What’s Going On: Personal and Racial Trauma in the Music of Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye, 1973.

An important thing about symbolization and trauma is that they are opposites, and that is what makes art so special:  It takes trauma, something that by definition cuts us off from community and from symbols, and turns it into something that is collectively shareable. It produces symbolization when for most of us symbolization seems impossible, when words fail most of us. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this link between trauma and art comes as little surprise. So as we confront the dissociation involved in having Juneteenth, the date in 1865 that news of the end of slavery in the United States reached Texas, named a national holiday while Texas and many other states are in the process of banning any public education on why a national holiday on Juneteenth is absolutely necessary, we also remember that the United States is founded on trauma, for it is founded not only on dreams of freedom and equality but also on the realities of slavery and racism, racism being as fundamental to the Enlightenment vision as are freedom and equality.

From this context, the police murder of George Floyd just one short year ago is nothing new.  But from the perspective of the continuing outrages of the current era, this murder means everything, especially for African Americans but, insofar as we are all connected to each other, for all of us.  And right now I am hoping that there will come forth a poet to bind up our national wounds, someone who might prove the equal of Marvin Gaye, although we really, really need—what we have always needed—is profound social change.  But great art not only binds up our wounds but points the way toward the change we need.  Marvin Gaye had that kind of gift.

Marvin Gaye is my favorite artist of the classic Motown era, and although people generally do not think of him as a poet the way we might think of Bob Dylan, or the way we might think of Smokey Robinson, the most important songwriter at Motown, he was most assuredly a great writer, not to mention a great singer.  The voters for the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time clearly feel the same regarding his masterpiece What’s Going On, which now tops that particular poll. Much though I love this record, this is not a judgment I share, for in my opinion, the greatest album of all time would be John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come or Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, all of which appear on the Rolling Stone list, or maybe Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners, which is apparently a little too esoteric for the list, even if it is Monk’s best. I suppose it depends on how I am feeling on a given day. But as for Marvin Gaye’s writing prowess, however, consider also that he is one of the cowriters of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets,” perhaps the greatest example of a party song that is actually also a political anthem. Or consider his 1963 hit, “Hitch Hike,” also cowritten by Gaye, with Martha and the Vandellas providing gospel-style backing vocals. It is just a 12-bar blues, albeit one some unusual percussive accents and, most unusual in the world of rhythm and blues, a flute solo. But Gaye also played drums and piano on its rhythm track, and its opening riff was so catchy that it was also the opening riff for the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again” in 1967 and the Smith’s “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” in 1985. Without any formal musical training, Gaye was a figure of musical brilliance.

Nevertheless, what is also often forgotten about Marvin Gaye, although this fact of his life is directly relevant to my thesis, is that he was also a deeply traumatized individual, as several biographies demonstrate, most prominently David Ritz’s (1985) Divided Soul and Michael Eric Dyson’s (2005) Mercy, Mercy Me.  Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Gay, Jr., in Washington, DC, in 1939, the first-born son of a Hebrew Pentecostal minister who himself had been deeply traumatized.  As a Hebrew Pentecostalist, Marvin Gay, Sr., believed in celebrating the Sabbath on Saturdays, not Sundays, but this would have made the family highly unusual in an area dominated by more traditional Christian worship.  A probable alcoholic who seldom held regular employment, who had extramarital affairs, and who was attracted to cross-dressing in private and, when in public, to a manner of dressing that would have been considered flamboyant and effeminate back in the 1940s and 1950s—it is unclear whether this attraction to women’s clothing reflected transitional object usage, much as a toddler uses a teddy bear for emotional soothing, or transvestic disorder or instead a nonbinary gender identification, long before anyone knew what such a thing was—Marvin Gay, Sr., beat his children for all kinds of minor infractions, just as he himself had been brutally beaten by his own father, Marvin Gaye’s grandfather, in rural Kentucky, where Marvin Gay, Sr., was born, and Lexington, KY, where Marvin Gay, Sr., was raised.

Michael Eric Dyson notes that endorsement of corporal punishment is surprisingly common within the African American community and is one of the legacies of slavery, but accounts of Marvin Gaye’s life indicate that the frequency and severity of the beatings he suffered, combined with the sadistic manner with which his father inflicted them, often waiting an hour so as to heighten his children’s terror, would be well beyond anything that might be considered culturally normative for the times.

In addition, Dyson presents evidence that, in his mid-teens, Gaye was raped by a paternal uncle who had come to visit and who told him, no doubt correctly, that any attempt to tell his father would be met with yet another beating. Marvin Gaye was therefore raised with both profound brutality and profound hypocrisy, and there is no telling what such things might do to a developing psyche.  Complicating matters still further was that, by way of overcompensating for the brutality of the beatings and the paternal rejection, Alberta Gay, Marvin Gaye’s mother, became emotionally overinvolved with her son, indulging him and doing her best to protect him—something that was not easy to do, given that she was also a victim of her husband’s violence, as was everyone in the house, also that she believed in the religious doctrine that wives should submit to their husbands, and that, as the family’s chief breadwinner, working as a domestic in the surrounding area, she was home far less often than her husband was. Marvin Gaye therefore grew up with profound ambivalence toward (male) authority, craving it but also deeply resenting it and constantly rebelling against it, this rebellion encouraged by female figures toward whom he felt an equally intense ambivalence because they indulged and protected him but were also either too insistent in their emotional demands for him to satisfy them or always emotionally unavailable, just out of reach.

Marvin Gaye was also raised with racism. As a federal enclave, Washington, DC, had fewer segregationist laws than did much of the United States south of the Mason-Dixon Line, one of the reasons for its large African American population, but it was highly segregated in housing, neighborhood, and education, as noted in Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues.” It was also, in Gaye’s youth, a highly Southern city in manner and culture. He hated growing up there because of its segregation. But I believe that rural Kentucky might have been more important to the social context in which Marvin Gaye was formed than Washington, DC, was, even though he had little, if any, direct contact with that part of the country.

I don’t really know rural Kentucky directly, but I know directly a place that is very much like it after having lived there for 17 years:  rural East Tennessee.  Kentucky, like Tennessee, was a border area during the American Civil War. This meant that it was a slave state but that, unlike Tennessee, it did not secede from the union. There was strong pro-Union sentiment in both states, especially in the Appalachian regions. In these mountainous locations, slavery was far less important to the economy than it was the flatland areas, at least in part because it is very difficult to put a plantation in the mountains. But Lexington is in the bluegrass region of the state, where the rolling hills made larger scale agriculture possible.  The region was therefore the center of slavery in Kentucky, and there is also no telling to what brutality the Gay family had been subjected over the generations. When we consider the instability and violence of the Gay family, we must also consider how much instability and violence were inflicted on them by the post-slavery culture in which the family emerged.

Fortunately, Marvin Gaye’s musical talent manifested itself early, and he had the emotional support of his mother, but eventually he decided to run away from home by joining the Air Force, a clearly unworkable decision that resulted in a general discharge under honorable conditions, rather than an honorable discharge, given for his inability or unwillingness to follow orders.  This was a not unsurprisingly outcome for someone with very good reasons to have significant authority problems. Back in Washington, DC, Gaye formed a singing group that was discovered by Harvey Fuqua, whose early doo wop group the Moonglows had had a mid-1950s hit with “‘Sincerely,” a song better known in its white cover version by the McGuire Sisters. Fuqua, a demanding perfectionist but not a brutal man, became a father figure to Gaye, someone who could assert authority without traumatizing him, and was involved in Gaye’s career to the very end, even contributing to the production on Gaye’s final album, Midnight Love,” and last hit, “Sexual Healing,” both released in 1982. But at the beginning, Fuqua’s intervention was to take Gaye’s doo wop group and to turn them into the New Moonglows.

In 1959, Gaye followed Fuqua to Chicago and was a background singer on at least two Chuck Berry tracks, “Back in the U.S.A.” and “Almost Grown.” In 1960, Gaye then followed Fuqua to Detroit and was hired by Berry Gordy, at first as a drummer, not a singer, for Tamla, a subsidiary of the newly formed Motown label.  Gordy became Gaye’s next surrogate father figure, the next authority figure whom he could rely on but with whom he often did battle, and to complicate things still further, Gaye married Berry Gordy’s older sister, Anna, who was 17 years Gaye’s senior. This was a marriage that would certainly give Gaye a type of security in the Gordy family that he had not known in his own, but given the age difference with his wife, it would also be a marriage with the potential to replicate the complex dynamics of Gaye’s relationship with his own mother, who could be by turns supportive, if not indulging, controlling, if not demanding, and unavailable, if not emotionally absent.

Meanwhile, as a singer, Gaye initially had no interest in singing rough rhythm and blues and was instead inspired by smooth singers like Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, who was a brilliant jazz singer and pianist before his facility with ballads brought him fame and fortune, and Sam Cooke.  It was in emulation of Cooke, born Sam Cook, that Gaye added the “e” to his last name, although he was also interested in decreasing speculation about his own sexuality.  In fact, although heterosexual, Marvin Gaye, like his father, had an attraction to women’s clothing, quite an irony for a man whose sex appeal led him to have a strong following among women.  As with his father, it is unclear whether this attraction to cross-dressing reflected transitional object usage (i.e., self-soothing behavior) or transvestic disorder or instead a nonbinary gender identity.

Either way, the 1960s quickly found him becoming Gaye of Motown’s biggest stars, even if his early attempts to sing ballads were unsuccessful, both artistically and commercially. His rocket ship to stardom was fueled not only by his solo performances, which involved a three-octave range and the ability to handle both smooth material (e.g., “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You,” from 1964, when his marriage to Anna was still relatively good) and gritty (e.g., “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the biggest hit in Motown history, recorded in 1967 and easily recognizable as a cry of the soul as his marriage deteriorated), but also by a series of duets with female Motown stars, first Mary Wells, then Kim Weston, and finally Tammi Terrell.  When Terrell died prematurely of brain cancer, and with his marriage to Anna Gordy collapsing and his involvement with drugs (at first cannabis, then cocaine) escalating, Gaye, whom we would most certainly regard as psychologically vulnerable, fell into a deep depression and considered quitting the music business altogether.  He considered playing professional football, even though by then, in 1970, he would have been 31 years old.

It was when Marvin Gaye was in this psychologically reduced state that Renaldo Benson, bass singer for the Four Tops, pitched him a song idea that Gaye’s wife Anna, no matter how turbulent their marriage, said he should record.  Having witnessed police violence against antiwar demonstrators in Berkeley, Benson began writing “What’s Going On,” meant as a question about what he had seen.  Berry Gordy showed no interest in such politically charged material, even after Marvin Gaye, distressed by his own brother Frankie’s experiences in Vietnam, sharpened the song into the masterpiece we know today, its first two verses referring overtly to a family torn apart over the Vietnam War but also, perhaps unconsciously, to his own family struggles:

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eh eh

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh

The second verse is especially poignant in its evocation not only of the war in Vietnam but also of the war at home in the United States and of the war at home in Marvin Gaye’s life, both of his childhood in Washington, DC, and his adulthood in Detroit.

Marvin Gaye was still living in Detroit while the rest of Motown had moved on to Los Angeles when he finished recording an initial version of “What’s Going On” in July 1970, but Berry Gordy hated it and refused to release it.  Marvin Gaye, riding the huge success in 1968 and 19969 of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and therefore suddenly Motown’s biggest star, the Supremes, the Four Tops, and the Temptations notwithstanding, and also still Berry Gordy’s brother-in-law, went on strike, refusing to record anything else until Gordy released the song.  Gaye had no other potential singles in the vault as 1970 drew to a close, a major problem for Motown, a label that still depended on hit singles for most of its business, even as albums were becoming the dominant medium.

Defying their boss, Motown executive Harry Balk, who had loved “What’s Going On” since first hearing it, collaborated with Barney Ales, another Motown executive, to get the song released in January 1971, and, capturing the public mood among black and white audiences alike, the record took off, reaching number 1 on the soul chart, number 2 on the pop chart, kept out of the top spot by two lesser songs, first by the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, then by Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World.” Such powerful sales forced Gordy’s hand. Despite Motown’s reputation for strict control over its artists, Gordy gave Gaye the month of March to produce his own album.  Within 10 days, Gaye cut a masterpiece, What’s Going On, that captured everything the 1960s had tried but had failed to be, beginning with the tense optimism of the title track but ending with the grim “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” its fourth verse, now 50 years old, speaking directly to today:

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading

And indeed, a year after the murder of George Floyd, only God knows where we are heading now.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is artistically significant for another interesting reason, however.  In the early 1960s, although languishing in its teen idol period, the great girl groups (e.g., the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Crystals, etc.) providing some relief from the attendant mediocrity of the period), rock ’n’ roll was still a biracial music.  In 1964, the year the Beatles took the American pop charts by storm, Marvin Gaye was rock ‘n’ roll, and Bob Dylan was folk.

As proof of this, consider the biracial artist list on the T.A.M.I. Show from that same year. The show began with some cutting back and forth between Chuck Berry, the opening artist, and Gerry and the Pacemakers, straight out of Liverpool, a pallid reminder of the absent Beatles, already way too big for such a small venue. In one of the worst show business decisions of all time, the organizers of the concert and the film ended the show by having the Rolling Stones go on after James Brown. In 1964, the Rolling Stones were very competent r&b cover artists who had only recently begun to write their own songs and who were a year away from becoming international stars through “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And as for their young lead singer, now considered a great performer, back then he had none of James Brown’s stage charisma, never mind stagecraft. But the fourth artist to take the stage, after Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and the Miracles (at this point with no “Smokey Robinson and”), was Marvin Gaye. On the other hand, the artist list not only contained no Bob Dylan, at that point in no way a popular taste, the commercial success of Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of his “Blowin’ in the Wind” notwithstanding, but also no Kingston Trio, no Joan Baez, and of course no Peter, Paul and Mary, by far the commercially most successful folk artists of the period. By 1971, the music had resegregated into white rock and black r&b, a development driven by many factors, one of them the racism that continues everywhere in American society, but one of them socioeconomic class.

Over the course of the 1960s, the evolution of rock as an art form was made possible by the rise of the album, a more expensive format that in the 1950s had been marketed mainly to adults and that was more readily available to white kids than to black kids, while the economics of r&b made the less expensive single the more important unit in that market. This is not to say that there no popular African American artists who were selling albums.  Think in this regard of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, but both of them recorded for Atlantic Records—okay, Otis Redding recorded for Stax but was distributed by Atlantic—and Atlantic, although then still an independent label, had sufficient investment in the jazz market that it could think of creating albums for its r&b artists.

But rock artists, in the main white middle class kids now in their 20s, had an economic advantage that allowed them to paint on a large canvas for an audience of white middle class teenagers who could afford to purchase these larger canvases.  As exceptions that prove the rule, Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone recorded significant albums in the late 1960s, but they recorded for major labels and had significant followings among white youth.  Both of these acts appeared at Woodstock, an event as significant for its whiteness as for its demonstration of the extent of the hippy culture.

And so Motown remained a singles label, a fact you can easily confirm by considering that the albums you may own by the Supremes, the Temptations, the Miracles, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and the like are all greatest hits collections.  Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is different.  It was meant to be an album in the way that the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, their first true integral work, was meant to be an album. It is therefore clearly a dramatic departure for a label, Motown, that previously had been a marketer almost entirely of singles.  Along with Sly and the Family Stone’s early records and along with Steve Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From, also released by Motown in early 1971, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On made great r&b albums—artistic statements as important as Revolver and Blonde On Blonde and Exile On Main Street and Are You Experienced? (Wait, wasn’t Jimi Hendrix African-American?)—possible.

My impression is that not that many hip(pie) white kids knew about What’s Going On when the album came out, although I could be wrong here. In 1969, when Woodstock was occurring, all I cared about was the Miracle Mets, and even to this day, I think of their World Series triumph as one of the great events in Western Civilization. In October 1971, I had my bar mitzvah, and by the summer of 1972, I was no longer going to a jock camp for the summer but instead to a hippie one.  There were at least a few Motown fans there, but they were fans of mid-1960s Motown.  No one seemed to know “Inner City Blues,” a song that I, a white suburban kid, loved the first time I heard it.  And I was way far from the hippest kid at this hippie camp. I shut up about the song pretty quickly.

As for Marvin Gaye himself, we all know that he had a tragic end.  He produced two more masterpiece albums, celebrations of sexuality, Let’s Get It On and Midnight Love, but he was slowly dragged down by financial problems, marital problems, familial problems, and drug addiction.  In addition, although a brilliant performer, he had terrible stage fright, this anxiety of course driving his addiction.  He was suicidally depressed when he bought for his father the pistol that his father shortly thereafter used to kill him.

On April 1, 1984, the day of the shooting and a day before his 45th birthday, knowing that his father, who remained a man of violent temper, would kill any of his children if they struck him, Marvin Gaye repeatedly pushed and beat his own father while trying to keep his father away from his mother in a nasty marital argument about some insurance papers. In short, he engineered his own death this way because he could not bring himself to take his own life and so that he could inflict revenge on his father for the years of brutality and paternal rejection. He is reported to have said as much as he lay dying, and so let us reconsider the following words from “What’s Going On”:

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh

To this sentiment, I can only repeat the following lines from “Inner City Blues”

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Oh, make you want to holler
The way they do my life
Make me want to holler
The way they do my life

Juneteenth holiday or not, the twin assaults in state legislatures on democratic elections and on anything like an accurate accounting of racism and slavery in history classes in American schools, of why a Juneteenth holiday is necessary, are but two more indications of how far the United States remains from racial justice. It is frightening and enraging and sad all at once that such words from 1971, five decades ago, regarding racism in America are still so true today.

John S. Auerbach, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in Gainesville, Florida, where he works in both private practice and the public sector.  He is an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association.  He serves on the editorial board of Psychoanalytic Psychology and has served on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He writes about music and politics from a psychoanalytic perspective.”

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