The Commotion - After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye

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

The Commotion

The commotion had to do with Eugenie. She was out of sight, but always around.

The commotion had to do with Marvin’s procrastination over completing his new album.

The commotion had to do with Marvin’s fear that his new album would, like the two albums before it, bomb.

The commotion had to do with Marvin’s anxiety that, having been out of the country for so long, his American fans had forgotten him.

The commotion had to do with Marvin’s realization that he was not willing to give up either the dream of his reunited family or his relationship with Eugenie.

The commotion was about Marvin’s insistence that the kids continue at their school in Belgium while I insisted that they go back home.

The commotion had to do with my recognition that it was over. I could no longer rationalize or overlook the truth. The truth was brutal. The truth was staring me in the face.

A compromise was struck. We would spend Christmas in Ostend and then talk about what would happen next.

It was a happy holiday for Frankie and Nona. Frankie’s English accent was fading. Nona never left her father’s side. That Christmas we shopped for toys, cooked a great meal, and watched the snow fall. The beach turned white. We all ran out and built a snowman. The kids named him Luke. A lifetime later, Nona would record a tribute to her dad, a memory of that Christmas, in a song called “Snowman.” She co-wrote it with Prince, who produced the track.

For my part, I made it through the holidays, but barely. In my heart and head, the commotion built. The renewed hostility became unbearable. Marvin would not let me forget my past betrayals. Nor would he let go of Eugenie. I would not let go of my fury. Neither one of us would let go of the drugs. The love had not ended—it never would—but toxins, both chemical and mental, overwhelmed it.

In 1981, Marvin and I attempted another of our many reconciliations. We were traveling back and forth between Ostend and London. Marvin had friends there and I loved London. Nona and Frankie didn’t care where we went as long as we were together. The ferry ride from Ostend to Great Britain was always fun, docking in Dover, with the exception of this one trip. Around that time, we were smoking something called “temple balls.” About the size of a mandarin orange and wrapped in tissue, the temple ball was a mixture of hashish, opium marbling, and cocaine. If I did not know better I could have mistaken it for an orb of granite. We would chip off a bit, add it to tobacco, roll it up and smoke it. At first it was a great high. We had no worries other than making sure our children were okay.

One particular evening, we had left Ostend and were out on the deck of the ferry. It was cold, damp, and dark. It never occurred to me that this time of year that I would need warmer clothing than the red pashmina I had brought along. I was eager to have a smoke. About halfway through the ferry ride and after several deep drags of the smoke, I felt a stabbing sensation in my back. I tried to shake it off.

On the dimly lit deck, Marvin took one look at me and knew something wasn’t right. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m in pain,” I said barely audible. I tried to inhale the sea air and couldn’t catch a decent breath. My breathing was shallow. My lungs felt heavy. Then, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe at all.

Marvin was alarmed. The kids were crying. Marvin tried to lay me on my back. I fought him to sit back up. Marvin left me with the kids to search for a doctor on board. He became frantic when he returned and found my lips blue and me pale as a ghost. The pressure on my chest was unbearable. I just knew I was having a heart attack. All I could think was that this is what my children and Marvin would remember of me—dying on a boat. I realized that I was not invincible, not immortal and that having used drugs for most of my life they were going to kill me.

Marvin began slapping me on the back. He held me. He screamed at me to breathe.

The English Channel was treacherous. The air was frigid. I felt like I was in a block of ice. I was finally carried into a warm, enclosed area. Marvin and the crewman pounded on my back. It worked, with great effort, I could get air into my lungs.

Marvin, Nona, and Frankie started massaging my back, legs, and arms to get my circulation going. It was the longest boat ride of our lives. Their love and fear of losing me kept me alive that night. Did I learn my lesson? Not really. I gave up temple balls but like most addicts, I thought I could just do other drugs and I’d be fine. I continued using cocaine and smoking European cigarettes. Did I see a doctor? No. I was still in denial. I felt grateful to be alive but not grateful enough to stop knowingly using poison. We were relieved to get off the ferry in Dover. We drove to London and Marvin immediately put me to bed. We all slept in the same bed that night.

When I made arrangements to return home with the kids, Marvin did not protest. Cousaert and CBS were pressuring him to complete his album, long overdue. He realized that his family had become a distraction.

“This marriage,” he told me, “is the biggest distraction of all.”

“So we’ll end it,” I said. “I’ll file the minute I get home.”

“You’ll have no money.”

“You’ll have no peace until you find money to feed your children.”

“Get money from Rick James. Or, better yet, ask your mother to let you turn some of her tricks. Share in the wealth.”

“Is that what you really want to say?”

“Yes, because that’s who you and your mother really are.”

The flight home was long and sad. The children were more confused than ever.

“Why aren’t we gonna be living with Daddy in Europe?” asked Nona. “I thought we were all gonna live together.”

“You’ll be back to visit him,” I assured her. “Daddy loves you. He hates being far away from you, but he has to work.”

Back home, I realized that I had to do what I had long avoided: I had to initiate the arduous legal process of divorcing the man who, despite everything, haunted me day and night.

Despite the haunting, despite the fog of confusion caused by a combination of too many highs and too many lows—drugs followed by depression leading to more drugs to relieve the depression—I did what I had to do.

Divorce was inevitable. I couldn’t help but think of Here, My Dear, the epic album dramatizing the collapse of his marriage to Anna. That album was barely in the stores for a year when my marriage to Marvin was crumbling. As early as 1979, I had decided to serve Marvin divorce papers when he was in bankruptcy court. But his financial woes had so devastated him that I couldn’t add on to his misery. He thanked me for backing off. “Now I know how much you really love me,” he had said.

Then we reconciled for a short while but soon were back at it. My mother kept insisting that I move forward with the legalities. She was right when she said that I wasn’t being fair to my children or myself.

“You’re killing yourself, Jan,” she said. “You need to make a clean break.”

In January 1982, I finally filed the papers. Marvin failed to show at the custody hearings. He didn’t even bother to send a lawyer, but that didn’t stop the judge from granting Marvin custody. When he said that, I thought I was having a heart attack. My lawyer quickly responded, telling the judge that, given Marvin’s crazed lifestyle, he was incapable of caring for these children. The mother was present and ready to assume responsibility. After some legal wrangling, the judge rescinded and granted me full custody.

When Marvin found out, he accused me of doing what Anna had done—denying him access to his children and looking to destroy his life.

By the spring of 1982, Marvin and I were finally divorced. I viewed the decree with deep sadness. How could I view our relationship as anything other than an abysmal failure?

At this point, living in Ostend and preoccupied with completing his album, Marvin didn’t bother to contest. He also didn’t bother—or was unable—to pay the court-ordered child-support payments. Between the millions he owed the IRS and the complications of his old obligations to Motown and his new obligations to CBS, he was still insolvent. The kids and I received nothing.

Even Marvin’s parents, who had never been supportive of me, expressed sympathy by sending me a few hundred dollars. From time to time my daddy Earl helped out. My father Slim was nowhere to be found. My mother Barbara provided shelter and help with the children. The house on the strand at Hermosa Beach remained headquarters.

The fact that Marvin and I were divorced was neither surprising nor shocking. It had been long in coming and, for at least a short while, provided some relief. The struggle to stop struggling was finally over. The trip to Europe proved that, no matter how much Marvin might have longed for reconciliation, reconciliation was never going to happen. Our shared history was too dark, the pain of the past too much. And yet in spite of the court’s final decree, the relationship between Marvin and me was far from final. Beyond the bond of sharing children, we shared a unique and permanent knowledge of each other. Marvin knew my heart. I knew Marvin’s soul. No legal document could or ever would alter that understanding.

“Marvin is having a hard time over there,” I told Rick James.

We were having dinner in Beverly Hills. Seeing Rick, a loyal friend, always lifted my spirits. Free of romantic entanglements, our relationship comforted us both.

“How do you know he’s having a hard time?” asked Rick.

“He called last night.”

“What! After everything that went down, after all the messes that y’all made, he’s still calling you?”


“I don’t get it.”

“After the divorce, I knew he’d keep calling the kids,” I said, “but I didn’t think he’d want to talk to me. And I didn’t think that I’d want to hear his voice. But that didn’t last for long. He knows that I know what he’s going through and how he’s suffering.”

“Suffering about what?” asked Rick. “CBS is letting him make whatever record he wants to make.”

“That’s the problem. He isn’t sure what kind of record to make. He’s still crying for the planet. He takes his role as an artist seriously, Rick. You’ve heard him say that.”

“What he needs to see right now,” said Rick, “is money. Money for you and the kids.”

“He’s always cared more about art than money.”

“Please, Jan, you’re defending a man who’s treating you like shit.”

“Believe me, I’ve treated him like shit—more times that I can count. Look, I’m not defending Marvin. I’m just saying that when it comes to making music, he suffers. He really wants his music to have the right effect.”

“Like all of us, he wants a hit.”

“I know,” I said, “but he wants a hit that means something and says something.”

“Look, baby, Marvin is a flat-out genius. He’ll find the fuckin’ hit, and I have no doubt that it’ll say something. Meanwhile, though, you gotta take care of yourself. We both gotta cut back on all this fuckin’ blow and shit and get ourselves straight.”

“I want to,” I said.

“We need to,” said Rick.

Yet the need was overwhelmed by the compulsion. Like with Marvin in Belgium, we’d attempt to get clean only to see it last little more than a few hours or a few days.

The word from Belgium was that, after over a year of experimenting with different melodic and lyrical motifs, Marvin had finally hit upon a song he liked. Despite the divorce filing, we were still speaking. And when Marvin called to play me an early version over the phone, I was struck by the title, “Sexual Healing.” The music brought me joy and its message brought me hope.

“You like it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, flattered that he was asking my opinion. “I love it. I think it’s a hit, it’s a smash!” I was genuinely happy for him.

“You think my fans will dig it?”

“They’ll love it.”

“But will they understand it?”

“I understand it,” I said. “Yes, they’ll understand it. I love the title. I love it when you sing, ‘Sexual healing is something that’s good for me.’”

“You know that I’m singing to you, dear. The song’s about our healing. I know that we can …”

“Don’t get started. We can’t go down that road again. We’ve lied to ourselves too much in the past. It’s not good for us. And it only hurts the kids.”

“It hurts me, Jan, if you don’t hear what I’m trying to say in these songs. CBS wanted a party record. They didn’t want any of my personal shit. So I gave them a party record. But if you listen closely, baby, you know I’m talking to you. I call this one tune ‘Rockin’ after Midnight.’ It seems like it’s about sex, and it is, but I say what I mean. I say, ‘I’m gonna be in love with you for the rest of my days.’ In another one, ‘Turn on Some Music,’ I sing about how I still dream of you every night, how I’ve missed you with all my heart, and how I have to have you back. ‘Third World Girl’ is Jamaica. I’m thinking about Bob Marley, but I’m also thinking of our times there. You were pregnant. If you listen to ‘Joy,’ Jan, you’ll hear me say that there’s joy in a sweet word, there’s joy in a dream come true, and there’s joy in every thought I have of you.”

The more Marvin insisted that I was still serving as his muse, the more compelling the music he played, the more my resistance started to melt again.

“I’m calling the record Midnight Love,” he said, “because midnight is when I’m feeling that love. In ‘Sexual Healing,’ midnight is when I’m on the phone, like I am now, calling you in Los Angeles, so far away.

“It’s taken me a long time to record the last song,” he continued, “but I found the right one. ‘My Love Is Waiting’ is about us getting together again. It looks back at what I’ve been doing since I got to Belgium and began this whole recording process. And what have I been doing, Jan? I’ve been praying. I’ve been staying in faith. The song says how I’ve been making plans to get back to you. I’m saying how I missed you. Listen to what I’m singing …”

Marvin put on the rough mix of the music. He was singing about how it’d been so long since we’d been together, but now he was going to make up for it. Now he was going to make our love fresh and new.

Over the transatlantic line, the message came through loud and clear. I was moved, my resistance shattered. Marvin’s music always had my heart believing what my mind would not accept: that his heart was pure. I was in tears.

“It sounds beautiful, Marvin. It always sounds beautiful. But what about the bitch?” I asked, referring to Eugenie.

“She was nothing but a toy,” he claimed.

“I know how it feels to be used and abused.”

“We abused each other,” Marvin admitted.

“You and I, or you and your girlfriend over there?”

“She is not the other mother of my children. She is not the love of my life. She does not, as an English poet once wrote, ‘haunt my days and chill my dreaming nights.’ You are the one, Jan, doing the haunting and chilling.”

“Who is the poet?” I asked.

“John Keats. I learned about him when I was living in England. Some critics think he wrote it to a woman who had rejected him, as you have rejected me. Our divorce is killing me.”

“The divorce was something we mutually agreed upon,” I said.

“I never wanted it, Jan. You know that. All I want is you. All Keats wanted was this woman. But he was dying. He only had a year or two left to live.”

“You’re not dying, Marvin,” I said. “Your new songs don’t give me the impression of a dying man. It’s a man who’s looking for healing.”

“A man,” added Marvin, “who’s looking for his family—and for the woman who makes sense of everything …”

“The woman who makes him crazy, and makes herself crazy in the process.”

“Love is always crazy,” said Marvin. “Love never makes sense. But this new record does make sense, Jan. You can hear it in the songs, and the songs are all about us. We make sense. You and Nona and Bubs and I together all make sense. I want you to come back and bring the children. We can live in Europe—away from all the distractions. They can go to school here. We can be happy here. It’s what I want. It’s what you want. In working on this record, I realize it’s what I’ve been working for. You have led me to the music, and the music must lead you back to me. Listen to the music and you’ll understand. Listen to the music, Jan, and you’ll know what to do. The music never lies. Our healing is in the music.”