Marvin Pentz Gaye Jr. changed the way I thought about and listened to music, and it seems now, fifteen years after I first heard his album “Hear, My Dear”, that his influence has not diminished on me, instead growing stronger as the years tick by.
The album, considered by many to be one of the greatest concept and soul albums ever recorded, chronicled his relationship with his first wife Anna Gordy.
In the throes of a bitter divorce, and at the height of his commercial success, a judge ruled that Marvin would record an album, the proceeds of which would go to his ex-wife in their entirety.
Instead of turning out another album like “I Want You” (which I’m not minimizing at all, btw), Marvin decided to instead create a scathing, warts and all tome of their relationship, that told the story from the beginning to the very bitter end.
There are no radio friendly songs on the album. There are no pop hits. There is nothing about the album that makes it accessible in any conventional sense. It is, for lack of a better analogy, an operatic movement, that is at once heartbreaking, beautiful and aching.
It was a stunning failure, one that took Marvin one step closer to severing his relationship with Motown, one step close to financial ruin, and was also the final stake in the heart of his relationship with his ex-wife, Anna.
Ironically, he was already approaching another divorce from his second wife Jan when the album was released, and he was about a year away from living with his son, little Marvin, in the back of a bread truck in Hawaii, broke, strung out, and running from the IRS.
Of course, I knew none of that when I first heard the album, sitting in an apartment on the north side of Indianapolis with two other quasi-preppy-hood-rat white guys who insisted it was the greatest thing ever recorded.
At the time, all I wanted to hear was the new Foxxy Brown album, which had been released that day long ago, but the only thing they wanted me to hear was Marvin, and “Hear, My Dear”.
I knew Marvin, of course, from “Lets Get it On”, “Sexual Healing”, and to some extent “What’s Goin On”, but those were just hits, and they meant little more to me than any other pop song, new or old.
I’m still not really sure what I heard when they finally put on “Here, My Dear”; I can’t remember how I perceived it at the time, what song they played first, or even how it sounded to me in the moment.
What I do remember is those guys raving about it while it played, and I remember being almost dazed when I left that apartment. I took the album with me, emotionally and mentally, and I almost immediately called my brother to tell him about it.
We’ve spent countless hours since pouring over that album, and all of Marvin’s work, really. And the album, I feel, put us on a musical path where we truly discovered some awesome shit. We weren’t the first people to ever listen to “House of the Holy” or “Songs in the Key of Life” or “Abbey Road”, of course, but I don’t think I would have ever given those albums, or any real music, new and old, a shot if weren’t for Marvin and those two guys on the north side of Indianapolis.
The album still sounds as fresh and new as it did back then, and I’ve understood the work is so many ways that i didn’t originally. That’s art to me, something that can be endlessly discovered and interpreted, and applied to daily life in more ways then one. When i first heard the album I thought I knew about heartbreak, but I was wrong. Even now I think I do, but that album tells me I don’t, that real heartbreak still has to be discovered, and its out there somewhere waiting for me, lurking in the shadows.
I’m thinking about all of this because 27 years ago Marvin was shot and killed by his father in Los Angeles, news that many thought was a practical joke because it fell on April first.
One day shy of his 45th birthday, Marvin’s death was the culmination of a life and career that was beyond tumultuous and controversial, and laid to rest the greatest voice, ever, in modern pop music.
Marvin was a real artist, one that, as he once put it, “touched the hearts and souls of man”, and he will likely live long beyond my time, and my kids time, if I have kids.
There are many, if not most, people who just think of him as the “Sexual Healing” guy, or the “Lets Get it On” guy, or the “Heard it Through the Grapevine” guy. He was those things of course, but like any great artist those songs and moments in his life make up only a tiny piece of the overall mosaic.
A complex and genius individual, Marvin Gaye was the greatest musical artist to live, at least in the modern age. He lived what he sang about, and he was so entwined with his work that he, I feel, has transcended any era, genre, or musical style.
Even now I’m not getting down what I want to say about him, and “Here, My Dear”, and I don’t know if really can. I likely don’t have the skills as a writer to express my feeling.
But, I just wanted to wish Marvin a Happy Birthday, and encourage everyone to really get into his music. Its a beautiful thing.