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Divided soul: the life of Marvin Gaye.


The Life of Marvin Gaye.

By David Ritz. McGraw-Hill. 367 pp. $16.95.

The "sexual healing' that soul singer Marvin Gaye celebrated in his final hit record eluded him all his life, as did any emotional peace. The grainy, pleading voice that thrilled an international following for twenty years belonged to a man wracked by psychosexual conflicts rooted in his tortured, violent childhood. In David Ritz's aptly titled, deeply disturbing biography, Gaye emerges as a tragic figure whose destiny was prefigured in the traumas of his earliest years.

Gaye's story is Oedipus in reverse: last year, at the age of 44, he was shot dead by his father, with whom he had been a lifelong competitor for his mother's love. In Ritz's telling, Gaye's violent death was the inevitable outcome of the primal antagonism that haunted the singer's life like a recurring illness, poisoning his relationships and souring his professional triumphs.

David Ritz, co-author of Brother Ray, the revealing antobiography of Ray Charles, tells Marvin Gaye's sorrowful story with remarkable insight and sensitivity. Divided Soul started out in 1979 as a collaboration between Gaye and his longtime admirer. Ritz is sympathetic and loving toward the man whose friend and confidant he was for several years, but he doesn't hide Gaye's dark side, his self-absorption, his cruelties and violence. Divided Soul is often startlingly candid, but it manages to avoid lurid sensationalism, no mean feat given the particulars of the story: sex, drugs, child abuse, show-business scandal.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Marvin Gaye grew up in a home suffused with religious zealotry, violence and sexual confusion. His parents, Marvin and Alberta Gay, belonged to the House of God, a sect that combined Pentecostalism and Orthodox Judaism. Its dogma was strict and demanding, heavy on self-sacrifice and sexual repression. Gay Sr., a minister in the church, demanded total compliance with its fierce tenets from his family.

The peculiarities of their religious observance alienated the Gays from other Washington blacks, but more disturbing to young Marvin was the turmoil at home. Close to his mother, who provided him with unstinting love and approval, he found himself at odds with his father from the day he was born. According to Alberta Gay, "My husband never wanted Marvin . . . he didn't love Marvin, and what's worse, he didn't want me to love Marvin either.'

A charismatic preacher, the elder Gay was also a sadist who regularly beat his children. He seemed to reserve a special, gleeful ferocity for Marvin. "By the time I was twelve,' the singer recalls, "there wasn't an inch of my body that hadn't been bruised and beaten by him.' Aware that he was unloved, and conscious of the pleasure his father took in beating him, Marvin began to deliberately provoke the violence. If he couldn't win his father's approval, at least there was a way to get his attention. Seeking out pain--whether by sabotaging his relationships or his career--would become the leitmotif of Marvin Gaye's life.

Marvin Sr.'s sexual ambiguity seems to have distressed his son even more than his cruelty. An effeminate man, he liked to dress up in women's clothes. Alberta Gay says that her husband "liked to wear my panties, my shoes, my gowns, even my nylon hose. Marvin would see him like that sometimes.' The singer maintains that his father was entirely heterosexual, but Alberta isn't so sure. She says that five of her husband's siblings were homosexual. Ghetto youths taunted Marvin for being the son of a "sissy.' Early in his career he appended the "e' to his patronymic because "all someone has to do with my name is put an "is' in front of it. . . . Man, I can't tell you how many guys have asked me that.'

In his interviews with Ritz, Gaye insisted on his unconditional heterosexuality, and the author takes him at his word. Ritz is unwilling to consider seriously the possibility that his friend and idol had a fairly strong homosexual component to his personality, but the clues are there. Gaye's persistent, powerful fantasy of watching other men make love to his first wife is interpreted by Ritz as masochistic, but there is another way to read it. Gaye was obsessed with proving his masculinity, and to fail at any of his chosen pursuits was to be "a faggot.' He felt threatened by the gay liberation movement, for which he had "absolutely no sympathy,' according to Ritz. His panic about homosexuality could reach comic extremes. He decided not to make an album with Johnny Mathis, a singer he admired, because he feared that his fans might think the two were lovers.

Gaye disliked being the son of a sexually ambiguous man, but he did own up to sharing some of his father's tastes: "I have the same fascination with women's clothes . . . I indulge myself at only the most discreet and intimate moments. Afterward, I must bear the guilt and shame for weeks. After all, indulgence of the flesh is wicked, no matter what your kick. The hot stuff is lethal. I've never been able to stay away from the hot stuff.'

Sex preoccupied Gaye, but so did the fervid spirituality he had absorbed in his father's church. He tried to reconcile the warring sides of his personality by sanctifying sex. He sought in his life, and tried to express in music, an eroticism so enrapturing that it transcended lust and approached godliness. (Prince, in his obsession with salvation through sexuality, is very much Gaye's heir.) Gaye's divided soul could not, however, abandon the belief that "indulgence of the flesh is wicked.' "Part of Marvin was too sophisticated to subscribe to the tenets of his father's Pentecostal church,' observes Ritz, "but another part--a more powerful part--was never able to shake off those notions.'

The war within was carried into Gaye's relationships with women. Although he cultivated his image as a lover, he often resented, even hated women, whether they were his wives and numerous lovers or the fans who clamored for the sweat-soaked handkerchiefs he flung from concert stages. "Pleasing women was a chore he approached with suppressed anger, says Ritz. The only ones who didn't threaten him--because they made no demands-- were prostitutes and his ever-loving, indulgent mother.

Gaye's two marriages were disasters. The first, to Anna Gordy, sister of Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown musical empire, ended in a spectacular, much publicized divorce. (Gaye chronicled the tempestuous relationship on his 1978 album, Here, My Dear.) He married Janis Hunter because she seemed to embody his fantasy image of woman as irresistible temptress and implacable foe. He opposed her ambition for a singing career, insisting that she be a housewife and mother. But he encouraged her to have affairs with other men. He would then wallow in the pain of betrayal while also abusing her, sometimes violently, for acting on his suggestions. Gaye wished for a tranquil domestic life with Janis and their children, but with staggering perversity he did everything he could to destroy their happiness.

How did a man with such crippling neuroses manage to create such an impressive, enduring body of work? Gaye made his first recordings in the late 1950s for Chess and Okeh, rhythm and blues labels owned by whites. The hits didn't come until the early 1960s when he signed with Motown, that marvel of black capitalism. Gaye's career spanned three decades of black music, encompassing every major stylistic development: doo-wop harmonizing, soul, disco and funk. He was a superb vocalist with a three-octave range, and a gifted songwriter, arranger and multi-instrumentalist.

Gaye stamped his intense personality on the material written for him by the house songwriters at Motown. When he became an auteur in the 1970s, he specialized in transforming his personal crises and obsessions into pop music of uncommon emotional depth. But self-scrutiny could result in self-indulgence. The enthusiasm of Ritz the fan blinds Ritz the author to this shortcoming, leading him to overrate Gaye's uneven late 1970s work. Gaye's least solipsistic and best record was 1971's What's Going On. Innovative in theme and form, the nine-song soul suite presented his pained, angry reactions to Vietnam, ecological disaster and the plight of blacks in America's ghettos.

Having been emotionally and physically battered as a child, Gaye never developed a secure sense of self, despite his success. He alternated between grandiose egotism and punishing self-doubt and despair. During the last five years of his life, his problems overwhelmed him. By 1980 he had two failed marriages behind him, his career and finances were a shambles and he was addicted to cocaine. Gaye made two hit records in 1982--"Sexual Healing' and the disappointing album Midnight Love--but his late successes paled next to those of the ascendant Michael Jackson, an upstart Gaye admired and resented.

Gaye's last concert tour was a fiasco. To half-filled houses he performed a self-parodistic superstud routine which ended with him dropping him pants. He retired to the Los Angeles home he had purchased for his parents, and there his drug addiction and mental deterioration worsened. There were suicide attempts and conflicts with his father. A minor dispute between Marvin Sr. and Alberta erupted into the fatal confrontation between father and son. Coming to his mother's defense, Gaye beat the elder man, who then got the gun his son had bought, returned to Marvin's bedroom and calmly shot him, in the presence of Alberta.

Ritz reconstructs Gaye's personal tragedy without losing sight of its larger context. Racism, the exploitation of black artists (white domination of show business comes under Ritz's fire, but he doesn't let Motown off the hook), the central role of the church in black culture, the politics of sex--all are deftly woven into the soulful threnody of Marvin Gaye's life. Divided Soul may remind some readers of Just Above My Head, James Baldwin's epic novel portraying thirty years of black life in America through the sorrows and triumphs of a soul singer who, like Gaye, began his career in the church, suffered sexual conflicts and died too young. Ritz's book can't approach the poetic genius of Baldwin's, but it has much the same emotional and truth-telling power.
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Author:De Stefano, George
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 5, 1985
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