Musing by blogger Craig Lyndall about bad behavior and contemporary rock stars has me thinking about some of the singers and musicians from the 60s, 70s and 80s, I have beecome interested in lately. I am currently focusing my listening and reading on Marvin Gaye. One would be hard put to find a towering personality in music who was more screwed up. Gaye, a self-taught virtuoso on several instuments, including piano and drums, a composer who did not read music, and a songwriter, in addition to his reknowned ability as a singer, came about his possible psychoses honestly. His father, a cross-dressing fundamentalist preacher, beat him at the drop of a hat from the time he was a toddler until he fled their Washington, D.C., home when he was 17. They would continue to do battle until their conflicts reached an eerie climax.
In the intervening years, the name Marvin Gaye, which he shared with his father, became a household word. The singer first gained notoriety as the male half of early Motown duos. He performed duets that charted with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and most famously, Tammi Terrell. The persona projected on the records was of young, sophisticated lovers who had discovered the formula for compatibility after their share of ups and downs. However, during that period, Gaye’s real love life consisted of mental and physical battles with Anna Gordy, his older and jealous wife. The line between home and work was blurred by the fact that Mrs. Gaye was the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Infidelity was the norm for Marvin and Anna, serving as constant fuel for their fights. It is now believed Gaye fathered the son they would rear with Anna’s 15-year-old niece. It was about that time that Gaye began to abuse drugs, starting with alcohol and marijuana.
His second coming was as the socially conscious voice of the seminal album, What’s Going On? in 1971. The album, which examined controversial aspects of society from the Vietnam War to the environment, is considered once of the most important recordings ever by Rollingstone and other arbiters of American culture. Gaye entered serious meltdown after finishing What’s Going On?. He separated from Anna and began an affair with a seventeen-year-old high school student, Janis Hunter, at 33. The relationship would include ontinual drug use by both and ongoing mutual infidelity. Marvin would beat Janis whenever they were together, behavior that much resembled his father’s treatment of him. He encouraged Janis to seduce his friends and associates and regale him with descriptions of her exploits. He had become a consumer of pornography and prostitutes. He also participated in sado-masochism, said to be the holder of the whip. Though Gaye’s inability to perform because of the ravages of cocaine and heroin would impact him most, his unreliability also effected fans, who could not rely on him singing capably or even showing up for concerts. Eventually, Gaye would exile himself to Hawaii, London and Belgium, not performing live for five years.
In 1982, he made a comeback with the hit generating album, Sexual Healing, which lauded the transcendent qualites of sensuality. However, by the time of his late American tour for the album, Gaye began the day with a tumbler of liquor, a huge joint and doses of cocaine. He believed that people throughout the country, including members of his staff and strangers, were out to kill him. His wealth had evaporated as a result of profligate spending and garnishments by the I.R.S. Broke and broken, Gaye eventually retreated to the house he had bought for his parents in Los Angeles.
It was there that Marvin Gay, Sr. shot and killeded Marvin, Jr. on April 1, 1984. The father was barely penalized for the death because the son had pummeled and kicked the elderly man at the beginning of the encounter. Marvin, Sr., fetched the gun his son had given him and shot him at least three times with it. Marvin Gaye would have turned 45 the next day.
There is a temptation to excuse the bad behavior of geniuses. After all, other folks behave just as awfully, and don’t leave a legacy of great music, enlightening literature or brilliant inventions. But, it seems to me that the pathological aspects of our flawed heroes have to be considered along with the rest of their personalities. They remind us what a piece of work the human psyche often is. Even as we marvel at the amazing treasury of magnificent music Marvin Gaye created during his comparatively short life, we must also marvel at the suffering that occurred, both for him, and those he harmed.