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“I Come Up Hard, Baby / I’m Gettin’ Down”

It seems there are no words appropriate—sometimes language really does fail us spectacularly—and yet the words have existed since antiquity. Zeus feared Athena, and so he swallowed her whole. And then Hephaestus pounded Athena right out of Zeus’ blighted skull.

But that's the end of the story. This is the middle.

Amsterdam, 1976. One year into the seven-year stretch he would later describe to a journalist as his “shit period.” Stalked by acute paranoia exacerbated by his ever-escalating coke habit. Bankrupt and feeling the heavy shoulder tap of the IRS. One Freudian love affair—his marriage to Anna Gordy, seventeen years his senior—fraying into bitter contempt. Another Freudian love affair—and eventual second marriage to Jan Hunter, seventeen years his junior—taking its mad and melodramatic form.

Hellhounds on his trail. Trouble Man, indeed. Many nights he wondered: “How will I ever get through the show?” The musicians’ lament, as it were. But you get through the show because then you get the money.

In 1976, a Motown event still packs a punch. Pageantry and oratory precede his arrival on stage. A keening, energetic band. A nonpareil hype man. “Star time, ladies and gentlemen! Are you ready for the man? ‘What’s Going On’! ‘Let’s Get It On’! ‘I Want You’! Ladies and gentlemen, Marvin Gaye!”

But the singer who takes the stage appears oddly tentative. Lithe and lean and immaculately tailored in a wondrous green-and-white-striped jacket over an emerald leisure suit, he shuffles and croons, his voice soft and sonorous. He is, as always, breathtakingly handsome. But there is a strangeness too; something is vibrating on a weird frequency. In close-up, unmistakably, he looks worried.


“I Come Up Hard / But Now I’m Cool”

There’s a category of male performers whom you watch . . . well, I don’t know how to say this gracefully. There is a category of male performers you watch, and after you’re done watching, you think, Did I just get pregnant? It’s a small number. Your list might be different. For me, it’s Prince, Otis Redding, Mick and Keith in ’65, most of Blur in ’94, early Elvis, and Harry Belafonte at any age. And Marvin Gaye. His magnetism lay in something disjunctive and primal: he straddles a deeply human line between awkwardness and molten sexuality. Somehow he intuited the profound connection between awkwardness and sex, and he made it his calling card.

“Everybody feeling good?” he asks the audience and they respond with reflexive appreciation.

This is the sort of thing entertainers say at the beginning of concerts, attempting to conjure a consensus of mirth. But everyone is not feeling good. For example, Marvin Gaye feels awful. Estranged from Anna and confused about things regarding Jan and angry at Motown. Everyone seems arrayed against him, a limitless conspiracy at odds with his well-being for treasons he could never understand. Every conceivable betrayal feels not only possible, but likely.

The opener “All the Way Around” is a strenuous, even desperate attempt to connect with the audience. Marvin in his Willy Wonka suit and vest. He moves in an odd herky-jerky fashion, as he always did on stage. He is not frenetic like James Brown or Michael Jackson. He is not subtle either like Miles Davis. He’s somewhere in the middle. A graceful man doing an ungraceful dance.

“You feeling alright?” he asks the audience a second time. The band riffs in the background. The audience cheers again: yes, Marvin, they feel good. How do you feel?


“Ready to Make It / Don’t Fool with No Women”

Marvin is introducing his new LP, I Want You, the proto–Quiet Storm boudoir sensation that rescued him from the brink of obscurity in 1976. The title track is a beautiful song, but so delicate and diaphanous as to be nearly ungraspable. It is a come-on that seems to drift off mid-seduction, lost in a private reverie.

Gaye says: “Hello out there!” He says: “You seem like you’re ready!” He says: “I sincerely hope you all relax and lay back and enjoy the show!”

Then, segueing into “Since I Had You,” he sings: “Since we’re still friends / Let me make love to you!

This is the most Marvin Gaye sentiment ever. There is no such thing as a fun, cheap fling in the Marvin Gaye universe. There is no hedonistic misbehavior of a random sort that doesn’t yield an awful psychic consequence. There is only this: wheels within wheels, complications, betrayals, and toxic jealousies. And then getting back together. He heard it through the grapevine. But since we’re still friends. This is his foreplay.

On the straight, striptease burlesque of “Come Get to This” he is the quarry, begging to be caught. “You’ve been gone too long.” Many times in Gaye’s songs he assumes the traditionally feminine role of the long-suffering Cassandra-in-waiting. Indeed, his half-deranged-half-sanctified vision of love often reminds me of my own most extreme experiences of adolescent and young-girl ardor. Obsession and zero-sum wars of mutual destruction.

Then he kicks into “Let’s Get It On.” During the performance, he takes off the solid majority of his clothes, though the act feels far from titillating: ”I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he once explained to Jan, but did they really? “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it,” he also said, which was closer to the truth.


“I Come Up Hard, I Had to Win / Then Start All Over, and Win Again”

Thirty-seven years old and already a throwback makes for a weird predicament. The blip of the fifties youth-culture boom required a constant churn of novel content, which in turn rendered young artists passé at an exceedingly young age. And so it is that Marvin—a youthful star by any sane metric—is compelled to do his oldies set.

“It’s about 1966!” Marvin declares before launching into the early track “Ain’t That Peculiar,” followed by contemporaneous chestnuts “You’re a Wonderful One” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”

For all of his wishful alchemy, it’s about as far from 1966 as spiritually and aesthetically possible. The performance is a symptom of a new commercial age, wherein mid-60's culture, and especially classic Motown, will forevermore be repackaged and served up as heart-tugging comfort food. Nostalgia becomes a burden. You could go to that place and never recover. 

When he brings out the relatively unknown Florence Lyles to duet on “You’re All I Need,” the music is sublime, but the effect is unmistakably funereal. His duet partner. His departed double. And maybe if Tammi Terrill hadn’t died, maybe they could have carried one another through this ordeal. You’re all I need to get by. So where are you?


“I’m Checkin’ Trouble, Sugar / Movin’ Down the Line”

You can’t—or anyway I can’t—deal with the cruelty.

Born into trouble. Raised by a maniac father. Threatened and scared.

Off to the Air Force, a way to escape. Discharged with honor, though a pain in the ass.

Motown and fame, genius in flourish, a new gospel of utopian striving.

Lou Reed said, “You’re going to kill your sons.” Abe said, “Man, you must be putting me on.”

There shouldn’t even be a word. But there is.


“What People Say, That’s Okay / They Don’t Bother Me”

The way Jan Gaye heard it, Marvin bought the gun and gave it to his father, and said, “You need to protect me.” To arm a man he hated. To arm a man he feared. At a certain point you wonder. Sometimes you’re looking for a way in, and sometimes you’re looking for a way out.

When the set concludes with a languidly perfect take on the deep track “Distant Lover” everything locks in. Band, singer, and atmosphere convene in an exotic solstice. Still, the theme is distance—a distance unreachable. A desire for connection unmanageable, or unimaginable under the circumstances. The terror of love. The thrill of jealousy. The nightmare psychological inversions of being unloved when love is the only meaningful consideration.

I don’t know what happened in those last minutes the day before his forty-fifth birthday in 1984. No one really seems to. An altercation between Marvin’s father and his mother. Marvin intercedes. Sometime shortly after, his father shoots Marvin at point-blank range.

The word is filicide. When Zeus ate Athena she lived in his head. But when Marvin’s father beat him the opposite occurred. Marvin’s father moved into Marvin’s head. And no one ever freed him. 

“A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Elizabeth Nelson

Elizabeth Nelson is singer-songwriter for the Washington, D.C.-based garage-punk band the Paranoid Style, a civil servant in the field of education policy, and a regular contributor to the Ringer, the Oxford American, the New York Times Magazine, and Pitchfork, among others. In 2020 Spin magazine ranked the Paranoid Style the twenty-seventh best rock & roll band currently working, thereby adding twenty-six names to her renowned Enemies List.