After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
Come Get to This
I was excited beyond words.
Mom helped me put together what we both considered a sophisticated outfit—a low-cut, form-fitting black dress, matching high heels, gold hoop earrings. I was still troubled by the idea that Marvin thought I might be too young. So tonight I wanted to look older. I wanted to look right.
When the doorbell rang and Marvin Gaye was actually standing there, I was relieved. I’d been worried that he might not show. But not only did he appear, he was absolutely glowing. His outfit was casual—a dark tweed sport coat over blue jeans, a small diamond stud in his right ear, a fresh pair of high-top white sneakers. The trademark wool skullcap that he wore in the studio had been removed. His hair, a close-cropped natural, was gleaming. He had trimmed his beard. The cologne he had splashed on his face had a fresh lime fragrance. In his own Marvin Gaye way, he had dressed up for the date. His demeanor said that he cared.
He opened the door of his maroon Lincoln sedan for me. I slipped into the passenger seat, apprehensive about the evening ahead. Would I be able to keep up my side of the conversation? Would he find me too juvenile? Would he discover that we lived in two distinct worlds with little in common?
Within a few minutes, my fears disappeared. Marvin put me at ease. Everything about him was easy. Words fell easily out of his mouth. The words were gentle, never harsh. He was genuinely curious about my life. How was my day? What did I like and not like about school? In what subjects did I excel? Freely, he offered memories of his time in school—some good, some bad.
I asked about his trip to the desert. “What were you doing all that time out in the desert? Ed said something about mushrooms.”
Marvin broke into a smile. His eyes were smiling when he said, “Shrooms are fascinating. Tripping is really something else. Reality takes another turn. You must be ready for that turn, though. You must be ready to step out of your ego and look back at yourself. There’s a book called A Separate Reality by a man named Carlos Castaneda. If I gave it to you, would you read it?”
“Of course. I love to read.”
“He says reality is what we make it. Your energy changes my reality, for example, just as my mind changes yours. He talks about how we have to learn to open the doors to our dreams.”
“How do we do that?” I asked.
“It’s already happening. We just have to wake up and accept the fact that we’re inside our dreams. We’re actually living those dreams.”
I was in a dreamlike state as we arrived at an old-school Italian restaurant in Hollywood. We were seated in a dark, secluded corner. The decor was far from fabulous, but the place was quiet and comfortable. I noticed Mama Cass Elliot at a nearby table and asked Marvin if he’d introduce me. Like most girls my age—like most everyone, for that matter—I’d always been fascinated by stars.
He walked over to chat with Mama Cass. After a few seconds, he motioned me over. She was extremely sweet.
“Your date is a doll,” she told Marvin.
A year later, when she died a tragic death, I thought of our encounter.
Back at our table, Marvin said, “I’m going to be a little naughty.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He ordered an apricot sour for each of us. The waiter scrutinized me and was about to question my age when Marvin slipped him a twenty. The waiter nodded and returned with the drinks.
“It’s my favorite,” said Marvin.
“I want to try it.”
“It tastes like apricot juice. You won’t taste the liquor, but it will help you relax.”
“I don’t seem relaxed?” I asked.
“You’re fine. Just have a taste.”
“Do you believe in fate?”
“I believe in Jesus. I believe in doing his will. If his will is done, we find love in great abundance.”
“But how do we know if we’re doing his will?”
“We know when we’re not—that’s for sure.”
“I like this apricot sour.”
“You’ll like the chicken cacciatore, too. Is it okay if I order for you?”
The subject changed to music. “Do you like the new stuff you’ve been hearing in the studio?”
“If you didn’t like it, would you tell me?”
“I can’t imagine not liking your music.”
“I can’t believe my good fortune in meeting you. I’m feeling something with you. Something strong.”
Marvin took my hand. My heart melted.
The dinner conversation turned to the subject of searching. Marvin explained that the search never stops. I wanted clarity. What search was he talking about? The search for the truth. How do you recognize the truth? When something is pure. Marvin said that he viewed me as pure. A second apricot sour emboldened me to be candid. “Not quite,” I admitted. “Pure of heart,” he said. He complimented my complexion. He said that he loved my freckles. I said that I loved his dark brown eyes. “They always look like they’re searching for something or someone,” I said.
He said he’d been searching for his muse. Every artist needs a muse.
“What does the muse do for an artist,” I asked, “that an artist can’t do for himself?”
Surprised at the maturity of my question, Marvin leaned back, closed his eyes, and said, “She inspires. Her job is to inspire.”
I wanted to ask, “Do I inspire?” but the question felt too needy. Instead I asked, “Is the muse always a lady?”
“A beautiful young lady with freckles on her face.”
The chicken cacciatore arrived. It was tender. Marvin began opening up. I saw how he was searching to escape a marriage that had broken his heart. I also began to speak about my own difficult domestic situation. I was the product of a sadly broken family. His childhood was as nightmarishly confusing as mine. Sadness surrounded us both. Beauty surrounded us both. He said that the sheer beauty of my delicate facial features enthralled him. I was similarly enthralled by the fact that he was not simply fine, but stunningly so. For the moment, physical beauty erased the memories of old pain. Over potent apricot sours and tender chicken cacciatore, something spiritual was happening.
The spirit lived in our hearts even as it excited our bodies. In the car on the way home, Marvin reached over to take my hand.
“I have a tape from a session I did yesterday,” he said. “Would you like to hear it?”
Riding in Marvin’s Lincoln, listening to Marvin singing, I could not help but be transported. How could I not be tripping? His voice was velvet, but it was also unspeakably sad. He was singing about death—his own death. The lyrics said that were he to die tonight, it would be before his time. But that wouldn’t matter. He wouldn’t die sad because he had known “you.” He had found true love.
It was an elegy, a plaintive melody that stirred my heart. I wanted to ask if I was the “you.” Was I the muse?
“I wrote this after I met you,” said Marvin.
He pulled up to the duplex where I lived with Mom and turned off the engine. That’s when he reached over and brought me to him. I did not resist. He kissed me deeply. He kissed me again. The kisses lingered. The heat built.
“Would you like to come upstairs?” I asked.
“I would,” he answered.
In her bedroom with the door closed, Mom was asleep and lost in a dream of her own. Marvin and I went into a small TV room where there was a couch and an easy chair. I sat on the sofa, wanting Marvin to join me. Instead he sat in the easy chair, leaned back, and motioned for me to sit on the floor between his legs that were spread apart.
I understood what this man—who was great, famous, richly talented, and beautiful—was asking.
He took his time, stroking my hair, holding my head in his hands, pressing it down into his lap. I could feel his excitement. I felt panicky and cool at the same time. Bryant and I had engaged in oral sex, so I knew what he wanted. But Marvin had his own way of building up the drama. He liked to tease. First he offered himself to me, but then withdrew. All the while he spoke softly, praising my mouth and my lips. Finally he allowed me to pleasure him. I looked up to see how much he enjoyed watching.
Afterward, he was in no hurry to leave.
“May I ask you one favor?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I know your name is Janis, but I see you more as a Jan. Would you mind if I called you Jan?”
My heart beating wildly, I could barely say the word yes.
I was christened with a new name. Marvin was turning me into a new person. “That was beautiful, Jan. You’re beautiful. Thank you for a beautiful evening.”
When I got with Marvin I felt like it was meant to be, that this was my authentic life. I wanted to keep it. I wanted to have Marvin forever and in every way. I believed the best way to go about this was to be everything he needed me to be. I wanted to please him in every way. I wanted to be the woman with the most engaging and unforgettable conversation. I wanted to please him in bed with my passion and adventurous nature. I wanted to be that girl who was everything to him. In his long list of women, I wanted to be remembered. I wanted to be the exception, the woman who said yes to almost anything. I wanted to be the personification of the dream girl he sang about in his songs or had in his head. He was moving out of a relationship with a much older woman. I was young. I wanted to make him feel special and that he deserved all the goodness the world had to offer.
In the morning, Mom had questions about my date with Marvin, but I had few answers. I didn’t want to talk about it. Thinking back to the night before, I realized that Marvin must have relished the fact that, while I was on my knees, my mom was asleep in the next room, only a few feet away. He could have suggested that we go to his place, or a hotel, or even in his car. Why did he want me to pleasure him with Mom so close by?
I decided that it didn’t matter. The sex was far from what I had wanted, but it was a start. He was testing my willingness to follow his lead. And yes, I was more than willing to follow.
“As long as he was a gentleman,” Mom told me at the kitchen table.
“And you think you’ll actually hear from him again?”
“I know I will.”
When he came to fetch me two days later, it was not to take me to the studio or a restaurant, but to his apartment.
“I thought we could hang out here, just the two of us. What do you think?”
“I’d love it.”
I expected that Marvin, separated from his wife, would have lived in a luxurious pad somewhere high in the Hollywood Hills. Although I didn’t know the details of Marvin’s separation, Ed Townsend, a Motown insider, had filled me in.
Marvin’s wife, Anna Gordy Gaye, was fifty-one, eighteen years older than Marvin and seven years older than my mother. By all accounts she was a formidable woman. Some claimed that she, along with her sisters Gwen and Esther, represented the power behind Berry’s throne.
“Berry has entrepreneurial energy,” Ed told me a few days after I met Marvin, “but nothing like his sisters. Those gals really know how to hustle. Anna and Gwen ran the photography concession at the Twenty Grand, the hot nightspot in Detroit. They were in the middle of all the action. Not only were they savvy in business, they were glamour girls. You know how Marvin met Anna, don’t you?”
“No,” I said.
“He was a doo-wop singer in Harvey Fuqua’s Moonglows. Harvey was the master doo-wopper, and also a slick music hustler. Doo-wop was a beautiful style of singing, but doo-wop was dying and Harvey had to bust a move. In the early sixties Motown was jumping off, so Harvey disbanded the Moonglows and took Marvin, his best singer, and went to Detroit. First thing Harvey did was start his own label, Harvey Records, and sign his first singer—Mr. Marvin Gaye. He signed him for life. Before you knew it, though, Harvey Records was absorbed by Anna Records, which already had big-time talent like the Spinners and Joe Tex. By then Anna Records was run by Gwen Gordy, who soon became Mrs. Harvey Fuqua. And while Gwen hooked up with Harvey, Anna hooked up with Marvin. Remember—Marvin hadn’t even turned twenty-one and Miss Anna was pushing forty. Marvin started out as a studio drummer, a part-time session man playing behind the Miracles. Didn’t take Anna long to see that the boy was not only a great singer and a fabulous writer, but a flat-out genius. She was the one who brought him to Berry’s attention. One thing about Berry—he knows his sisters are smart and he listens to every goddamn word they say. So even though Harvey had signed Marvin for life, Berry paid off Harvey, and Marvin was his.”
“And Anna?” I added.
“Hell, yes. Anna was the one who molded him. You could say Anna made him. She knew he had to reinvent himself. She didn’t want to know about his low-class upbringing in Washington, DC, with his weird-ass father, a preacher man who liked running around the house in his wife’s clothing. Oh, no, Anna and them were a solid middle-class black family ascending to the upper class. The Gordys were tight-knit, and Marvin knew that by marrying into the family he’d have a leg up on the competition. And at Motown, it was all about competition. His first idea, though, was to avoid the cats competing for R&B hits and to sing straight-ahead ballads like Sinatra. He used to talk about how he was gonna have his own TV show like Nat King Cole. He saw himself wearing a cardigan sweater or a tux, sitting on a stool and crooning ‘A Foggy Day in London Town.’ Your boy wasn’t a dancer. He didn’t wanna get up there and shimmy and shake. Because Anna had so much sway with Berry, she talked her brother into letting Marvin record these ballads and hoped he’d sell millions of records like Tony Bennett or Andy Williams. Problem was, his records didn’t sell shit. So while Marvin was messin’ around singing his version of ‘My Funny Valentine’ that no one wanted to hear, Mary Wells was singing Smokey Robinson’s ‘My Guy’ that everyone wanted to hear. Everywhere Marvin looked—whether it was the Miracles or the Marvelettes or the Contours—he saw the other acts cutting hits. Now, Marvin is stubborn, and he sticks to his guns longer than most men, but Marvin also saw himself as a winner. When that Motown assembly line got to turning out one hot-selling product after another, he sure as shit didn’t wanna be left behind. So guess what he did?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, I do,” said Ed. “He turned his attitude into a hit song. He wrote about a ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow.’ That was his first hit. After that, he was off to the races.”
“And all those other songs that he sang in the sixties—he wrote them as well?”
“Some he did, others he didn’t. He did write ‘Dancing in the Streets’ for Martha and the Vandellas. And he did write ‘Hitch Hike,’ where he actually had to do a little ‘Hitch Hike’ dance.”
“I saw him do it on American Bandstand.”
“It was like he had two left feet.”
“Shut up, Ed,” I said, laughing. “I thought he was graceful. I thought he was gorgeous.”
“The beautiful thing about Marvin is that as a writer, he’s a collaborator. Hardly wrote anything alone. He needs to be sparked by a guitar lick, a piano line, a groove, or a lyric. Then he does the rest. It’s like the record we’re doing now. The one you been hearing over at the studio. Did I tell you he’s calling it Let’s Get It On?”
“It’s the sexiest song on the record.”
“You telling me. I gave him the groove and he did the rest. Same thing back in the early sixties when he wrote ‘Pride and Joy’ with Mickey Stevenson and Norman Whitfield. That’s his ode to Anna.”
“Did he love her? Does he still love her?”
“You can’t go asking me questions like that.”
“ ’Cause I don’t have the answers. You see, those two people have put each other through hell. Lord only knows the damage they’ve done to each other.”
“In what ways?”
“In all ways.”
“So what took him so long to move out?”
“Truth is, Anna got Marvin to work when no one else could. Marvin’s a dreamer. Marvin’s a philosopher. The boy’s a poet. He really should be living on some island in Tahiti, eating coconuts and singing songs to the birds. I don’t think Marvin was made for this world. He’s too sensitive. Show business is about the grind. Show business is cold. Show business says, ‘You ain’t no better than your last hit.’ Knowing that, Anna was always yelling at Marvin to get back in the studio and cut another hit. ‘Stop dreaming, baby,’ she’d say, ‘and start working.’ Part of Marvin is lazy, but part of him is ambitious. She lit the fire under his ambition.”
“Sounds like she was in charge,” I said.
“No doubt she mothered him. But Anna was also a sexy woman. She was a sexy mother. She was a lot worldlier than Marvin. When it came to sex, I believe she schooled him. And because he was so fine—with all these young chicks chasing after him—I believe he tortured her. I believe they tortured each other, ’cause I know that Anna had affairs of her own. Norman Whitfield wrote ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ but when Marvin sang it I know goddamn well he was thinking about Anna.”
“What about those duets, Ed? When he was singing with Mary Wells and Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell, were they also his girlfriends?”
“I don’t think so. They were beautiful ladies but they were aggressive women. Marvin doesn’t go for the aggressive type. He likes ’em shy. He likes ’em demure. That’s why he likes you.”
“When he sang with them, though, he made you believe that something real was happening between the two of them.”
“That’s because he’s a great singer, and great singers are great actors. Marvin could sing any song with any producer. That’s another reason why he had that long string of hits in the sixties. He could take tunes written by, say, Holland-Dozier-Holland, the hottest of the Motown producers, and reshape ’em to fit his style. That’s what happened with ‘How Sweet It Is.’ Same thing with Smokey Robinson. Smokey wrote ‘Ain’t That Peculiar,’ but he’ll be the first to tell you that Marvin made it his own. Marvin knew how to work with that Motown machine.”
“But I’ve heard him say how much he hates the business. He’s always talking about Motown’s heavy hand in dealing with their artists.”
“Marvin’s a rebel, Jan. You got to understand that. He’s Aries the ram. A hardheaded motherfucker. Hates authority. Hates being told what to do. Natural-born contrarian. So on one hand, you got a cat who wants to make it, a cat who sees the hit factory working overtime and isn’t about to miss out on his share of the good shit coming off the assembly line. And on the other hand, you got a man who’s been fighting father figures his whole life. He told me how he defied his own daddy, only to get these bad-ass whippings. He also told me how he got thrown out of the air force ’cause he wouldn’t obey orders. So here comes Berry Gordy, father figure supreme. Berry’s a controller. He’s got to be. He’s got to herd all these stray cats running around Motown. He’s the fuckin’ boss. But please, do not try and boss Marvin Gaye. It might work for a little while, but then it’ll blow up in your fuckin’ face. That’s what happened when Marvin did What’s Going On.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“All hell broke loose. It was the end of the sixties and Marvin was fed up being produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland and Norman Whitfield. He was gonna produce himself. He wanted to do more than turn out hit singles. He wanted to do a whole concept album. That meant turning the whole system upside down. It caused a revolution. You see, Berry—the dictator who actually put a portrait of himself as Napoleon over his fireplace—is essentially a producer, and so the company was a reflection of him. Producers ran the show. Producers wrote the songs and then decided which artists would sing ’em. Then the producers ran the sessions in the studio. Marvin saw that as ass-backwards. He felt like the artist, not the producer, was king. When he did What’s Going On, it was a palace revolution.”
“It was so different from anything else he’d done.”
“He wanted to paint on a bigger canvas. He had a concept. The idea came from his brother Frankie, who’d been over in Vietnam where he wrote Marvin letters about the horrors of the war. That broke Marvin’s heart. He looked around the country and saw all this devastation. So he took out his musical brushes and started painting the picture. He was creating a landscape. He wasn’t thinking about hit songs. He was just thinking about telling it like it is. Berry didn’t get it. When he heard it, he said it’d never sell. This was coming after Marvin had all those big hits with Tammi Terrell. More than ever, Marvin was looked on as the love man. That was all about romance. But What’s Going On was all about reality. Berry said, ‘I ain’t putting it out.’ Then Marvin said, ‘Fine, but I’ll never sing another fuckin’ note for you again.’ Berry had no choice. He released it, and the world went crazy. The world finally saw Marvin for the genius that he is. Berry had to eat his words. The producer was no longer king. Marvin the artist was king. You probably already know this, Jan, but after Marvin made his Declaration of Independence, Stevie Wonder joined the revolution. He followed Marvin down that same road—first with Where I’m Coming From, and last year with Music of My Mind. Stevie said, ‘I’m producing myself, singing my own songs, doing it my own way.’”
“And everything you’re doing in the studio now,” I said, “all these songs about love and sex—where are they coming from?”
“You don’t have to ask me that, Jan. You already know the answer. The man’s in love.”