Lately I can't stop thinking about Marvin Gaye. It's just one of those things, the little voice in your head that finally fades away or, in this case, just gets louder until you do something about it. I was just starting to think about what to do about it while walking into Costco. There on the shelf was the two-CD set of Marvin Gaye's Gold staring right at me. So off I went with the voice in my cart.
His early songs, fun and easy to listen to, were Motown style hits such as "Pride and Joy", "How Sweet It Is", "I'll be Doggone" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". In the second CD, he had found his voice, his social conscience somewhere between Motown and Vietnam. The only song in the world that takes my breath away with the very first note is Marvin's "What's Going On" with the wailing horn that leads into the lyric "Mother, Mother, there's too many of you crying". After listening only one time through, I realized that Marvin's songs could have been written today, in our current social and political climate. "Inflation, no chance to increase finance, bills pile up sky high, send that boy off to die, makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands" Or this one..."politics and hypocrites is turning us all into lunatics". Just watch an evening of cable news and Marvin seems like a prophet.
His father, a strict pastor, was an abusive parent by most reports and beat young Marvin, sometimes on a daily basis. He sought refuge by enlisting in the Air Force but refused to follow orders and allegedly faked mental illness to get discharged. He ran straight into his musical life after that and had a string of hits with friend Tammi Terrell. She collapsed in his arms during a performance and died soon after of a brain tumor. Grief stricken, Marvin didn't perform for two years. But just two and a half months after her death, he wrote and recorded "What's Going On". Motown refused to release it, saying it lacked commercial appeal. Marvin refused to record anything else, ever, until they did. His rendition here of the "Star Spangled Banner" at the 1983 NBA All Star game became an instant classic:
Despite enormous success, he battled drug addiction, declared bankruptcy and lived in a van for a while. Finally he moved home with his parents and during an argument, his father shot and killed him. Marvin Gaye came out of an abusive, dysfunctional home, had trouble with authority, and probably just as much trouble allowing himself to be loved. But out of all that came this sweet, beautiful voice and a message of healing, hope and accountability. Those things were stronger than all that ugliness. And that is good to know.
That made me start thinking about Kurt Cobain. After his parents divorced, he tried living with each parent but neither one could handle him and his out of control behavior. His father made him play sports, which he hated, so he would fail on purpose. Some accused him of being gay, which he wasn't, but he said he wished he were just to piss off homophobes. And he named his first band Fecal Matter. When he was a young teen, his mother threw him out and he had to find his own way, sometimes sneaking back into his own house to sleep. He had to beg his musician friends to start a band which became Nirvana. In their breakout hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," his painful wailing spoke to a generation. It's memorable lyric, "I feel stupid and contagious," spoke to me through a Tori Amos cover when I was in the darkest days of my cancer treatment. Even Kurt's more beautiful ballads were sung in such a desperate way, you knew they were coming from his tortured soul and he was speaking for his fellow tortured grungers. It's been said that he always battled severe stomach pain and that is why he used heroin to self medicate. He took his own life.
This made me start thinking about how some people just seem called to help us understand ourselves, no matter what the cost, whether they be musicians or that rare politician or leader that makes us believe in something, in anything. John F. Kennedy was like that, using words in a very powerful way just like Marvin and Kurt. And of course, Martin Luther King's dream inspired the civil rights movement. Most believed that Bobby Kennedy would continue their work. He was so very sad when his brother was killed, he cried during the 1964 Democratic convention while eulogizing him. He quoted Shakespeare that night. "When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun."
On April 4th, 1968 he told a group of black people about the death of Reverend King quoting the poet Aeschylus, "even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
Just a few weeks later, Bobby was gone, too.
So what do they all have in common? Marvin, Kurt, JFK, MLK, and Bobby? All killed by guns. It was 1971 when Marvin sang "mercy, mercy me....things ain't what they used to be". Turns out now that things are exactly what they used to be, aren't they?