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

The Beast

When I’m touring,” Marvin insisted, “I want you to go back to DC with Mother and the family.”

“Why?” I asked, still reluctant to go.

“Because you’ll be safe there. Mother will care for you. She’ll make sure you eat right and get your rest.”

“I don’t like this plan, Marvin,” I said.

“The tour is too much for you.”

“I can deal with the tour. I’m stronger than you think I am.”

“Please, dear, don’t argue. I’m leaving you with my family. You’ll love them and they’ll love you.”

The Gay home in Washington evoked the aura of the Addams Family. The minute I walked through the door, I was uncomfortable.

Mother was essentially a sweet lady but had little interest in me. I quickly saw that her main concern was the man who ruled over the household like a lord: Father.

Father Gay’s presence—or absence—was always on Mother’s mind. For long periods of time he remained in his upstairs bedroom, separate from Mother’s. When he wanted something—a cup of coffee, a sandwich, a freshly ironed shirt—he rang a bell attached to a string. When he decided to make his grand appearance, it was always an event.

The first time I saw him I was shocked. In that instant, I knew why Marvin had been loathe to discuss him.

He came down the stairs with pink rollers in his hair. He wore a form-fitting shirt unbuttoned to expose his upper torso. It was not a pretty sight. The curlers were strange enough. But the white-toned panty hose under his plaid Bermuda shorts and the fact that he was wearing his wife’s red flat sandals put him in a category all his own. I didn’t know the name of that category. All I knew was that this man was beyond strange. Slight of build with undistinguished features, he was imperiously vain. He strutted like a peacock. He spoke like a trained actor. When he addressed me, he was courteous. But I was so freaked out by his appearance, I hardly heard his words.

Mother Gay called him Doc. He called her Babe and kept a notebook that critiqued her housekeeping. Surveying the house like a drill sergeant, he jotted down, “Dishes: dirty . . . couch: dusty . . . curtains: soiled.” More disturbing than this, though, were the frequent female visitors who arrived at the house and, with Mother Gay’s knowledge, paraded up to his bedroom. They were typically women from his church with big behinds.

“Father,” Frankie told me, “is a booty man.”

When Father wasn’t around, Frankie was also telling me the facts that Marvin had not been able to bring himself to describe—the gruesome details of the beatings that Marvin suffered as a boy.

“My sisters and I obeyed him,” said Frankie. “That was the easiest way out. Why make him mad? But Marvin isn’t made that way. You can’t tell Marvin what to do. Mother spoiled Marvin early on, made him feel like he was a little prince. Well, the king might be the king, but the prince ain’t listening to him. Making it even worse, the king is dressing up like a queen. He’s wearing frilly blouses that look more suited for Mother than him. Sometimes we catch him wearing Mother’s underwear. We hate that. We hate how he goes out in the streets with his hair in curlers. It’s bad enough we can’t go to any of the normal black churches where our friends go. We gotta go to his strange little church that tells us we can’t dance or listen to rock ’n’ roll. And we also gotta hear the taunts of our buddies calling him queer. We know that’s not true. But we can’t shout back and say, ‘Hey, our dad likes women ’cause we see ’em coming through the house.’ We just gotta shut up and take it. That’s rough, especially since we’re always reminded that our last name is Gay. There were times, though, when we didn’t take it. There were times when both me and Marvin had to fight to defend our father’s honor. After one nasty fight where Marvin got his nose bloodied and Father asked him why, Marvin just came out and said it. He told him that he looked like a homosexual and that he was bringing shame to all of us.”

“How old was Marvin when this happened?” I asked.

“Nine or ten.”

“What did your father do?”

“He beat the holy hell out of him. Only this time it was different. This time he locked him in our room and made him wait there for an hour. While Marvin waited, Father kept snapping his belt against the door so Marvin could think about what was about to happen. It was like torture.

“‘You got one chance to get outta this,’ Father said. ‘You gonna come out here and apologize to me and everyone else in this family, or I’m coming in after you.’

“Marvin shouted back, ‘You’re the one who should be apologizing! You’re the one going round looking like a queer.’

“That did it. Father went in after him. But this beating was different. Not only did he give him a whipping, but he tore off all his clothes beforehand. It was a struggle. Marvin fought back, but he was only a kid. He couldn’t fight off a grown man. Father overpowered him, he beat Marvin butt naked, not just with the leather belt but with the buckle as well. He tore into his skin and left these big welts. Then Father made him stay home from school for weeks ’cause he was scared the teachers at school might see the marks on Marvin’s back and call social services. After that, you’d think Marvin would learn—as I did—not to answer back. But he never learned that. No matter how bad the beatings, Marvin never backed down.

“But it wasn’t just Father. It was an uncle of ours who actually molested Marvin. When Marvin told Father about it, Father didn’t believe him. But I knew Marvin was telling the truth. I saw it happen. I wanted to stick up for Marvin, but I was afraid of Father. We all were.”

I got chills hearing these horror stories. They deepened my empathy for Marvin. They had a strange effect, causing me to minimize my own problems growing up. If I had it bad, Marvin had it worse. This was part of my pattern of magnifying the importance of his story while belittling my own.

The stories also further alienated me from Marvin’s father. In fact, I could no longer see him as Father. I saw him as the Beast. I avoided him as much as I could. That was easy because he was usually hibernating in his bedroom. When I did encounter him at the dinner table, I had nothing to say. When he addressed me, it was only to remind me to take care because I was carrying his grandson. Always his grandson, never his granddaughter.

After a couple of months of living in DC, I didn’t think I could take any more. I called my mother back in LA.

“What’s wrong, baby?” asked Mom.

“I hate it here.”

“Then leave.”

“I don’t want to leave.”

“You don’t want to leave a place that’s driving you crazy?”

“I don’t want to make Marvin mad.”

“Well, I’m mad. I’m coming there.”

“I wish you would.”

Mom flew in to Washington. Mother Gay, Father Gay, and Marvin’s siblings treated her with indifference. I was glad to see her. I wanted her comfort and reassurance. I needed relief from the oppressive vibes that permeated the Gay household.

Mom’s presence provided a buffer between Marvin’s family and myself. Compared to the Gays, Mom seemed absolutely sane. In her own way, she was a tough character. With her around, I felt protected.

On a few occasions Marvin took a break from the road to visit his family and me. I noticed how he and Father assiduously avoided each other. Father rarely left his room. When he did come downstairs, Marvin got up and left. Few words were exchanged. The atmosphere was ice cold. Not even the smallest hint of affection.

Meanwhile, the family continued to campaign for their move to LA. I saw the subtle ways that Mother Gay worked on Marvin.

“There isn’t anything she wants that I wouldn’t give her,” Marvin told me when we were alone. “She is deserving. She is worthy. She is the most wonderful woman in the world. It will be amazing to have her close to me in LA.”

“And your father?”

“We’ll keep the house here. He’ll stay behind. He likes it here.”

“I hate it here,” I couldn’t help but tell Marvin.

“I’m sorry, dear, but this was the only way you could understand where I’m coming from. I love you even more for putting up with all this. It shows me how you truly love me.”

I was happy to hear his words, but happier still when, seven months pregnant, the stay in DC ended. Finally, the prison sentence was over. Though I had been there for only three months, it felt like a lifetime.

Marvin and I flew back to LA, where he rented a beautiful two-bedroom apartment in Brentwood.

My final trimester was made bearable by the fact that I was no longer living in the same household as the Beast. And with the tour behind him, Marvin was loving and attentive.

One of the happiest—and strangest moments—of my pregnancy involved visiting Quincy Jones, then married to Peggy Lipton.

A few years earlier, when my boyfriend Bryant and I were tripping on LSD, I had hallucinated and, in my mind’s eyes, seen Quincy and Billy Eckstine. It was as though they were standing before me. I had forgotten the incident until Marvin and I arrived at Quincy’s house. Peggy, who could not have been sweeter, walked us to the backyard where they were grilling steaks. And right there, standing shoulder to shoulder, were Quincy and Billy Eckstine! It was surreal, an unexpected flashback to my acid vision. Fortunately, I was able to maintain my composure and enjoy the graciousness of Peggy, Quincy, and Billy.

Marvin’s career continued to flourish. America was still grooving to “Let’s Get It On.” The live version of “Distant Lover,” released from the concert album in Oakland, was another smash hit. Motown was understandably eager for Marvin to get back in the studio and cut another record. But Marvin was making no moves in that direction. The more Motown urged him to act, the more inactive he became.

“Maybe I’ll leave Motown,” he told me one afternoon.

“Are you serious?”

“Perhaps. But even if I don’t, I like the idea of worrying them because, with their prodding, they never mind worrying me.”

He brought me along to a meeting with Gil Friesen, an A&M Records executive who had contacted Marvin about switching labels. Friesen responded to Marvin’s warm and winning personality. This super-hot label that recorded artists like Quincy Jones and the Carpenters would be honored to sign Marvin. Friesen considered him a genius, comparing him to Mozart and Picasso. He laid it on thick.

Marvin loved the lavish praise. As Friesen rattled on, Marvin squeezed my hand, as if to say, “This is it. This is our future. The end of all my old ties to Motown. The start of something new.”

On the ride home after the meeting, I was excited. Marvin was leaving Motown. That meant leaving all the Motown people who wanted me out of Marvin’s life.

“When will you tell Motown that it’s over?” I asked.

“When it’s over, dear.”

“Isn’t that going to be soon? This man offered you millions.”

“At the end of my current contract, Motown will offer me millions as well.”

“But the Motown people drive you crazy. They make you unhappy.”

“But they also made my career.”

“Your talent made your career, Marvin. You don’t need Motown anymore.”

“To up and leave is no simple task.”

“Why not?”

“There’s history there.”

“History of misery and conflict.”

“Well, dear,” said Marvin, “perhaps misery and conflict make for great music. Perhaps without misery and conflict my well would run dry.”

“That’s a strange thing to say.”

“The truth,” said Marvin, “is always strange.”

“I just want you to be happy. And I just don’t think Motown makes you happy.”

“You should know by now, Jan, that some people don’t think they’re worthy of happiness. Some people believe happiness is for fools. I believe that true artists have to suffer.”

At this moment of Marvin’s musing, we were driving down a Sunset Strip decorated with billboards for albums by the Captain and Tennille and Kiss. After smoking a joint, Marvin grew more philosophical.

“I have no argument with anyone’s music,” he added. “If it’s superficial, that’s fine. If its aim is to bring mild pleasure or some sensual delight to the ear, why, that’s wonderful. But if I take my music seriously and do what God has asked me to do, I must use it to awaken the mind of man. I must let the world know that, when it comes to our journey through time, there is more than meets the eye. We must look beyond the veil. True artists lift that veil. And, dear Jan, if I am not a true artist, I am nothing.”

When Marvin spoke this way, I didn’t reply. I simply listened. He spoke with such passion and eloquence that it was impossible not to believe his every word.