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Jan and Marvin Gaye

After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye by Jan Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s second wife, and David Ritz is a deeply moving account of a love gone wrong, and a reminder that love is seldom enough on its own. At the age of sixteen, Jan met the then thirty-three year old genius, Marvin during the early stages of his recording of the classic “Let’s Get It On” album. Her beauty, youth and presence ignited Marvin’s creativity and secured Jan’s historic role as soul music’s greatest muse. She has written a page turner that I could not put down.

Throughout the book, Jan takes great care to describe Marvin as a loving but confused patriarch who tried to provide for his wife, his children and his extended family. There are passages where Marvin’s love for his children and for Jan is apparent, and her love for him as well. She also depicts the great artist as vain, shallow, manipulative, cruel and indifferent to the wishes of loved ones – you know; a rock star. According to Jan, Marvin’s insecure doubting of her affection for him and his constant taunting drove her into affairs with both Frankie Beverly and the great Teddy Pendergrass. She also gives honest accounts of real and suspected dalliances that Marvin had with both well known and obscure women.

“After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye is not a sensationalized tell all, instead it is a cautionary tale of how insecurity, dysfunction and cruelty can end the greatest of loves while that love can inspire world class art. Her uncertainty and insecurity made the then young girl submit to sexual fantasies of Marvin’s that she now regrets. Her inexperience led her to forego her education, move in with Marvin and in the name of love, abandon any pursuit of marketable skills while becoming financially dependent on a free spending addict. Jan also reveals how she and her late husband shared a deep spirituality as well as a mutual love of top shelf quality drugs. In the book, she has shared as much about her personal struggle with, and triumph over substances as she has shared about anyone else’s.

Her heartbreaking tale describes how the ill matched couple had very little chance of succeeding from the start; she had been raised in an uncertified foster care home where she’d been dumped by her loving but drug addicted mother and became the victim of sexual abuse. He had been the son of a deeply religious, evangelical cross dressing father who’d beaten Marvin mercilessly for questioning the elder’s fashion sense, and daring to raise the possibility that his gender bending attire may have brought dishonor to the family name. Marvin was also a superstar depressive who had lost his way and was using copious amounts of drugs to numb the pain from the break-up of his first marriage. Jan and Marvin never had a chance.

I spoke with Jan, earlier this year, via telephone. She called for the purpose of nervously reading the book’s first chapter to me, and getting my opinion. She hadn’t turned in her manuscript to her publisher yet, so I felt flattered by the sneak preview. I assured her that what she’d written was great, and it was, but in no way had her excerpt prepared me for the exceptionally intimate, personal and poetic work of depth and beauty that she and Ritz have delivered.

Jan describe how life at the side of a glamorous ’70s sex symbol was like living in the eye of a hurricane. She writes of the unscrupulous promoters, Marvin’s ambivalence about performing, and his stage fright. She writes of Motown pressuring the superstar for bigger and more frequent hits. She writes of Marvin’s loyalty to Motown chieftain, Berry Gordy, and Marvin’s bitter resentment of Gordy’s lack of appreciation for his artistic ambitions. The book insightfully examines the complications caused by Marvin’s marriage to, and ultimate divorce from Gordy’s sister Anna. There are also recollections of delusional managers who could not manage the great but unmanageable talent, and vignettes about accountants and business managers who could not convince Marvin to spend less frequently, save more often or pay his taxes. She has written beautifully about the gorgeous messiness of love in the shadows of stardom while it’s shrouded in the fog addiction.

Recently Jan and her children have been in the news as a result of having won a seven figure judgement against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, in a copyright infringement lawsuit, over the contention that their “Blurred Lines” record of two summer’s back too closely resembled Marvin Gaye’s dance floor classic “Got To Give It Up”. It has been said that the landmark decision will put a chill on musical creativity, and that a business built on sampling the work of others has been rocked at its core. Time will tell.

Of course, for me, the most interesting portions of the book are the ones where Jan describes the creative process that Marvin, the hit maker, went through to come up with the albums; “Here My Dear”; “I Want You”; Let’s Get It On” and the smash single “Got To Give It Up”, and the subtle way that she inspired and guided Marvin to the expression of his best and higher artistic potential.

This book is her love letter to her mentor, partner and former husband who was tragically murdered by the hand of the cross dressing father who vied for control of the Gaye clan with his strong willed son. It is her deeply personal confession of the adoration, confusion and regret that she felt as a result of falling up to her eyeballs in love with one of the most creative figures of the twentieth century. It proves that Marvin’s spirit still speaks to all of us through his music and through this tremendously written work. For soul music fans and those who are interested in black creativity and pop culture it is a must read. Jan Gaye hit this one out of the park.

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THE ARTIST AT WORK

In Boston spring comes slowly, and 1979 was no exception. I was a 19 year old freshman at Northeastern University when the winter thaw was prematurely induced by the release of a slice of disco funk, on Motown’s Gordy label called “I’m Just A Sucker For Your Love”. The track featured the high pitched, P-Funk influenced backing vocals that were popular at the time, the familiar, playful and husky lead of Rick James and a brash and soulful performance by a newcomer named Teena Marie. I didn’t realize then that this would be the debut of Motown’s last great act.

I had been indifferent to James’ recordings, as well as a good deal of what was passing for commercial music at the time. Disco had sucked up most of the budgets at both the major, and important independent recording companies. As a result of this trend, I’d immersed myself in the jazz/funk fusion area and the recordings of various George Clinton backed acts. Looking back, like many of my generation (without knowing it) I was waiting for hip hop to come and bring the soul back to the game. But I connected with the newcomer’s vocal instantly and bought the album. A somewhat forgettable collection with the same title of a big Kool and The Gang joint called “Wild and Peaceful”.

Despite the overall thinness of the material, there were two outstanding tracks included; “Deja Vu”- a soulful contemplation on reincarnation, and “I’m Gonna Have My Cake and Eat It Too”- a jazzy funky mid-tempo swinger that revealed Teena’s ability to communicate sensuality through her music. She got me with the last one and never let me go.

News of her death last week was stunning, like so many across the Black Music community, it caused deep pain. How could a heart so big ever stop beating? How could the singer/writer/producer of “Square Biz” “Behind The Groove” “I Need Your Lovin’ ” “Ooh La La” and “Lovergirl” be gone? I immediately began to listen to recordings from her Motown period, and let the music begin to wash over my soul with it’s healing properties.

Her name had been coming up recently in conversations with a good friend who’d made plans to move from New York to LA and start all over again as Teena’s housemate. The friend has had as much of New York as she can stand, and she was prepared to trade the hustle, noise and chaos of Funkytown for the serenity of Pasadena, Ca., closeness to her only child and the comfort of living with one of the most soulful artists/writer/performers that the American recording business has produced in my lifetime. I applauded my friend’s courage to begin anew, and felt certain that the daily exposure to such greatness would get her back on track, and then, the news came: the Vanilla Child was gone, and there would be no new soaring vocal performances, funky tracks or thumping bass lines. Rest In Peace, Mary Christine Brockert. Thanks for the memories.

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for Jill

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