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The Rebirth Of Marvin Gaye

Soul singer's work remains as timely as ever

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What's going on? All of a sudden, Marvin Gaye is everywhere. A-list stars crank out tribute albums covering the soul singer's greatest hits, Grammy-winning musicians acknowledge his influence, and his former label, Motown, regularly re-issues special editions of his classic records. He even had a hit with Erick Sermon, whose duet "Music" featured Gaye's overlapping, sampled voice.

Not bad for a singer who's been dead 18 years.

I'm grateful that Marvin Gaye is with us again, but for me, as for millions of people who still buy his records, he never really went away. Even today, listening to certain Marvin Gaye songs, I feel a weight in my chest, as if gravity has suddenly increased its pull in the region of my heart. Perhaps that's heartache, or the memory of its physical shape. It's always bittersweet; Marvin can do that to you.

Author Steve Erickson once wrote that the great American novels of the 20th century could be found in the music of artists like Springsteen, Dylan, Chuck Berry and Marvin Gaye. And Gaye, who was murdered on April 1, 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, was a brilliant storyteller. He had a genius for using his voice to explore and telegraph infectious grooves, smoky sensuality or, in the case of his 1971 self-produced masterpiece, What's Going On, compassion and concern.

Musically elegant and politically radical, What's Going On was entirely unlike the bright, buoyant music coming off the Motown assembly line. It was the first album created by a black artist that addressed the social upheaval of America at the end of the 1960s: the Vietnam War, race riots, unemployment and poverty in the inner city, pollution, the assassinations of beloved leaders. The songs take the point of view of a Vietnam vet -- specifically, Marvin's brother Frankie, who returned from the war with stories that horrified Marvin and kindled his social conscience. Frankie, in a sense, is the album's narrator, but it is a spiritual self-portrait of Marvin Gaye.

For me, What's Going On conjures up a newsreel of my childhood, the events of a decade oddly compressed.

My best friend's brother, Bobby J, had just come back from Vietnam. Many others in our predominantly Latino neighborhood had not. The war flickered across our television screen nightly and Walter Cronkite grew old before our eyes, reciting the body count. My father watched with tears rolling down his cheeks and he cursed Lyndon Johnson. "Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" we chanted at peace marches.

The images remain indistinct to me, just vague outlines. The music fills in the color, adds emotional truth. In a seamless, 35-minute-long song cycle, Marvin Gaye articulated the country's shock and disbelief, asked the question everyone was asking. He depicted the crises of the day vividly, but without hostility or rancor. As Gaye chronicler Ben Edmonds observed, "The lyric expresses extreme hurt and anger, yet the song never gives in to either."

War and Peace

It's a quirk of fate that art born of rage and hatred rarely stand the test of time. The human soul seeks reconciliation; thus, more than 30 years after its release, record stores still have trouble keeping What's Going On in stock. The title song is one of our culture's most indelible anti-war anthems. The other, of course, is John Lennon's great "Imagine," which was also released in 1971. Lennon envisioned the possibilities of a world at peace; Gaye looked unflinchingly at the ugliest realities of society and asked how things got so bad. Neither song ever seems to get dated (war, after all, hasn't gone out of style).

"He's our John Lennon," Janet Jackson once said of Marvin Gaye. Yet remembering Gaye is not like remembering Lennon. At the time of his death, Lennon had made peace with his private demons and with the fanatical spiral of his celebrity. He had matured as an artist and as a man. The week Lennon was killed, a grieving Michael Ventura wrote in the L.A. Weekly of the irony that John Lennon, like Malcolm X, "was only shot after he had conquered the violence in himself."

Unlike the former Beatle, Marvin Gaye was a tremendously conflicted performer who died before he had a chance to quiet the commotion in his life and the violence in himself. He had an increasingly out-of-control cocaine addiction. Both his marriages had unraveled. He was a superstar frightened of fame; a hitmaker who longed to be considered an artist. Deeply religious, he was ambivalent about his status as a sex symbol and even talked of becoming a monk, yet he created some of the loveliest and most erotic songs in pop music. Most painful of all was his unresolved conflict with his father, a retired Pentecostal minister. It wasn't for nothing that David Ritz titled his biography of Gaye Divided Soul.

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