After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
The summer of 1981.
I was excited, ecstatic even, because Nona and I were packing our bags. We were flying to France to meet Marvin and Bubby, whom we hadn’t seen for over a year.
That year had been hell. Marvin had fallen to new lows, and so had I. Several times he nearly overdosed on drugs. Friends visiting him in London were shocked at his appearance. He was thin. He went off on rants. When he called home he was sometimes loving, sometimes crazed, sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing, sometimes remorseful, sometimes resentful, sometimes incoherent, sometimes clear as a bell.
I mirrored him at every turn. I was just as uneven, just as stoned, just as angry and afraid, just as desperate to stay away, just as desperate to reunite. I had sex only to remind myself that I was still desirable.
Marvin had my son. Marvin had my heart. I was still in love with him. He was still in love with me. We spent a fortune on phone calls. Weeks would go by when he would torture me by not allowing Bubby to speak to me. Other times he would speak of how he could no longer live without me.
Moving about Great Britain, he was very covert. He feared, I believe, that I would hire someone to bring my child back to me. But I would never traumatize my son like that. Marvin kept reassuring me that the nanny was taking good care of Bubs.
The reassurance fell on deaf ears. For most of the time, I was beside myself. I should have sought the help of doctors. I should have sought the help of lawyers—besides the ones who claimed the situation was hopeless. I should have, should have, should have … The should-haves were maddening.
My head was high, my heart was heavy, my thinking cloudy. For all the insanity that preceded my trip to France, for all the evidence that argued that reconciliation with Marvin Gaye was not even a remote possibility, I sought reconciliation. Marvin sought reconciliation. We were honestly convinced that this time, for the sake of our souls and for the souls of our children, we would make it work. We chased that idea round the world.
It didn’t matter that he had bottomed out in England. It didn’t matter that he had spent the last month flirting with self-destruction. What mattered was that, according to everyone close to Marvin—and according to Marvin himself—he was on an upswing. A small-time promoter from Belgium had visited him in London and convinced him to leave England. That man, Freddy Cousaert, had brought Marvin to Ostend, a subdued Belgian city of eighty thousand, and set him up in an apartment overlooking the North Sea. Like Stephen Hill and Jeffrey Kruger before him, Cousaert had convinced himself that he could manage Marvin. Marvin had convinced Cousaert to give him what he needed most—money and an off-the-beaten-track place to regain his health. Cousaert was certain he had Marvin in his back pocket. He held up Marvin like a trophy.
In the face of utter confusion, who didn’t want to cling to certainty?
I was certain that my love for Marvin—and his love for me—was the only thing that would save us from annihilation. I was certain that once the family was reunited, minds and hearts would be healed.
I had heard a change in Marvin’s voice. Ever since he’d moved to Ostend, he had grown close to Cousaert, his wife, and their two daughters. He had been reminded of the joy of a warm and loving family.
“Being here in this peaceful community with these peaceful people,” he told me, “has reminded me how much I need peace. I need the peace of seeing my children play together, the peace that comes with being with the one woman I cherish above all others. That’s you, dear. That’s always been you.”
“I want to believe you,” I said.
“I am believing that God has intervened to send me to a place of healing, Jan. It’s a blessing to be away from London and all its pollution. You’ll love it here. You’ll love the quiet. You’ll love the people. You’ll love how I’ve cut out the pipe. You’ll see how I’ve cut down on the other stuff. I’m breathing in fresh air. I’m running on the beach. I’m eating good food. I’m meditating in the morning and praying all the day through. I go to sleep early. I’m in a sound and sane place. Maybe that’s because I’ve left Motown and all the madness.”
After Motown released In Our Lifetime? prematurely—and without his permission—Marvin kept his vow and quit the label. Eventually he was signed to CBS Records through the efforts of Larkin Arnold. He was now cutting a new record in Belgium.
“It’s taking me a while to figure out what I want to say,” he confessed, “but I’m determined to do something meaningful. I also want to score big. I want to prove to the world—and myself—that I’m still capable of making hit records.”
I understood. It had been nearly five years since his last hit, “Got to Give It Up.” His records since then—Here, My Dear and In Our Lifetime?—had been brilliant but strange. While the critics damned them, the public ignored them. For all of Marvin’s philosophical leanings, he remained a competitive artist. He didn’t like being off the charts for long.
“It will come back together,” Marvin told me. “My music, my peace of mind, my family. You’ll see all this, dear. You’ll feel all this when you come to Europe. You’ll come as soon as this summer tour is over.”
Marvin’s band, led by his brother-in-law Gordon Banks, had been living in Belgium, working on the new record, and rehearsing for a series of gigs around Europe. I later learned that the tour was more dysfunctional than Marvin had led me to believe. Although he had dramatically decreased his drug intake, there were still times when he reverted to his old ways.
Cousaert forcefully spun the story to the press that, under his management, Marvin had foresworn all stimulants and become engaged in a rigorous program of rehabilitation. In interviews Marvin took this same tack. He convinced himself, just as he convinced me, that he had turned a new page.
I needed to turn a new page. I needed to get off drugs. I needed to see my son. I needed to believe that this long separation would soon end. Even though I had heard these words before, and even though those words had proven misleading, I needed to believe Marvin when he said, “Replace your fears with faith. Have faith that we have weathered the worst of the storm. Be assured that nothing is more important to me than making sure that my son sees his mother and I see my daughter and my wife.”
Nona and I boarded the long flight to Paris. We were too excited to sleep. We couldn’t stop thinking of finally reuniting with Marvin and Frankie.
It was Marvin’s idea to meet us at Charles de Gaulle Airport and then drive back to Ostend. After clearing customs, we started looking for Marvin and Frankie. They were nowhere to be seen. I started to panic.
Has Marvin changed his mind?
Is this a trick?
Is this whole venture another terrible mistake?
Have I fooled myself into believing that things could be different?
For ten minutes, Nona and I wandered around the airport.
“Why isn’t Daddy here?” asked Nona, crying.
“He will be, honey,” I said. “He’s just a little late.”
“He’s a lot late,” Nona insisted.
The search continued. I put on a good face, but my panic deepened.
Is this another one of Marvin’s devious manipulations? Is this another one of his cruel tricks?
“It’s Daddy!” screamed Nona loud enough for people to stare.
Yes, there he was: he was standing at the top of an escalator. Frankie was next to him. Marvin was wearing a white suit and colorful knitted skullcap. His eyes were covered with dark aviator sunglasses. He looked beautiful. With his hands in his pockets, he looked detached. Frankie was jumping up and down. Nona raced up the escalator into her father’s arms. I followed and gathered up my son who, in his adorable English accent, was screaming, “Mum! Mum!” I was crying, Nona was crying. Marvin’s distant demeanor broke down. Now he was crying. Now the four of us were joined together in a huge hug. No one would let go.
The warmth was offset by the presence of Freddy Cousaert, who was waiting outside the terminal behind the wheel of a blue Mercedes-Benz. I immediately felt his disapproval. It was only at Marvin’s insistence that Nona and I had come to Europe. Cousaert feared that we would distract Marvin from work on his new record. Cousaert feared that we would lure Marvin back to America. The new manager’s agenda was to keep Marvin in Ostend and have him operate out of Europe.
Cousaert drove us into Paris and dropped us at the George V hotel. We were thrilled to be together at long last. In our suite, we ordered room service. The kids jumped on the bed and we all played hide-and-seek. That night Marvin and I made beautiful love.
The next day, on the drive from Paris to Ostend, Cousaert said, “Marvin has found peace here in Europe. To maintain his sanity, he must stay in Ostend.”
When it came to Marvin, I felt that Cousaert was selfish, much like Stephen Hill had been. He wanted Marvin all for himself.
“We’re like brothers,” said Cousaert. “We have adopted him into our family. At this point in his life, he is closer to me than anyone. He knows that my only concern is his welfare.”
I doubted that.
“Freddy likes to trip about masterminding my career,” Marvin whispered to me. “I let him. Meanwhile, he has provided me with food and shelter in this small city far from London or Los Angeles. It’s cool. You’ll like it.”
I did like Ostend. The place possessed a certain elegance. Marvin’s apartment on the strand afforded an expansive view of the North Sea. It was calming to watch the ships sail by. The children were thrilled to be together, and Bubby was thrilled to be with me, Nona thrilled to be with her daddy.
The four of us spent that evening together. The feeling was warm and loving. It was a feeling that each of us had been seeking ever since our family was torn apart.
“This is the dream I told you about,” Marvin said to me. “This is the dream that I swore would come true.”
That night Marvin and I made love again. The passion was renewed. So was the sweetness. Body and soul, we were one. The lovemaking was powerful enough to erase the pain from the past.
“I forgive you,” said Marvin, holding me in his arms. “Can you ever forgive me?”
“I can,” I said, kissing Marvin’s eyes. “But can you really forgive me?”
“Yes,” he said.
I heard his words. But in my heart, I did not feel that I deserved his forgiveness.
The fantasy of a happy family was further fulfilled the next morning over breakfast. That afternoon we strolled on the promenade. We went to the beach, to the park, to the Chinese restaurant. Nona and Frankie were holding hands, Marvin and I were arm in arm. The city moved along at a satisfyingly slow pace. The air was fresh and clean. The citizenry was fashionably attired: attractive couples with their pedigree dogs, bikers in professional gear, joggers in flashy outfits.
To me, the world felt new. Marvin spoke about biofeedback and the amazing ways that, drug-free, he’d been able to use his mind to heal his body.
I was delighted to hear Marvin talk this way. He’d been reading books on metaphysics. He’d also gone back to Scripture. We had endless discussions about Psalm 91 and how God is our ultimate protection:
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”
Something was happening in Ostend, and in the first week that something felt powerful and positive.
Then came our second week together. The kids had gone to sleep. Marvin and I, still in chilled-out mode, were looking through a large book of the art of James Ensor, a radical expressionistic painter from Ostend who built a reputation in the first half of the twentieth century. Marvin had visited a local museum that featured his work when he was struck by a self-portrait, reproduced in this book, of Ensor wearing a floral and feathered woman’s hat.
“Who does this make you think of?” Marvin asked.
“Your father,” I said, trying not to laugh.
Marvin scowled. “I knew you’d say that.”
“Then why’d you ask me?”
“To test you. To see if you’d jab me.”
“Marvin, let’s not start up.”
“I asked you a question and you answered. I have your answer.”
“I don’t want to fight, Marvin.”
“Then why did you mention my father?” he asked.
“Because that’s who came to mind. It was an honest reaction.”
“And you honestly wanted to manipulate my mood.”
“I wouldn’t use the word manipulate,” I said.
“And why not?”
“Stop! I’m not having this fight over a hat in a painting.”
“You wouldn’t know anything about hypocrisy, would you, Jan? In the history of our relationship, you’ve never been hypocritical, have you?”
“Yes, I have. But I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to be attacked.”
“Now I’m the one who’s attacking! That’s a joke. This whole thing started with your attack on me and my father.”
I didn’t bother to reply. There was no winning. I stayed silent, hoping Marvin’s combative mood would pass.
“Kiss me,” I finally said.
He did just that, but as he did there was a knock on the door. He went to answer.
“Cool Black,” he said to the man standing there. “Brother, you are right on time. Jan, come meet my man Cool Black.”
For all of Cousaert’s talk about Marvin being drug-free in Ostend, Cool Black was Marvin’s drug dealer from London. I watched Cool Black sell Marvin a supply of temple ball—opium and hashish. The men mixed it with cocaine, put it in a pipe, and lit up. Marvin took the first hit.
“Jan,” he said as he offered the pipe, “you wanted to change the subject. This is the very instrument to affect that change. This will change us in a hurry. Have a puff.”
I said yes. I accepted the pipe and joined in on the high. The pattern was set: from time to time in the weeks that followed, Marvin and I indulged. It happened at night when the kids were off to sleep. It happened because we both wanted it to happen. It happened because bonding through stimulants had always been essential to our relationship. It happened because the highs allowed us to cover up our conflicts and avoid the bitter fights. It happened until the highs led to even more bitter fights.
The bitterest fight of all occurred when, a month or so after arriving in Belgium, Marvin and I took the kids to Paris for a weekend. It was October and the weather had turned crisp. We were walking over a bridge that spans the Seine River on our way to the D’Orsay Museum. Marvin was explaining how this fabulous nineteenth-century train station had been converted into an elegant repository for some of the world’s great art. He led us to another strange painting by James Ensor called In the Conservatory. In the picture Ensor showed how musicians and critics were ridiculing Richard Wagner, the German composer, whose work they considered too far-out.
“The cat was ahead of his time,” said Marvin. “Ensor knew Wagner was a genius, but the people around him in this painting think he’s full of shit. They’re too straight to understand Wagner’s genius. What you’re looking at is a man misunderstood in his own time, a man misjudged by his colleagues and scorned by his critics. So what does Ensor have Wagner do in this painting? He has Wagner put his fingers in his ears. Wagner is blocking out everything the detractors have to say. He’s ignoring the wrongheaded critics and jealous musicians. Wagner knows he’s a genius, so the hell with the rest of the world. If Ensor were still around, he’d put me in that painting. He’d draw me putting my fingers in my ears rather than listen to the people who called Here, My Dear self-indulgent and In Our Lifetime? incomprehensible.”
“People are going to love your new album, Daddy, aren’t they?” asked Nona.
“Of course they are, Pie. It’s going to be the biggest record ever because I’m bringing back the love. You guys brought the love to me from Los Angeles and I’m putting it right into the record. It’s gonna be nothing but love, love, love.”
“What are you going to call it, Daddy?”
“Maybe Nothing but Love, Love, Love. Maybe Love from Nona and Frankie and Jan. Maybe just The Family of Love.”
While the record was being slowly put together, a theme hadn’t yet emerged. Marvin continued to search for a title, an overall theme to tie the songs together.
“Does the record have a story, Daddy?” asked Nona.
“Of course, Pie. All records have stories.”
“So what is your story about?”
“It’s all about Daddy getting better.”
In spite of the introduction of opium into the mix, Marvin’s days were calmer and his nights less frantic. He was devoting time to our children and had even enrolled them in a local school where they wore uniforms and began learning French. He and I were fighting, but in between the verbal battles were frequent long-lasting lovemaking sessions. During those moments, past regrets receded, future fears faded, and we were able to embrace the present.
“Nothing matters but this holy now,” Marvin whispered into my ear. “In this precious now, we are in perfect harmony. If we stay in the now, we need never be afraid again. In the now, our love is eternal.”
It was in the now, during a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, when all was peaceful for our handsome family of four, delighted by the sights and sounds of the fall afternoon in the most beautiful city in the world. We walked by the old bookstalls by the Seine. We bought croissants. The kids ate ice cream. Marvin and I sipped strong French-press coffee from demitasse cups. We stopped in an old-school record store that carried an impressive inventory of vintage American jazz. Marvin spotted a long-play vinyl album by Slim Gaillard called Opera in Vout, featuring cover art by David Stone Martin, the great American illustrator. He showed it to me with pride.
“Look, kids,” he told Nona and Bubby, “this is your famous grandfather, Slim.”
Marvin got the shop owner to put on Slim’s records. The scat singing got the kids to dancing and laughing.
Back out on the streets, the sun was sinking behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which sat alongside the Seine. Marvin stopped to praise the beauty of the amazing architecture.
As day turned to night, Marvin was filled with praise. He was in his God space, where there was room for everyone. He spoke of his gratitude for everyone in his life. “Everyone has a purpose,” he said. “Everyone carries a gift. Everyone can have a positive influence, as long as we are thinking positively.”
His positive thinking was infectious. The kids had never been happier. I was able to relax again, relieved that Marvin was in good spirits. The mind games had been put to rest—at least for the moment.
We reentered the elegant George V hotel and were waiting for the elevator to our suite when suddenly a woman came up behind Marvin.
She was young—a few years younger than me—and, from my perspective, not attractive.
“You told me you’d call me yesterday,” she told Marvin, obviously upset.
“No,” he retorted. “I said I’d call you tomorrow.”
“Who is this?” I asked Marvin, who didn’t answer. Turning to her and looking her dead in the eye, I asked, “Who are you?”
She didn’t reply.
“Is this your Dutch girlfriend?” I asked, fuming.
“This is Eugenie,” Marvin finally said. “Jan, this isn’t the time …”
“You kids take the elevator upstairs,” I said.
The kids got on the elevator and Marvin followed.
I turned to the woman.
“Step back, bitch,” I said between my teeth, “or I will fuck you up.”
Eugenie stepped back.
“Why are you here? Don’t you see this is a family?”
“Marvin asked me to come here,” said Eugenie. “He also told me to come to Ostend next week.”
“I don’t care what Marvin said. Just stay away. Just stay the fuck away from us.”
When I got back to the suite, I told Marvin that he must be desperate, that his taste was slipping.
He said none of this would have happened had we stayed together.
“I can’t go into all that,” I said. “Not now. I don’t want to fight in front of the kids. Just make sure I never see her pasty face again.”