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Voices of the Dead - The MusiCurmudgeon Looks at Music
of the Deadly Departed - Part Two - WEIRD DEAD

logo In which the MusiCurmudgeon has dusted off the Ouija Board and held a sèance in order to rob the grooves of the decomposing composers of yesterday and bring their essences to bear on the present day.

Marvin Gaye In the annals of music history there have been many artists who have suffered unusual demises: from hangings - either intentional (Ian Curtis) or unintentional (Michael Hutchence), overdoses (Janis, Jimi, Jim), electrocution (Keith Relf, Gary Thain), even motorboating (Kirsty McColl) or surfing (Randy California) accidents. But to have your own crossdressing, fundamentalist preacher, father shoot you to death in front of your mother - like what happened to the following artist - takes the cake for me.

Marvin Gaye was a prominent soul singer in the 60s, 70s and early 80s - whose smooth voice and cool demeanor hid both troubled undercurrent of hurt, rage and tormented questioning intelligence. Raised by a strict, unemployed and alcoholic father - who brutally beat his son daily - sometimes while dressed as a woman - Gaye understandably suffered from a conflict between his own spirtual and sexual sides throughout his lifetime. He starting singing gospel in the church as an escape from his hellish home life - and after a short apprenticeship in doo-wop bands and session work - he became one of the greatest of the hitmakers of the golden era of Motown - charting an incredible 39 top-40 singles for the label. During this time Gaye wrote or cowrote much of his own material, but he chafed at having to limit his range to the standard Motown fare.

Perhaps due to his severe religious upbringing the singer felt uncomfortable as the R&B sex symbol Barry Gordy hired him to be and instead longed to be a crooner in the vein of Sinatra. The situation became even stranger in that Gaye married his boss' sister Anna - who was 17 years his senior. Many have pointed out that Anna acted as a surrogate mother to a young man whose own mother had submissively allowed Marvin's father to beat him. Marvin was paired with a number of female singers in popular duets - the most popular being Tammi Terrell - with whom he had the huge hit "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" - and with whom he fell deeply in love. When she collapsed suddenly in his arms at a concert one night and subsequently died of a brain tumor at age 23 - the shock seemed to never leave him - and he battled his own demons with drugs and sex throughout the rest of his life.

Gaye's discography is varied and holds up remarkably well throughout his career. His early work can be obtained on greatest hits compilations that run from the early gospel-drenched "Can I Get a Witness?" to the soulful "Heard it Through the Grapevine." His later disco-era Midnight Love featured his hit "Sexual Healing" (his performance of this song on American Bandstand was incendiary) and the tongue-in-cheek "Sanctified Lady" which gave expression to the singer's (and all mankind's? Madonna/whore) convoluted vision of womanhood. When ordered by the court to provide two new records to Anna as part of their divorce settlement - he instead turned in the most famous and bitter breakup (double) album ever recorded - Here, My Dear - in which he furiously sang/accused his ex of everything under the sun (ignoring his own chronic adulterous behavior) over the top of a mèlange of funky beats. As a side note to this album - he also recorded an until recently unreleased album of ballads - Vulnerable - which is one of the saddest and most compelling recordings you will ever hear - especially the haunting "Why Did I Love You" - where you can hear a man's heart breaking inside of him.

For all of these achievements - Marvin Gaye would surely be accorded a place in the history of music, but it is for one album in particular that he may be best known. With 1971's What's Going On Marvin Gaye in one fell stroke struck a blow against the system, his boss, his father and indeed all fathers (who, like Abraham - as Leonard Cohen has pointed out - would seek to sacrifice their children) with his revolutionary recording. The first artist-produced recording allowed at Motown - it opened the doors for artists (most notably) Stevie Wonder to follow in Gaye's footsteps. Even the album cover was radical - with its shots of a newly-bearded Gaye standing in a black raincoat in the rain in what appears to be an inner city playground - looking hopeful on the cover - worried on the back. Foregoing the pattern of three minute singles that had been placed upon him during his Motown years (not that there weren't hits) - he instead created a song cycle that explored contemporary social issues - based around the theme of love and universal brotherhood against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The songs - featuring Marvin's voice multi-tracked numerous times in various ranges - seem to echo the tumultuous events of the time - as well as the many phantasms that haunted his subconscious. Flowing one into the next we move through the anti-establishment posturing of the title track, explore economic racism in What's Happenin' Brother, make fun of an airline commercial in a pro drug use song - Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky), hear a still-relevant plea for ecological concerns -Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology), experience religious visions (God is Love, Wholy Holy) and end up in with Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) - where the anger of the ghetto simmers and cooks dangerously, but ends up hopeful that the races can make peace and achieve equality.

(Throughout all of this, Marvin's vision is propelled forward by the incredible bass playing of Motown legend James Jamerson - another unfortunate and under-appreciated casualty of the time (alcohol being his poison of choice) - whose original grooves made this perhaps the most influential album for bass players of the following three decades.)

The centerpiece of the album to me is the song "Save the Children" - where the simple lyrics and almost maudlin sentiments could have been turned into candied dust in the hands of a lesser singer. But here, Marvin screams from the bottom of his soul with harrowing sorrow, begging the world not to allow the innocence of children to be perverted; and you can almost see that damaged young boy - wide-eyed in fear - tremble as his father calls his name (and holds the gun). Despite his tangled personality, his sordid transgressions and almost unbelievably ironic end, Marvin Gaye made an honest attempt for the betterment of the world, and his commitment to peaceful change is something I only wish the rap gangbangers of today would emulate. Gaye's struggle as an imperfect everyman to overcome his father's (and society's) sins is as old as Oedipus and as timeless/tragic/heroic as Ahab's quest. Immersion into the world of "What's Going On" leaves us as breathless as if: Buoyed up by that coffin... I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

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