I was channel flipping the other night and ran across an episode of American Masters on PBS about the late, great Marvin Gaye. He had one of those voices. Clear, beautiful, rich, vibrant, and, yeah, sexy as hell. He probably could’ve sung his way into Mother Theresa’s bed if he wanted to. It didn’t hurt that he was drop dead gorgeous, either. But I think what made Marvin Gaye so fascinating was the complexity of his soul. He was powerfully torn between heaven and hell, between his spiritual impulses and the weakness of his humanity. Hearing the people who knew and loved him talk about how this conflict destroyed him broke my heart.
The hardest part about being an artist seems to be finding a way to balance the various parts of life, body, and soul in such a way that you can survive the demands of fame. I know that fame comes with a lot of perks, money being one of the most obvious, but there is a psychic toll that most people don’t really understand. And it wasn’t fame that killed Marvin Gaye. But fame gave him access to money and drugs, and given the emotional turmoil he already lived with, it was easy to predict that he would end up struggling with both. Marvin Gaye was shot to death by his father in 1984, in his parents’ home in Los Angeles, after his comeback had come undone with more drugs. Gaye’s relationship with his father had always been fraught (I don’t know enough to say this with authority, but is sounded pretty abusive to me).
Knowing the difficulties of Marvin Gaye’s life makes what he could do with his voice even more miraculous. He sang with such joy and conviction, especially in his duets with Tammi Terrell (who also died tragically, of a brain tumor at age 24). My personal favorite has always been “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” They weren’t lovers, but you’d never know it listening to them sing to each other. It’s both sad and uplifting to hear them vow to always be there for each other even after they’re separated. When Marvin sings “I made a vow, I’ll be there when you want me, someway, somehow” you believe him. You believe Tammi when she exclaims “my love is alive.” Their voices mesh perfectly, smooth technique and raw emotion mingling effortlessly. After Tammi collapsed on stage into Marvin’s arms, it seems to me his voice was never as joyous again; there was always a hint of melancholy after she died. It’s part of what made him so great.
Marvin Gaye was consumed by his demons. It might’ve been that way even if he hadn’t been a famous singer. In the end, he couldn’t save himself. That’s what makes me so sad. But we all have that moment, recorded forever, when he could cross any mountain, and we can all sing along.