After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
At the start of the seventies—before Marvin had left Detroit, before his marriage to Anna had fallen apart, before his move to Hollywood, before his meeting me had thrown him into a romantic obsession that deepened by the day—Marvin sang, “Father, father … there’s no need to escalate.”
The escalation, of course, referred to the Vietnam War, but he was also talking about brutal battles fought with his own father.
“Mother, mother,” he sang to the mothers who had lost sons overseas, but he was also singing to his own mother, who had struggled to protect him from her husband’s cruelty.
“Brother, brother,” he sang to his brother Frankie and to all his brothers, black and white, brown and yellow, who opposed the tyranny of a heartless establishment.
“Love your mother,” he sang. “Love your father. Your sisters, your brothers.”
From the day I met him, I had seen Marvin as a man whose capacity to love was matched by his need to be loved.
As much as he fought his father, he also sought the man’s love; he sought to reconcile the friction in his family by buying homes and cars for his parents, by keeping his sisters and brother close, by trying to re-create the very thing he lacked as a child—a happy home life.
And yet a happy home life is exactly what eluded him.
As it turned out, he had created three homes: one was the sprawling suburban home in Hidden Hills; a second was the secluded studio home in Hollywood; and the third was the enormous old house he bought for his parents on Gramercy Place in Mid-City LA.
As time went on, he went from one home to another, seeking solace in one family even as he ran from the other. When he was suspicious of me, he ran to his mother; when the presence of his father chased him from his mother’s house, he ran to the studio that, from time to time, was being supervised by my brother Mark—Slim’s son who’s seven years my senior—Marvin’s brother Frankie, or my father Slim. When he grew angry with Slim, when he felt that his sister Zeola was pressing him too hard to employ her as a dancer or his brother Frankie was pressing him too hard to sponsor his career as a singer, he ran back to Hidden Hills.
On any given day in Hidden Hills, I might see George Clinton and Bernie Worrell shooting hoops. They were the funk geniuses who loved Marvin as much as he loved them. The three of them loved to get high on acid.
On any given day in the Sunset studio, I might see Rick James with his protégée Teena Marie. Like all the young soul stars, they idolized Marvin. More smoke, more coke, more high times all around. The studio had a magic all its own.
On any given day in the house on Gramercy Place, I might see Bishop Simon Peter Rawlings, a fellow minister of Father Gay, who had come all the way from Kentucky to read Scripture to Marvin. Marvin loved the man. I witnessed their prayer sessions, which went on for hours.
On one afternoon in Hidden Hills, my mom showed up with one of her friends, an engaging black man named Ernie Barnes. Ernie was a fabulous painter. In addition to his artistic talent, he had also once been a pro athlete. As a young man he was drafted by the NFL’s Baltimore Colts to play on the same team with Johnny Unitas and Big Daddy Lipscomb. With his own dreams of playing professional ball, Marvin was enchanted by Ernie’s stories.
He was also enchanted by Ernie’s most famous work—an enormous panorama of black couples dancing sensuously at a neighborhood nightclub. The great painting had been used in the background of the television series Good Times. Marvin had long loved the work and wanted to know how this particular image came about.
“When I was kid,” said Ernie, “I wasn’t allowed to go to dances.”
“Me either,” Marvin chimed in.
“So when I snuck around and peeped through the window of the local juke joint, I got my first look at the sin my folks never wanted me to see. And I loved it. A lifetime later I remembered that scene and painted it. I called it Sugar Shack, and over the dancers’ heads I drew a banner that says ‘WSRC,’ the soul station I listened to when my folks weren’t home.”
“Sounds like we have the same story, brother,” said Marvin. “Mind if I play you something I just finished cutting?”
“Are you kidding? Lemme hear it, man.”
Marvin put on I Want You.
Ernie was all smiles, his head bouncing to the groove.
“You thinking what I’m thinking, Ernie?”
“I’m thinking that the dancers in Sugar Shack look like they’re getting down to I Want You.”
“That’s it, brother! That’s exactly it! As a musical artist, I don’t like anyone coming along to change what I’ve done. So I’m a little hesitant about asking you this. But, with all due respect, is it even remotely possible for you to add a little banner that says something about Marvin Gaye?”
“You’re thinking of using it as the album cover?”
“It’s beyond perfect. It’s so right I can’t begin to consider anything else. I really want it.”
“A Marvin Gaye album without Marvin Gaye’s picture on the cover?”
“There are enough pictures of me on my album covers. Your picture does what no other picture can do. It makes the music come alive. Will you give me permission to use it?”
“Permission granted. And with much respect and love.”
Marvin bought it along with several other Ernie Barnes works with football and basketball scenes. One especially sensuous painting called Circle of Love, depicting a couple lying on tousled sheets in tones of brown and purple, was absolute genius. It hung over our bed.
A month later, when the first copy of the I Want You album with the Ernie Barnes cover was brought over to the house, I asked Marvin, “My mom has some pretty cool friends, doesn’t she? Don’t you love Ernie?”
“I do. And I gotta give your mom some credit this time for doing something good. In addition to giving birth to my sweet Jan, yes, the woman does know some hip brothers.”
On any given good day—and there were many—Marvin demonstrated deep family love. He tried over and over again to reconcile the pain of his past with the good fortune of his present and the beautiful prospect of his future.
I saw how he wanted to spread the love that he saw at the heart of the teachings of the God he called Jesus. Yet for all his noble efforts and valiant attempts to live the life of a man of goodwill, he trapped himself in a battle between good and evil. He didn’t want to be a hypocrite. He didn’t like people who were duplicitous and lied, even though he sometimes displayed these actions. He was complex, but he strove to live by higher moral principles when it came to his treatment of others.
“There is the devil,” he told me. “And the devil is real.”
“But isn’t God greater?” I asked. “Isn’t God stronger? Didn’t God defeat the devil?”
“The devil can’t be defeated,” said Marvin on one of his many dark days. “The devil simply changes form.”
“You don’t actually believe in a demonic figure who’s running around with horns and a red cape, do you, dear?”
“I believe in a devil that is already inside us. We each have a devil of our own making. That devil is designed to destroy all the joy in our life.”
“But can’t the devil be confronted? If you know the potential for destruction is there, can’t you do something to avoid it—like pray?”
“The devil is tricky,” Marvin insisted. “The devil is sly. The devil knows to offer us temptations we can’t resist. The devil knows our weakness. The devil is our weakness.”
“I’m not sure,” I said skeptically. “I think that if we really believe the devil is all that powerful, we’re contributing to his power. We’re building him up. In truth, the devil may not even exist.”
“You don’t believe in negative energy?” asked Marvin. “You don’t see evidence of evil in the world?”
“I do, but that’s different from subscribing to some superstition that has you fearing a demon who’s out to get you. Maybe I’m wrong, Marvin, but I have a feeling that superstition comes from way back in your childhood. Didn’t your father’s church give you all these ideas about the devil?”
“Do you believe my father’s the devil?”
“Now you’re asking a different question.”
“I’ve heard you call him the Beast.”
“I’ve heard you call him worse.”
“I’ve heard him preach,” said Marvin, his demeanor changing as he conjured up memories. “That was when I was a boy. He preached beautifully. Have I told you that, dear?”
“He sang beautifully. He understood God’s Word beautifully. He understood that there was a devil in him that had to be defeated.”
“And did he?” I asked.
“No. The devil prevails—in him, in you, in me. The devil prevails the world over. And just when we think we have his number, he comes at you in another clever form with another sweet temptation and, just like that, you’re back in his arms.”
The words frightened me. I wouldn’t accept the premise. “That won’t happen,” I insisted.
“You say that now,” said Marvin, “but you will fall. We all will.”
“I hate it when you talk like this. It’s depressing. Please stop.”
Marvin sensed my fear and put his arm around me. “I’ll do all I can to protect our little family,” he said.
The public adored I Want You. It quickly sold over a million copies. Marvin was gratified. But then someone brought over a copy of Rolling Stone with a review that said, “With Barry White on the wane, Marvin Gaye seems determined to take over as soul’s master philosopher in the bedroom, a proposition that requires little but an affectation of constant, rather jaded horniness.”
The write-up in DownBeat was even worse: “Slush for disco dancers in the bogus overblown manner of Barry White.”
Marvin was furious and hurt. He loved what he had created with Leon Ware and T-Boy Ross.
“The critics are tin-eared idiots,” he said. “They want to insult me by comparing me to Barry White, whom they detest, except that Barry is a genius, a brilliant orchestrator, writer, and singer with a vision all his own. I love Barry. Is it a crime to make music that celebrates the joy of sex? Didn’t all the great composers want to seduce us with sensuous sounds? Didn’t Mozart? Didn’t Beethoven? Of course they did. But the critics don’t want me to seduce. They want me to save the world. They think because of What’s Going On I have to keep writing socially conscious songs. Well, how about sexually conscious songs? Besides, sex is social.”
“The fans love I Want You,” I said. “The DJs love it. Motown loves it. Who cares what a couple of writers say?”
I knew that there was no consoling him. The bad reviews kept him down for days.
During that same summer of 1976, he went even further down. He failed to pay alimony and child support to Anna and was about to be served a contempt-of-court subpoena. That would mean ten days in LA County jail. Rather than run the risk of serving time, Marvin disappeared for two weeks. Not even I knew where he was. In the meantime, his lawyers did what Marvin had consistently refused to do: they tried to negotiate an intermediate settlement with Anna. Nothing doing. The divorce war raged on, draining Marvin’s dwindling supply of money.
To make money, Marvin accepted some questionable gigs. He called me from Buffalo, where he was supposed to give a concert that never came off.
“The promoter promised I’d get my money up front,” he said, “but when I got here I learned that he’d run off with the advance ticket sales.”
“So what did you do?”
“You didn’t sing?”
“I never left the hotel. But it turns out they’re having an NAACP convention right here, so I’m going to sing for them tomorrow—for free.”
The next day the papers ran an article about thousands of ticket holders who had waited in the rain for three hours in front of Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium, only to learn that Marvin was refusing to appear.
“Happy ending, though,” Marvin told me.
“They caught the promoter before he could escape with all the money.”
“This is the same guy you trusted?”
“When it comes to judging promoters, I’ve never had the most discerning judgment, have I?” he asked with a laugh.
His judgment about other business deals also proved disastrous.
I watched as Marvin ignored warnings from his advisors against investing in speculative oil deals and sketchy sports franchises like the World Football League that, shortly after he had kicked in $96,000, went belly-up. It was as though he did his best to lose all the money he was making.
Watching this made me feel increasingly insecure. I had no earning power of my own. I was counting on Marvin for everything.
“I can always tour,” he reassured me. “I have fans in Latin America, in Europe. I have fans in Asia.”
But because of his fear of flying, Marvin refused dozens of overseas tours. Again and again, he passed up chances to cultivate foreign markets.
“I’m not interested in marketing,” he told his money men. “I’m an artist.”
“An artist who’s about to lose everything.”
“I can’t lose my art. It’s a gift from God. And God’s not taking it back.”
I saw that, when faced with the impending reality of losing the Hidden Hills house or the Sunset studio, Marvin eventually changed his mind. He agreed to a tour of Japan. But then a week later, he canceled. Same routine with Brazil. Finally, though, he saw that, given the cash-flow crisis, he had to stop the foolishness. Come hell or high water, he was going to London to play the Palladium, followed by an extensive tour of England. The payday was too big to pass up.
I was thrilled to learn that he was taking me along. My mom would care for the kids. His brother Frankie and sister Zeola made the trip along with my sister Cass, who designed and made his stage outfits.
Marvin loved London. It felt like his natural habitat. The Brits treated him like royalty. He was charmed by their lordly accents; they were charmed by his soft-spoken candor. He told me that he could live there forever.
The day before the big show at the Palladium, we spent time shopping the avant-garde boutiques on Carnaby Street and the more conservative shops on Bond Street. Marvin bought me a wardrobe of edgy fashions—short skirts and high boots—while, for himself, he preferred the look of an English gentleman in elegant pinstriped suits and sport coats of Harris tweed. He also acquired an instant British accent.
That night there was news that Flo Lyles, one of Marvin’s singers, was suffering with laryngitis. It was Flo who sang with Marvin on the hit duets that he’d originally sung with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell. Even before attending dozens of Marvin’s shows, I knew these numbers by heart—“You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Your Precious Love,” “It Takes Two,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
“I can sing them,” I told Marvin.
“Oh, dear,” he said, “that’s just too much.”
“I can do it.”
“You really think you can handle it?”
“I know I can. You’ve heard me sing those parts in your ear. You know I know them.”
“Not maybe, dear. Pleeeease …”
“That would really make you happy, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
“All right, dear, tomorrow night will be your grand debut.”
I could hardly contain my excitement. The night before the show I got little sleep. I saw this as the start of a new phase of my relationship with Marvin. Once he heard how well I sang these songs, he’d make me a permanent part of the performance.
True to form, Marvin missed the rehearsal and sound check, but I was there, gratified that all went well. Frankie stood in for Marvin. We sang the duets flawlessly.
An hour before show time, I started to dress. The outfit—a low-cut full-length cap-sleeve jersey dress—was the sexiest I could find. It fit perfectly.
When Marvin finally showed up he asked, “Are you sure you know the lyrics to the songs?”
“And are you sure that appearing before a live audience won’t freak you out?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“And you really, truly have it under control?”
“Really and truly, I do.”
“And you’ll stay on key?”
“And when you sing, you’ll be able to look me in the eye and mean it?”
“Of course. These are love songs. And I love you. I’ve always wanted to sing to you.”
“All right. I’ll see you during the show.”
My heart beat wildly. I couldn’t wait for my moment in the spotlight. Standing next to Marvin and singing those songs would be a dream come true.
Ten minutes before showtime, the dream shattered.
“Sorry, dear,” said Marvin as he entered the dressing room, “but I have some news that won’t make you happy.”
“Flo tells me she’s up to perform. No need for you to bother yourself about performing.”
“Need! Bother!” I exclaimed. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming of.”
“I understand, dear, but, after all, Flo is a professional. I can’t stand in the way of her work.”
“Flo gets to sing every night. Why not give her a night off? She can rest her throat.”
“She’s well rested. She’s ready to sing.”
I was ready to tear my hair out. But what could I do? I had no choice but to comply. Adding to my frustration, Marvin asked whether Flo could wear my dress. I couldn’t say no. But I wasn’t happy saying yes.
“You’ll have other opportunities to perform,” said Marvin.
But no such opportunities ever came about.
I was inconsolable.
“Have faith,” said Marvin. “You must have faith.”