After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
The ego is a funny thing. No matter how we humble or deny ourselves, we all have one. I think back to my own ego in the year 1975 when Marvin began to record the album I Want You.
From the moment I met him, I felt my ego melting into Marvin’s. It was all about him. How could it not be? He was a superstar. I was a less-than. He was a man of the world. I was a teenage girl looking for a world where I could feel safe.
In my mind, all I had going for me was my body. You could say that I was witty and bright; you could say that I had the precociousness to keep up my end of a conversation with people twice my age. You could say that I had a flair for fashion. You might even say that I had hidden musical talent. I had a good ear. I could blend harmonies. I could appreciate the most subtle motifs and messages in Marvin’s music. I could appreciate the sincerity of his spiritual attachment to the god of love. I shared that attachment. I shared everything with him—but all to the point of denying myself as I celebrated him.
My positive qualities might have been obvious to others, but I couldn’t even begin to recognize them. The simple fact was that I had lost myself in Marvin. And whenever I felt that I was losing him, I didn’t know what to do. Of course it hardly helped that after the birth of our babies I returned to a daily routine of getting high on grass. As Marvin’s use of cocaine increased, so did mine. It isn’t that he forced me to keep up with him. Like most people in his circle, I simply wanted to live life on his cloud. His cloud, colored by the most beautiful music imaginable, appeared to offer the safe love I was seeking.
The fear of being banned from the cloud was always on my mind. And even though the fact that we shared two children seemed to guarantee me a permanent place on that cloud, I had learned that in Marvin’s world there were no guarantees. In short, I was obsessed with him.
“He’s obsessed with you,” my daddy Earl Hunter would tell me. Earl and Marvin had become buddies. “You’re the only thing he talks about, baby. When he’s singing, you’re the woman he’s singing to. Everyone knows that.”
“But everyone doesn’t see how he doesn’t look at me the way he used to.”
“That’s because you’re more than his girlfriend. You’re now the mother of his children. You gotta give him time to get used to that. The important thing is how he’s taking care of you. Hell, he’s even taking care of Slim.”
Earl was right.
At the beginning of the I Want You project, I was both gratified and concerned about the reemergence of my crazy-ass biological father.
One afternoon at the Sunset studio, I saw that Slim Gaillard was helping Marvin organize his tape library.
“What’s up with that?” I asked Marvin.
“Slim’s cool,” he said. “I like having him around. I like hearing his bebop stories. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help you take care of your family.”
“Slim never helped take care of me,” I reminded Marvin.
“That’s not the point, dear. The point is that now we’re in a position to help him. The cat’s a little down-and-out, so why not give him something to do in the studio?”
“That’s sweet of you, Marvin.”
“I’m growing sweeter by the day,” said Marvin with a smile.
But on those days when Marvin was not sweet on me—when, for example, he felt that my mom was interfering in our life or dropping by the house too frequently—he punished me by threatening to fire Slim.
“Why are you taking your anger at me out on him?” I asked Marvin.
“Anger has nothing to do with it,” Marvin answered. “I can only take so many of Slim’s bebop stories.”
The new music Motown gave Marvin was simply too good to resist.
I was at the studio when Marvin was studying a track of startling sensuality.
“Who is that singing?” I asked.
“Diana’s brother,” he said. “T-Boy Ross. Berry put him together with Leon Ware. They’ve been writing together.”
“That happened a while back,” I said. “They wrote ‘I Wanna Be Where You Are’ for Michael Jackson.”
“Well, now they’ve written something else. Listen to it.”
I listened and said, “I think it’s beautiful, Marvin. I think it’s a smash.”
“Berry thinks it’s tailor-made for me.”
“But Berry’s just looking to lure me back into the studio.”
“The motives don’t really matter, Marvin. What matters is the music. If you feel that the music suits your soul, why not go for it?”
“What’s it called?”
“‘I Want You.’”
“I love it,” I said.
The longer he listened, the more passionately he wanted to take the song and turn it into his own. As it turned out, it was more than one song: T-Boy and Leon had written an intricate set of innerconnected songs.
Marvin and Leon, who was an exceptional vocalist, producer, and writer, were musical soul mates. Leon’s lush orchestrations were perfectly suited to Marvin’s sensibilities. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that both men were deep into cocaine. The drug drove the creative work to a feverishly high level.
Soon Marvin was so deep into the album that, for all practical purposes, he had moved out of the Hidden Hills home into his studio on Sunset.
“I want you and the kids to be with me when I’m cutting these tracks and laying down the vocals,” Marvin told me. “I want to be able to look at you when I sing these songs.”
I was elated. Just as Marvin projected the war story of his brother Frankie returning from Vietnam into What’s Going On, he was using our love story to inform I Want You. The result was that, during the year-long process of making the record, our love was renewed.
“It’s like it was when we first met,” Marvin said. “That’s the feeling I’m getting when I’m singing these songs.”
“That’s the feeling that I want to keep forever,” I said.
The feeling in the studio was magical. And it was more than the impossibly seductive music. It was the feeling of the family—Marvin, myself, Nona, and Frankie—living in the loft while the songs were sculpted into a form that was distinctively Marvin. The extraordinary harmonies—the blend of Marvin’s many voices—were mirrored in the emotional harmony between us.
In “Come Live with Me Angel,” he flashed back to the early days when he asked me to leave my mother’s house and come to Cattaraugus so he could explore all my “treasures” and indulge in “freakish pleasures.”
In “Feel All My Love Inside,” he opened by asking for another joint before painting a picture of sweet sexual passion, stroking me “in and out … up and down … all around” because he loved to hear me “make those sounds.”
In “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again,” he fell into a daydream where he documented the first time he performed cunnilingus, describing how, despite past reservations, he had made up his mind to “give some head.”
But there was more than the ecstasy of physical pleasure; there was the prospect of pregnancy. Love must lead to family. Family is formed by his desire for me. At the end of the song he calls me by name. “Oh, Janis,” he cried. “I love you, I love you, Janis.”
In “After the Dance,” he fantasized about seeing me on Soul Train, my sinuous movements an invitation to a lifetime of love. It didn’t matter that I was never a Soul Train dancer. He invented the scenario.
In “All the Way Around,” he sang about “getting down to the skin,” exciting himself at the thought that I might be “promiscuous.”
In perhaps the most moving moment of all, Marvin made a brief visit to a song previously sung by Michael Jackson, “I Wanna Be Where You Are.” On the actual track, he acknowledged our family, saying, “Good night, little Frankie, Nona … good night, little Marvin … I love you all … I’ll always love you, Janis … I want to be where you are … oh, my children, I’ll always be where you are …”
My heart had never been happier. In the midst of the most erotic suite of songs he had ever sung, he had once again—as he did with Let’s Get It On—reaffirmed me as his muse. He had placed me in the center of his bed and his dreams. At the same time, he had placed himself in the center of our family.
“Did you hear what I said in the song?” Marvin whispered to me after he layered his harmonies on “Feel All My Love Inside.”
“I heard you sing about making love to me,” I whispered back.
“Before that I said, ‘I want you for my wife.’”
“Is this a formal proposal?”
“It will be.”
“Well, I accept—when you are free.”
“The divorce is coming soon,” he said.
“The way these endless hearings are dragging out, I’m not sure soon is the right word.”
“The name of the song was ‘Soon I’ll Be Loving You.’ And the name of this chapter in my life was ‘Soon I’ll Be Marrying You.’”
The chapter was blissful. During those long months blending lovemaking and music making in the Sunset studio, there were sights and scenes I’ll always cherish.
Marvin seated on a couch in the control room—the speakers mute, the room perfectly silent—as he quietly read aloud from the Book of Psalms:
In peace I will lie down and sleep
For you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety
Marvin in the loft, playing hide-and-seek with Nona and Bubby.
Marvin playing the tracks from I Want You for a smiling Stevie Wonder, Stevie’s head circling to the rhythm.
I was thrilled to be a witness to the making of a masterpiece.