#6: Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" (1971)

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“It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

— Isiah Thomas, on Marvin Gaye’s performance of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game


I chased the Holy Ghost through many years of childhood; never did catch it. I figured I was doing something wrong. I understood that you were supposed to act on faith, but there were so many stories of messages, visitations and answered prayers. I believed sitting in the pew week after week—and not even using the pouch of crayons or, later, giving in to the temptation to read my mystery novel—should gain me access to a magic moment of understanding.

Maybe if I’d been raised in the tradition that Marvin and Aretha were, I might have found something spiritual amidst all that spirituality. But I didn’t grow up on gospel—just lame four-piece Jesus rock and men with soul patches telling me what I believed in. Many people told me all I had to do was invite him in and I thought I’d done so. I waited a long time; I can be stubborn, too. By the time I discovered hymns that spoke to me it was the hymns themselves that settled into the space I’d left available. And then other songs, as well. I like to discover things all on my own.

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Many people told me that I’d fall in love with Marvin’s music if I gave it a chance. I am still relieved that when I finally saw him sing (in footage of his 1983 national anthem) I wasn’t too thick-headed to give in to glory just because I wasn’t waiting for it—just because it was one I hadn’t discovered first and named my own.

It was the floating that captured me—the sense that he barely had to push air through the vocal folds to make his tone soar. The drum machine R&B backing track was a bold choice, sure, but that just set the stage for the calm, gently swaying revelation of what he did with his voice. What struck me was the confidence he had in being quiet and the certainty that he didn’t need to do something as impressive and desperate as belt.

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Where Mariah reaches for the shock of volume, Marvin whispers in perfect pitch. Where Fergie shouts with her hands, Marvin caresses his, a washing motion, something you might do while praying. And where most others dig in for the long and technically impressive run, Marvin smiles and sings a simple melisma back and forth between two notes that are not the ones we’ve learned; yet they fit the tune like a soulmate attaches, whereas previous loves just sat and occupied the right amount of space.

Marvin stated that he did pray right before the performance, and he asked God if he would “let it move men’s souls.” God must have agreed. Marvin’s belief that it would be affecting and his belief in the words he was transforming made me feel patriotism and spirituality, although I’d been pretty sure I possessed neither. And the fact that he loved his country so much in that moment, as much as he’d doubted it a dozen years earlier when he’d released What’s Going On, is the kind of contradiction I live for.

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If Marvin knew when to be quiet, he also knew when to be loud. And he knew how to do both at the same time—how to package a brash, revolutionary suite of protest songs in a way that demanded your attention, but not because anyone was shouting at you. He floated in and out of scenes of police violence and crumbling cities and heroin addiction. He had the Trojan horse of that glorious, gentle noise. People paid attention.

It makes sense that What’s Going On had such a political and social slant. In a 1983 interview with Tom Joyner, Marvin explained that he wrote what he felt: “I write my music according to my lifestyle. If I’m sad I write sad music, if I’m being divorced I write divorced albums. If I’m uh, If I’m sexy, if I feel hot or horny I somehow write a horny album.” In 1970 America, as the album took shape, Marvin would not have been able to pretend his way into the typical Motown lover-boy fare that he’d long since grown tired of. He felt that the nation was broken and so he made an album that showed us, in no uncertain terms, that the nation was broken.

It’s an album that resists the favorite song dilemma. With seamless transitions, recurring motifs, and an unwavering message, it is a perfect concept album. For me, though, it doesn’t get much better than the final two tunes. “Wholy Holy” is an original composition that feels ancient. It’s a church song, a gospel song, that isn’t exclusively about Jesus. Like all the others, it’s a call to action (“rock the world’s foundation,” “holler love across the nation”) and it recognizes that redemption is going to take all the people, not just a solitary higher power. Before he sings that “we believe in Jesus” he makes a simple yet stilling statement: “We believe in one another.”

In “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” the relentlessly driving piano and bongo put you on edge even as the vocal lament is so unbelievably smooth. For over four minutes Marvin explores their plight—bills and bad luck and trigger-happy cops. He tells us over and over again that it makes him want to holler without ever losing control, without letting his voice approach anything like a holler. Instead he hums and politely croons his hymn. By the time he finally lets out that scream, I sure as hell believe him.

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Marvin didn’t make it far beyond that national anthem. It was one of his last public performances, which shouldn’t change the way I feel about it, but it does. It shouldn’t matter which of our heroes died early. Biography should be able to be separated from discography, but they are indivisible, it seems.

We embarrass ourselves as we get older. Athletes and musicians and artists, yes, but regular people, too. Each year we are more fallible and frail and more easily felled. We who live long and love hard and settle into comfort have too much time to let our edges dull. And while there is very little that is beautiful about being shot or taking pills, it is sort of beautiful that we can’t know what the rest would have been. Uncertainty is glorious. The inaudible whisper that Bill Murray gave to Scarlett Johannson at the end of Lost in Translation either makes you mad or knocks you over, and you know which it did to me. It can be perfect, in its agony, to miss something that was so healing.

We are allowed to wonder if Kurt or Janis or Marvin might’ve continued in their excellence forever like a line that is not a segment and pays no attention to the edge of its page. How can we know for sure they would have become less stunning just because of age? It can’t be proven or disproven and so I, at least, feel possibility in my teeth and in my jugular sometimes when they sing. The records hold up better than we do. Marvin, Jr. will always sound as young as he was before Marvin, Sr.’s tumor told him to put a bullet in his son’s heart, and then another in his shoulder.

It’s my tendency to still thank God sometimes, as a means of emphasis, though I’ve given up the habit of asking him for anything. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I don’t know if my place is to thank “goodness” instead. I’d written out a list of things to thank him for here. And I don’t think I’ll delete that list, because I think I mean it, one way or another.

It’s not romantic that he left us early and it wasn’t necessary that he be taken to cement his legacy. But let’s take comfort, always, where we can. Thank God that Marvin didn’t live to see us desensitize to police shootings, run out of ideas for how to preserve the world or save the babies. Thank God that Marvin never knew the aftermath of what his father did to him: the blood and the shock and the long road through the prison system, all mercifully hidden. Thank God Marvin never made another covers record or toured to pay off his tax debts despite having lost the high notes. Although he could have offered some healing to us, for his sake I’ll say it’s a blessing that Marvin never mourned Trayvon. Wholy holy; one day he left, and he left us some songs to believe in.

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My father used to tell me not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but it’s all relative. Sometimes we need to be reminded not to exaggerate our own pain, yes, but other times we probably need to feel it real bad and in a demonstrative way, no matter whether others find it warranted. That’s what Marvin did on What’s Going On, without anyone allowing him his mourning or the studio signing off on his tantrum. In fact, Motown boss Berry Gordy hated the first song with a passion. The title track and lead single, born of unprovoked beatings and social injustice, was actually snuck onto the air, released by lower level studio employees without Gordy’s knowledge or permission. The label that tried to suppress the song sold more than 200,000 copies of it in a week.

Any monument or monumental achievement can lose luster or pale with a dash of context. With enough altitude, the family farm is a fingernail and the Great Lakes are droplets of fallen rain. Love becomes an unremarkable conversation. But the greatest people and artists—the most certain of what they were doing—resist this diminishment. You can fly away and nothing seems to recede. You can flip off the stereo and it does not become silent, exactly. You can close your eyes to rest and feel as though they’re widening. You can stop praying and then hear, very faintly, a sort of response. You can lay flowers on a grave years later and find that your grief is still a mountain, no closer yet to molehill.

Marvin, since I first heard his anthems, has not quit floating in my ears.

—Eric Thompson