There was always something sacred about Marvin Gaye’s voice. Beneath the smooth delivery in songs such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” I felt that he was praying. That feeling was confirmed when he released the openly Christian What’s Going On in 1971, only to be followed two years later by the wildly erotic Let’s Get It On.
‘When I sing, it’s purity I pray for because purity lives on the other side of pain.’
We met after the critics had slammed 1978’s Here, My Dear, Marvin’s idiosyncratic suite of songs dedicated to his first wife, Anna Gordy Gaye, that detailed their ruinous relationship. I rebutted the Los Angeles Times’ harsh review in a letter to the editor. I called the double album a masterpiece comparable to the best work of Duke Ellington and Stevie Wonder. Even the album artwork, an illustration depicting symbols of pain and divorce dominated by Marvin clad in a toga and posing as a Roman senator, was singular. My aim in praising the record was twofold: I wanted to defend Marvin, but I also hoped he’d see what I wrote and reach out to me. He did just that.
Marvin had just read Brother Ray (1978), Ray Charles’s autobiography that I had cowritten, and decided he wanted to tell his own story. I was thrilled. The experience with Ray had been beautiful, yet always a little scary. Ray was a taskmaster, a strict uncle. Marvin was a cool older brother. Our first meeting took place in his studio on Sunset Boulevard. When I walked in, Marvin was seated behind the engineering board, leaning into a microphone and composing a song. The act was pure improvisation. Even though his vocal was amplified through enormous speakers, it remained restrained. Inside his voice, I heard that familiar tear. But being in his presence, I also felt an urgency that hadn’t registered on his records. As he sang, his eyes closed. He addressed a woman, urging her to “let your love come shining through.” But the focus soon changed. The sudden shift was to a song of praise: praise God when you work, praise God when you play, praise him when you’re sad, praise him when you’re glad, praise him when you dance, when you make romance, praise him every day in every way. Marvin was, in fact, praying.
When the song was finished, he half opened his eyes and saw me. His smile was soft. His speaking voice was equally soft. He thanked me for my defense of Here, My Dear and asked if, before we began to chat, I’d mind if he continued working for a while. If that meant listening to Marvin sing, I hoped that he’d work for hours. And he did.
Before he began, he lit a joint and passed it my way. “You smoke?” he asked.
I took a hit and settled back into the deep cushions of the couch.
The high was strong. Not surprisingly, I started tripping: I was in Marvin Gaye’s studio watching him invent songs on the spot. I was also mesmerized by Marvin’s grooves, grooves that I wanted to go on forever because, as long as they pulsated, all was right with the world. These gentle grooves, whether created by pianist Fats Waller or clarinetist Edmond Hall, had been calming me down while also revving me up ever since I was a child.
When he took a break, I expressed that idea to him. “Interesting,” he said in a mellow tone. “Jesus put it this way: ‘You must come to me as a child.’”
I started tripping: I was in Marvin Gaye’s studio watching him invent songs on the spot.
I wasn’t expecting that response. And I wasn’t sure what to say.
“It’s the Gospel of Mark,” Marvin continued. “‘Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ The Lord knew that before the world gets hold of children, they’re pure. It pains me to reflect on my loss of purity. When I sing, it’s purity I pray for because purity lives on the other side of pain.”
He closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and said, “I’m a Christian, or at least try to be. When I fail, which is often, it’s because I block myself from God’s love. I sin. Everyone does, but my definition of sin is very specific.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Sin is when we separate ourselves from God.”
“Are you sinning, then, when you create secular music?”
“Not at all. That’s an old myth; a leftover superstition from my father’s generation that said keep the devil’s music out of church. Singing about sex doesn’t exclude the presence of sacred spirit. Or does it? Who has the key to marry spirit to flesh? Once I thought I possessed it, but in reality I lost it long ago.”
“I lost it in the morass of show business. I lost it in a sea of self-centeredness.”
• • •
Marvin and I set out on our literary collaboration. I spent months in his studio; I went on the road with him; we visited his childhood neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His candor never faltered, even as his circumstances worsened: the IRS, after him for back taxes, took possession of his studio. Motown, his label for decades, was hounding him for a long-overdue album. Both of his ex-wives were suing him for unpaid child support. On the brink of bankruptcy, he fled to Hawaii, living in a bread van on the beach, and then to London, where freebase cocaine ravaged his mind. Out of both concern and cunning, a concert promoter brought him to Ostend, Belgium. It was there, during a harsh winter, that Marvin struggled to regain his footing.
‘Jesus remains constant. His love is unbreakable. I felt that love from the beginning. It wasn’t anything I learned.’
Though we had spoken by phone several times while he was in Europe, it wasn’t until the spring of 1982 that Marvin invited me to Ostend. The streets were clean, the air clear and cold, the wind bracing. Well-dressed locals strolled the seaside promenade with their poodles and Pekingese; the restaurants and taverns served up platters of fresh flounder and shrimp. The pace of life was, as Marvin put it, “a beat back from London or New York.”
Marvin’s apartment overlooked the vast North Sea. We usually met there at night when the water was lit by moonlight. His front room afforded a full view of the cruise ships, tankers, and tugboats floating by.
Marvin looked exhausted and he had gained weight. His puffy eyes said he had been through hell. But he said he was back and ready to forge ahead. He’d quit Motown and signed with Columbia Records, for which he was determined to deliver a debut smash. He wanted to punctuate his prolonged European exile with a hit record.
We went back to work on the book, but also jogged on the beach and walked through the woods outside the city. We sat in ancient churches and played darts in the bars. Late one night, alone in his apartment, we watched a documentary on John Coltrane. Coltrane’s most spiritual composition, A Love Supreme, moved Marvin deeply, and he began discussing Jesus’ miracles. In Mark 1:140–5, a leper comes to the Lord.
“I can see Jesus stretching out his hand and touching the man,” said Marvin, “while gently whispering ‘Be cleansed.’”
Marvin closed his eyes. Several long seconds passed before he began speaking of his father. There was the joy of his father’s Spirit-filled storefront church, but there was also the violence Marvin endured at the hands of a man who, before beating him, forced him to strip. His father also deeply confused his family by sometimes donning women’s clothing.
“Did the beatings and cross-dressing make you doubt his theology?” I asked.
“I remember the beauty of his sermons. The beauty of his singing voice. I remember the church saints, the women in white shouting the holy name of Jesus, the women embracing me, bringing me close to their bosoms, keeping me safe in the bosom of the Lord. We change. We waver. But Jesus remains constant. His love is unbreakable. I felt that love from the beginning. It wasn’t anything I learned. It was something I felt. I still do. I still believe.”
As we spoke, a cassette played on a boom box. The music throbbed with a reggae-like rhythm. There were no lyrics or melody. Marvin was certain that this track, written by his keyboardist, Odell Brown, had the makings of a hit, but he lacked a story. The second the tape stopped, he rewound it and played it from the top. I felt the groove infectiously fueling our conversation.
Marvin continued to speak on the goodness of the Lord. He explained that the ultimate manifestation of an inaudible and invisible God was the fleshly Jesus, who, both human and divine, expressed the loving nature of his creator.
Given the sweet nature of Marvin’s music, I saw how the artist and his art were forged by faith. It was then that I noticed a book sitting on the coffee table: an elaborately bound volume of cartoon illustrations by Georges Pichard, a Frenchman, Marvin explained, who applied an avant-garde sensibility to kinky sex.
“Take a look,” he urged.
I was taken aback. The drawings depicted women being sexually brutalized. Seeing my shock, Marvin began quoting the Marquis de Sade.
“‘Sex is as important as eating or drinking,’ he wrote, ‘and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other.’”
“But the infliction of vicious pain. . . .” I protested.
“It is only by way of pain,” Marvin continued, paraphrasing the marquis, “that one arrives at pleasure.”
‘Christ resolved the war of the spirit and the flesh. I have not.’
“And you find these drawings compatible with the teachings of Christ?”
“Christ resolved the war of the spirit and the flesh. I have not.”
“But don’t you want to stop the war? Don’t you want to heal the pain?”
He answered my question with one of his own: “Sex is never a painful subject for you?”
I told him that, as long as I could remember, I was sexually attracted to both genders. I was married to Roberta, a woman I loved deeply, but no matter how satisfying our physical relationship, my homosexual side had not abated.
Marvin spoke of his own sexual complexity. He confessed that, like his father, he liked adorning himself in women’s clothing.
“My father isn’t gay,” he said, “but his feminine sensibility is strong. Mine as well. With that comes shame. Does bisexuality cause pain in you?”
“Only in that I can’t always have what I want.”
I went on to explain that, at my urging, Roberta had agreed to an open marriage earlier in the seventies that proved disastrous and resulted in confusion, jealousy, and uncertainty.
“I understand,” said Marvin as he rewound the cassette and started it from the beginning. A minute ticked by before I said, “Sexual healing.”
Marvin broke out into a broad smile. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Sexual healing is something that’s good for you,” I said. “The pain is healed, and there’s no need to keep pursuing it.”
“That might be the story I’ve been looking for. Write it out. Let it flow.”
On a yellow pad, I wrote, “Whenever blue tears are falling and my emotional stability is leaving me, there is something I can do. . . .”
In a matter of minutes, I wrote the rest of the words, culminating with “Sexual healing is something that’s good for me.” Marvin took the words and, as if each syllable were attached to a musical note, fashioned a melody. In less than a half hour, the song was written.
Adapted from The God Groove: A Blues Journey to Faith by David Ritz. Copyright © 2019 by David Ritz. Reprinted by permission of Howard Books/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.