MARVIN GAYE – I CAN’T GO ON. I GO ON
The Beckett analogy is not out of place with Marvin Gaye. Let us be clear on a key point – What’s Going On?, the album, is not Noam Chomsky set to music, is not an exhaustive yet pertinent blueprint for a perfect society, is not Socialist Worker editorials set to music, sets no agenda, does not pretend to speak for anyone except the man who was responsible for it, and – crucially – those who cannot speak for themselves. It is routinely voted into all-time top ten album lists for the wrong reasons. It was not recorded to justify the existence of Neil Kinnock or Paul Weller, or come to think of it Jamiroquai. It is an intricate (more often than not painfully intricate) examination of the assumed disintegration and disordering of a man’s mind.
In many ways What’s Going On? was, implicitly and explicitly, an anti-Motown record; explicitly because Gaye wanted to do things his way, wanted the title track released as a single and refused to record or release anything else until Berry Gordy wearily agreed. Why introduce reality into the fluffy kitten of a world that was Motown in 1970? We’ve got along fine doing it our way…don’t spoil our fun (or, more importantly, our profits). Arguably, though, Norman Whitfield, who had done such a subversive job arranging and producing “Grapevine,” had already ventured (albeit comparatively shallowly) into political waters with the Temptations of “Cloud Nine” and beyond, and the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” wasn’t far away. But What’s Going On the record? Gaye knew exactly what he wanted, and Gordy eventually conceded and requested that he record an album around the concept of the song. This Gaye did in March 1971 with most of the Motown regulars on hand, including strings arranged by David Van DePitte (credited the “Fastest Pen Alive” on the sleeve) and major musical and lyrical input from Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops.
And there are personal reasons why What’s Going On? might be considered anti-Motown; Tammi Terrell, Gaye’s preferred female singing partner, had died in 1970 of a brain tumour, having collapsed in Gaye’s arms onstage some months previously. It was said that the onset of her tumour was a direct result of an injury sustained to her head by her then partner, ex-Temptation David Ruffin, at the time still the epitome of full-on “maleness” in Motown music. So it was made in the light of bereavement, both personal (Terrell) and symbolic – his younger brother Frankie was away fighting in Vietnam.
The first thing we have to consider about What’s Going On? is the duality expressed by the presence of the two saxophone soloists, Eli Fountain on alto, and Wild Bill Moore on tenor. Both were given the master tapes and asked more or less to solo throughout all the tracks; their contributions were then edited and faded into the foreground when aesthetically required. Fountain represents the female or “mother” side of Gaye’s personality, his graceful, kind and warm tone very reminiscent of the then recently deceased Johnny Hodges (and his playing is significantly predominantly featured); while Moore’s tenor is the male and (sinisterly?) the “father/he-man” side of Gaye, hard-toned and thrusting forwards, explicitly under direction to do a Pharaoh Sanders or Archie Shepp – indeed, both Sanders and Shepp were approached to solo on the album, but were contractually bound to ABC/Impulse Records at the time (this in itself lends an interesting perspective to Shepp’s curious near-miss of an album, 1972’s Attica Blues, which quite openly is his attempt to do a What’s Going On?). Moore’s playing suddenly comes into the spotlight when a particularly emphatic point (or anger) has to be made (or expressed).
The utopia to which ‘70s soul music repeatedly returns was primarily constructed out of the title track of What’s Going On? In the album mix, Gaye parties with members of the local football team (stoned or not stoned?) in the background, while the (apparently accidental) duality of his various vocals is made more prominent – the voice singing, the mind thinking something else. The duality comes back again and again throughout the album. And there is never any “soul” singing as Brown or Pickett would have recognised it – the approach of Gaye’s light tenor we now can appreciate more fully in light of his expressed admiration for Jimmy Scott; and indeed it is virtually asexual, as though he is looking down with great reproach at the world to which he remains umbilically attached.
The album is essentially a half-hour extrapolation on the title song. The same main musical motif introduces the second track (and the rest of side one segues continuously) “What’s Happening Brother.” Constructed as an imagined dialogue between Gaye and his Vietnam-based brother, the viewpoint alternates freely between either; Gaye’s own personal day-to-day agonies (“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend”) set against Frankie’s heartbreaking attempts to hang onto some sort of recognisable reality (“Are they still gettin’ down where we used to go and dance/Will our ball club win the pennant, do you think they have a chance?”). The climactic final lines “What’s been shakin’ up and down the line/I want to know ‘cause I’m slightly behind the time” could be said by either. At that point the music decelerates, goes into momentary dissonance under Gaye’s anguished falsetto croon before mutating into “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky).” Here the “utopia” becomes a woozy anaesthetic, James Jamerson’s inverted bassline (compare with John Cale at the close of the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting For The Man”) commenting ironically on Gaye’s mental destabilisation as he attempts to seek refuge in drugs, always aware (“so stupid minded”) that there is “self-destruction in my hand” and that he has become “hooked…to the boy who makes slaves out of men.” In the background one of his alter egos muses “Nobody really understands.”
But he can’t destroy himself when others are set to be destroyed through no fault of their own. So the music re-focuses into the orchestra and chorus waltz of “Save The Children” where Gaye’s song is echoed deliberately by his far less certain spoken voice. Can he believe what he is singing about the end of the world? The music stealthily builds in tension and both Gaye’s singing and speaking voices rise – perhaps tearfully, perhaps orgasmically. As both of their voices decide to “save the babies,” the pent-up tension of the music suddenly breaks free into an ecstatic rhythmic 3/4 groove over which Fountain’s alto floats in a heartbreakingly brief expression of freedom. But Gaye the realist quickly stops it all with an extended “But…” before the “What’s Going On?” music starts again and he modifies it into “But who really cares?” He still has to care, so it’s a return to ecstasy for the glorious “God Is Love” where for the first time on the record the music is in an unambiguously major key, trumpets (of the Angel Gabriel?) joyfully blaring as Gaye reasserts his own faith. The attendant irony of “love your father” is of course only detectable retrospectively (and hear the whisper behind “Don’t go and talk about my Father (i.e. God)” which warns “Don’t talk ‘bout spiritual lust (i.e. his own father)”) but the grievous punctum comes when he reaches the line “Love your brother” and his alter ego suddenly screams “MY BROTHER!” and briefly overwhelms the entire track.
The vision is there, its articulation as yet incomplete. We now move into the climax of side one, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” where a bewildered Gaye asks “Where did all the blue skies go?” before musing on the “poison in the wind that blows from the north and south and east.” Moore’s outraged tenor rips through the musing for a moment or two, before the opening “What’s Going On?” motif yet again returns and remains unresolved, culminating in what is still one of the most frightening endings in all popular music – the sudden and completely unexpected appearance of the Moog synthesiser, not quite for the first time on a Motown record but certainly the most pronounced, as the song/sequence grinds to a halt, giving way to the terrible horror of the closing inhuman “voice,” Gaye’s piano issuing a repeated, crashing, dissonant toll as though he is smashing his own right hand. Another Dies Irae for the world’s end.
Side two is where Gaye tries to find some answers. “Right On” begins as a typical early ‘70s soul-funk workout, very much in the Isaac Hayes/Curtis Mayfield mode, Danya Hartwick’s flute well to the fore. Eventually Gaye’s voice enters. He begins what you eventually realise is a prayer of salvation, a list of those who will survive:
“For those of us who simply like to socialise.
For those of us who tend the sick…
For those of us who got drowned in the sea of happiness.
For the soul that takes pride in his God and himself and everything else.”
Fountain’s mothering alto watches over him from above. Because it is love that will save us. Yes it’s that simple, yes it’s that unattainable. The tempo briefly quickens up as though it is to COME
and the music metamorphosises into Sinatra (with one further blast from Moore’s tenor). Apostolic strings, Gaye’s voice pleading just as it’s coming on: “PURE love can conquer hate every time” – he finds as many variations on expressing the word “love” as Van Morrison did in “Madame George” – and, inevitably, the need for personal love becomes evident and finally predominant. Listen to him inviting you: “And my darling, one more thing/If you let me, I will take you/To where Love is King/Ah, ah, baby” – the final line is wept. PLEASE KEEP ME ALIVE.
and then the groove restarts, briefly, then the percussion and alto clip-clop in unison, and then it is time for the epiphany – “Wholy Holy” where Gaye now pleads for the entire world, all humanity, to become his Other. “We can (and how close to “can’t” his voice seems to sound) conquer hate forever…we can rock the world’s foundations” – if only you’ll let me. So peaceful, yet so confident a prayer (the graceful if ever so slightly regretful descending chords – proto-Badalamenti), he asks us to believe in Jesus and almost uniquely in popular music you want to believe it too. He very nearly persuades you.
Except of course that it’s a dream, a utopia, which cannot yet – if ever – be converted into reality. And even Marvin Gaye has to wake up to what is the most tangible and most perceptible “reality” – the world, America, as it stood in 1971. “Inner City Blues” is where, having reminded us of how high we could reach if we wished, we have to have our faces rubbed in how things actually are. We have to confront the shit in which, if we look at the sky for too long, we may end up buried. Another list, this time of things which will kill; the inability to pay one’s taxes, the banality of one’s own “hang-ups, let downs” set against moonshots (don’t be flying high, give your love and money to the have-nots), capitalism (for years I thought he was singing “Inflation, no chance/Too many creeps finance” though actually it’s “to increase finance”), and finally (could it ever be firstly?) apocalypse (“Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God knows where we’re heading”). Is my alternative really so woolly, he is asking. The music is low cast, Bob Babbitt’s bass flowing like cynical blood through the aorta of the strings and the death march piano chords. The piano finally takes us back to a reprise of the key lines from the song “What’s Going On?” to complete the cycle:
“Mother, mother (my God, how he emphasises the “mother,” how right it’s Eli Fountain’s alto which should take us out of the album)/Everybody thinks we’re wrong/Who are they to judge us/Simply ‘cause we wear our hair long?”
Sung by someone who would never be seen dead in long hair, who appears on the sleeve wandering around a children’s playground in the rain, dressed in a smart black raincoat, black suit and a wide gold tie, smiling benignly.
And we do not quite return to a loop – just Gaye’s wordless vocals, Fountain’s alto and percussion. God knows where they’re headed…except that eventually Gaye would move from his dissertation of big deaths into a microscopic examination of the little death. More about that shortly.
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