I am ambivalent about reading bad books. An excellent argument can be made that once you realize a book is an embarrassing display of incompetence, you should put it down. Why waste your time? But, some of us habitually try to finish what we start. And, sometimes, one can learn something worthwhile from the inept. That is why I’ve finished reading three books I don’t like this week. Today’s review is of My Brother, Marvin Gaye, by Frankie Gaye, the reknown singer’s pathetic younger brother. I am interested in Gaye because I believe his music chronicles the culture of both the black American sub-culture and American culture in general. (The two are inextricably bound.) So, the more I learn about Gaye, the more I learn about the times he lived in and his continuing influence on our culture. Unfortunately, his brother’s book is pretty much useless for that purpose.
Frankie Gaye, who died before the book was published, has three objectives:
•To cover up the pathology rampant in the Gaye family, especially his father’s abusive nature and sexual confusion.
•To partake of his brother’s adulation.
•To promote himself.
The first is most important. On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gay, Sr., shot and killed his son, the famous vocalist, songwriter, and producer. The killing was the culmination of a life time of abuse. Gay, a fundamentalist preacher who rarely worked, had ruled his home with an iron fist for years. Though all family members were mentally and physically abused by him, Marvin, Jr., was the main target of his wrath. The son fled the father’s whippings while in his teens. A few years later, he reinvented himself as the gentle singer of duets with gorgeous female vocalists that help put Motown on the cultural map.
During the next two decades, Gaye would produce the seminal album of cultural criticism, What’s Going On, and revive his flagging career with his ode to sensuality, Let’s Get It On. He would also unsuccessfully battle sexual obsession and addiction to alcohol and cocaine. Furthermore, Gaye was almost certainly mentally ill, possibly bipolar. All this is well-documented by other sources, including noted biographer David Ritz‘ biography of Gaye. But, you will find little discussion of what made him a success or a failure in his brother’s book. Frankie Gaye is too busy trying to obfuscate. When honest information does slip through, it is often in spite of, not because of the author’s intentions.
Perhaps we should feel sorry for Frankie Gaye. Obscure folks like us live out our family problems, including sibling rivalry, in obscurity. Frankie (he changed the spelling of his last name to match Marvin’s) was continually exposed to the admiration the public had for his famous brother. All the while, he barely made ends meet while wanting stardom himself. This may explain his obvious jealousy, which his claims of love for Marvin do nothing to dispel.
Frankie Gaye uses his brother’s fame as an excuse for why he never developed much of a career as a singer himself. He says an enamored public would have ignored the efforts of another Gaye. But, there have been many situations in which one sibling became reknown, but others also were performers. They didn’t become famous, but knew the satisfaction of doing their own thing. Gaye, on the other hand, was a hanger-on when his brother allowed him to be. After Marvin Gaye’s death, he had a little success as a Marvin Gaye impersonator, mainly in Europe. The imitation included performing with former Marvin Gaye duet partner Kim Weston, and, releasing an album consisting mostly of covers of his brother.
Gaye’s effort to recreate reality fails. His father was not just a strict parent. He was a monster. His brother was not just misunderstood. He was both a genius and his utterly incapable of managing his life. And Frankie Gaye was not the beloved brother who wanted the best for his sibling he would have people believe. Just how dishonest is he? You will find no mention of his first wife, Judy, and their two daughters in Marvin Gaye, My Brother. Instead, he gives the reader the false impression his Scottish second wife, Irene, is the only woman he ever loved or married. In the same fashion, Gaye erases and distorts what matters about the Gaye family and its relationship to Marvin Gaye. Without understanding the family dynamic in a household in which the father cross-dressed and beat both is wife and children, then preached on Saturday, one can’t begin to understand why Marvin Gaye’s life was tragically shortened. Co-writer Fred E. Basten does nothing to extricate Frankie Gaye from his maze of misrepresentations.
My Brother, Marvin Gayee is a bad book because it purposely turns the purpose of biography upside down, using the genre to produce a work that serves the author’s psychological needs instead of informing us about the subject of the book. I suppose something can be learned from that.
What’s the art?
A young Marvin Gaye. At first, Motown marketed him as a sex symbol.
Heatwave shared the charts with Marvin Gaye during the ’70s.Powered by Sidelines