The Spirit, The Flesh and Marvin Gaye

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 158 from April 11, 1974. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

The Marvin Gaye documentary should start like this:

A wide-angle helicopter shot of the bare Southern California mountains zooming down to a small, weathered-wood and glass canyon-top home. There are two jeeps parked alongside the dirt road. Windsounds, and far below, the Pacific Ocean. Slow dolly to one of the Pacific-side windows. Inside, a tall, athletic-looking black man in faded jeans stands braced against the glare, staring down toward the distant waters. His lips are moving slightly. Now, amid the wind and water sounds we hear Marvin Gaye's tenor voice.

"Mercy, mercy me, what's happening to...."

The voice breaks, goes reedy. Marvin checks the watch on his wrist. "Fifteen minutes," he mutters disconsolately.

Cut to: Marvin at the wheel of his jeep, careening over the dry winter hills. "You don't expect a man to come back after five years and give a perfect show. You have to make allowances. It's like Muhammad Ali coming back to the ring. The first time out, he isn't going to be at top form. I've been training for this concert. I started singing... trying to do the whole show. The first time I tried it, I could only do about five minutes. In the studio I sing a phrase or two at a time, but Friday Fm going to have to do over an hour. I've got it worked up to about 15 good minutes before my voice breaks."

Close-up on Marvin, brooding. Long pan shot of the leaden Pacific horizon and a cold January sunset. Windsounds.

"It's as if he's developed this phobia about performing," Marvin's younger brother, Frankie, says.

And Marvin, a man who has sold four million albums in the last three years, who has sung about God and ecology, who has managed boxers and trained with them, who has prayed to God and sung finely of sex, says, "I used to be afraid about 70% of the time. I've got it worked down to about ten percent lately."

The most frightening time was the first 17 years, the ones Marvin spent while living at 1716 1st Street, S.W., in Washington, D.C., in a ghetto he and his friends called Simple City. Tall but slight as a child, Marvin learned the rough facts quick. You had to bring your lunch money for the older kids, learn to run fast or get into boxing. "I was chicken," Marvin says. He was also the son of a preacher — a prophet, Marvin says, and a healer, and a philosopher — and it wouldn't do to bring reports of fighting. "I could never get angry enough to fight back," Marvin says.

Marvin, his two brothers and two sisters, all performed at the church. He started at the age of two, and by the time he was eight, he and Frankie could count on bringing the congregation to their feet with their favorite song, "His Eye upon the Sparrow." "Sure," Frankie says, "my father saw a performing career for Marvin. Of course, it wasn't hard to realize that Marvin was something special, even when we were kids singing in church."

Gaye's father, Marvin, Sr., says, "I used to travel and do evangelical work. Marvin, when he was five, went with me to Kentucky for a convention of the Church of the Living God. He sang "Journey to the Sky," and that was probably the first time I realized that he could deliver a song and that he had a unique style. After that, when I traveled with Marvin, people would always want him to sing."

Marvin Gaye thinks in terms of feelings, so if you ask him to describe his father's church, you won't get a physical description. "Our church was a very spiritual church and we were a very chosen people. The body was small, but the spirit was intense, and very evident to anyone who passed by or came in. It immediately encompassed them. And there were very strong people who seemed to bring the spirit forth." He passed over their names, slowly, lovingly. "When they spoke in tongues, the words were foreign, but they were almost clear to me." Something else. "I was frightened because of how the spirit came forth. I wondered why the spirit had such disregard for their bodies, making them bump into things and fall on sharp objects. Or when they tarried, which is saying, 'Thank you, Jesus,' over and over again until you know you have changed. It becomes evident, physically, that they shouldn't do it that long. And yet the spirit is there and their mouths begin to foam and that's part of it.

"I never tarried that much. But I am a prayer." We are sitting in a room on the 18th floor of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Marvin is one of those rare men with a presence that makes his moods infectious. At this point in the conversation he is not really talking to the people in the room, but staring off into some regal inner space. "I try to sense the spirit, feel the spirit, be aware of signs of the spirit." What he is saying, in fact, begins to sound like a soft prayer. "I try to sense the spirit in a gust of wind, or in a bird chirping, or in a drop of rain.

"I think that somewhere down the line, God owes somebody a favor. If I do my job well, then God will smile on my offspring and on their offspring. I'm sure my father is seeing a blessing in me."

"What is your father like?" I find I am whispering, caught up now in Marvin's hypnotic rhythm. Perhaps it is something we have been smoking — a sin, I suppose, in the fundamentalist sense — but Marvin's next words sound to me like whispered melodic poetry.

"My father is a black man. My mother is very fair. My father's hair is very kinky, and my mother's hair is fair." He speaks even slower here. "My father is very strong, extremely independent." He lingers on the word "independent," and repeats it. "My father has a magnificent body. My father has a great voice. My father used to sing...just sing. He would take the guitar and sing...." Marvin begins to sing in his sweetest, softest voice. "Oh precious fountain, hear my call, oooohhh Jesuuuuuus, hear me, Lord...."

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From The Archives Issue 158: April 11, 1974
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