November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jeff Katz/Music

Marvin Gaye


Mercy Mercy Us

By Jeff Katz


Here’s how I remember the beginning of April 1984.

It was a sunny spring day; most welcome in Binghamton, one of the ten cloudiest cities in the country. I was a senior at SUNY-Binghamton, in the last month before a clerking job on Wall Street awaited to begin the slow process of sucking out my soul. As general manager of the campus record store, Slipped Disc, I got paid in records, the only currency that mattered to me back then. The day before I’d snatched a three-record Marvin Gaye Anthology and was in the midst of a soulful haze, the strains of “Can I Get a Witness” coursing through my skull.

As I walked toward the union from the library, someone came up to me and asked if I’d heard Marvin Gaye was killed. I hadn’t. In some inexplicable way, blame the butterfly effect, my plucking the Marvin record from the racks sent a blast of cosmic bad vibes from campus to California. Once there, they found a home in the confused brain of Marvin Gaye, Sr., and caused him to fire two fatal shots into his talented and troubled son.

The horrific events of April 1st were revealed over the next few weeks. Marvin, back with his parents in the Crenshaw home he’d bought for them, was in a bad way. Two years after his huge comeback (“Sexual Healing” was a #1 hit), Gaye, Jr. had hit the skids, back in a world of heavy drug use, severe financial distress and depression following a disastrous concert tour. Always a mama’s boy, Marvin sat upstairs with his ailing mother Alberta, when they heard a hellacious ruckus down below.  Senior was on the first floor, in a rage as he futilely searched for some insurance documents.  Marvin called him upstairs, and the Greek tragedy unfolded.

When the father verbally attacked the mother, the good son interceded. The elder’s rage turned from documents to death, and he left briefly, returning with a .38 caliber revolver in hand. Shot one – a bullet through the heart. Shot two – the father leaned over his fallen boy, pointed the gun at point blank range and blasted prone son in the left shoulder, just for good measure. Then the old man went outside, found a seat on the front porch and awaited the police.

At 44, Marvin Gaye, Jr. was suicidal, a fact well known to his family and friends. He’d told those in his inner circle that he was about to exit the world by his own hand, even going so far as to put a gun to his head at least once in the presence of witnesses. He’d tried to overdose on pure cocaine after his 1976 divorce from Anna Gordy, sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Eight years later, in the grasp of heavy cocaine use, exorbitant alimony payments and an IRS induced bankruptcy (the government was looking for $2 million in back taxes), the walls were closing in on the greatest soul voice to emerge from the 1960’s pop revolution.

Though his 1982 return to form had brought him great success, it also led to a return to Los Angeles from a self-imposed exile in Belgium. Marvin was defenseless against the entourage that swarmed his house and the drugs which, after a brief cutback, came back in full force. And there was the ongoing psychological struggle between son and father, with the insecure child desperately attempting to prove his worth to a disapproving dad.

At the time he was pronounced dead at 1:01 PM, Marvin’s had nearly completed his new album, one that he hoped would rival Midnight Love as a return to form. Though his sales had dropped pre-“Sexual Healing,” his quality stayed as high as the man himself. Marvin Gaye had produced a non-stop series of excellent LPs after churning out a catalog of hit 45’s during his first decade of recording in the Motown-dominated Detroit that came to be referred to as Hitsville, USA.

Marvin’s 1970’s work was without peer. What’s Going On is the greatest rhythm and blues social statement ever put to plastic. His studio follow-up, Let’s Get It On, is the sex album, nearly melting itself as it spins on the turntable. 1978’s Here My Dear, a painfully personal account of his divorce from Anna set the bar for breakup records. And, his rendition of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game has gone done as the ultimate version of the hoary chestnut. Watching it live was one of the most exciting musical events I’ve ever witnessed.

Marvin Gaye blazed the trail at Motown as the house artists sought to mature, much to the chagrin of management. It wasn’t without a struggle. In fact, What’s Going On was delayed in its release because the label’s vaunted Quality Control committee felt it was destined to fail. Instead, it became the biggest seller in Motown history, paving the way for Little Stevie Wonder to become plain old Stevie Wonder and embark on his own slate of stellar, profound and relevant records of the 1970’s. No Marvin, no Stevie.

It’s become a cottage industry to bemoan the loss of John Lennon. That’s fine; I share in that sadness. But let’s not forget that, on April 1, 1984, a void was created that, 27 years later, is no closer to being filled. That loss should make us all wanna holler.



VIDEO: Eric and Mary Ross’s Kurzfassung

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Composer Eric Ross, with video artist Mary Ross (USA), present a special concert performance at the Lueneberg Festival of New Music, Germany. Eric Ross performs on piano, guitar and synthesizer and is a master of the Theremin, one of the first electronic instruments. Eric’s compositions include elements of jazz, classic, serial, and avant garde. Mary Ross’s videos, projected in performance, are organized, arranged and edited to his music. In an hour-long performance, both artists presented their most recent work, the Boulevard d’Reconstructie, (Op. 54).

Visit: The Music of Eric Ross