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Let's Not Get It On

Let's Not Get It On

Revisiting Marvin Gaye’s lurid masterpiece Here, My Dear, and the darker side of romance.

Stephen Akey

If things end up going south for Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, would America’s Sweetheart respond by releasing an album of songs dedicated to the notion that her ex was a conniving, money-grubbing incubus whose cold-hearted rejection sent the already damaged singer into a spiral of self-destructive misery? It’s not that Swift hasn’t written breakup songs; but if any of her songs reference her cocaine consumption or her traffic with sex workers, I must have missed them. Indeed, I very much doubt that Taylor Swift will ever come to such a pass.

One of her predecessors, however, did: Marvin Gaye, whose double “concept” album of 1978, Here, My Dear, offers a song-by-song and blow-by-blow account of his wrenching divorce, not excluding references to police intervention, legal maneuvering, monetary wrangling, and generally appalling behavior on the part of both participants. 

Self-pity, rancor, recrimination, score-settling, hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness: they’re all present, not to be overlooked as occasional flaws in an otherwise complex and compelling song suite. Rather, they are the heart of the matter. If Here, My Dear is a lurid masterpiece, it achieves that status not by transcending its squalid origins but by wallowing in them. Why, then, is this astounding record so little known?  

Love comes and goes; divorce is forever. We tend to forget that last part. Maybe the Swifties will come to appreciate the darker side of romance as they age into a different demographic. In a way, Gaye was merely doing what Swift does in post-mortem songs like “Picture To Burn” and “I Bet You Think About Me,” except that Gaye’s post-mortem songs entirely lack the therapeutic ethos so central to the Swift brand. (Girl, you’re strong, you don’t need him, you’ll rise above this.) The image of womanly strength that Swift radiates, both in her music and in her person, explains a large part of her appeal. Who would have it otherwise? Yet the therapeutic messaging and relentlessly “positive” role modeling she enshrines do leave a little something out of the picture—namely, that in spite of the body-positive, communitarian, proudly assertive, and socially responsible ethos that Taylor Swift exemplifies, people still manage to make an unholy mess of their lives. 

In its emphasis on celebration, affirmation, solidarity, empowerment, and all the other righteous virtues, much of today’s pop music, like Swift’s, gives short shrift to some of our more interesting vices. That’s where Marvin Gaye fits in. A listener coming for the first time to Here, My Dear will listen in vain for any rousing choruses testifying to the singer’s strength and enduring faith in himself. While there’s no denying the advantages of empowerment and solidarity, Gaye feasts on the human diet of failure, regret, and mess. If you ever need to hear of “human unsuccess / In a rapture of distress” (and that moment will come) you’ll more likely find an answering voice in this obscure Marvin Gaye album than in any of the bright, glittering, and justly popular productions of Taylor Swift and her peers. Also, the music is better.

Although some background information regarding Hear, My Dear might be useful, Gaye provided most of that information himself. Indeed, the title of the album and of its first song explicitly refers to the divorce settlement concocted by Gaye’s lawyer to satisfy the demands of Gaye’s ex-wife, Anna Gordy Gaye, about whom much more (little of it flattering) will be heard in the succeeding songs. In fact, Here, My Dear is their divorce settlement. Hence the opening lines of the whole song suite, which Gaye, in that deliciously seductive spoken voice of his, delivers over his multi-tracked doo-wop crooning: “I guess I’ll have to say / This album is dedicated to you.” Necessarily so: Anna was demanding a million dollars that her profligate ex-husband didn’t have. What she got, as a compromise, was the $305,000 advance on her ex-husband’s next (that is, this) album, plus the first $295,000 in earnings from it. 

Gaye, who always had to be pushed to do any work at all (and it was Anna who did most of the pushing, thankfully for us), made the album—grudgingly at first but ultimately with passion and commitment—as his only means of meeting his legal and financial obligations. For an on-the-fly pop record, that’s pretty high-concept. The divorce isn’t merely represented; it’s enacted. In a further “meta” touch, Gaye hired artist Michael Bryan to depict on the gatefold a male hand (Marvin’s) proffering a tiny LP to a grasping female hand (Anna’s). That tiny LP is what we’re listening to.

In Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, David Ritz likened Here, My Dear to Ingmar Bergman’s epic agon of divorce, Scenes from a Marriage. This doesn’t seem too much of a stretch. We’re certainly a long way from the irresistible commercial songcraft of Gaye’s early Motown days. Instead of killer hooks and choruses, we get long meandering musical movements, which evolved from studio improvisations and sound like it. The songs are more atmospheric than self-contained; it seems almost as if the record is one continuous groove. As a result, the lyrical content remains front and center, notwithstanding the brilliance of Gaye’s musicians and the occasional perfectly placed tenor sax or trumpet solo. In fact, the album flopped commercially. It afforded no radio-friendly dance raves, and it must have seemed grossly solipsistic to audiences yearning for another epochal summation of the national zeitgeist, as was his acknowledged masterpiece from 1971, What’s Going On.

In the making of Here, My Dear, Gaye was in such a hurry to exorcise his demons that he didn’t bother to write anything down. Most days he would come into the studio, sometimes after an upsetting court date or legal meeting, and begin improvising into a microphone or on a keyboard. He and his musicians (who really should have received the partial song-writing credit that some of them later sued for) would build up the songs from there. If that sounds like jazz, it ought to. The New York Times music critic Robert Palmer wrote that Here, My Dear “has something of the rhythmic and harmonic variety of good jazz, consistently creative arrangements, the appeal of an open, emotional declaration, and one committed, wonderfully musical vocal performance after another.” What it doesn’t have is hooks or catchy tunes.

But who needs a hook when you can have burning anguish instead?

Hence the matter of what Palmer called “the appeal of an open, emotional declaration.” “You don’t have the right to use a son of mine / To keep me in line”—this comes less than a minute into the album, and Gaye is already accusing Anna of using their son (Marvin III) as a pawn in their marital battles. It turns out that Marvin III was the product of an earlier liaison with a teenaged niece of Anna’s. Funny how that particular detail doesn’t get mentioned in the opening song or any others. A few bars later in the same song Gaye sweetly sings, “May you always think of me the way I was / I was your baby.” Gaye’s ability to change emotional registers so abruptly, or rather his inability not to change emotional registers so abruptly, is one of the defining features of the record. Others might pretend to be the master of their emotions. Not Marvin.  

Although the making of the album came to have a cathartic significance for him (“I knew I'd explode if I didn’t get all that junk out of me,” he told David Ritz), he signally failed—much to the benefit and authenticity of the songs—ever to reach a point of equilibrium. The last song on the album, “Falling in Love Again,” points to a more hopeful future but hardly balances all the angst that has gone before. In life, there’s much to be said for equilibrium, if you can attain it, which Gaye never did. (His second marriage ended just as disastrously as his first.) In art, or song, it can be a bit deadening. A record that includes the lines, “Blowin’ coke all up my nose / Getting in and out of my clothes / Foolin’ round with midnight ho’s,” cannot be accused of blandness.

In sum, we have: intricate, complex, jazz-inflected soul music on the one hand; naked, direct, unselfconscious lyrics on the other. Possibly, these things add up to an indivisible whole. Or possibly not. Really, who cares? In Here, My Dear Gaye had access to emotional states that might cause shame or embarrassment in others. Bypassing subterfuge and equivocation, he dived directly into the muck.

In this reticence-free zone of deep heartbreak, Gaye sounded at times almost like a child. Being able to go from baritone to tenor to falsetto without breaking stride made almost every emotional register available to him, but he couldn’t have got there without his imperviousness to shame. “Cry cry cry—I have done some crying / Woman, you have caused my tears to flow,” he sings in “I Met a Little Girl.” Even the title of that song, and some others (“Everybody Needs Love”; “Anna’s Song”) sounds childlike. And that, after all, is how many of us experience romantic heartbreak—as a primal wound that, for a time, returns us to a pre-adult state of vulnerability and incomprehension.

Given the tabloid fascinations with Gaye’s life and especially with his death (murdered at the age of forty-five by his crazed father), it’s remarkable that Here, My Dear remains even now somewhat undiscovered. Perhaps the torment it traffics in repels listeners who prefer Gaye as the suave, sexy song stylist of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” or “Let’s Get It On.” That was certainly the Marvin Gaye that his boss, Berry Gordy, Jr., expected to deliver the goods. As if it weren’t enough to alienate the C.E.O. of Motown Records with an album as defiantly uncommercial as Here, My Dear, Gaye had the chutzpah to make it a family affair. Berry Gordy, Jr., was, as it happened, his brother-in-law. “You know you had a brother who thought he was cool,” he sings to Anna in “Is That Enough,” implying pretty clearly that Berry Gordy was not cool. Gaye was worried enough about possible reprisals to hold up the release of the record for more than a year. In the end, it turned out that he had nothing to fear from the chairman. 

The chairman’s sister wasn’t quite so magnanimous. Ultimately, she decided not to bring the five-million-dollar invasion of privacy suit she contemplated. After his death, according to David Ritz, she was able to speak of Marvin Gaye with some fondness and forgiveness. She had a lot to forgive. And we, who weren’t there, can only be grateful for the legacy of their suffering. 

Stephen Akey is a memoirist and essayist who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of Raccoon Love, Culture Fever, Library, and College. His essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Republic, the Hedgehog Review, and elsewhere.

Image: Marvin Gaye performs in a concert at the Forum in Inglewood, CA [image has been color adjusted]. (UCLA Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection, under CC-BY-4.0)

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