Reading tragedies, particularly when you know the ending, is a funny thing, doubly so when they’re non-fiction. While some start at the end, most of these books tend to follow a pretty linear storytelling path, and so, regardless of the backstory and middle story, you already know the ending. I seem to really pick up the pace as I hurtle towards that inevitable conclusion.
And so it was with Trouble Man; The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye. Most of us know that Gaye would die at the hands of his overbearing father, a preacher with no flock, and an abusive husband and father. But I had no idea the old man — as were many of the men on his side of the family, according to author Steve Turner — were cross-dressers. That kind of dichotomy between righteous beliefs and more mortal behavior are at the heart of this book.
Marvin would always crave acceptance from his namesake, yet never receive it. In fact, even when he was on top of the world, his father resented him both for his wealth and the ability it had to transform the lives of the people around him. That, Gaye Sr. thought, was his job, not his son’s. To say they had a complicated relationship would sell both of them short.
Not that Marvin was without blame. Quite the contrary; the singer could be prickly, immature and very much the diva, and drugs would compound his mood swings. His relationship with Motown founder Berry Gordy, a contemporary and, in fact, his brother-in-law, was equally complex. Berry viewed his wayward artist as “a rather recalcitrant child.” Marvin viewed his boss as “an overbearing father.” Issues with authority figures would not be limited to his blood relatives, however. Gaye also had problems with the IRS, managers, and promoters, especially Freddy Cousaert, the Belgian promoter who would help engineer and guide Gaye’s comeback in the 80s that culminated with the smash hit “Sexual Healing. ”When pressing him for new material, the singer told Cousaert “You’re not my father. I left my father when I was sixteen.”
Although the book touches upon Marvin’s music, songwriting and the recording sessions, they largely provide the backdrop for Marvin’s life at that moment in time. His masterpiece What’s Going On is succinctly summed up as the singer’s “achievement (to) unite the apparently disparate elements of his life and art in one triumphal project. In this recorded series of moments, he resolved the conflict between his radical political instincts and his sanctified church background…(and) the conflict between his desire to be a star and his need to be an artist.” That’s as good as a summation of that monumental album as I’ve read, yet it doesn’t detail the songs or the music directly.
Trouble Man is primarily focused on the personal, rather than the musical story of the singer’s deeply conflicted life. (It’s no coincidence that biographer David Ritz’ book on Marvin is titled Divided Soul). If you know even a bit of Gaye’s story, you will have a serious sense of foreboding reading Turner’s book. The sins of the father are handed down and inevitably become the son’s burdens as well. As his brother Frankie says in the book: “ It was always a struggle for Marvin, between the truths of his upbringing and the world out there.”
It’s a sad but inevitable story and it makes me wanna holler….
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