Sometimes I feel myself turning into one of those guys who says too frequently, “Can you believe it’s been [insert mindboggling lapse of time] since [insert pop culture event of epochal significance]?” One hundred and fifty years since the first battle of Bull Run doesn’t faze me, because I wasn’t there for that. Twenty-five years since Caroline Kennedy got married? Okay, but technically I wasn’t there for that either.
I was reading some mail last week, pondering the delicacy of a reply, while satellite radio filled the air with Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Unbidden came that still, small voice inside my head, on that day sounding like Gilbert Gottfried, saying, “Can you believe it’s been 40 years since What’s Going On came out?” Even if the still, small voice sounded like Kathleen Turner I couldn’t believe it. I was compelled to seek out that masterpiece from the swaying shelves of the LP collection and hear for myself whether it sounded like four decades’ worth of old.
Marvin Gaye was anything but a mainstream Motown artist, despite all the hit singles he waxed for them in the Sixties. Coming into Hitsville with a cabaret attitude, he had begun singing in his father’s church, had once played in Bo Diddley’s band and was part of the sweet doo-wop sound of the Moonglows when he was barely 21.
Eclecticism was not a skill set Motown chose to develop, so Gaye was obliged to focus on vocalizing with the best producers in Berry Gordy’s employ. The results—“Stubborn Kind of Fella”, “How Sweet It Is”, “Can I Get A Witness,” and many more—established Gaye as a consummate interpreter, creatively serving the needs of a song. Smokey Robinson, no slouch himself, remembered, “You gave Marvin material and he’d improve it, sculpt it, turn it into something bigger and better.”
Perhaps his greatest assignment was to work for Norman Whitfield on “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Rock scribe nonpareil Dave Marsh named it Number One in his book, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, observing, “The record distills four hundred years of paranoia and talking drum gossip into three minutes and fifteen seconds of anguished soul-searching.”
Marvin, though, wanted to realize his own visions. He married the boss’s sister, and maybe that had nothing to do with it, but in 1970 he was allowed to produce his own music. Trying to capture the social ferment of the time, Gaye spent weeks in several studios formulating a hazy shimmer for a tune called “What’s Going On”, only to have Berry Gordy tell him the finished product was too weird and political to get radio play.
After the song spent three weeks on the charts at Number Two, Gordy, a sensible businessman, asked for an album to go with the single.
The resulting song cycle, embellished with Bill Moore’s jazzy sax solos and Detroit Symphony strings, captured the zeitgeist of 1971 and sold two million copies that year.
The sonic tapestry Gaye and company wove has held up beautifully, but, surprisingly, so has the subject matter. Check out the ecological checklist from “Mercy Mercy Me”: “Oil wasted on the oceans and our seas, fish full of mercury… radiation underground and in the sky, animals and birds who live nearby all die…What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?” Sounds fresh as Fukushima.
There’s “Inner City Blues”, in which “Crime is increasing/ trigger-happy policing/ Panic is spreading/ God knows where we’re heading,” and the title cut, wherein he pleads, “Father, father, we don’t need to escalate/ War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate…” Had his own father not gunned him down in 1984, Marvin Gaye might have been amazed to see how much of what was going on in 1971 is still going on today.
The mail I was reading while listening to Marvelous Marvin was from healthcare expert Bob Bernstein, who took exception to my recent column on Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann: “The criticisms he lobs at her are at least as appropriately lobbed at his adored Obama.” Well, I don’t think he is a “gold star doofus” or “Sarah Palin with a resume”, but I’m happy to clarify that I don’t adore Barack Obama.
As one can say of any President, he’s done some good things, but I’m not down with this one or any one who’s willing to take down Social Security and Medicare. Social Security and Medicare have naught to do with the federal deficit and it is secular sacrilege for a Democratic President to be “putting them on the table.” Democrats invented them, Republicans hate them; that’s how we used to tell the parties apart.
“And his comments about the current majority party in Congress being against individual liberty? Has he read the ‘ObamaCare legislation?” I am happy to report to Bob that I have, and I didn’t care for it; Medicare-for-all was more to my liking. But I urge Bob to review. I wasn’t calling out the GOP specifically for being against individual liberty, though many of them seem to be.
In the July 4 column, I derided politicians of any persuasion “defending the renewal of the Patriot Act or advocating the restriction of legal reproductive rights or extolling wars superfluous to our national security.” Indeed, there are Democrats in that unsavory lot.
On the plus side, Bob thinks my columns are okay when they stick to something I know, like the history of rock. “When he gets to sermonizing on his particular political persuasion,” he writes, “I still find them somewhat entertaining albeit totally misguided.”
Oh, well. I bet a lot of people in 1971 said the same thing about Marvin Gaye.(By the way, Bob, both of us misspelled Mrs. Bachmann’s first name, so I guess neither one of us will be invited to her inauguration.)
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.