Marvin Gaye stormed the charts with adult music that was a seething mix of sexual tension and tortured spirituality. Karen Bennett swoons and simmers as she explores the legacy of the greatest loverman of them all. This article was originally published in The Wire 112 (June 1993).
Discussing sex simply as an element in the music of Marvin Gaye is like talking about the E string’s relation to the bass. It’s integral; without it, the bass is not the bass; the centre would not hold. And so with Gaye’s music – sex, sexuality, erotic love was the centre, a given, a theme continually remined from a myriad of perspectives. It was explored, celebrated, begged for, disdained; it was a vehicle of trust, distrust, tenderness, abuse, obsession. Gaye’s voice made him a star; but this subject, which he returned to so often, added a dimension to his stardom – that of sex symbol.
Marvin didn't just sing about sex, he acted it out in performance, wooing ladies in performance, tossing them sweat-soaked handkerchiefs, employing scantily-clad dancers, even dropping his pants on stage. Beyond that, many of his love/sex songs were directed to specific women – he mentions Janis Hunter by name on one album: while his very high-profile marriage to and divorce from Anna Gordy was documented on Here, My Dear. Proceeds from its sale were the divorce settlement. People knew he was singing from real life.
In the tortured life of Marvin Gaye, things fell apart often and inexorably. Divorce, betrayal (real or imagined), drug abuse, drug-induced paranoia, attempted suicide and guilt over his own deathwish were all way-stations on the harrowing journey that culminated in his shocking death, at the hands of his father, on 1 April 1984. This event gave rise to widespread media chronicling of his private life, which revealed a pattern of abuse by his father being countered by the unequivocal and devoted love of his mother. The antagonism and tension inherent in this situation were played out right to the end. You don't have to read too far between the lines to spot a classic Oedipal conflict, which, unresolved as it evidently remained, made it inevitable that Marvin Gaye would have a hellish time with women.
In his detailed and sensitive psychoanalysis and biography of Gaye, Divided Soul, writer David Ritz refers repeatedly to the singer's unrequited need for approval and his perpetual self doubt, both professional and sexual (Ritz is in fact credited on the sleeve of 1982's Midnight Love for giving Gaye the idea for the title "Sexual Healing"). In Ritz's book, each major era of Gaye's life and career is set in relief against a dynamic map of his psychological terrain, a formidable undertaking.
This article has a narrower focus – the different ways in which Gaye presented and treated sex in his music: artistically, through his use of tone, lyrics, rhythm, vocal tracking; and humanly, with sex in all its variety running the spectrum from joy to pain, from obscenity to spirituality, often all at once. He posed a telling rhetorical question in "Heavy Love Affair" (from In Our Lifetime, 1981): "What are these strange emotions? Loving the pleasure sweetly, loving the pain as deeply." Sex, in short, is a paradox. More than anything this is the matter of Marvin Gaye's song – and on this matter, more than anyone else, he sang the truth.
“Put your face right here/Start to eat…
you hate yourself/you selfish little bitch…
if you do it right/you’ll get the pipe…
Bitch, are you coming?”
– from “Masochistic Beauty”
He started singing in church as a young boy, and despite the fact that his own father, a self-styled preacher, beat him unmercifully and withheld paternal love, he also taught Gaye about Jesus, love and mercy. The Lord became a kinder, gentler Father to whom Gaye professed his love and thanks on numerous album covers and in song, and as such surfaces in the middle of several of Gaye's more sexual tunes. Consider "Sanctified Lady" (from Dream Of A Lifetime, 1985) in which Marvin catalogues various sexual practices, then declares he needs a "sanctified pussy", "A good ole church girl" who's "love-wet" and who says "I'm savin' mine for Jesus." At which point, the background vocal chorus, which has been repeating "sanctified" throughout the tune, intones "Jesus".
On the same album (released posthumously) the song "Masochistic Beauty" appears; some of the lyrics are quoted above. The song is spoken in a sinister, monotonal mock-British accent; several times the speaker refers to the woman as a whore. The madonna/whore complex screams from "Sanctified Lady". It is enhanced by the incongruity of hearing a church-type chorus chanting "sanctified" while Marvin sings things like, "some girls suck/some don't care/some girls fuck/some don't dare". He later adds wearily, "I'm so tired of jiving’". The very use of profanity in the song undercuts its message; we are set up to hear the irony "Masochistic Beauty", on the other hand, is one-dimensional – the flat voice, the fake accent and repetitive rhythm track become boring; there is no melody. The words are intended to shock, but almost as shocking is the amateurishness and tastelessness of this cut. The lusty church girl, by contrast, is interesting; the whore is a bore.
This juxtaposition of physical and divine love surfaced earlier in Gaye's work in much more subtle ways. Let's Get It On (1973) featured both the title track and the cut "Keep Gettin' It On", an obvious variation on the theme. In the first Marvin lays out his famous seduction argument "there's nothing wrong with me/loving you - giving yourself to me could never be wrong/if the love is true". Bolstered by, "Do you know the meaning/of being sanctified?" On the second, he extends the argument to invoke a more universal love; making love is presented as an apposite alternative to making war. Gaye urges people to "think about your good now/bout the good that's in ya/Just bring it on you/Wha'cha waitin' for?" Then he invokes God "Oh Jesus, I'm tryin' to tell the people/to come on and get it on/Yes, Lord!" As if he were clarifying his more noble intentions to the Almighty for this particular track, Gaye's vocal timbre has changed – it is harsher and more didactic. The reverse psychology of the gigolo ("I ain't gonna push/No pushin’ baby") is abandoned, and in his place stands a preacher with a message.
But as Gaye shifts shape, it's suddenly clear that it's the role of chameleon that Gaye really uses so effectively throughout his work. He adopts a Dracula-type persona through the vocal effect on "Masochistic Beauty", as if to disassociate himself (and the identifiable sound of Marvin Gaye) from his baser instincts in what is certainly one of his cruder and least musical tunes. But he is supplicant rather than dominator on "Til Tomorrow" (from Midnight Love) – on the spoken prelude to the song, as the woman is (presumably) getting out of his bed, he pours it on, by any means necessary "Oh don't go just yet, Baby/Tu étais incroyable. Oh Baby, don't go right now/l can 't stand it please/I love you Baby, I love you so much"
Supplication and cajolery is heard right through Gaye's amorous repertoire: "Baby, I think I'm capsizing/the waves are rising and rising," he calls on the celebrated "Sexual Healing" (also from Midnight Love), a tune made all the more memorable and light-hearted by its reggae backbeat. But it's the prescriptive little addition which bolsters his plaint "and it's good for us". This particular habit, so transparent as a lure and yet so human in it compulsion to rationalize, becomes more ingratiating (or anyway less annoying) the more one spots it. You're being badgered with simplistic reasoning. Who wants to make war when making love is the option? Who wants to wake up alone when "good experienced company" is the option? The aim of these various propositions could be summed up as ‘Just say yes’. As "Sexual Healing" fades, we hear the final plea "Please don't procrastinate/it's not good to masturbate," an audaciously clever deployment of what was surely a nagging church taboo. (The nuns at my school certainly made a point of it.)
"You know real soon, baby/I'/I be stroking you
In and out, up and down, all around –
I love to hear you make those sounds."
– from "Feel All My Love Inside"
But of course the most sustained, extraordinary anthem to erotic love is the seamless I Want You album (1976), wherein every element is marshalled to the seductive effect. The dense percussion, the echoing synth and the multi-tracked vocals give this music an almost palpable texture, weaving a spell that is enhanced by the repetition of both the title track and "After The Dance". Vocal and instrumental arrangements of each are heard, and the restatement of the theme drives the point home masterfully.
In addition, the layered effect (achieved through overdubbing) affords the singer the equivalent in music to a subliminal cut in film. He is able to suggest things that would have caused a furore at the time if heard outright. For example, Ritz maintains that Marvin was indeed singing, "I'm gonna give you some head" in "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again" (which for some reason he repeatedly – tellingly? – calls "Soon I'll Be Leaving You"). This detail, not readily audible, was actually brought to my notice some time before I read Divided Soul (a member of the vocal group The Five Stairsteps, who reportedly sang backup with Marvin's band on the road, told a musician friend of mine, who told me). Once the line is identified, however, it is eminently clear, and it also gets repeated. In addition, other statements are also disguised by the layered vocal track. Unless my aural sense has become totally perverted during this endeavor, after much careful listening, I heard (in the aforementioned tune): "I can't wait to touch you/Give you that feeling/Hit you with my dick/So your mood will be revealing." And there's more, purportedly; in fact everyone seems to have a theory about what he's saying here and elsewhere. The fact that it's so well disguised is what makes it intriguing, and adds to the overall mystique.
But the overdubbing also helps to create an enveloping effect, tantamount to having different sweet things whispered in each ear simultaneously. Gaye sings the sex act on "Feel All My Love Inside", replete with female moans (which surface on other tracks as well). But these are mostly superfluous, given the intensity and cohesion of the production. Mention the I Want You album to people of a certain generation and their eyes simply glaze over. As Gaye says (in "Come Live With Me, Angel") "Just you and me/locked up for days", and that's what happened all over when this LP was released.
"Sometimes I hate your guts/And love your nuts
Sometimes I love your guts/And hate your nuts.”
– from "Heavy Love Affair"
In spite of it all, Gaye's material is tame compared to what's going on in rap today, particularly underground rap. But we are talking not only about two different genres of music, but about two vastly different approaches to the sexual gestalt. Marvin Gaye set precedents, he was the groundbreaker. This is not to suggest that he is responsible for what came after: the likes of Madonna performing lascivious acts while a crucifix dangles between her breasts. Gaye's interfacing of religion and sex entailed both history and complexity – the history and complexity of his own life, with all its contradictions. Moreover, he dealt with the subject of sex in terms of its variables: anticipation, mystique, freakishness, romance, ambivalence. And his sex songs are sexy.
Other crooners carried the torch, of course – Harold Melvin, Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, Alexander O'Neal – a host of talented heavies. But who among them ever went so far or said so much, or so perilously trod the 'thin line between love and hate' as Gaye did? Who, for that matter, would have cast a tune called "You Sure Love To Ball" as a sultry groove rather than an unadorned funk jam? Who could have dropped the following analogy on a tune about sexual endurance? "Music's been my therapy/talking the pain from all my anatomy/I'd go crazy/if something ever happened to my musical thrill/AND DARLlNG, YOUR LOVE IS JUST LIKE MUSIC” ("Turn On Some Music” from Midnight Love.) I could cite examples endlessly; but you get the idea.
Marvin Gaye's music epitomized the axiom "in art as in life": sex is multidimensional, and Gaye dealt with all its facets, brilliantly.
All lyrics quoted are copyrighted by Jobote Music Company, Inc. (ASCAP)