After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
The Beginning of the End
A warm winter in Los Angeles.
Months had passed—months during which both Marvin and I had tried and failed and tried again to reconcile the irreconcilable.
It broke my heart when, instead of me, he asked Anna to accompany him to the shooting of the “Sexual Healing” video. I didn’t expect to be invited, but neither did I envision any kind of reconciliation between Marvin and his first wife.
I was back in Hermosa with the kids and my mom. Marvin was living between the apartment of his manager Marilyn Freeman, the apartment of his sister Zeola, and the Mid-City Gramercy Place home he had bought for his parents. His mother’s operation proved successful. She was recovering nicely. During this period of her operation and aftercare, her husband was in Washington, DC, while her children helped her through her recovery.
It was January 1983 when Marvin called me with alarming news.
“Father has moved back to the house,” he said.
“Why would be leave DC?” I asked.
“And where was he when Mother needed him by her side?” asked Marvin.
“Did you ask him?’
“No,” said Marvin. “The less I say to him, the less I see him, the better. The fact is, I don’t want him back. I don’t want him living in the house.”
“Have Mother keep him out.”
“She won’t. I tried to convince her. Tried to show her that he doesn’t give a damn about her. But she keeps saying she’s the only one who understands him.”
“I think she’s afraid of him.”
“Maybe to a point. She’s a good Christian woman. She’s quick to forgive.”
“And that’s a good thing,” I said.
“Not when the man is unworthy of forgiveness.”
I didn’t disagree. The mere thought of Marvin’s father made me cringe.
“I want nothing to do with him,” Marvin asserted. “I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to go over there.”
“Then don’t. Have Mother come to you.”
“I’m trying. I’ve been trying for years to get her to leave him once and for all. I’ll not stop trying. Just like I’ll never stop trying to make it work for us.”
I sighed. It was hard for me to hear this. Hard for me not to buy in to his sentiment. Especially since I shared that sentiment. And yet history and reason argued otherwise. History and reason said that now, ten years after we’d first met, Marvin and I would not and could not find a way to work through the past issues. The pain was too great. We were both too willing to escape that pain, both too dependent on mind-bending drugs that blurred our vision and blinded us from clarity.
We were both overwhelmed with financial fears. I had a hell of a time getting money out of Marvin for basic essentials for me and the kids; Marvin still had the IRS at his throat and had been forced to agree to a long spring and summer tour. Promoter Don Jo Medlevine promised to help with the IRS if Marvin allowed him to book his tour. But a tour excited Marvin’s worst fears—fears of performing, fears of flying, fears of facing fans who he felt had lost their love for him.
The freebase pipe numbed Marvin’s fear. He agreed to tour.
The freebase pipe destroyed my judgment. I convinced myself that somehow Marvin would care for me and the children. I felt he spoke the truth when he came to Hermosa with words of apology and regret.
In the moment when he spoke those words, when he said, “I love you, Jan, I’ll always love you, I love my children more than life itself,” he meant it.
But then he was gone, drawn back to the madness of the Hollywood scene he swore he would avoid, drawn back into the life of mayhem. Yet in that life, he was viewed as a conquering hero. Endless articles trumpeted his comeback. “Sexual Healing” was an international hit, one of the biggest of his career. Midnight Love was being called a masterpiece.
“To be adored is not good for me,” he told me. “It injures my spirit. They are welcoming me as a sex god, but snorting and smoking this shit is killing me. If only they knew …”
“They don’t love you for your sex,” I argued. “They love you for your soul.”
He gave me a funny expression.
“Well, maybe some do care about the sex …” I said.
We both laughed. But the humor didn’t last. Marvin’s eyes narrowed and, out of nowhere, he turned paranoid.
“There are plots against me,” he said. “I know they exist. I know they involve your mother and dad. Your people want to see me dead.”
“No one wants to see you dead.”
“I need rest. I need prayer. I need you to tell me that you won’t hurt me.”
“Never. Not for a moment, Marvin. I’ve tried to stop loving you, but I can’t.”
“That’s comforting to hear. My heart believes you, but my mind does not.”
“Don’t listen to your mind.”
“I can’t listen to you anymore, Jan. I have to run.”
Marvin came to Hermosa Beach to see the kids. He took us for a ride in his car and said he wanted to play us a song he’d been working on. He was calling it “Sanctified Pussy.” I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want the kids to hear it. I told him that if he put it on, I was taking the children and getting out of the car. He backed off but started driving erratically, frightening Nona and Bubs. When he finally calmed down, he said, “I’m singing at the NBA All-Star Game tomorrow night at the Forum.”
“Not so great. I said yes, but now I’m saying no. I’m not ready. I don’t want to do it.”
“You will be great,” I assured him.
“I’ve worked up a funky rendition of the national anthem that will be special, but I’m in no shape to perform. I’m backing out.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“I’m asking Luther Vandross to sing it for me.”
When Luther refused, Marvin changed his mind again and turned up at the game. As I predicted, his performance was flawless. He suavely and soulfully resculpted “The Star Spangled Banner” in a manner that was distinctly Marvin. I was proud of him. There was controversy about the liberties he had taken with the rhythm and melody—he sang the song as a gospel blues—but his version would not soon be forgotten and would eventually be considered a classic.
Ten days later, Marvin was also saying that he would skip the Grammys—he had been nominated for “Sexual Healing”—because he was certain that the forces conspiring against him would deny his victory.
“They want me to sing ‘Sexual Healing,’ but why should I do anything for the Grammys? They didn’t give me a Grammy for ‘Heard It Through the Grapevine,’” he told me. “Didn’t get one for ‘What’s Going On.’ Didn’t get one for ‘Let’s Get It On’ or ‘I Want You.’ I’ve been turning out records for over twenty years and still haven’t gotten one of those little statues. Why should I believe it’s gonna be any different this time?”
“Because it is different,” I said. “This is your time.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“I am. Besides, Pie and Bubby want to go to the Grammys. You owe it to your kids to take them.”
“And let them watch me lose?”
“In their eyes, you’re a winner. To us you’ll always be a winner.”
At the last minute, Marvin did get it together and took his children to the Grammys. I was not invited and didn’t expect to be. We were in the middle of another nasty fight.
I watched the ceremony on television. Despite Marvin’s misgivings about his live performances, he sang “Sexual Healing” superbly. Not long afterward, it was time to announce the winner for Best Male Vocal Performance, Rhythm and Blues. The presenters were Grace Jones and Rick James. Marvin had not believed my explanation that Rick and I had remained close friends and nothing more. He spoke of Rick with contempt. I wondered what would happen if Marvin won and was called to the podium.
When he did win, I was ecstatic but also apprehensive about this televised meeting between Marvin and Rick. All I could think was, Holy shit!
As it turned out, the men exhibited nothing but love. Rick was charming. Marvin was charming. They greeted each other like old friends. Marvin spoke briefly about how long he’d been waiting “for an award such as this.” He waved to Nona and Frankie, who were shown on television. I wept with joy.
Later Rick told me the words that Marvin whispered in his ear: “Take care of her.”
A month later, it was the same song and dance.
“They want me to appear on this TV special, Motown 25,” said Marvin, “celebrating a label I left two years ago. Why should I?”
“Because you’re one of the most important Motown artists,” I said.
“But I don’t want to sing my old stuff. I want to move on to the new.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“They’re saying it’s a look back at past achievements. It’s really a tribute to Berry.”
“Oh, boy. Can you do that?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. Motown released In Our Lifetime? without my permission. That was unforgiveable. On the other hand, Berry was the man who signed me. I hate to say it, but without Berry—and Anna—who knows what kind of career I’d have.”
“Then express your appreciation by singing a song. Sing ‘What’s Going On.’ Most people think that’s the best song in the history of Motown. It’d be beautiful to hear you sing it again on national television.”
“If I do agree, Berry is going to have to ask me personally.”
“I’m sure he will.”
He did. And Marvin accepted. His seamless performance of “What’s Going On” would have been the evening’s highlight had it not been for Michael Jackson. Michael had agreed to sing a medley of old hits with his brothers, but insisted on also singing his current smash from Thriller. Motown 25 was the night Michael sang “Billie Jean” and, for the first time, performed the moonwalk. Like the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show two decades earlier, Michael’s rendition of “Billie Jean” became one of the most electric moments in the history of American television.
Afterward, Marvin was crushed.
“Berry let Michael have his way,” Marvin told me. “And Michael killed. He couldn’t have been better. But if he got to sing his current material, why couldn’t I? Why did I cave? Why did I let Motown dictate to me? They’ve made a fool of me.”
“You were wonderful,” I assured him. “You’ve never done ‘What’s Going On’ better. Everyone adored you.”
“No one will remember my performance. All that will be remembered from that night is Michael’s singing, Michael’s dancing. Michael is about to become the biggest star in the world.”
“Your star is just fine, Grammy winner,” I said. “Your tour is going to blow up your new album even bigger.”
“The tour will drive me mad.”
“If that’s true, then don’t go.”
“And who will pay the bills? Who will keep the IRS from throwing me in prison? Who will feed my mother and my children?”
“There are ways to earn money without killing yourself with a five-month tour.”
“Please, Jan. Don’t pretend you care about my welfare.”
“I do. You know I do.”
“All I know is that I love you,” he said. “But what I don’t know is whether the love you have for me is still there.”
“It is. It will always be.”
“In spite of everything.”
“Yes, in spite of everything.”
“And if I need you to come on this tour to ease my mind, you’ll come?” he asked.
“And if I tell you that I need your presence, body, and soul, you won’t resist?”
“I won’t,” I said. “I can’t.”