You can take your drug overdoses, plane crashes, & suicides, but for my money, no rock & roll death is worse than the one suffered by Marvin Gaye 30 years ago today: He was shot to death by his own father on April Fool's Day, 1984, which was the eve of his 45th birthday.
One part Greek Tragedy, one part sick April Fool's joke, one part Orwellian nightmare, one part "hope I die before I get old" midlife crisis.
As testament to his legend, Marvin Gaye seemed to touch everyone from his generation & beyond: Paul McCartney listed him almost immediately as a vocal idol in an early BBC interview; The Rolling Stones covered a pair of his songs ("Can I Get A Witness" & "Hitch Hike"), one of which was the basis of an early instrumental composition ("Now I've Got A Witness"); Creedence Clearwater Revival turned his signature "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" into an extended swamp-rock jam; The Velvet Underground lifted his lick from "Hitch Hike" for the intro of "Here She Comes Again," which in turn was lifted by The Smiths for their masterpiece "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" (although they lifted it from The Stones' cover of "Hitch Hike," not the Velvets' lick or the Gaye original, but I digress); Creedence Clearwater Revival turned Gaye's signature "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" into a sprawling swamp-rock jam; & perhaps most strikingly, The Band turned Gaye's minor hit "Baby, Don't Do It" & turned it into an epic (best heard as the kickoff of their live Rock Of Ages double-LP), which only leads one to wonder: If a relatively forgettable Gaye hit can be transformed into an epic masterpiece, how many other unrealized tracks fill his back catalog? (The notion is staggering.)
After beginning his career as one of Motown Records' MVPs (that's him playing drums on Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' "Shop Around," the label's first #1 Pop record), Marvin Gaye became the prototype for the modern male R&B singer: A suave guy with a handsome smile who could go from crooning to pleading with the turn of a phrase. Indeed, his early hits seemed to alternate between crooning ("Pride & Joy") & pleading ("Stubborn Kind Of Fellow") in 3-minute workouts that set up the boundaries—"Joy" & "Stubborn"—that his soul would oscillate between for the remainder of his career.
The Joy was best heard in his duets with Tammi Terrell, where songs like "Your Precious Love," "You're All I Need To Get By," & "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (which, as Greil Marcus noted, was "oddly, not much of a hit") turned lower-case romance into upper-case Romance that perhaps could only be matched by a Phil Spector record. But it was not meant to last, as Terrell died of a brain tumor at the age of 24 in 1970.
By that point, Marvin Gaye had already become Motown's biggest-selling artist when his cover of Gladys Knight & The Pips' "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" hit #1. Music critic Dave Marsh has since chosen it as the greatest rock single of all-time for the way in which it documents the emotional journey of a relationship. It is also damn catchy & provides the perfect turning point at which Gaye turned classic soul into proto-funk—& took the history of the music with it.
But even with a record as perfect as "Grapevine," this is not his signature accomplishment. Tired of the straightjacket that came with being a Motown star, Gaye dropped out of the scene when the label moved to California, opting instead to stay in Detroit, where he grew a beard, hung out with (& tried out for) the Detroit Lions, & smoked a lot of pot. Spurred on by statement-making "concept albums" like The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band & tales from his brother Frankie's return from Vietnam, Gaye began crafting the album that would become his masterpiece (&, as some like to tell it, the greatest album of all-time): What's Going On.
Like so much great rock music before & after it, What's Going On was notable for breaking all of the rules. Even in the early 1970s, Motown was a single-driven, AM radio-marketed type of music, where the albums were essentially a place where singles were collected. Gaye instead crafted an album, in which the loose, at times unstructured songs ran into each other, extended into druggy jams, or reprised elements from other parts of the album. He put his bearded face on the front cover & made sure all the musicians were listed within (a first for a Motown record, if you can believe it), & kept the music mature, philosophical, & uncompromised.
Motown Records released it only when Gaye declared that he would release nothing else in its place.
Motown's folly was Gaye's redemption. When What's Going On was finally released in mid-1971, the album was a huge hit, spun off three amazing #1 R&B singles ("Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)," & the title track), & ushered soul music into rock's artistic age.
As the album took the listener from the sin & trouble of the mortal world into the perfection of the divine, it was Gaye's definitive statement as an artist because it was a work that seamlessly united the Stubborn with the Joy.
Marvin Gaye loved to say, "Beyond sex, is God." What's Going On is the roadmap for these four words over a long-playing disc.
Gaye would spend the rest of his career alternating between the funky & the holy (although the funky usually sold better; just think "Let's Get It On" or "Sexual Healing"), until his father, a minister, shot him in cold blood with a gun given to him by Marvin as a Christmas present.
Like every other part of his life, Gaye's death spins the secular & the sacred until the two become one, a divine vision of mercy pulled back to reveal an inner-city holler.