The law of averages always meant I was going to roll dice and come up with a tricky one.
Which isn’t to say this is a bad album or even a remotely embarrassing one. Musically and lyrically it is sensational, it’s just that, well, maybe everything that could be said about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has already been said.
Gaye started his musical career as part of the Motown machine churning out lover-man ballads in the suburban Detroit studio basement owned by Berry Gordy. Motown’s plan to rule the American airwaves was going to plan and singer after singer, fuelled by the Funk Brothers tight grooves, laid down vocal s in the snakepit. Gaye was just another cog. His voice was just another instrument, no different to bass or drums.
It was just another way to tell stories about juvenile love and quickly forgotten heart-break that would appeal to the wallets of the young.
But it was his talent for duets that made him stand out. Big swelling, rhythm and soul numbers with lyrics that went to and fro declaring everlasting adoration for a succession of female partners propelled Gaye up the charts time and again and none so powerfully than as with Tammi Terrill.
When Terrill died of a brain haemorrhage in 1970, Gaye sank into a black depression. Already a surprisingly reserved man for a pop star (he hated performing live), he tumbled through a funk markedly different from the sort the band used to jam out. Demons chased his soul. His brother was in Vietnam. The murder of Martin Luther King and the subsequent riots in Chicago and Washington and Baltimore, Boston too were it not for only James Brown’s passionate performance keeping the crowds in the auditorium instead of out burning the streets down. All these wounds were raw. The USA was adrift and Gaye, depressed and confused, found its pulse.
I have no personal anecdotes to tell you about What’s Going On. It hasn’t intruded in my life in that way. The only thing I can think of is around the time, possibly even the same day, I first bought it and played it on repeat whilst stripping down my bedroom, preparing to leave the city at the end of University. Maybe that’s why. Maybe, somewhere in my subconscious, I automatically associate it with the end.
Influenced by the troubles around him, Gaye wrote a state of the nation address with a smooth funky back drop. His vocals are slick and yet catching on his heart at the same time. They soar over lush strings and swaggering bass that even today sounds the right side of dated. The emotions the record explores are complex; the narratives deep and far reaching, each song can touch the listener in a different way. It is both intensely personal and universal. And yet it was only released after protracted disagreement with Gordy who felt it was too political, missing the point that really the album is about Gaye’s grief for a world that wasn’t proving to be as wonderful as it had once promised.
In many ways, I think, this is the better way to write about real events, to make it personal and push the listener or reader or watcher to find themselves or the life they know in there too. William Skidelsky, writing in the Observer recently, bemoaned the abundance of films recreating real events: The King’s Speech, 127 Days, The Social Network, the upcoming Jack Kerouac biopic, Where the Road Ends. Or rather, to be more accurate, not that they exist, for vibrant insightful biography is a crucial part of our wider culture, but more he despaired at the instant and universal acclaim they seem to get. As though, by being truthful they are automatically more worthy than something which just makes shit up.
Whilst, I think they’re good films, he has got a point and it happens in literature as well. Indeed it can be traced all the way back to Shakespeare’s histories, political arse licking and spin doctoring each and everyone. But outside of violent regime change myth making, ever since Truman Capote’s toweringly brilliant In Cold Blood novelists seem to have been increasingly poaching narratives from real life, as though not having to concentrate so closely on plot will release them to explore the human dynamics. Simon Mawer in the Glass Room doesn’t have to worry about the setting for his narrative since he borrows a real Czech art deco house to place it. Jonthan Littell’s research heavy The Kindly Ones can focus on incidental detail without having to worry about the logistics of how the Nazis might lose the war. John Banville can focus on his characters’ failings in The Untouchable rather than whether their secrets will have to come out or not.
Okay, so it may not be as overt as in the films mentioned. Banville even changes the names involved (although we know it’s the Cambridge spies). They are all very admirable books, but somehow I can’t help but wonder if they’d have been even better with greater invention. Just going with the narrative flow; trusting the audience to have faith in the creator.
Besides, where does it stop? Capote’s experiences of writing In Cold Blood even became a film in their own right. Circles around and around constricting our knowledge and understanding spheres.
Yes, it’s important to examine these building blocks of our existence; these examples of the extremes of humanity’s triumphs and failings, coupled with the microcosm of self, there is much we can learn from them, but not at the expense of pure invention. The ability to conjure something out of nothing, to externalise our own individual concerns, hopes and failings into a mythic construct is a precious talent. It enables people to see beyond the simplistic, the straightforward narrative and to search out their own reflection from within.
After all, the reason that What’s Going On still sounds relevant forty years later is its lack of specifics. Urban strife, financial meltdown, ecological catastrophe, hopelessness in the soul of a country, distant war few want or understand? It could be tomorrow, couldn’t it?