After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
The weeks leading up to the concert in Oakland were pure chaos. Marvin’s normally mellow manner was undercut by his nervousness about the upcoming performance. He was a wreck.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he told me on our way to rehearsal.
“But you are doing it,” I said.
“I was cajoled, I was manipulated, I was talked into going against my own good instincts. My fans will be let down.”
“Your fans will be thrilled. You’ll be fine.”
Marvin’s fear of performing—his vulnerability—made me love him more. It made him more human, more endearing.
“The music isn’t right,” he said. “The arrangements are off.”
“You’re the boss, dear. You’ll change them and make them right.”
“The clothes aren’t right. I don’t want to wear some ridiculous stage costume.”
“Let me worry about the clothes,” I said.
“Will you? Can you?”
“I think I can. I think I know what will make you happy.”
He took my hand and brought it to his lips. “Bless you, dear. Bless you for keeping me sane.”
My vision came to me quickly: I took the basic outfit Marvin wore in Topanga—the clothes that best suited his relaxed nature—and brought them to a clothier who tricked them out. His favorite super-comfy denim shirt was studded with rhinestones. His red watch cap was adorned with sequins. He wore his own worn-down work boots, but they were studded, painted silver, and customized with high platform heels.
“It’s rural funk,” said Marvin when I presented him with the clothes. “I love them! I love you!”
For the moment, his anxieties were chilled. But they returned after he missed the third straight rehearsal. His absence was alarming both the promoters and Motown, who had a great deal at stake. Nearly three years after the triumph of What’s Going On, this was being hailed as Marvin’s second coming. They wanted to know why he was avoiding rehearsals. Why was he cutting it so close? And now, days before the actual concert, he was threatening to once again cancel the whole thing.
“By now you have to know that he grooves on this,” Frankie told me one night when Marvin was out of earshot.
“Do you really believe that?”
“I know that. He likes to see everyone worrying to death on his behalf. It gets him off. He loves chaos.”
“Topanga isn’t chaos. Topanga is calm.”
“Topanga is beautiful,” Frankie agreed, “but Topanga isn’t real. You’ve already seen that Topanga won’t last for long.”
While Marvin was dreading the Oakland show, Frankie was looking forward to the date because Marvin had assured him that they’d be able to work together. Frankie, Marvin’s brother, saw this as his big chance.
When the big day arrived—January 4, 1974, a day before my eighteenth birthday—the chaos had not subsided. If anything, it had grown. Marvin had not only missed the sound check, but the orchestra had not been able to rehearse onstage. The few rehearsals Marvin did attend back in LA were hardly sufficient.
Gene Page, the veteran musical director who reminded me of Uncle Albert, the ditzy upside-down character played by Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins, was running around in a panic. The Motown delegation, which included members of the Gordy family and Suzanne de Passe, was in a state of high anxiety. There was talk that Marvin might not show.
But Marvin was in the house. Marvin was in his dressing room. I was with him. I was helping him put on his studded denim attire. I was sharing several preconcert joints with him. I was holding his hand that had turned sweaty and cold. I was assuring him that the world still loved him.
Due to the presence of the Motown people, I was dealing with my own anxiety. They gave me dirty looks and regarded me as nothing more than a groupie. They had a long history with Marvin. I did not. They felt that he belonged to them, not to me. I feared that they would find a way to undermine my relationship with Marvin and cause him to cut me loose.
Meanwhile, amid all this emotional chaos, fifteen thousand screaming fans awaited Marvin’s appearance.
I listened as the overture began. There were hints of Marvin’s trademark motifs, melancholy refrains from past hits. The anticipation was overwhelming. The overture seemed to go on forever.
I had moved to the wings to watch the moment at which not Marvin, but Frankie—with his uncanny resemblance to his brother—stepped into the spotlight. The crowd went wild. They thought they were seeing Marvin. Frankie simply stood there, relishing the moment, basking in the glory that was not really his.
“Now the man you’ve really been waiting to see,” Frankie finally said, “Mr. Marvin Gaye!
Frankie stepped out of the spotlight as Marvin stepped in.
The crowd went even wilder.
Would the lack of rehearsals render the show a disaster?
Would Marvin’s fears undercut his ability to sing?
He rose to the great occasion. It took a while, but soon he was soaring. Soon he was singing “Trouble Man.” He was Trouble Man—sexy and dangerous, gentle and sweet. He was flying high in a friendly sky, he was whispering “Mercy, mercy me,” warning us of the fate of our ecology, he was walking through the inner-city landscape of the blues. All this was fine. All this was cool. All this was well-mannered and mellow Marvin. But when the romantic Marvin emerged, and he broke into the opening strains of “Distant Lover,” pandemonium broke out. Women lost their minds. Their piercing screams shattered the night.
Marvin loved being loved—and I loved watching him drink in the adoration. I was thrilled.
The thrills increased when I heard the first notes of a song that Marvin had written for me, simply titled “Jan.” He had played me the song—a tribute to our enduring love—and hinted that he would perform it, but during several of the rehearsals he chose not to sing it. Until now, I wasn’t certain that he would.
I listened closely to every word of his spoken introduction:
“Here’s a new song I wrote,” he said, “a song about a little girl, really a beautiful young lady. She asked me to write it, I promised her I would . . . it goes like this.”
Suddenly my excitement took a nosedive. I had never asked him to write it. He offered. I was disappointed that he told the audience that I asked him to write it. It took away some of the pleasure and the romance of it all. However, it remains one of my favorite songs to this day.
I understood that the presence of the Motown execs had affected him. Everyone pretended to like the song and that he wrote it for me, but they typically didn’t like reissues on any albums. They especially hated the fact that he had left Anna and was living with some young chick. So if he was going to write a song about the chick, it was only because the chick asked him to. No big deal.
But to me it was a huge deal. The fact that he was singing this song at a concert being recorded as a live album was confirmation of his commitment to me. This concert would become a historical document. But now that document would indicate that the song was my idea. I was completely humiliated. Yet the song was out there—and so were his feelings for me. At the same time, I hated being portrayed as an insecure teenage girl who had to beg her man to write a song for her. Of course I had wanted Marvin to compose such a song—what woman wouldn’t?—but I’d never made that request. I knew him well enough to know how he resented such requests.
Thus it was with heavy equivocation that I heard him sing how Janis was his girl, how there was no one sweeter, how his life would be tragic without her, how she was unique and how he was her greatest fan.
The words got to me. His performance got to me. Throughout the show, my heart never stopped pounding. The longer he performed, the more confident he grew, the louder the response of his adoring fans. When it finally came time to do his current red-hot hit, just the opening guitar lick of “Let’s Get It On” was enough to drive the fans into a complete frenzy.
Afterward, the dressing room was a madhouse. Everyone wanted to join in the celebration, get close to him, tell him how great he was, take a picture.
Hours later in the hotel suite, he and I were finally alone.
“It was beautiful,” I said. “You were beautiful.”
“I didn’t forget to sing your song.”
“Why did you tell the audience that I asked you to write it?”
“Well, dear, I didn’t want to upset anyone.”
I knew what he meant. As a superstar, you have to make all the ladies believe that they are special. If he wrote a song for me on his own, it would mean that they are not special to him. He was also afraid to upset the Motown execs, and surely, Anna.
I considered complaining about his inaccurate introduction to the song but didn’t. “Thank you,” was all I said.
“Did it make you feel special?”
“And did it make you want to go back to Topanga so we could be alone again?”
“Yes, if we ever could really be alone.”
“We can. We will. I’ll tell Frankie to leave. It will all work out.”
I agreed, but the calm never came.
Nestled back in the canyon, I saw that Marvin’s usual cool had been undermined by the triumph in Oakland. His ego had been excited. The moments of quiet humility were noticeably fewer. When Motown delivered a million-dollar check reflecting royalties, Marvin made a copy and hung it above the fireplace.
“Why put it there?” I asked.
“To remind me,” said Marvin.
“That I’ve already made and spent three other fortunes.”
“And you intend to squander this one?”
“No, I intend to ignore the demands of this cold world and stay here with you, dear.”
“But what about this manager of yours who keeps talking about a world tour?”
That manager was Stephen Hill, a highly educated black Jamaican with green eyes and wavy hair who spoke in an aristocratic tone and had won Marvin’s confidence.
“Stephen is brilliant—and also strong enough to take on the Gordys. He has no fear of anyone.”
Do you? I wanted to ask Marvin, but stopped myself in time. I realized that in some ways the answer was yes. But I knew that Marvin didn’t want to admit it. Marvin wanted to act as though he had no fears. There was the macho Marvin who did not want to remember the times he had gone to Berry, begging him to bail him out of one financial mess or another. The macho Marvin also did not want to recall the long years in Detroit when, according to those closest to him, Anna ruled the roost.
Those were the same years when, to prove himself, macho Marvin trained to be a boxer. When the attempt was unsuccessful, he began investing in boxers. His latest fighter had recently been knocked out in the second round in a prize fight in San Diego, leaving Marvin more deflated than the fighter himself. I saw that hiring a super-confident manager like Stephen Hill was Marvin’s way of regaining his always-precarious confidence.
“Stephen keeps saying that you shouldn’t be living in the canyon,” I reminded Marvin. “He thinks you need to be in Los Angeles or New York.”
“What he thinks and what I do are two separate matters, dear,” said Marvin. “What I’m most interested in doing is loving you all day and night until we make a beautiful baby boy together.”
When I failed to have my period at the end of January, I harbored hope that I was pregnant again. I kept the news to myself, though, for fear of disappointing Marvin.
Our lovemaking, while blissful, had a new edge of determination. I flashed back to the night after the Oakland show when, high on the success of his performance, he came inside me with a force I had never felt before. Had that been the magical moment of conception? Exactly nine months later I would learn that it was.
Against the backdrop of growing love there was the subtext of growing fear. Maybe it was being isolated in the canyon; maybe it was all the pot we consumed; maybe it was coming home one day to find that Shad and Caesar, our Great Danes, had been attacked and maimed by someone who also stole the AK–47 rifle that Marvin had hidden in the house.
Serenity soon turned to paranoia. We feared that the perpetrator of the crime would come back to kill us. Our security was compromised. We panicked and fled to the city for the weekend where in a hotel suite we turned on the television to watch reports of a brushfire raging through Topanga Canyon.
The day after the blaze we drove back to see if the house had survived the flames. It had, but our nerves had not.
Topanga was no longer an option. The tranquil retreat had transformed into a nightmare. Fires raging, killers on the loose.
“I don’t think we should ever come back here,” said Marvin.
I didn’t argue.
We climbed back into the jeep and headed down the winding roads through the canyon for the last time. Looking back at the home we had once shared, I realized that we were running from our fears. We were also running from a period of our lives in which our love had been nourished. I regretted the run but, sharing Marvin’s anxieties about the unexplained crime and the deadly blaze, I also welcomed it. Either way, I was glad that we were running together. Our relationship had strengthened. We had survived Cattaraugus; we had survived Topanga; we had survived the hysteria of Oakland.
I had every reason to be jubilant, if only for the fact that when we reached the ocean and followed the coast back to the city, I shared with Marvin the news that he had been hoping to hear.
A child was growing inside me.