Marvin Gaye: Sanctified Man

by Matteo Tiratelli

Legend has it that when David Ritz flew to Belgium to visit Marvin Gaye in Ostend, he entered Gaye’s flat and was confronted with a mountain of sadomasochistic porn on the floor. Later in the interview, Ritz asked whether he was looking for “sexual healing”, thus sparking one of Gaye’s finest songs. This confused relationship with his sexuality is an integral part of Gaye’s music. Wherever these themes emerge, however, there’s always the shadow of the conflict that so troubled Gaye himself: between sexuality and religiosity.

As soul was born out of R. & B. and gospel music, this tension between lust and God was there from the start especially because many of its finest voices grew up performing in the church. Sam Cooke, Little Richard and even Prince (whose dirty-minded funk often betrays moments of religious wonder), all struggled with these two sides to the African-American music scene. However, it is Marvin Gaye who most self-consciously exposed it in his music.

Much of Marvin Gaye’s work (excluding the early cover albums) reflects a wish to bare his soul. Painfully personal memories, references and soul-searching are essential to his writing and performing, from his first hit ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow’, which was inspired by a playful argument with his then girlfriend Anna Gordy, to ‘Here My Dear’ which dealt with their divorce, to ‘Let’s Get It On’, inspired by his blossoming romance with Janis Hunter. His personal life also affects his changing presentation of sexuality by bringing out his possessive, jealous side and changing his understanding of the interactions between sexuality and spirituality.

By 1973, when Gaye released Let’s Get It On, he had assumed near total creative control of his music, writing and production. He adopted the same approach he had used on his masterpiece What’s Going On, using a concept album to focus on a theme (love and sex this time took the place of politics) through which he hoped to reveal a deeper, more spiritual meaning. This is most obvious on the title track which was originally conceived as a religious celebration of life and was then rewritten to be more politically focussed, and then finally became the hymn to love and lust that made it to the album. In 1973, Gaye had begun an affair with Janis Hunter (then a high school senior who he met in Hitsville West Studios LA) and this provided the stimulation for the album’s erotic energy. The joy and excitement of this new relationship led Gaye to use his human, sexual love as a metaphor for God’s love and unite these two seemingly opposed forces. On the title track he sings, “Giving yourself to me can never be wrong / If the love is true” and that through this love he’s been “sanctified”. This album also brought a new level of sexual explicitness to his music, especially on “You Sure Love to Ball” which opens with Fred and Madeline Ross’s moaning. In the liner notes to the album he spells out his views that “SEX IS SEX and LOVE IS LOVE” but that there’s nothing wrong with sex “between consenting anybodies”. Although at this time the tensions between God and sex seem to be at low ebb, his insecurities and difficulties still reveal themselves through this constant and explicit justification of his feelings.

Gaye’s relationship with Janis continued until 1979 and they continued to see each other on and off until his death in 1984. Their relationship was characterised by affairs, drug dependencies and Gaye’s self-destructive and masochistic behaviour and this seemed to affect his presentation of sex and love. ‘I Want You’ was released in 1976 and it has broadly similar lyrical content to ‘Let’s Get It On’ but reveals more of his jealousies, so much so that the sexed up, disco sound (which he first introduced on this album) seems to be compensation for those emotional insecurities. Although the title track was not written by Gaye, his delivery (he reportedly sung it while lying down on a sofa in the studio) brings out the more needy elements of the lyrics. “I want you the right way / I want you but I want you to want me too” recalls his 1964 hit ‘Try It Baby’, a song written by his then brother-in-law Berry Gordy (the head of Motown). Both reveal a possessive tendency and a fear of rejection. In fact, his need for attention and love is far more complex than this might suggest and Janis has claimed that Gaye used to make her pretend to flirt with other men in order to make him jealous. Nevertheless, this album marks a change to presenting love and sex in a more mundane and less spiritual way. Sex is brought explicitly to the fore while religiosity and love retreat.

It was not until 1977 and 1978 that Marvin Gaye began to record music that dealt with the end of his relationship with Anna Gordy and their subsequent divorce. ‘Here, My Dear’ came out in 1978 partly as a way of paying the child support he owed to Anna and is characterised by sensual descriptions of his tender, nervous, emotional state. For example, on ‘Anger’ he brings the physicality of his feelings to the fore singing “Up and down my back, my spine, in my brain”. This album was soon followed by one of the lowest periods in Gaye’s life. After Janis filed for divorce in 1979 he fell into depression and attempted suicide for at least the second time by ingesting an ounce of cocaine. (He had tried to kill himself in 1970 after his close friend Tammi Terrell died from a brain tumour.) He then moved into self-imposed exile in Belgium to try to escape his drug addiction and started going to church again, visiting the local church in Ostend. During this time he wrote much of the material which went on to form his 1982 album Midnight Love. This album oscillates between presenting sex as part of his road to personal redemption and recovery (‘Sexual Healing’) and presenting it as part of a profane, if desirable, lifestyle (‘Midnight Lady’ is rife with mentions of cocaine and clearly references Rick James’s club hit ‘Super Freak’). Throughout the album, however, sex is presented from a curiously one-sided perspective. Instead of the emphasis being on a feeling of spiritual connection and unity as it was in ‘Let’s Get It On’, it seems to be all about catering to the protagonists desires: “You’re my medicine, open up and let me in”, “Please don’t procrastinate/ It ain’t so good to masturbate”. This is the flipside to his jealous and possessive personality, in which sex is treated selfishly, as a way of escaping. This idea, which Gaye called “love for sale”, was apparently inspired by his losing his virginity to a prostitute while training for the army; he said he imagined “a world of pure sex where people turned off their minds and fed their lusts, no questions asked. The concept sickened me, but I also found it exciting”.

This egocentric depiction of love is tempered by another recording from 1982 which was entrusted to Gaye’s mother for “safe keeping”. ‘Sanctified Lady’ (or ‘Sanctified Pussy’ as it was originally titled) explicitly reconnects sex with God and mixes the profane, “Some girls scream and some girls moan”, with the sacred. It also brings Gaye’s own religiosity into the lyrics as he sings “I can respect a sanctified lady / Can bring my children into the world”. Saying he wants “a good old church girl… [who said] ‘I’m saving mine for Jesus’”.

On his return to America following the 1982 tour for Midnight Love, Gaye began using cocaine heavily again and his paranoia and depression continued to escalate. This return to depression may have been the inspiration for one of his most bizarre recordings: ‘Masochistic Beauty’. The song sees Gaye affecting a British accent and talking to someone through a masochistic fantasy. It is both darkly terrifying and farcical as he clearly mocks his own urges with the rhyme: “I love you / I love your booty / It’s my duty to spank your booty”. This is the closest Marvin Gaye ever got to explicitly addressing the sadomasochistic urges which he divorced from the rest of his romantic and sexual feelings and songs.

Up to his death Marvin Gaye was troubled by his own sexuality and how it related to his spirituality and this played a role in fuelling the depressions and addictions which troubled him throughout his life. His understanding of these issues always reflected his changing psychological circumstances and these two posthumously released songs encapsulate the conflicted impulses which fuelled so much of his work: the first sees love and sex as joined together in a road to spiritual bliss, the second reveals the darker side of his sexuality – divorced from love and God.

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