Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is a spiritual heartbreaking haunting plea for change. America is on fire. Civil conversations have turned into shout fests, nonsense fueled with self-serving agendas. Some politicians seem to blame everyone but themselves. How much unnecessary bloodshed and loss do we need to go through for things to change? Bullet shells and tears are flooding the streets. What’s Going On is more relevant than ever. Sadly the issues being addressed within the record are clear and present in 2016.
What’s Going On
by Marvin Gaye
Tamla Motown (1971)
There were two sides of Marvin: the sexual and the spiritual. That is exactly what soul music is: the sexual and the spiritual. Finding that balance for Marvin was causing inner turmoil and would ultimately plague his whole career. By the time he entered the sessions for What’s Going On his marriage was failing, he was still trying to cope with the death of Tammi Terrell who he considered his little sister and featured on so many of his 60s juggernaut hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
She died on stage in his arms. He developed crippling stage fear due to the horrific ordeal. He became a recluse. His estranged wife was the daughter of Berry Gordy. That’s right THE Berry Gordy, president and founder of Motown. He was Marvin’s boss. Christ, can you imagine those meetings? His father-in-law cuts the checks and makes final calls on his entire musical output. Marvin wanted to take control of his career; he wanted more artistic freedom. He wanted to write his own songs and prove that he was more than a hired pop singer. His reverend father hated his secular career; he felt Marvin was throwing his gift away. Your looks will fade and then what? Marvin was depressed and drowning himself in vices. He went to his sanctuary: the studio.
Marvin let the spirit take over and he felt that the time had come to lay it all on the line. America was in turmoil, Vietnam was killing America’s youth, veterans were returning home to uncertainty and hatred. Veterans were made the scapegoats. Inner cities were riffed with violence and drugs. Heroin was all the rage. Police brutality, protests and political mongering were dominating the headlines. Marvin documented it all. He absorbed all the anger, rage, fear, and pain and explored the depth of his soul to explain it all.
It takes courage to go into the darkness to find the light.
What’s Going On is a concept album about a veteran returning from a war to a darker, scarier America. He created a backstory, wrote and wrote ‘‘till the spirit was satisfied.’’ The striking paradox of the album is how gorgeous and beautiful the music sounds considering the subject matter and the protagonist’s mental state. Marvin sang to cleanse his soul. There is no hate here. The vulnerability is deeply moving. He points fingers at himself and exposes his failings. He warns of what is to come if guns are not put down. He warns his fellow men to be weary of “trigger happy cops.” He details the harrowing dangers of substance intake. He does not have a solution for it all, rather offers his heart and soul to the listener hopefully awakening something within. It takes courage to go into the darkness to find the light. Marvin did that one too many times and make no mistake he did that for us. What’s Going On is a landmark album that brings the light that heals. A light that grows stronger after every listen.
I live in Austin but Dallas was and will always be my home. I am Dallas. How do you know if someone is really from Dallas? If you still love the Dallas Cowboys and cannot break up with Jerry Jones you might be from Dallas. Every Monday following a Cowboys loss, I curse the world and swear I’m breaking up with Jerry, only to take him back before kickoff on Sunday. The year my family and I immigrated to Dallas was 1989, my dad and I started following this American sport called football. The Cowboys lost every game. We did not care; we loved our new city and our misfit team. Dallas loved us back.
The horrific Dallas attack that occurred left me reeling. Like most Americans I saw the whole abomination play out on television. I was numb and heartbroken. Dallas has so much love and light. America is hurting. Dallas became another city affected by the anger and violence that seems to be unrelenting. The bloodshed continues, the shouting is getting louder, the darkness is spreading. African-American men are being denied due process and are being executed right before our eyes, innocent police officers are being targeted, all of it occurring in a political climate that lacks compromise and compassion. Our hearts are big enough to mourn both, do not let others cloak that truth with fear.
When my heart aches I pull out my CDs, vinyl, cassettes and listen as a means to mourn and pray. Music heals.