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

Mushrooms in the Desert

At seventeen, I was obsessed with a single question after meeting Marvin in the studio: Will he call me?

My desire to be ushered back into Marvin’s magical world was fueled by my unhappiness at home. Since leaving Ruth’s three years earlier, I had watched my mother struggle with sanity. Mom’s breakdown was precipitated by Earl’s infidelity.

It happened when I was fifteen and, on the spur of the moment, Mom hustled me into the car.

“Where are we going to, Mom?”

“Renee’s.”

Renee was Mom’s best friend.

“What’s happening at Renee’s?” I asked.

“Maybe I’m crazy, but something tells me she’s up to something.”

Earl’s yellow car was in Renee’s driveway. That’s all Mom needed to see. She raced back home and threw Earl’s clothes out on the street. Less than a year later, Renee gave birth to Earl’s child.

That was the year Mom retreated into inconsolable depression. Her only comfort came from her dog, Daisy, with whom she became obsessed. She could not stand to be without Daisy for a single second and lavished far more affection on the animal than she did on me, who, at the start of high school, had matured physically. Boys flocked to me, but they were just that—boys. I sought something more. When my teachers praised my intelligence, I began to understand that was the quality I sought in the opposite sex. When another teacher praised my sensitivity, I realized that was the very thing these boys lacked.

I made friends with some of the boys in the Fairfax High crowd, the Jackson brothers—Jackie, Jermaine, and Tito—and a few of their future wives. I also knew Veronica Porsche, who would later marry Muhammad Ali.

That was when I was fifteen.

At seventeen, the day after meeting Marvin, I was waiting for my phone to ring.

A million thoughts raced through my mind. I remembered how, only a week before meeting Marvin, I had encountered Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame. I had gone to a Lakers game at the Forum with my friend Destiny, and a couple of the players had invited us to an after-party at the Continental Hyatt House on the Sunset Strip. In a crowded room filled with people who—at least to our impressionable minds—appeared super sophisticated, we tried to be cool. When someone offered me a line, I presumed it was cocaine. Cocaine was hardly anything new to me, and I ingested it quickly. Within minutes, though, I felt sick. I heard someone say that the white powder was heroin, not cocaine. The next thing I knew I was in the bathroom, my head in the toilet, regurgitating like a child with the flu. But being young and healthy, I recovered quickly. I cleaned up and rejoined the party.

Destiny and I were hardly loose girls. We simply wanted to step out on the edge and see what a real after-party was all about. After becoming sick, though, the fascination ended and we decided to call it a night.

On the street in front of the hotel, we were looking to hail a cab, but none were available. That’s when Don Cornelius pulled up in a big sedan.

“Be happy to give you ladies a ride,” he offered.

Recognizing him immediately, we figured it would be safe. Don was the perfect gentleman.

On the night I had met Marvin, he too had been the perfect gentleman. That was well and good, but had he forgotten me?

The call came the next day. Mom picked up the receiver.

“Hi, Ed,” she said. “What’s happening?”

I ran over and tried to hear what Ed Townsend was telling my mom. I couldn’t make out his words, but I didn’t have to. Mom’s smile said everything.

When the call was over, Mom said, “Marvin wants to see you again.”

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“Wow.”

“And without me.”

My first reaction was that I wanted my mother to come along. I wanted the security of her company. My second reaction, though, was that I didn’t want her there. I was thrilled by the thought that Marvin wanted to see me alone.

“Is it okay for me to go alone?” I asked.

“Ed’s coming by to pick you up tonight. Ed will be there the whole time. It’s perfectly fine.”

During lunch, I asked a buddy of Bryant’s to sell me weed.

“I need a lid,” I said, “but a lid of your best stuff.”

Handing me a package wrapped in tinfoil, he assured me that the smoke was top grade. Showing up at the studio with my own dope would show Marvin that I was not a naïve schoolgirl. I was a sophisticated woman.

After school, I hurried home. I took a long time picking out my outfit. The last time I’d started off wearing braids. No braids tonight. Tonight I was letting my hair down.

“Don’t forget that Marvin’s a married man,” said Mom, a half hour before Ed arrived.

“Please, Mom. Am I supposed to believe that you never dated a married man? Besides, Ed told us that Marvin and his wife are separated.”

“I’m just looking out for you, sweetheart. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

I ignored my mother’s words and waited by the window. The minute Ed pulled up, I was out the door and in his car.

As soon as we walked through the doors of the studio, I felt myself safely and blissfully back in Marvin’s world. That world was about sound and beauty. He was making beautiful sounds with his voice, singing a chillingly pleading song in which he begged his baby to stay. Without you in bed beside me, he implored, sleep will never come.

As he sang, his eyes were closed. When he opened them, he looked directly at me, seated on a leather couch in the control room. Marvin was standing on the other side of the glass. His eyes were smiling. He sang for another twenty minutes; I didn’t move. It was just me, Ed, the engineer, and Marvin. Unlike last night, there were no other guests, no other mothers or young chicks looking to get next to Marvin.

When he finally took a break and came into the control room, he walked directly to me.

“I’m so happy you came,” he said. “I really wanted to see you again.”

“I brought you a gift.”

I handed him the lid.

“That’s really sweet of you,” he said. “Why don’t you roll us a jay?”

An experienced roller, I twisted up a joint in a few seconds and passed it to Marvin. He lit it up and exhaled. The smell was horrendous.

“Fuckin’ elephant weed!” the engineer yelled.

I was humiliated. I wanted to die. I wanted the floor to open up so I could disappear.

“Not so fast, gentlemen,” said Marvin, super sensitive to my feelings. “The fragrance might be a little funky, but the dope itself is pretty mellow.”

I knew Marvin was lying. The dope was shit. He was just saying that to protect me from the scorn of the others. He was sensitive! He did care about my feelings!

My emotions soared as he sang for the next several hours. He sang another tender ballad, pleading with a woman not to leave him in the cold. He begged her to stay. The pattern was set: when he sang, his eyes were closed. When his eyes were open, they stared directly at me.

The connection was real.

At about ten P.M., he came back to me and said, “It’s getting late and I know you have school tomorrow. Maybe I should run you home. Is it far?”

With my heart hammering, I said, “Not far at all. Olympic and Ogden. But I don’t want to be a bother.”

“It’s not a bother,” he said. “It’s a distinct pleasure.”

I couldn’t get over the closeness between Marvin’s speaking voice and singing voice. When he spoke, it was as though he was singing. And when he was singing, it was as though he was speaking directly to me. Both voices were painfully tender. Even more than the softness of his tone, I responded to the beauty of his enunciation. Each word came out whole. Each word seemed exactly right. There was a lyricism to his speech—a haunting and lilting quality—unlike any speech I had heard before. His elocution had an easygoing tone; he was down-to-earth, but he was also otherworldly. He spoke with the quiet confidence of a prince.

He spoke very little on the way to my house. I struggled to make small talk but feared that I’d sound young or naïve or foolish. He asked what I thought of his new music.

“I love it,” I was quick to say. “I love all your music.”

“Well, thank you. That means a great deal to me. When I record, I’m also wondering whether these songs will mean anything to anyone else besides myself.”

“I’m sure they will,” I said shyly.

He smiled.

I wondered whether I was coming on too strong with all this praise. Shouldn’t I be coy? Shouldn’t I be cool? I wasn’t sure what to say. All I knew was that I loved being in his presence. He made me feel warm and wanted.

When we arrived at the duplex I shared with my mother, I couldn’t help but invite him up.

“I don’t want to upset your mum,” he said, using the British expression. “Besides, I better get back to the studio. I’m terribly late delivering this record.”

He walked me to the door and stopped at the bottom of the staircase. That’s when my heart stopped.

“I want you to know that it’s beautiful being with you,” he said. “I hope I can get you to come visit me again.”

“I’d love to.”

It was then that he placed the palms of his hands on either side of my head. Standing over me, he leaned down and gently kissed my forehead.

“Goodnight, Jan. Sweet dreams.”

I thought I’d faint.

The next morning, when I described my evening to my mother, she said, “I’m glad you like him, sweetheart, and I’m glad he likes you. I’m glad you got to hear him sing in the studio again. It’s wonderful that he called. But if he doesn’t call again, don’t take it personally. Sexy singers are a different breed. Believe me, I know. Your father is one of those singers.”

Rather than reply to Mom, I groaned.

That night, while I dreamt of Marvin, Mom must have thought of how she had once dreamt of my father, Slim Gaillard. The dream began when, in 1942, fourteen-year-old Barbara listened to the sounds of a romantic and seductively syncopated bebop ballad called “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere.” She swore to her best friend Cathy that, come hell or high water, one day she’d marry Slim and have his baby. Mom yearned to escape the oppression of the white working-class confines of her Boston family. On the radio and in music magazines, she followed the fortunes of Gaillard and his partner Slam Stewart. The duo managed to combine dance music with the avant-garde jazz of the day. The romantic rhythms spoke of rebellion.

Mom sensed that Slim was a rebel. She read articles that talked about the competitive heat between Slim and Cab Calloway, another entertainer with a thin pencil moustache and gleaming slicked-back hair. Cab represented an older generation of the swing-time music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. To Barbara, Cab was cornball. Slim was slick. Cab was yesterday. Slim was tomorrow. Slim symbolized adventure, the unknown, daring, dangerous world of dark nightclubs where black men played the mysterious blue music that spoke to Mom’s heart.

Even as she grew up, even as she suffered through two unhappy marriages to white men, she never forgot the mysterious blue music of Slim Gaillard. She never gave up the dream of meeting Slim. And then, in 1955, in the middle of the first term of the bland white-bread presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, her dream came true. Mom went to a nightclub where Slim Gaillard was playing.

Mom dressed to look like Lana Turner: low-cut black dress, white-brimmed hat, white gloves. Her brother Don accompanied her. They sat at a table near the stage. The club was dark, the air thick with smoke. Most of the patrons were black. Don was uncomfortable. Mom wasn’t. Mom felt at home. Mom drank in the ambience. She sipped a glass of cheap champagne. She was thrilled by the jazz music: she recognized the sounds of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. Mom’s taste was cultivated. She spoke the language of jazz. For years she yearned to share that language with a man of mystery: a musician.

That man was Bulee “Slim” Gaillard. When he walked onto the small stage and started singing in that language of his own—the scat-singing coded language he named Vout—his eyes immediately found Mom. He sang to her. He saw her mouthing the words not only to the lush romantic ballads but to the novelty bop of “Flat Foot Floogie,” “Slim Slam Boogie,” and “Atomic Cocktail.” She was the hippest chick in the club—and he wanted her.

After the first set, he came to her table.

“I’ve been digging on your white gloves, madam,” he said.

“Call me Barbara,” she said. “And I’ve been digging on your music since I was . . . well, quite young.”

“You’re still quite young, Barbara. And, if I might be bold enough to say so, quite beautiful. Quite enchanting. I just hope I’m not intruding on your date.”

“No date,” she said. “This is my brother.”

“Then this is my lucky night. If your brother has no objections, I have big eyes to take you to dinner after the show.”

Before Don could speak, Mom said, “Don’t worry about Don. He has to leave early anyway.”

The first night was bliss. So was the second. On the third, Slim had to leave for LA.

“Of all the things I’ve read about you,” Mom said before Slim left for the airport, “I still don’t know where you come from. You told one writer you’re Cuban but another wrote you were born in deep Alabama.”

“I’m a citizen of the world, dear Barbara,” said Slim. “I come from nowhere and I come from everywhere. Cats catch me if they can. And you, my sweet, have caught me in your Venus flytrap. I’d like to stay, baby, but this brother has to fly away.”

“And if I fly after you?” asked Mom.

“I’d flip, flop, and fly. You don’t gotta chase me down, sugar, ’cause when it comes to you, I’m down already. You dig?”

“I do.”

A week after Slim had flown back to California, Mom scraped up enough bread for a ticket and flew the coop herself. She beat it out to LA and hooked up with Slim for another week of bliss. Didn’t matter that he was married. Didn’t matter that he had a gang of kids—something like fifteen at the last count. All that mattered was that she had her dream come true. Slim was hers. And then he wasn’t.

Slim had to run out on the road where other women were waiting. He couldn’t be burdened with Mom. Mom was fun, Mom was wild in bed, Mom was a hip kitty, but Slim was a tomcat looking for other alleys to prowl.

Mom went back to Boston, where she learned she was pregnant with Slim’s child. Rather than face the disapproval, she never told her mother. Instead she decided to leave Boston once and for all. She liked what she had seen of LA—the mild weather, the tall palm trees, the highway that hugged the coast going up to Malibu. Besides, Slim was in LA. If she was going to have his child, why not stay in his city? Surely he’d come around to visit.

After I was born in 1956, those visits were few and far between. Slim never denied fatherhood, but neither did he take fatherhood seriously. Money was never forthcoming. Mom knew better than to count on Slim for support. Carrying me in a basket, she went to work as a phone operator. She had affairs with all sorts of men—from blues singer Joe Williams to big-time jocks like basketball’s Ray Felix and football’s Dick Bass. Some of her guys were less than stellar. They included a few notorious junkies, one of whom stole my coin collection. Early on I understood that Mom needed these men’s money to pay the light bill and avoid eviction.

In 1973, though, Mom was hung up on one man and one only—Earl Hunter. Despite his betrayal, Mom never stopped loving him. And neither did I. It didn’t matter that Mom and Earl had broken up. He remained an integral part of our lives. He never failed to come over to the house to check on me.

It was five days after Marvin Gaye gently kissed me on my forehead, and I hadn’t heard from him. Earl came by to comfort me.

Mom was tired of my lamentations. She had already warned me about the uncertainty surrounding men like Marvin. Yet I remained convinced that what had transpired between us was real. I didn’t simply feel that; I knew that.

Earl understood.

“All right, honey,” he said, “I know you’re upset, but what’s really happening? Do you really know what’s going on in the life of a guy like Marvin Gaye? He’s got to be a busy man.”

“But I know he wants to see me again. He said he did.”

“Remember Trouble Man?” asked Earl, referring to the movie score Marvin wrote the previous year.

“I loved Trouble Man. And that picture of him on the cover!”

“You love everything Marvin does. But do you remember the story? Do you remember when he said, ‘There’s only three things for sure—taxes, death, and trouble’?”

“What are you saying, Daddy?”

“I’m not saying nothing, baby, except that Marvin Gaye is calling himself ‘Trouble Man.’”

“He didn’t look like trouble to me. He looked beautiful. He looked like he didn’t have a care in the world. He said he was gonna call. So why hasn’t he called?”

“He’s working. He’s singing. He’s got a record to make.”

“But I could see that he likes to have people around when he’s recording.”

“I’m sure he’ll call you, baby.”

“I’ll get Mom to call Ed again.”

“Ed is just another hustler looking to make money off Marvin.”

“Ed’s a songwriter,” I said.

“Songwriters are the biggest hustlers of all. Ed wants to keep Marvin happy. If it makes Marvin happy to see you, Ed will arrange it. You don’t have to remind him. You don’t have to do nothing.”

That night I got my mother to call Ed again. The news was not good.

“Marvin’s having his doubts about Jan,” said Ed.

“What are those doubts?” asked Mom.

“He’s crazy about her but thinks she’s too young. She’s a high school girl, for God’s sake.”

“You knew that, Ed, before you asked us over to the studio. You knew that when you were going to get him to sing at her seventeenth birthday party.”

“Look, I’m the man in the middle here. I got no agenda. I’m just saying that your daughter has really messed up his mind. Matter of fact, he’s gone out to the desert somewhere beyond Palm Springs.”

“What’s in the desert?”

“Mushrooms,” said Ed. “The cat likes to trip and read Carlos Castaneda.”

The news broke my heart.

What difference did my age make? According to my English teacher, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was the greatest love story ever written. In the play, Juliet was fourteen, three years younger than me. The teacher said that Shakespeare, with his uncanny insights into the human mind, understood that teenage passion and love was as legitimate as any passion and love. Age doesn’t matter. In truth, love lives in the hearts of youth with its own special energy. I felt that energy. I felt love leading me back to Marvin. Love would surely lead him back to me.

And yet he was not calling. He was in the desert. Ed said he’d be gone for months.

That night I dreamt of tripping in the desert with Marvin. It was a crazy dream in which Marvin and I were running through fields of wildflowers. It wasn’t clear whether he was chasing me or I was chasing him. Either way, we lost track of each other. We couldn’t find our way back. The dream was exciting and bewildering. I awoke feeling frightened and frustrated.

Two days later, frustration turned to joy. It was late in the afternoon. I’d just returned home from school. The phone rang. Mom picked it up. Every time the phone rang, I prayed it was Ed. This time it was. I tried to listen, but I couldn’t make out Ed’s words. When the short conversation was complete, Mom smiled.

“He wants to see you,” she said.

“When?” I asked.

“Tonight.”

“What time will Ed pick me up?”

“Ed isn’t coming by. Marvin is.”