Saturday, April 4, 2009

Flashback, April 1984: Motown “Trouble Man” Marvin Gaye Shot by Dad

Strung out on drugs, Marvin Gaye lived up to the title of his moody 1972 hit, “Trouble Man,” as the onetime Motown master was killed in a violent quarrel with his father.

The 1984 shooting took place in a Beverly Hills house he had bought his parents, far removed geographically but not psychologically from the Washington, D.C. birthplace that began a life of buried anger, sexual disorientation, and disenchantment.

For years, Gaye songs such as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Sexual Healing" sought to unite desire and transcendence. By purchasing a .38 caliber revolver for the minister father who had abused him as a child, the singer found a binding agent for these two instincts in his own death wish.

During their long, arduous climb from poverty and prejudice, African-Americans, like Irish-Americans before them, found comfort and champions in their ministers, who, in effect, served as father figures.

The case of the Rev. Marvin Pence Gay and his son (who added the “e” partly in homage to Sam Cooke, partly to distance himself from his dad), along with the treatment of a similarly troubled minister-child relationship in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, raises the question of what happens when fractures develop in that moral bedrock.

The Gaye tragedy occurred on April 1, one day before the soul singer’s 45th birthday. Cocaine addiction, two divorces, and legal struggles with the IRS and Motown management had led, over the past few years, to rising paranoia, erratic behavior and even physical deterioration (while performing “Sexual Healing,” Gaye sought to satisfy female fans by stripping down onstage to his underwear—an act that merely exposed his growing paunchiness).

With his world falling apart, the singer sought refuge with his family. He should have known better.

If cocaine bedeviled the son, alcohol possessed the father. Mrs. Gay’s room separated son from father—an apt metaphor for the longtime division in the family that produced its culminating tragedy.

On April 1, 1984, the Rev. Gay entered Marvin’s room, where son and mother were talking. The father was certain that Mrs. Gay had a paper he wanted, and began shouting at her. Marvin pushed his father away, punching him in the process.

The minister, who had previously vowed to kill his son if he ever punched him, returned to the room with the .38 caliber and promptly made good on his threat.

The Rev. Gay pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years probation. He died 14 years later in a nursing home. It was the last act in a drama that sprang from the ferocious stresses on the 20th-century African-American family, but which echoed with all the inevitability of ancient Greek tragedy.

An ordained minister in the House of God, the Rev. Gay fervently preached his sect’s conservative mix of orthodox Judaism and Protestant Pentecostalism, in strictures that permitted no holidays and called for feasting and prayer for a full 24 hours on the Day of Atonement.

But the Rev. Gay felt it impossible to live by this ascetic code in his private life. It didn’t matter that, from an early age, his namesake showed promise as a soloist in the church choir—the minister, in his drinking binges, repeatedly beat his son.

That alcoholism might have resulted from secrets the minister dared not faced about himself. Neighborhood kids who taunted young Marvin that his father was “sissy” were not that far off the mark: The Rev. Gay wore dresses, suspender belts and stockings around the house.

I remember reading somewhere that at the height of his career, Marvin Gaye knew how to maximize every millimeter of space between his mouth and a microphone better than virtually any other singer. Would that he were as comfortable away from the stage or studio.

You might ask why I write at such length about Gaye’s tragic end when we really remember him for his music. Fair enough. But his death bothers me because of its sense of creative incompletion and even waste.

Gaye began his career singing ballads in the style of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. In some ways, he was the Sinatra of Motown. I’d say he could have been greater than that, since his range as musician (besides singing, he also played the drums and piano) and songwriter exceeded Sinatra’s.

In his dark, self-destructive impulses, Sinatra in fact shared a deep affinity with Gaye. In the worst moments of his relationship with second wife Ava Gardner, he had tried to kill himself, just as Gaye did when his second wife left him for Teddy Pendergrass. The Chairman of the Board was unmatched as an interpreter of “saloon songs” like “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” because, as a self-described “24-carat manic depressive,” he was all too familiar with loneliness.

Yet Sinatra managed to save himself. His infidelities were as legion—perhaps, amazingly enough, even more so—than Gaye’s, but he remained devoted to his family. Not only did he love his mother and children, but he retained, to one degree or another, love and affection for his first three wives (Nancy Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Mia Farrow) even after divorce.

That love, I think, anchored the singer, enabling him to continue to sing—not to mention engage in staggering acts of philanthropy—even when he was not the best custodian of his staggering gifts.

Whatever else you can say about Sinatra’s five-decade career, then, it was not, unlike Gaye’s, truncated.

You can’t read the accounts of Gaye’s death without thinking of the climactic scene of Jungle Fever. Spike Lee’s depiction of a turbulent, illicit interracial love affair is deeply problematic, shot through with the writer-director’s overreagerness to prove a polemical point without consideration for the complications of character.

But its subplot—involving the cocaine-addicted brother of the African-American male at the center of the drama—brings to the surface the issue of how the African-American family and community can survive when the legitimacy of its major authority figures is questioned.

As if in answer to critics who complained that Mo’ Better Blues ignored the narcotics life that has plagued so many jazzmen over the years, Lee detailed in Jungle Fever the myriad costs of substance abuse, including a scene of a crack den, the Taj Mahal, that is best described as Dantesque.

In the role that won him his first major national notice, Samuel L. Jackson invests the crackhead character, Gator Purify, with alternating wheedling charm and unbridled menace. But Lee’s script, unlike the attention given to lovers Flipper Purify and Angie Tucci (played by Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra), gives him much to work with, particularly in a trenchant dinner scene involving his father, the Good Reverent Doctor Purify (Ossie Davis).

As becomes quickly apparent, the minister’s surname is highly ironic. He has, in fact, poisoned the family through philandering. His hypocrisy leaves him no moral ground to speak of in reproving either Flipper for his affair or Gator for his self-destruction.

At the very moment when a small unit of the black community—his own community—could use it the most, the Rev. Purify, like the Rev. Gay, offers no moral exemplar. He invites his son and girlfriend to the house just to abuse them—then, in the end, is forced to shoot in self-defense the addict son he had long before forced into homelessness, much as the Rev. Gay turned on his own cocaine-addicted child.

The final scene—a female crack addict imploring Flipper to be her “Daddy” in return for a sex act—merely echoes the Rev. Purify’s original inability to stay true to himself. The minister, like the Rev. Gay—and like the latter’s son—could no longer live with the contradictions at the heart of his character.

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