Mother, Mother - After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye

After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)

Mother, Mother

I think of my mother, Barbara, and of Marvin’s mother, Alberta.

I consider their struggles as mothers. And then I think of my own challenges.

Within days of turning eighteen, I had learned that I was to become a mother.

When, in 1974, the doctor confirmed in March a due date in September, I knew that nothing would ever be the same.

I felt new joy. I saw the gladness in Marvin’s eyes when he heard the news.

“A boy,” he said. “A son.”

“Perhaps,” I said.

“For certain,” he confirmed.

I wished his hopes had been different. I wanted him to say that any healthy baby would be a great blessing, but this wasn’t the time to confront his prejudice. The important thing was that I had made him happy. What’s more, his positive reaction to the pregnancy was further confirmation of the strength of our bond. Those cynics who dismissed me as a temporary distraction would soon see that they were wrong. Marvin didn’t want out. He wanted in. He wanted to start a family with me. That single fact helped ease my gnawing insecurities. I’d do everything in my power to maintain a high level of health during my pregnancy. I vowed to protect my child and my relationship with Marvin.

After we left Topanga and moved into a luxury apartment in Brentwood, there were wonderful times—quiet dinners at the Hungry Tiger in Hollywood, intimate evenings at Harry’s Bar in Century City, where Marvin made me feel especially sophisticated.

There was a quick trip to Detroit where Marvin took the time to show me the different homes where he and Anna had lived. He introduced me to Esther Gordy, Berry’s sister, who was sweet and welcoming. We went to the 20 Grand, the famous Detroit nightclub where all the Motown acts had honed their skills. James Brown was performing that night. Before the show, Marvin took me to the dressing room to introduce me to James, who had rollers in his hair. His false teeth sat in a jar. He mumbled in a manner that I couldn’t understand. It didn’t matter. Marvin understood James and acted as his translator.

One day at the office of his company, Right On Productions, someone showed up with a pound of potent weed that looked like a bagful of hops. Marvin called it Cheeba Cheeba. Everyone who came through grabbed a handful. The supply was soon exhausted. Marvin wanted more and asked Frankie to scout around for smoke of similar quality. Frankie scored. When he brought in a pound of killer pot, Marvin named the new supply Frankie Frankie.

There were road trips up the coast in his RV to Carmel and to Ventana in Big Sur, an inn with a sweat lodge and super-healthy food. Marvin loved being captain of his RV. He loved being out on the land, in the woods, and on the beach. On one of those trips he bought a ranch in Round Mountain, an idyllic spot in Northern California. That was the time his mom, along with several nieces and nephews, came along. I was thrilled because after we arrived, Marvin gave me an adorable little kitten. Trouble arose, though, when his mother refused to ride in the same RV with the animal. I promised to keep the kitten out of her way, but Mother Gay wouldn’t relent. (Marvin had added an “e” to the family name.) Marvin had to choose between his mom and me. He chose his mom. It broke my heart when I was forced to leave the kitten behind.

Off the road and back in LA, mounting professional demands put Marvin on edge. He was elated that Let’s Get It On had turned into the biggest hit of his career. Never had he been offered this much money to tour. Yet he was also disappointed in himself for not resisting the lure of the limelight.

“I don’t need to go out there,” he told me. “I need to stay home with you, sing lullabies to the baby boy growing inside your womb.”

“I would love that,” I said.

“But there is the question of my public. I feel as though I owe my public—the same public that’s dying to give me their hard-earned cash for the pleasure of hearing me sing. How can I let them down? How can I refuse their offering?”

“You don’t have to.”

“You won’t think I’m greedy? You won’t think that I’m abandoning all my artistic principles?”

“Don’t artists want to be appreciated like everyone else in the world?”

“Of course. Adoration ain’t so bad.”

“You deserve it.”

“But I still have no desire to go out there and make a spectacle of myself. Why should I shake my ass?”

“You don’t have to shake it. Just show it a little.”

He laughed, but he was still troubled by the prospect of touring.

Inside Marvin’s mind, the arguments raged on. He wanted more money but didn’t want to go on the road. He wanted more adoration but didn’t want to do the demanding work of mounting a show.

Stephen Hill put the arguments to rest. He put together a multi-month schedule that would earn Marvin millions. The money was too big to reject. The coast-to-coast concerts would take place over the course of my pregnancy. Naturally, I wanted to accompany Marvin on the tour.

“The travel is too brutal for you to come along, dear,” Marvin said. “I won’t subject you to the stress and strain. You can fly out for a date here and there, and I’ll be flying home to see you on many weekends, but you’re better off situated in one place. I think the best place would be with my mom and family back in Washington.”

I was mortified. When I expressed skepticism about that plan, Marvin had a surprise that had me smiling.

“Stephen has booked the first concert in Jamaica,” he said. “It’s his home country and a place I dearly love. I want you to come to Jamaica with me. It’ll be a dream.”

The dream was exotic, even if short-lived. The sky was sapphire blue, the beach sun-bleached white. Tropical breezes blew through the open windows of the suite in the fabulous resort overlooking Kingston Bay. Marvin stretched out in bed, me by his side. He gently stroked my stomach, which, in my second trimester, had started to swell.

“Put on a robe, dear,” he said. “Stephen is on his way up.”

Stephen arrived in the room like a commanding officer. He was firmly in control. He said that for this Jamaican concert Bob Marley had been booked as Marvin’s opening act. When he began to explain Marley’s importance, Marvin stopped him.

“I know all about Marley,” said Marvin. “I love and respect him. You don’t have to sell me on Bob Marley.”

Stephen did have to sell Marvin on the post-Jamaica ten-state tour he had put together. Marvin was still resisting the ordeal. The demands on his time would be too much. The grind would wear him down. He didn’t want to be away from me. He refused to back down.

“That’s impractical, Marvin,” said Stephen, “and, to be blunt, inconceivable. You will not back out. You will fulfill your commitments as you initially promised.”

When Marvin remained adamant, Stephen used flattery to win him over. Doesn’t Marvin want to enhance his already legendary status as an international artist? Why, right here in Jamaica the highest-ranking government officials, including the prime minister, Michael Manley, have been clamoring to meet him. He will be the guest of honor in stately mansions belonging to the most powerful people on the island. That will be true wherever he goes.

The flattery worked. Marvin recommitted to the tour. Stephen was relieved and reminded him that, at Marvin’s own request, he had made arrangements to fly in the Gay family from Washington, DC.

The news surprised me. I thought it would be just the two of us. When Stephen left, I questioned Marvin.

“Why do you want your mother and father here?”

“Who said anything about my father? My father is certainly not coming. I don’t want to discuss my father. Far as my mother goes, you know that she is my heart. I want her to see this glorious place. She has worked all her life so I could have opportunities like this. Why would I deny her this treat? Why would you ask me to?”

“I wouldn’t. I’m glad she’s coming …”

“Are you?”

“It’s just that I love being alone with you, but I understand.”

“Then you’ll understand if my brother and sisters are coming too.”

I didn’t say a word.

“What’s wrong, dear?” Marvin asked.

“Nothing. You want me to be surrounded by your family. I understand.”

“But do you understand that all those years I was married to Anna …”

“Was married? You still are.”

“For all those years I was together with Anna, my family felt shunned. She wanted nothing to do with the Gays. She looked down on them. They were never welcome in our home in Detroit, never welcome when we moved to Los Angeles.”

“And you didn’t say anything?” I asked.

“I left Anna. I’m with you. And I expect you to welcome and love my family as I expect them to welcome and love you.”

I first met Marvin’s mom, Alberta, some months back in Los Angeles. The encounter was not unfriendly. Mother Gay was a woman with a sweet disposition and quiet manner, much like her sons. She accepted the fact that Marvin had taken up with a young woman—what choice did she have?—but at the same time regarded me with unspoken skepticism. She was not cold to me, but neither was she embracing. I felt that Mother Gay had adopted a wait-and-see attitude: My son is obviously infatuated with you, but let’s see how long it lasts.

When Mother Gay arrived along with Frankie, sister Zeola, and older sister Jeanne, there were hugs all around. For now, the mood was pleasant. As they lunched with us on the patio, they talked about how Marvin might help them relocate to LA. With Anna out of the picture, they felt empowered to reestablish their place in Marvin’s life. They saw that I, unlike matriarchal Anna, had neither the power nor the inclination to exclude them. I wanted to please Marvin. And if ingratiating myself with his family brought him pleasure, I had no choice but to go along with the program.

The absence of Father Gay was profound. During those rare moments when he was in the mood to discuss his dad, Marvin had told me how the man never held down a job for long. His position as a minister in a charismatic church was his central work. But it didn’t pay. Marvin’s mom was forced to toil as a domestic to keep the family in food and shelter.

“My father fashioned himself as an important man in this somewhat bizarre congregation,” Marvin once explained. “But as a kid, I didn’t see it as bizarre. I saw it as beautiful. The women were all dressed in white. The women loved my father. They revered him as an exalted spiritual leader. They also loved me when they heard that I had inherited his gift for singing. His voice, praising God, rang out loud and true. I felt the spirit of God—the loving and living God—in that little church where I knew, even as a young boy, that I would one day take my father’s place. All the elders said so. The women in white told me that I was highly favored. I felt blessed. I felt privileged to go with my father as he rode around Maryland and Virginia where he was asked to sing and preach at other holy churches belonging to our little sect. We were different from other Christians. I liked that feeling. It felt special to go to a church that celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday, and strictly followed all the rules of the Old Testament as well as the New.

“The strictness meant that you obeyed God. Since Father saw himself as God’s chosen leader, he demanded strict obedience from everyone, including Mother and especially his children. My brother Frankie and my sisters Zeola and Jeanne were intimidated. They were compliant. They knew not to challenge his authority. But because I had been anointed and felt empowered by my own gifts, I was not compliant. I was defiant. My defiance brought out Father’s brutality—or maybe it was vice versa. I don’t know, and I can’t tell you when it happened, but when it did, everything changed.”

“How?” I asked.

“I went from idolizing Father to loathing him.”

“That’s a strong statement.”

“Not strong enough. Not after what he did to me.”

“What did he do?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“I do, I really do.”

“I don’t want to say.”

“You don’t have to.”

I thought of the brutalities I had suffered as a child. Ruth. The nun. But at least at that moment, he was not ready to say any more. I wanted to share more of my past with Marvin, yet I didn’t. I knew better.

To everyone around Marvin, including me, it was clear that his story was the only one that mattered. Not that I minded. I willingly suppressed my story for the privilege of being included in his. I identified with Marvin so closely that it was his concerns I worried over, not my own.

Here in Jamaica his focus was to re-form a family that had been lost to him for so long. At the same time, everyone in Marvin’s family had an agenda. His mother wanted to be closer to her son the superstar. Frankie yearned to be a superstar himself and hoped Marvin could help him realize that dream. Zeola displayed an obsessive starstruck love for her brother reminiscent of the female fans who attended his shows. I had my own aspirations of being in those shows. Everyone wanted something from Marvin. And that’s how he liked it.

I saw that Marvin needed to be needed and wanted to be wanted. He loved to be in the position of doling out favors, whether emotional or material. And like everyone else surrounding him, I needed and wanted the favor of his love.

The prime minister of Jamaica had requested the favor of Marvin’s presence at an exclusive dinner party. Stephen Hill, wearing his managerial status like a badge, was certain that Marvin would be pleased to attend. Stephen Hill was wrong.

Instead Marvin and I fled the resort with Ras Daniel Hartman, our Rasta friend who had promised us a tour of the real island. No dinner gown for me, no tux for Marvin—just jeans and T-shirts and flip-flops and an escape to a picturesque beach where Marvin gratefully accepted a ganja-filled clay pipe and smoked the local greenery that eased his mind and mellowed his heart as he soaked in the overwhelming beauty of the people playing in the sand and splashing in the clear blue water.

“This is paradise,” Marvin whispered as he kissed me behind the ear. “A beautiful day for my girl.”

He touched my stomach and said, “Our baby is feeling this incredible vibe.”

In an open-air jeep, we cruised up and down the hills of the island, stopping at a roadside stand to eat curried goat, beef pies, jackfruit, ackee, codfish, and red beans and rice—the island’s best down-home food.

“You must show me Trenchtown,” said Marvin.

“Hey, mon,” said Ras, “it’s funkier than you might imagine.”

“Bring it on.”

Walking through the slums of Kingston, Marvin was recognized and celebrated. He was surprised and moved when so many of the impoverished people of Jamaica reached out to touch his hand. He stopped to speak with the women, play with the children, smoke ganja with a gathering of older men. At times like these, Marvin appeared most content, most himself, a humble prince quoting Jesus about our moral obligation to serve the least among us. I admired how he shunned aristocratic Jamaica to spend time and explore the back alleys and stop in the makeshift studios where the reggae music was made.

Trenchtown is considered the ghetto in Jamaica. It is filled with people trudging through the mud with no shoes. They were people who didn’t have anything. Going from his high life to this sharp contrast didn’t bother Marvin. He moved easily among the wealthy and the impoverished; those who had money and those who had nothing at all. The have-nots that he sang about on What’s Going On. He saw everyone as the same and treated them with the same dignity. He also believed, and taught me to do the same, to help whenever possible. On this day, there was a rousing. Everyone was excited about something. We didn’t realize what it was until we came upon the dead cow. The locals were enthusiastically picking at it because it meant that they would have a solid meal. Adults and children alike were pulling at the animal’s flesh. We both started crying, as Marvin tried to comfort me through his tears.

“Don’t let it upset you, baby,” he said, guiding me away from the disturbance. Ras Daniel took us into his hut. We smoked some weed that he offered and discussed the politics of the island.

I felt a little better. Marvin exposed me to so much through his music. And there I was in Technicolor real life witnessing the kind of human desperation that he sang about. He showed me that we had to offer more than compassion.

A few hours later, after we left Ras Daniel’s hut and were on our way back to the hotel, we were shocked to find that the entire cow was gone. Many of the animal’s bones were taken and there was barely a carcass.

The concerts Marvin was doing were fundraisers for these people of Trenchtown. Helping them out inspired him to do a great performance.

Two days later, that was the music I heard as Bob Marley and the Wailers opened the concert. Breaking practice, Marvin left his dressing room dressed in an outfit I had designed—white overalls and a white studded T-shirt. I had convinced him to lose his skullcap, at least for this one night. He and I walked to the wings while Marley was onstage.

“This groove is spreading all over the world,” Marvin whispered to me. “This is a man carrying an important message.”

I noticed Marley looking over in our direction. Seeing that Marvin was watching him, he flashed a broad smile as he broke into “Get Up, Stand Up.” An hour later, when Marvin was onstage, it was Marley standing in the wings, one master acknowledging another.

During the sets of both singers, I was mesmerized. In those few hours, I was treated to both pure Marley and pure Marvin, two geniuses conveying much more than mere excitement with their music. I felt like I was living a dream.

On that starry night in Jamaica, with the crowd rocking back and forth to the rhythms of the isle and the far-off cities of America, the music of Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye blended into one. Their sounds commingled. Their spirits married. There was peace in Jamaica. Pregnant, I felt there was peace all over the world.