Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Has anybody here seen my old friend...genius?

If I could sing, (I can kinda get by, in an indie white boy way, but...) and sing well ,I always thought I would want to be able to sing like Marvin Gaye. He had a voice that rippled, roared and purred with emotion. It was an instrument of pure expression that floors me every time I hear it.

Scanning YouTube for live footage of him recently I came across this clip of Marvin playing piano in a empty auditorium in the late seventies for a Belgian documentary about his days living and working in Europe.

What strikes you instantly is the ease with which he can perform. The crew roll in a piano and Marvin can't wait to play it, riffing on jazzy trills and bluesy chords. Someone slides on a chair and Marv is away, starting with a bluesy version of "Come get to this " soft on the verse and driving it home on the refrain with a gravely croon that is leaking want and desire - crying out for his lover to fulfill his need. Then seamlessly, the mood changes, the chords switch from major to embellished minors, and we are lowered gently into a softer plea, Marvin , still not satisfied, yearns for his distant lover.

After many broken relationships, alimony, problems with the record company and a crippling heroin habit, Marvin was broke. He also owed the tax man a fair bit too and the only way he could claw his way back was to go to Europe and tour. What we are seeing is a broken man. His eyes closed , the voice true and the embodiment of Marvin's soul flows out.

Then it became clear - Marvin is singing this for himself. Quite literally , in the footage, actually.

We are watching a man who's life has crashed down around his ears. But. What he still does possess, and what no one can take away is his genius. At this point it was all he had. You could say that he was lucky - to have a voice, a talent to express all of those strained emotions and manipulate them so that, in some way, they became manageable .

To be an outstanding singer it seems that you need a couple of things - the first is to have a good set of lungs. Second- make sure those vocal cords are gilded in gold. Third- great ears- know ya notes and maybe part of that is having good taste, too. This is all the obvious stuff. But , if you want to be the best, -like Piaf, Gaye, Cobain, Buckley, Etta James, the list is endless, you can't just have a good voice, make sure you have a dreadful personal life- an absent father usually and overbearing mother who thinks that you are the best thing to happen to the world since, her. And preferably be an only child. These ingredients, when mixed together, help create someone that looks like they have all the confidence in the world , but at their centre is a quivering mass of indecision and neuroses, burning and fuelling that need to be understood and loved.

I realised, frankly , that the misery is available to everyone, but you have to start with those essentials (the right set vocal chords etc) and I'll never have them. You could say, that the greater the misery, the greater the need for the the singer to want people to like them, honing their voice to perfection . It's not God given, its evolution. This was Marvin's way of surviving, although not for much longer...he was shot dead by his alcoholic , cross dressing Dad a few years later.
What a voice though...


  1. Hey! Thanks for your insightful view of the musical genius known as Marvin Gaye. :) I agree that in that video you see his raw essence and his pain. The footage makes me more sadder because he's not here to see people's emotional reactions to him. I like to clear up something though, it wasn't heroin, it was cocaine that he had an expensive habit with but nonetheless it did cripple him. It's sad what happened to him, even if some folks say "never attack your father", he was defending his mother and he got killed for that. He should've gotten help also, but see that's what happens when you don't react quickly to a state of emergency. I feel had Marvin stayed in Europe like Tina Turner did he'll still be alive, still giving us that great music in his 70s. But he's still making music somewhere in another universe so rest in peace, my dear Mr. Gaye.

  2. Oops! Thanks for the info check.
    Yes, maybe if he stayed he'd still be around. Thankfully we still have the music.
    R.I.P Marvin.