Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye
Michael Dyson, author of this excellent work of “biocriticism,” teaches in the Humanities Department at Penn, is a Baptist preacher, and has written prior studies of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Tupac Shakur. In this examination of Marvin Gaye, he gives us a loving portrait of another giant figure in 20th-century American culture.
What’s new here? After all, other biographers — most notably David Ritz in Divided Soul — have given us competent and detailed studies of Gaye. Dyson covers some of the same required ground, detailing Marvin’s upbringing in D.C. in his father’s strict and abusive fundamentalist household, his tutelage in doo-wop in the late ’50s, and his string of successes at Motown (from 1962’s “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” to his biggest single in 1968, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”.) Dyson argues convincingly that the obvious brilliance of the latter production, along with its huge sales, gave Gaye the necessary clout to take on Motown chief Berry Gordy and extract the creative freedom he required to record his masterful album What’s Going On. Dyson confides how as a Detroit teen, “Inner City Blues”, with its frank appraisal of ghetto realities, “fed my hunger for social justice.”
Gaye had simply applied his devout Christian faith to problems that afflicted American society, such as war, poverty, racism, and pollution. He fused socially conscious lyrics with musical sophistication to create an album that represented a complete artistic statement.
Dyson breaks with the critical consensus in denying that Gaye’s next two albums — Let’s Get It On and I Want You — represent any diminution in quality. He contends both are successful concept albums that make courageous political statements in their sexual explicitness. These records reflect the storms of Marvin’s personal life, primarily his tempestuous marriages to Anna Gordy and Janis Hunter.
Gaye engaged in a lifelong effort to rid himself of the Puritanical hang-ups ingrained by his Pentecostal father. Through his career, Marvin attempted with mixed success to balance the themes of social justice, sex and spirituality in his art. These latter-day recordings especially reflect his identification with T.S. Eliott’s line that life consists primarily of birth, death, and copulation. Dyson sees them as erotic classics.
Gaye’s pathetic and drug-addled final year was highlighted by his unforgettable performance of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Arriving at L.A.’s Forum five minutes before he was due to sing, he proceeded to electrify the crowd with his impassioned, melismatic vocal. To some degree, he was compensating for his conservative reading of the anthem in Detroit before game four of the 1968 World Series — a rendering that had provoked stinging and hurtful criticism from Jose Feliciano, whose Latin-jazz version of the anthem ignited a firestorm the next day. Less than two months later, Gaye was shot and killed by Marvin Gaye Sr. in a case of what Dyson terms “suicide by proxy.”