Motown’s four-CD Marvin Gaye box set, The Master, has provided for me a perverse sound track to the post-O.J.-verdict era. Perverse because of how little Gaye has to say about the state of modern race relations. The state those relations are in today has little to do with Gaye’s world, the early 1970s, when his tone, and that of most other pop commentators, wasn’t much harsher than reproach. While the release of Gaye’s epochal album, What’s Going On, gained him a reputation as politicized, his plaints actually were keyed more to the generational than the racial. On songs like “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and “Mercy Mercy Me,” he identifies himself most strongly with war protesters, hippies, and economic and environmental activists. His most famous lines have racial overtones, but are expressly about the war (“Mother, mother / There’s too many of you cryin’ / Brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dyin'”) and offer little more than homilies as a solution (“There has got to be a way / To bring some lovin’ here today”).
Still, Gaye’s story is arresting, even ten years after his death. He grew up the son of a combative preacher who led a half-Jewish, half-fundamentalist storefront sect. By the mid-1960s Gaye was an established Motown star–perhaps the label’s most naturally charismatic one. But his status was a bit awkward because of Berry Gordy’s paternalism and Gaye’s marriage to Gordy’s sister, who was 17 years his senior. Gaye pal David Ritz, who wrote The Master’s liner notes, says that Gordy squelched Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in favor of Gladys Knight’s less dramatic one in 1967. When Gaye’s malevolent reading was released a year later, it became a thrilling international hit, one of the best-selling singles of the 1960s. As the decade turned, empowered by this stardom and radicalized by his Vietnam-vet brother, he grew a beard, donned an earring, and planned an epic of socially conscious soul. What’s Going On, also released over Gordy’s objections, established Gaye as a visionary recording artist. The sound was unlike any previous Motown music (indeed unlike any previous rock music), a classy, impeccably recorded melange of predisco rhythms, pulsing guitars, MOR strings, jazzy saxes and piano, and impressionistic studio additions, from almost Beatles-esque song codas to backing tracks of conversation and chat. Most adventurous was his singing. Derived from his great interest in vocal harmonizing, according to Ritz, the songs on What’s Going On are marked with complex, almost contrapuntal vocal tracks: a whisper and a falsetto mix beneath scatted ululations. While the title of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” obviously refers to blacks, the song’s litany of societal and economic pressures remains abstract and strangely intimate, almost as if the several separate voices in the songs are murmuring to each other rather than to the listener. Gaye’s stardom culminated in his almost religiously carnal 1982 hit, “Sexual Healing.” A heavy drug user who beat his wife, Gaye was $4 million in debt when his father shot him in the midst of a family quarrel in 1984.
Being a white middle-class person in America, I’ve been trying to analyze my obligatory outraged feelings about the Simpson verdict. One rock song that makes me think about the Simpson case is Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The song is based on the true story of one William Zanzinger, who beat a Baltimore hotel maid with a cane; she died of a cerebral hemorrhage. It’s not clear what Zanzinger’s motive was: “He happened,” as Dylan sings it, “to be feelin’ that way without warning.” He got a six-month sentence and a touch of immortality. Dylan doesn’t say, but it’s supposed to be apparent that Carroll was black, Zanzinger white. The verdict in the Simpson case, in which the races were reversed, is being read as some sort of racial payback for generations of Zanzinger verdicts. Race is supposed to be a sensitive topic, but it’s talked about incessantly. Class is what’s taboo. References to Simpson’s having bought himself a verdict seem tokenistic, and are often made before heading for the race question. But Simpson’s money was central, and race just one of the tactics his splendidly amoral lawyer used to shake up the jury. With Simpson’s essentially bottomless cash box Johnnie Cochran could outrun the district attorney’s office, which generally doesn’t have much problem putting away black people who kill whites, and even a few who don’t.
Louis Farrakhan, at his Million Man (and One Anti-Semitic Fuckhead) March, was unsophisticated but basically correct when he talked about a self-perpetuating white supremacist system, though race is sometimes subordinated to class concerns. It’s set up in such a way that almost any challenge to it is demonized–witness the national debate on the evanescent phenomenon of political correctness. Now even Bill Clinton can make a speech decrying both white and black racism, as if they’re quantifiably comparable or morally equatable. In America blacks will always lose battles like this. My theory as to why Gaye didn’t write explicitly about race relations is that it would have been pointless. Radical rap stars, blacks helped by affirmative action, those who cheered the Simpson verdict–anything can be used to rationalize white racism, which of course created all these things in the first place. Simpson and Cochran tramp away over the bodies of his victims and the past’s innumerable unjustifiably persecuted blacks. Black leaders who aren’t assassinated have their flaws humiliatingly hammered on by the press. LA cops go back to the streets, this time with an edge. It makes you wanna holler.