Marvin Gaye’s Masterpiece 50 Years Later
BY R.L. WITTER
I’ve often posited the reason the deaths of singers and musicians are felt so deeply by the general public is the oddly personal relationship we have with them. I’ve likened Michael Jackson and Prince to my “play cousins.” They were at every family gathering, reunion, and wedding. They even shared my prom with me. I’m certain Michael Jackson encouraged that boy to attempt our first kiss. Don’t even mention a day at the beach or a crazy road trip in college. They were there.
Just a year old when Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, What’s Going On was released in May, 1971, I can truly say, I grew up with Marvin Gaye’s voice and compositions as the soundtrack of my life beginning with hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and his duets with Tammi Terrell. “Sexual Healing” was all the rage at the roller-skating rink when I was 12. He died two days after my fourteenth birthday. I used my babysitting money to purchase Anthology when I was sixteen.
I never stopped listening to Marvin. But the 50th anniversary of What’s Going On caused me to listen differently. I listened as he intended the concept album to be heard—in order, without pause. It blew me away! Not just the sheer genius of Gaye’s compositions, lyrics, and orchestrations; but his seeming prescience as well. The opening lines of the album sing, “Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying.” How could Gaye have known the issues of 1971 would be the issues of 2021? “Picket lines (Sister) and picket signs (Sister)/Don’t punish me (Sister) with brutality (Sister)”—I close my eyes and see the protesters from summer 2020 taking to the streets around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd.
“What’s Happening Brother” was Gaye’s tribute to his brother, Frankie, who had returned from three years in Vietnam. “Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend/Money is tighter than, it’s ever been/Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land/Ah, what’s happening brother?/Yeah, what’s happening? What’s happening my man?” The song brings to mind young amputees I often see while waiting for my husband at the VA hospital. I overheard one veteran telling another he doesn’t really drink or do drugs, but every once in a while, he gets drunk and high so he can check himself in for rehab at the VA. He’s warm and fed for a few weeks until the weather isn’t quite so brutal.
The third track, “Flying High in the Friendly Sky” paints a picture of individuals tired of being tired, looking for something—anything—to make themselves feel better. “Flying high in the friendly sky/Without ever leaving the ground/And I ain’t seen nothing but trouble baby/Nobody really understands, no, no/And I go to the place where the good feeling awaits me/Self destruction’s in my hand.” While drugs have ravaged Black and inner-city communities for decades, we’ve heard urgent concerns about the American opioid crisis for the past four years or so. It’s funny how that works; drug addiction only became a problem when “mainstream and main street” America are suffering. Marvin sang about it ten American presidents ago.Next up is “Save the Children.” When I look at the world/It fills me with sorrow/Little children today/Are really going to suffer tomorrow/What a shame/Such a bad way to live/Oh, who is to blame?” The lyrics take me back to youthful summers at the beach when we didn’t yet know about “SPF.” We collected fireflies after dark, and school shootings weren’t a thing. Skin cancer, being holed-up in the house, and mass shootings were not yet the norm.
On “God Is Love,” Gaye cautions us: “Don’t go and talk about my father/Because God is my friend, he is my friend/He loves us whether or not we know it /And He’ll forgive all our sins, forgive all our sins/And all He asks of us, oh yeah, is we give each other love, oh yeah.” And yet in 2021, people (still) twist the words of the Bible and use God’s words to divide and shun people who don’t believe the same. Evangelical Christians voted for a twice-divorced, racist, grifting charlatan. They pray over and for him and call him a savior and warrior for Christ. There is nothing Christ-like, Christ-centered, or even Christ-adjacent about the man. He touts Christian values while cutting social programs that help the least of us; locks children in cages; maligns immigrants, Muslims, and minorities; and inspires white supremacists and anti-Semites to proudly emerge from the darkest corners of society to spew their sick views, hatred, and violence.
The next track, “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” probably the most well-known song on the album, was written at the height of the environmental movement, less than six months after the federal government’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I recall the grey skies in and around the New York City of my youth and how the smog obscured the world’s most famous skyline. I sang along with the “Give a hoot, don’t pollute” commercials, and remember the PSA with the Indian man paddling his canoe through polluted waters, landing on a trash-filled shore, then shedding a single tear. “Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me/Ah, things ain’t what they used to be/Where did all the blue skies go?/Poison is the wind that blows/From the north and south and east…/Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury/Radiation underground and in the sky/Animals and birds who live nearby are dying.” During the spring of 2020 while deep in the COVID-19 pandemic, we were amazed by pictures of Los Angeles and other cities around the world with crystal clear, blue skies. Deer, coyotes, bears, and other wildlife wandered streets mostly devoid of people. Marvin would have marveled at the sight.
“Right On” encapsulates 2020 perfectly. The pandemic saw the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, many of us isolated, and our medical professionals showing compassion and care working around the clock to treat and save people from a widespread virus that killed nearly 600,000 people in this country as of this writing. “Some of us were born with money to spend/Some of us were born for races to win/Some of us are aware that it’s good for us to care/Some of us feel the icy wind of poverty blowing in the air/For those of us who simply like to socialize/For those of us who tend the sick/And heed the people’s cries/Let me say to you, right on.”
If there were an anthem or theme song for 2020–2021 and the COVID-19 pandemic it would be “Wholy Holy.” We had to come together to stay apart for our own safety. We learned to Zoom and FaceTime so we could see and feel connected to friends and loved ones safely. Millions of us couldn’t go to work, school, or even worship in church. And yet, millions of us took to the streets in protests around the world, protests that have continued for a full year. “Wholy holy/Come together/Wholy holy/People, we all got to come together/Because we need the strength, power and all the feeling/Wholy holy/Oh Lord, get together, one another/Wholy holy/We should believe in one another/Jesus left a long time ago, said he would return/He left us a book to believe in, in it we’ve got a lot to learn/Oh yeah/Wholy/Oh Lord, we can conquer hate forever, we need him/Wholy/We can rock the world’s foundation/Everybody together, together and holy/Will holler love, love, love across the nation.”
And the final track, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) speaks to so much of what we are experiencing at this very moment. The wealthy buy tickets for space travel; the poor work multiple jobs but still can’t eke out a decent living. We celebrated a police officer convicted of killing George Floyd. Over the last several years, thanks to the omnipresent cell phones, we have literally SEEN police killing Black people seemingly with impunity. Those of us who believe and pray, know God has a plan and will see us through. “Rockets, moon shots/Spend it on the have-not’s/Money, we make it/Before we see it, you take it/Oh, make you want to holler/The way they do my life/Make me want to holler/The way they do my life/Inflation no chance/To increase finance/Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die/Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God knows where we’re heading.”
Despite the political nature of much of the album’s songs, the overarching theme of What’s Going On is love. Every song mentions love—love for our brothers, the Earth, the children, and God. Thirty-two years old at the release of the album What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye died at the age of 44 at the hands of his father when he intervened in an argument between his parents. “Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying.” The loss of his genius was a tragedy. Thankfully, his genius and memory live on in his voice and his music. We just need to listen. And love.