After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
I watched Marvin make his new record. Since meeting me four years earlier, this was the first music he was making where I wasn’t his muse. This time—except for one song—it was all about Anna.
Marvin was lost in the memories of a marriage that had fallen apart, even as he reassured me that he was completely devoted to me, Nona, and Bubby.
I was now twenty-one; Marvin was thirty-eight. We adored our two young children. We adored each other. In spite of the psychological challenges we both faced—including a growing dependence on drugs to beat back depression—we were more deeply in love than ever.
Our dream was to live out our life free of drama and enjoy simple happiness in our Hidden Hills home.
“The dream can be realized,” Marvin told me, “once this divorce is behind me and we can get married.”
His divorce from Anna had been a ferocious battle, in and out of the courtroom, dragging on for months. Finally, though, there was hope for resolution.
A judge had issued a final decree, ordering Marvin to pay an exorbitant amount of money for child and spousal support. Marvin’s accountants had proven, though, that he was broke.
The judge was not convinced. He stated that as an enormously popular recording artist, Marvin was still capable of substantial earnings. With that in mind, it was decided that, to satisfy the terms of the settlement, Marvin would give Anna all the profits from his next record.
Marvin embraced the notion.
“When I refused to go to the studio to record,” Marvin told me, “Anna was the only one strong enough to get me in there. So it makes perfect sense that, even at the end of our marriage, she still has the power to make me work. The irony is that the music I intend to make will have no commercial value. I will not contribute to the Gordy wealth in any way. If I have to make an inferior album to satisfy the divorce decree, so be it.”
But as I watched Marvin begin to work in the Sunset studio, I saw proof of what I had long known to be true—Marvin Gaye was incapable of making inferior music. Once he started to write and sing, all prior agendas flew out the window. All he could do was follow the dictates of his heart.
“Not every song is a hit,” he said, “but every song does tell a story.”
He ignored Motown’s demands that he make a commercially viable follow-up record to “Got to Give It Up.” In fact, as he worked on this divorce settlement record, he banned the Motown suits from his studio. Aside from myself, his engineer Art Stewart, and a few select backup musicians, no one was allowed inside.
The record became an obsession. Within days of observing Marvin putting together the pieces of this new music, I saw that it was evolving into nothing less than a saga. Marvin was not writing three-minute songs; he was composing a grand suite in the style of What’s Going On in which one melodic motif seamlessly merged into another. The motifs were chapters in a novel. The subject was his long and tumultuous marriage to Anna.
When he showed me some of his original song titles, like “You Never Really Cared,” “Fourteen Years of Nothing,” “A Messed Up Mind and a Pocketbook to Match,” and one referring to me—“Younger, Prettier and Twice the Woman”—I told him that he had gone too far. He had to tone down his attitude and become more subtle—which is just what he did.
In the final version, he started out the story with a musical creation of his marriage to Anna. Marvin restated his vows and sang of the beautiful optimism that surrounded the couple. But that optimism was short-lived. There was infidelity. There was jealousy. There were breakups and breakdowns. There was tremendous anger.
But as I watched Marvin sing of his anger at Anna, I saw the anger dissipate. I heard him sing how anger could only make him sick; how he must purge himself of rage by expressing his rage in song. And yet that expression was far from furious. It was poetry. Miraculously, Marvin transformed anger into beauty.
In telling the tale of not only his marriage but of the divorce proceedings themselves, he asked Anna, “Is that enough?” I sensed that the question referred not only to the amount of money she was extracting from him, but the emotional damage they had done to each other. He detailed those times when she called the cops, the nasty legal skirmishes, the vicious fights in court. She may have won the battle, but Marvin warned her that “Daddy will win the war.” He was convinced that she wanted to “break a man.” But he wouldn’t permit it. He wouldn’t let her win.
Remembering that Anna herself once used this phrase, he named one song “You Can Leave, but It’s Gonna Cost You.”
While much of the record was about money, it was more about the mystery surrounding the loss of love, the sentiment expressed in the motif of “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?”
Yet I was convinced that the answer to that question was never. Marvin never stopped loving Anna. I was sure of that because of the song that sat at the center of the suite—“Anna’s Song.” This was the high point. The passion with which Marvin shouted her name—“Anna! Anna!”—revealed the passion of a man forever bound to this woman, no matter how bitter their separation.
“With this record,” Marvin told me, “I’ll be done with her.”
I knew better, but didn’t argue. I saw that Marvin wanted to feel that he was free, but the record itself said otherwise. The enormous creative output proved that Marvin was—and would always be—tied to Anna. In fact, it was the only time in his career that he had written enough material on a single topic to fill two LPs. The record that delineated his relationship to Anna was twice as long as What’s Going On.
Even when she was at odds with Marvin, Anna still motivated him to work. According to Marvin, Anna browbeat him. In some sense, this new album was a response to that browbeating. I took another approach entirely. When Marvin was reluctant to go into the studio, I’d say, “How can you deny the world these brilliant songs? How can you keep these beautiful melodies to yourself? You need to share. You to need to express all these amazing ideas that live inside you.”
In the case of the divorce album, he did just that. He wrote with fearless honesty and complete sincerity. He didn’t sing a note that he didn’t mean. He didn’t write a lyric that didn’t expose his raw feelings.
For all the lamentations about how Anna had wronged him, he boldly confessed his own wrongs. In a funky song he called “Time to Get It Together,” he addressed his weaknesses, singing about how he had wasted time by blowing coke up his nose and chasing down midnight hoes. He declared the end of that chapter in his life and swore to do better.
It was only love, he realized, that would make him better. In the midst of his divorce dispute, he sang “Everybody Needs Love,” a quiet prayer for the love of Jesus, the love required by everyone from “a beggar or even a superstar.”
In the symbol of a sparrow, Marvin saw the source of his creative energy. “Sparrow” became a song in which he elongated his prayer, asking the bird to reveal life’s deepest secrets—“sing before you fly away … sing to me, Marvin Gaye.”
I watched as Marvin flew away on the poetic wings of the sparrow into outer space, where he created “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” a funked-up fantasy about escaping into a world of musical make-believe.
In the end, though, I was gratified to be included in this long-form composition. When Marvin fell back to earth, he was finally able to look away from his obsession with Anna and turn to me. I was there in the studio, sitting next to him, when he wrote the final song in this remarkable suite, “Falling in Love Again.”
“You are my muse,” he told me. “You are my happiness. I’ve lost out on love once, but I won’t lose twice. When someone real comes in, when someone you feel comes in, love is renewed. I am renewed. Once I turn in this record, I will be a new man. Our love will be born again.”
“What are you going to call it?” I asked.
“Dick Gregory gave me the title. He said, ‘Call it Here, My Dear.’ I will hand the album to Anna and say, ‘This is the record that the judge ordained. This is the record that our marriage made possible, the one that our divorce demanded. Here, my dear. This record belongs to you, but I belong to Jan.’”
I wanted to believe him but was moved to say, “I wonder whether you’ll ever belong to one woman and one woman alone?”
“You are that woman—I swear. How better to prove that than to ask for your hand in marriage?”
“You’ve asked before, Marvin.”
“And I’m asking again. The divorce is final. I’m free. We can do this. Marry me.”
I was thinking:
His words are pretty, but don’t let them deceive you. Don’t fool yourself into thinking he can defeat his demons. His faith is great, but his fears are greater. The strength of his spirit is under constant attack by his gnawing insecurities. He may seek happiness, but in fact he thrives in chaos. How will that ever change?
At the same time, I was praying:
He is sincere; he is in love with the God of love; he loves me; he loves our children; he has sworn off the crazy drama; he has dedicated himself to peace and harmony.
My thinking, no matter how delusional, was reinforced when Marvin, in fact, married me. It happened in October 10, 1977, in New Orleans while Marvin was on tour. The ceremony took place in the home of our friends Andrew and Laura Brown. Neither Marvin’s parents nor mine attended. A judge officiated. I wore a beige peasant blouse and a flowing skirt in dark maroon. Nona and Frankie wore matching outfits. Marvin and I wore expressions of fear, excitement, and love. I fell ill about an hour before the ceremony but made it through. In spite of being blasted on the best smoke and coke available in the state of Louisiana, Marvin and I functioned pretty well.
Being blasted was the norm. It had been the norm for Marvin since his Motown days back in the sixties. It had been the norm for me since moving in with my mom in the seventies. This was our culture. No one was chiding us or warning us or even mildly advising us about being blasted.
This was the white-out cocaine blizzard of the times.
We hung out with Richard Pryor at the Circle Star Theater in Northern California, and the blizzard was in full force. Richard was one of Marvin’s biggest fans. And Marvin loved him back.
“I wanna be Marvin when I grow up,” Richard told me.
And this, I thought to myself, is the great Richard Pryor talking!
So how could anything be wrong with Marvin when a genius like Richard Pryor looked at him as a god?
When Richard invited Marvin and me for an evening to watch bikini-clad dancers having sex with each other, I was introduced to the term “freaky deaky.” We became obsessed with the phrase and even named one of our puppies Freaky. The evening was uncomfortable for me, but I went along with the program. Who was I to object when Richard Pryor and Marvin Gaye were having so much fun?
When at a dinner party at Richard’s house he referred to me as “Peach Juice Johnson,” I accepted it as a term of endearment. When at that same party he got so coked up that he hit his wife over the head with a wine bottle and called everyone at the table “a fuckin’ whore” except me, Marvin laughed and said I should be flattered. That night we were the last to leave the party.
Coke may have been making Richard crazy, but I remained convinced that Marvin and I could handle our drugs.
After all, Marvin was getting health advice from Dick Gregory, another close friend. Dick spoke of Marvin in the same breath as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. Dick was not only funny, but a brilliant thinker and author. Seeing Marvin through Dick’s eyes, I fell in love with my husband all over again.
“His music has changed our world,” Dick told me. “And as long as he’s healthy, his music will become even more profound.”
Marvin accepted the regimen of vitamins and supplements from Dick and vowed to double his exercise and stop drugging.
The good times were not rare. Lem Barney and Mel Farr, his friends from the Detroit Lions, would come visit with their wonderful wives. They were the sweetest, most welcoming people in the world. Whenever they stayed with us in California, our mood turned happy and our burdens seemed to lift.
There were always good times when Marvin played the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, California. It was run by Don Jo Medlevine, who had once owned the Chez Paree in Chicago, where he had booked Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, and Wayne Newton. An old-fashioned tough guy, Don Jo adored Marvin. Marvin saw him as a second father—a kind and understanding father. Don Jo’s go-to gal and second-in-command was Barbara Stroum, who became my best friend. When things got rough in my life, I could always turn to Barbara for support. She was the surest and steadiest ally I’ve ever known. She also worked tirelessly for Marvin to make sure that his tours went smoothly, a thankless task. Her contribution to his success was great.
Don Jo loved to indulge Marvin. He once took us to Frank Sinatra’s retreat in Palm Springs. Frank wasn’t there, but we got a private tour. Don Jo also got Jilly Rizzo to work with Marvin on several dates. Marvin and I had met Jilly at Matteo’s, an Italian restaurant in Westwood. Given how Marvin revered Sinatra, he was thrilled to be associated with Jilly. He loved the link to the Rat Pack.
“Just like Jilly’s got Frank’s back,” said Don Jo, “he’ll have your back. You’re as good as gold, Marvin. Only the best for you.”
Maybe the best time of all was our belated but beautiful honeymoon in Jamaica. It would have been that much better had we not traveled with an entourage of a dozen or so hangers-on. No matter: it turned out to be a lovely respite from the road, a few days in paradise where just watching Nona and Bubby run along the beach in the golden glow of a spectacular sunset was enough to bring tears to our eyes. We were dedicated to making this marriage work. This blessed family would thrive.
Marvin rededicated himself to health. I did the same. Once off the road, Marvin was all about basketball games on the court of our Hidden Hills home. I was all about jogging, tennis, and swimming. We were both all about purging the toxins from our bodies with long fasts. After the fasts, we were all about consuming great quantities of raw vegetables and fruits.
Marvin was also all about cuddling with Nona and little Frankie and reassuring me that this time the change was permanent. The good times were here to stay.
In January 1978, the good times led us back to New Orleans and Super Bowl XII in the Superdome, where the party was just too great to resist. How could he not get stoned at the Super Bowl? I followed his lead, and soon we were flying high as Dallas crushed the Broncos. By then we had become friends with Cowboys Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, Tony Dorsett, and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Marvin loved hanging out with star athletes. Their company made him feel good.
“Good times are getting better,” said Marvin.
“Not so good,” said Marvin’s lawyer, who had gotten a telegram saying that federal marshals had seized his Sunset studio because of unpaid back taxes.
“Just pay the taxes,” said Marvin.
“With what?” asked the attorney. “You’re seven million dollars in debt. You’re about to lose everything—the house in Hidden Hills, the cars, the boats, the property.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“Before, I said that the wolf was at the door. But now the wolf is inside. He’s at your throat, Marvin.”
“‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,’” said Marvin. “Do you know who I’m quoting?”
“No,” said the lawyer.
“Isaiah eleven, six through nine. ‘The leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.’”
“I applaud your optimism, Marvin, but I think this is something more like a financial apocalypse.”
All this talk of an apocalypse frightened me.
“If the apocalypse comes,” said Marvin, “if, in fact, these are the last days, then the prophecy will be fulfilled. ‘I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet.’ The last book of the Bible is Revelation. The last great battle is Armageddon. Two lords wage the final war. The Lord of Love and the Lord of Evil. Who will win?”
“I suspect,” said the attorney, “the IRS.”