After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
Marvin’s place was a $160-a-month furnished one-bedroom apartment on Cattaraugus Avenue, an anonymous-looking street in the lower-middle-class neighborhood of Culver City, a quarter mile away from Hamilton, the high school that I attended. It was shockingly plain. Apartment 1010.
“This is my place,” Marvin explained. “Anna lives with little Marvin at her sister Gwen’s place in Beverly Hills.”
Little Marvin, age seven, was Marvin III, the son that he and Anna were raising.
The apartment was in a plain low-rise complex just off the Santa Monica Freeway. Not a hint of luxury. The living room had a hideous gold couch and a couple of worn easy chairs. The bedroom had a record player and a king-size bed facing a television. The decor didn’t disappoint me. I couldn’t have cared less. In fact, I was impressed that a superstar was content to live in such an unimpressive flat. I loved that he lived so close to my school. But mostly I loved that he had brought me to his domicile. To someone else it might have seemed dreary. I saw it as Marvin’s secret hideaway. Even if he lived in a cave, it would be Marvin’s cave. It would be a wonderful cave.
I knew it would be a fabulous evening: I saw that Marvin was in a playful mood. There was no doubt that he had brought me there to make love. That was what I wanted. There was no part of my mind, body, or soul that did not want to please him. I wanted to excite him. He had already excited me—just by choosing me. I was prepared to do what I’d done the other night, but I was hoping for more.
We relaxed in the living room. We kissed on the couch. The kisses aroused me, stirred him. We moved to the bedroom. Marvin handed me a huge wooden box that contained several ounces of pot.
“Could you roll us a jay, babycakes?” he asked politely.
“Sure,” I said, seizing the opportunity to demonstrate my sophistication. Separating seed from stem, I worked quickly. I rolled a fat, tight joint and handed it to him.
“Beautiful,” he said, lighting up and sucking in the smoke before passing it back to me. I inhaled deeply. The rush came fast.
Marvin loved his pot, and so did I.
Marijuana is an aphrodisiac. Marijuana is a buzz. Marijuana is a giggle-producing intoxicant. Marijuana puts a sensuous filter between you and the rest of the world.
Marijuana was a day-and-night part of Marvin’s life. He lived high. I saw nothing wrong with this. My mom lived high on pills. My dad Earl lived high. Good weed was seen in the same light as good coffee. It was the fuel that kept us going, kept us mellow. Good weed seemed harmless. Because it heightened the senses, good weed was welcomed.
We got good and stoned. I lost some of my self-consciousness about my body. I’d been told Marvin liked women with big behinds. That left me out. But at least I had a full bosom. The more I smoked, the better I felt about myself.
We were laughing at a funny cartoon flickering across the television screen. We were embracing. We were disrobing. Slowly. His shirt. My blouse. His lips on the nape of my neck. The soft hair on his chest against my bare breasts.
I wanted him to want me, to enter me, to consume me.
When he did, for the first time in my life I knew what it meant to make love.
We pressed against each other as though this would be our last time, even though it was just the beginning.
I don’t know why, but the lovemaking made me cry. The deep pleasures, the thrilling satisfaction, the look of love in his eyes.
The world was made new.
“You’re my girl,” he whispered in my ear.
There was nothing I could say.
The world was wonderful.
The world was less perfect when, a few hours later, I walked into the living room to discover a man sleeping on the gold couch. I rushed back to the bedroom to tell Marvin.
“Don’t worry, sugar,” he said, “that’s only Abe.”
“Who is he?”
That designation meant that Abe was a glorified assistant whose only job was to cater to Marvin’s every whim. Later, sometimes he’d call him “my servant” or “my butler,” names that would crack me up.
Abe ran Marvin’s errands that included, most importantly, maintaining his weed stash. Occasionally Marvin would send him out for a gram or two of cocaine. Heroin was never on Marvin’s menu, although heroin was Abe’s thing. He was, in fact, a junkie. Learning this put me on alert. I remembered Mom’s junkie friends, many of whom were thieves.
Despite his habit, Abe was accommodating and personable. Yet his presence bothered me.
“How long is he going to be here?” I asked Marvin.
“He lives here.”
What! My heart sank. Sensing my discomfort, Marvin reassured me that Abe would not be a nuisance. His job was to make Marvin’s life easier. He promised that, in his words, “Abe will be like a ghost.”
On every level, my life became more intense. It was all about Marvin, Marvin, Marvin.
The explosive power of our sexual union was incredible. We made love at every opportunity, night and day. We knew every inch of each other’s bodies. We never used birth control. It was clear that Marvin wanted me pregnant—and I did nothing to prevent that.
Beyond the sex, there was a pervasive spiritual component. The spiritual component changed everything.
Two weeks before meeting Marvin, I was a bored high school junior, bothered by an increasingly depressive atmosphere at home.
Two weeks before meeting me, Marvin had been struggling to complete an album on which he’d been working for nearly three years. Estranged from his mother-figure-mentor-wife, he’d been living the life of a bachelor.
Now I had never been less bored or depressed; now Marvin had never been more motivated to work. For both of us, the darkness had unexpectedly lifted.
People around us were skeptical. People were saying that the difference in age would do us in. For a thirty-three-year-old married man to start up with a girl barely seventeen was scandalous. But scandal excited Marvin’s rebellious spirit. Besides, there were no practical barriers to get in our way.
If I had come from a conventional family, there could well have been a problem. But Mom was hardly a conventional woman. Earl Hunter was hardly a conventional dad. And my biological father, Slim Gaillard, the rogue bebopper, was the least conventional character of all. In short, I was free to do whatever I wanted to do. And there was nothing I wanted to do more than be with Marvin Gaye every second of every day.
I was hardly the only one who harbored this feeling. Marvin projected the kind of übercool calm that made everyone want to be with him. He loved to laugh. He had a wild and sometimes corny sense of humor, especially after smoking a good joint. If he was in the studio, you wanted to run over and catch a little of his mellow—whether he was singing or just hanging. You didn’t mind if he told the same joke over and over. You wanted to kick back with him and hear him, in his easygoing way, talk about the parables of Jesus or the foibles of Berry Gordy or his own foibles when, back in Detroit, he decided to quit singing to try out for the Detroit Lions football squad. Marvin took himself very seriously but, then again, he didn’t take himself seriously at all. He talked about his regard for Bing Crosby and Perry Como, singers who were relaxed beyond reason. Marvin moved at a slow but steady pace that made it easy for you to scale down your all-too-nervous rhythms.
Between Marvin and myself, the rhythm of romance quickened. I was in the studio all the time, watching Marvin work his magic. He needed to see me, needed to touch me, needed to sing to me. He said that my presence awakened his spirit. He said that my beauty brought out his beast.
I found beauty and excitement in his sexual beast. I experienced it as a gentle and patient beast, even as his passion for making love quickened my own desire. We couldn’t stay away from each other. Every night he fetched me in either his maroon Lincoln or his moss-green Cadillac. When he couldn’t wait till nighttime, he began picking me up in the afternoon at school.
One day he arrived at Hamilton High behind the wheel of a snow-white Bentley. When I spotted him in the car, I ran to greet him. We embraced.
“Let’s just take a drive,” he said.
“Fine,” I agreed.
I could feel that he was in a reflective mood. After we’d gone a few blocks, he began talking about his recent past and his decision to abandon Detroit. It took a while. He told me that after Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and all the others had made the move west, he was the last to leave. The least likely man to follow the pack, Marvin resisted Anna’s argument that he needed to stay close to Motown. He described how last year Berry Gordy had turned Diana Ross into a movie star, casting her as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. The movie was a triumph; Diana was nominated for an Academy Award. With Anna’s prodding, Berry could do the same for Marvin. But none of that was going to happen in Detroit. Hollywood was the place.
Marvin said that he knew, though, that he could never have written What’s Going On in Hollywood. Those songs carried the feel of hardcore urban Detroit. He had great affection for the Motor City. Yet fighting the freezing Michigan winters and facing the snowdrifts covering his front door, Marvin had to face another fact: he was, after all, concerned about his career. He cared deeply about increasing his visibility and popularity. In spite of his inherent shyness, his deep insecurities, and an almost crippling fear of performing, he was a fierce competitor. He had always wanted to be more than a star. He’d wanted to be the biggest star of all.
That drive was what brought him out to LA, where, as Anna predicted, he found success in the movies. He explained that it wasn’t in a starring role—that could well come later—but as a composer in his brilliant score to Trouble Man. Soon after arriving in Hollywood, he was asked to record a duet album with Diana Ross. Marvin had conflicted feelings about the project.
He said that he and Diana had always been friendly, but this particular partnership was problematic. In the aftermath of What’s Going On—with no less than three top-ten singles—Marvin’s stock had dramatically risen. He was finally recognized as an independent artist, not just another cog in the Motown machine. He neither needed nor wanted an outside producer. He also freely admitted that he was jealous of the attention that Berry Gordy lavished on Diana Ross. Initially, Marvin refused to do the record.
He explained how Anna’s bond to her baby brother, Berry, was ironclad. She wanted to help Berry realize a project that would help Diana. At the same time, Anna was convinced that a Marvin-Diana duet album made artistic and commercial sense for her husband. In the sixties, her singular ability to coax Marvin into the studio—especially during those times when depression had him down and reluctant to work—had proven effective. Like no one else, Anna could motivate Marvin. It took time, but she finally persuaded him to do this Diana Ross album. Marvin caved, but he carried his resentments to the sessions. He came in puffing on an outsize joint. A pregnant Diana refused to sing around the smoke. The vocals were ultimately done on separate dates. The production itself was old-school Motown—Berry Gordy and Hal Davis were the producers. Marvin made two demands—that he receive producer royalties and that his name appear before Diana’s. Both were summarily rejected. His job was to simply come to the studio and sing. Ultimately that’s what he did. To his ears, the results sounded dated—a sixties-style record out of step with the seventies, and sales of Diana and Marvin would be less than spectacular. Marvin would never do another album like it again.
He told me how the incident further fueled the tension between him and Anna. It was Anna and Berry who had connected Marvin with the William Morris Agency in the hopes of landing film roles. He was cast in two small films—The Ballad of Andy Crocker and Chrome and Hot Leather—but the parts were insubstantial and led to nothing bigger.
Now I could understand why Marvin saw his connection to Anna—and, in turn, her connection to Berry—as an impediment to his freedom.
“This Bentley is Anna’s car, not mine,” Marvin told me during the drive. “She loans it to me to remind me of her elegance and her power.”
I felt a knot of fear forming in my stomach. As Marvin drove in the direction of the studio, I stayed silent.
“What’s wrong?” he finally asked.
“You’ve never picked me up in this car before. I’m just not comfortable being driven around in Anna’s car.”
I was afraid of displeasing Marvin, but at the same time, I needed to speak my mind.
“It’s strange,” I said. “And also a little creepy. What’s the point of picking me up in a car that belongs to your wife? What are you trying to say? What are you trying to prove?”
Marvin offered only the slightest of smiles.
For the first time I saw how he derived some perverse pleasure in creating discomfort, for himself as well as for others.
The relief was always the music.
When we finally arrived at the Motown studio in West Hollywood, it was Marvin’s music that softened my discomfort. In Marvin’s world, his music made everyone and everything all right. His music consisted of many voices. Overdubbing those voices—stacking the vocals—was a technique he mastered while recording What’s Going On. He called it a spiritual exercise in harmony. Each of these voices was unique—a sweet falsetto, a tender midrange, a sexual growl, a bottommost plea. Each emanated from his heart, yet each represented a different part of his one-of-a-kind musical mind. Each contained pain. Each contained hope. If he could blend these different voices with such ease and grace in his music, surely he could blend the differences in his own personality.
“You look happy,” Ed Townsend told me when Marvin had left the studio to take a phone call in the office. “I see he’s in a good place. I hope he stays there.”
“He will,” I said.
“You’re doing a good job of making him happy.”
“Thanks a lot, Dad,” I said with heavy sarcasm. “Anything to keep him satisfied.”
“Some people can’t handle happiness, so they find a way to fuck it up.”
“Maybe he just hasn’t found the right person to make him happy,” I said.
“Maybe you’re right, baby. I hope so. If anyone can keep him satisfied, I know it’s you.”
I thought about that word, satisfied. It came up in the title of the song that Marvin was tweaking that day: “Just to Keep You Satisfied,” the final cut on the album Let’s Get It On. As beautiful as it was, the song didn’t feel like it belonged on the record. It pointed to another story, another time, and another character.
“Just to Keep You Satisfied” was about Marvin and Anna. The lyrics were explicit: Anna was his wife; she represented his hopes and dreams; he endured her jealousy even as he cherished their lovemaking; his deepest desire was to satisfy her; but it wasn’t meant to be. Mental strain tore them apart. Differences could not be reconciled. They tried over and over again, but it was too late. Much too late. The marriage was doomed. The marriage was over.
I had never heard Marvin sing more beautifully or with such profound sadness. I was comforted by his acknowledgment that his relationship with Anna was obviously finished. I wanted it finished. I wanted Marvin for myself. But I also couldn’t help but feel the strength of the emotional bond revealed in this song. I couldn’t help but feel how much Anna meant to Marvin. And I couldn’t help but fear the power that this woman still held over him. There could be no doubt: Anna was my adversary.
As a result, I made a concerted effort to please Marvin in every way. When he described Anna as being dominant, I knew I had to be more submissive. When he told me the story of how, during a brutal argument, Anna had stuck the stiletto heel of her shoe into his forehead, I swore that violence would have no place in our relationship.
On her side, Anna had a long history with Marvin. She had money, power, and influence. She was one of the few people on the planet who could make him work. On my side, I had youth and sex and a free-love hippie attitude that Marvin found alluring.
Either way, it was clear that the longer I was with Marvin, the more Anna would do to make his life miserable.
Anna was a hard act to follow. But, she represented structure. In Marvin’s world, Anna came first, then Berry, and then himself. I represented freedom. I was the one who put his happiness first. Marvin bragged to others about it, claiming that I was incredible because I worshipped the ground he walked on. I enjoyed hearing that but after a while I saw the flaws in my thinking. It showed that I wasn’t making myself happy, and in many ways, I began to take it out on myself and Marvin.
Another week went by of beautiful lovemaking at the apartment and beautiful music at the studio. Another week when, from time to time, Marvin wandered off to Hamilton High to shoot hoops on the outdoor basketball court.
For me, the only problem was Marvin’s man Abe. He was still living at Cattaraugus, where he slept on the hideous gold couch. Marvin knew that I was uncomfortable in his presence but wouldn’t deny himself the convenience of having his personal assistant close at hand. Compared to other superstars, Marvin was living a super-spartan lifestyle, but he was also spoiled.
Marvin’s contradictions became more evident with every passing day. He was adamant on separating himself from Motown. When the Motown execs called, wanting to hear the new record in progress and wondering when it would be ready for release, he ignored them. He had no interest in their input and blatantly disregarded their deadlines. But late at night, when he and I were alone driving through the city, he’d turn to me and say, “I wonder what Berry will think of this record. I wonder if he’ll like it.”
I saw that Marvin’s confidence and insecurity were in constant conflict. One day he was certain that the new album was brilliant. The next day he worried how, after the political consciousness of What’s Going On, the world would regard the carnal intensity of Let’s Get It On. He kept vacillating. The record would be a huge hit. The record would be a huge flop. He’d be rewarded or he’d be ridiculed. He didn’t need Motown to tell him how much they loved the album. But he did need everyone in the studio to reassure him that it was great.
On this particular night, after spending another three or four days sweetening the vocals, Marvin was still reluctant to let Motown hear what he had done. He was behind the wheel of the green Caddie. I was by his side. I was still amazed that the man of my dreams had let me into his world. He kept saying that, like a dream, I had stepped into his life. A midnight mist covered the Sunset Strip. Tourists lined up outside the neon nightclubs. Working girls stood in the shadows of the streetlights. Some were long-legged beauties. Others looked tired and sad.
“Would you roll us a jay, dear?” Marvin quietly asked me. He loved calling me dear. I loved how the word fell so easily from his lips.
We shared a joint. It wasn’t a fresh high—we had been smoking off and on since early afternoon—but it was a good late-night high, a high that let us cruise through Hollywood with the sweet anticipation of heading home and making love. It was a trouble-free high that had us especially mellow . . . until we heard the siren and saw the flashing police light.
Marvin pulled over. Two cops stepped up to the car. Marvin had no choice but to roll down the window. The smell of pot was pervasive.
“Please get out of the car,” said the first cop.
“Aren’t you Marvin Gaye?” asked the second.
Marvin was upset, but he hid it well. He knew the police would search the car and find a bag of weed in the glove compartment.
“Officer, if I could use your car phone to make a single call,” he said, “I’d be most grateful.” Instant charm!
They obliged him.
It took only ten minutes for a tall, beautiful light-skinned black woman to pull up beside us. This was Suzanne de Passe, high-ranking Motown exec and Berry Gordy’s closest aide. She was no-nonsense. She gave me a look as if to say, Wow, two stoned idiots. She was friendly but stern with Marvin before moving quickly to address the police. I couldn’t hear what Suzanne was saying, but she was obviously effective, because within minutes the cops were leaving the scene. There were no tickets, no repercussions. Marvin got off scot-free.
On the way back to Cattaraugus, Marvin was silent. I knew that he was relieved, but I also knew that he was unhappy that I had witnessed his dependence on Motown. Like a child in trouble at school, he needed his lifeline—Motown—to rescue him, even though Motown was the authority against which he rebelled. This incident had made him feel less like a man and more like a boy.
There was no lovemaking that night. In the morning, there was the awkward presence of Abe.
“You’re not comfortable when Abe is around, are you?” Marvin asked me.
“You know I’m not.”
“And if I asked him to move out and invited you to move in—how would that make you feel?”
The question took my breath away. I had been wishing for this very thing. It hadn’t been two months since that night I’d first come to the studio.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
“And what if your mother objects?” asked Marvin.
“My mother? No problem. How soon can Abe go?”
“Be patient, dear.”
Patience didn’t come easily. I was afraid that Marvin would change his mind and never ask Abe to leave. He’d never allow me to move in.
As my love for Marvin grew, so did my own fears and insecurities.
I started to grow up as our relationship grew. Even though I was seventeen and under the influence of drugs, I was beginning to realize that I, too, needed someone to make me feel special, to want to make me happy. I wanted to give him the children that he asked for. I wanted to let him have his flings, even if I had to bite my lip later and cry when he was away. I gave in when I probably shouldn’t have. I danced along that dangerous line of being accommodating but not giving in too much, and I was often left alone and hurting.