics, often reduced to accusing 1970s record reviewers of not getting Gaye’s genius. While his examination of the cultural significance of What’s Going On and follow-up albums is somewhat stronger, if not exactly revelatory, Dyson’s ruminations hit shaky ground when he declares Gaye’s shooting death at the hands of his father a suicidal acting out of an “Afroedipal” family drama. This queasy mixture of psychoanalytic theory and celebrity gossip undermines his narrative.

Breaking with previous biographies, Dyson takes dubious assertions by a second-string Motown vocalist (contradicted by just about every reliable source) as proof Gaye had a sexual relationship with singing partner Tammi Terrell. At times, the writing is simply sloppy, contradicting itself from chapter to chapter and stretching out interviews until they trickle into irrelevancies. Dyson’s personal fascination with the turbulent blend of spirituality and sexuality in Gaye’s life and music is obvious, but it can’t sustain an entire book. Though the mashing together of pop culture with gender and race studies is sure to score some points with academics and public intellectuals, it adds little of substance to Gaye’s legacy as a musician.

Dyson does come across as a gossip, not an academic interested in understanding how a gifted artist’s muddled life can tell us about both the individual and the society he lived in. In an apparent effort to supply hooks that will attract attention and sell the book, he relies on several ‘revelations’ that are either shrug-worthy or not very believable.

•Gaye’s oldest son was not adopted, but fathered by him with the teenaged niece of his wife, Anna Gordy Gaye.

•Gaye had a sexual relationship with singing partner Tammi Terrell.

•If listened to closely, Gaye’s recordings during his ‘sexual healing’ period reveal he was into oral sex, which Dyson believes to be unusual for an African-American man to admit.

•An uncle is alleged to have raped Gaye when he was 15.

In regard to the first allegation, it may be true. Anna was 17 years older than Marvin, and reaching the end of her fertile years, when they married. Whatever the adults who may have manipulated a child thought as justification, the situation would have been statutory rape. An intriguing aspect of the rape, if it occurred, is that years later, Gaye would seduce and impregnate the girl who would become his second wife, Janis Hunter, when she was 17. This would be evidence that Gaye had a predilection for ignoring the rules of sexual interaction, which his experiences during later years supports.

I don’t believe Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were lovers. Their years as duet partners occurred during a time when Gaye was in love with his wife and trying to make his marriage work. Terrell was in love with David Ruffin, one of the Temptations. Both Terrell and Gaye denied being lovers. The only sources who make the allegation are former divas Martha Reeves and Brenda Holloway. Their motive was probably to get their names in circulation again. Dyson seems to have a hard time believing an attactive man and a beautiful woman could have been friends, but not lovers. I don’t.

The third ‘revelation’ is just plain silly. I’m sure that if one listened very closely to many a singer’s oeuvre, she would find ‘Easter eggs’ — hidden messages that are insiders’ jokes. Some of them would surely be of a sexual nature. As for the specialness of a black man admitting to indulging in oral sex, again, I think Dyson is giving an insight into himself moreso than Gaye.

I don’t consider the hearsay offered in support of the claim an uncle raped Gaye when he was a teenager reliable. The inclusion of the allegation in the book strikes me as sensationalism.

There is information in Mercy, Mercy Me that sheds light on American culture in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. But, the reader must interpret much of it for herself. During his early career Gaye performed in racially segregated settings. There are insights to be gained from that experience, but, Dyson misses the point. He hails Gaye and Terrell’s performance at a segregated Southern college as progress toward integration. Actually, allowing blacks to entertain whites was nothing new. The practice dates back to slavery. And, those colleges still often have vestiges of segregation today, despite admitting a few nonwhite students. Dyson also might have considered how Motown‘s exploitation of singers and songwriters began with background singers who were paid a pittance. (In fact, at one point, background singers paid Motown to sing on their records.) The lawsuits by stars that would come in the ’80s and ’90s had their roots in the ’60s. Dyson reports the information, but doesn’t see its signifcance.

As the review in Publisher’s Weekly implies, the worst aspect of the book is Dyson’s effort to try to turn the screwy dynamics of the Gay household into a psychological theory he calls “Afroedipal.” The Gays differed from most families mainly because of the father’s rigid adherence to a particularly odd type of Pentecostal religion. Their practices would have been foreign to most Americans, including African-Americans. The other aspects of the Gays’ home that made it difficult were Rev. Gay’s abusive treatment of his wife and children, especially Marvin, and his cross-dressing. Since research has shown an overreliance on corporal punishment in African-American households, Dyson has a leg to stand on in regard to that. But, cross-dressing and other signs of gender confusion are cross-cultural. Dyson fails to convince one that thet any Oedipal drama in the Gay family was ‘Afro.’ I have no idea what his goal in asserting his psychological theory is. I doubt he does, either.

Dyson’s book will be read because of the degree of name recognition he has among people interested in contemporary cultural criticism. However, Mercy, Mercy Me does not earn its stripes. It is an embarrassing effort that I hope is not typical of Dyson’s work.

Note: This entry also appeared at Silver Rights.

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