The Tragedy of Marvin Gaye Is That We Never Got to Know Him
Reflecting on the soul icon’s unanswered prayers 50 years after the release of his seminal album ‘What’s Going On’
My grandmother wore out the VHS tape. Then she bought another copy and wore that one out, too.
As I got older, I’d see more worn-out copies of the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever reunion in Tacoma homes. I couldn’t miss the familiar VHS casing with a metallic cover and bright blue lettering. At gatherings, parties, and cookouts, elders brought out the VHS to teach young whippersnappers like me about real music. Yet every time it played — and a drunk uncle interrupted it with a rambling soliloquy about how much music was better in his day — I never got tired of the video.
There were many good-to-superb performances in Motown 25, an almost infinitely Black complex family reunion put to music and stage. Stevie Wonder gave a lowkey but excellent account of his evolution from child star to world-conquering genius. Smokey Robinson was frayed but elegant. The Temptations kept time with the Four Tops at the height of their A-game. Michael Jackson became a massive pop star with the moonwalk — before that show-stopping moment, he moved in melody with his brothers. Diana Ross closing the show with The Supremes had every emotion of a turbulent auntie/sister/loved one reunion.
When the cookouts were over, adults would almost always replay the video and fixate on the same performance my late grandmother did. You could not turn away when Marvin Gaye opened his mouth. Effortlessly riffing on a piano, he gave a short yet concise history of Black music, then went into “What’s Going On,” the plea that transformed him from a pop star to a seminal figure in music history.
When I watch Gaye’s Motown 25 performance, I am struck by a deep, deep irony: He never named the pain of his life clearly in his art.
Gaye’s most famous song — which turned 50 earlier this year — is an altar call to understand what can be shared by the human condition, an appeal felt in every fiber of its creation. Fusing George Gershwin with conga drums, the Memphis…