By Lary WallaceSeptember 18, 2015
After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye by Jan Gaye and David Ritz
MARVIN GAYE’S first wife was 17 years older than him; his second wife was 17 years younger. This may sound at first like a most ideal arrangement — experience and vitality arriving each in their turn when lacking in the other. But as even the most casual reading of any of the books on Gaye will make clear, this type of arrangement is not a guarantor of health or happiness. In case we need any reminding, Jan Gaye, wife number two, has finally written her own book, a memoir called After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye.
Janis Hunter was eight years old when she first fell in love with Marvin Gaye — from afar via television screens and stereo speakers — but had to wait until she was 17 before meeting him in person. Ed Townsend, a friend of Janis’s mother who at the time was helping Gaye produce what would become Let’s Get It On (1973), arranged for her to come on down to MoWest — Motown’s Los Angeles recording studios — and meet Gaye.
What she heard, entering the studio, was this:
Sheets of silk and satin, notes soft as cashmere, come-hither strands spirit-filled and seductive, floating sounds that carried the promise of romance, the promise that all pain would vanish as long as the sound of his voice, effortless and ethereal, continued to call us into his world: a world of lightness, ease, and pleasure without end.
And what she saw impressed her just as much:
His face was beautiful. The shape of his head appeared noble — his smiling eyes, the slight flare of his nostrils, the contour of his lips. His outfit — a faded army-green shirt, faded denim jeans snug at the crotch, a red wool skullcap, dusty work boots — was the essence of cool. He stood tall, regal, relaxed.
After the Dance is co-written with David Ritz, author of the Gaye biography Divided Soul (1985), which — for its personal access to its subject and nuanced appreciation of his music — may just be the best biography ever written about a musician. And thanks to that earlier book, we have Gaye’s own account of what he saw in the studio that day. “She was the figure in my fantasy come to life,” he told Ritz, “the one I watched dancing round and round in my imagination, whirling from man to man. I’d never encountered a more beautiful creature in my life. I had to have her.”
Jan’s is the voice most conspicuously, most frustratingly, absent from Ritz’s biography, and so for him to be able to listen to her now at such length functions as a kind of extended, belated appendix to Divided Soul. “She added much to my understanding of Marvin,” Ritz wrote to me recently by email, and she did so without saying anything that “contradicted” Divided Soul. She was, Ritz told me, “certainly the most important romance in Marvin’s life. Jan helped me gain new and deeper compassion for Marvin and the demons he battled.”
At the time of their meeting, Jan had recently completed her junior year of high school. It’s also worth noting — as Jan herself notes in After the Dance — that she had only just the year before lost her virginity. Gaye, meanwhile, was very much a well-established man of the world, recently separated from his wife of 10 years, Anna Gordy — sister to Berry — a woman some 34 years older than Jan. These are phenomenal facts to behold.
And yet, the two of them were good for each other, at least at first and according to Jan, who had recently been “bothered by an increasingly depressive atmosphere at home.” As for Marvin, he “had been struggling to complete an album on which he’d been working for nearly three years” and was “estranged from his mother-figure-mentor-wife.”
But now that Jan and he had been together two weeks? “Now I had never been less bored or depressed; now Marvin had never been more motivated to work. For both of us, the darkness had unexpectedly lifted.”
It didn’t take long for the darkness to descend again. Before she had even turned 18, Gaye introduced her to heavy drug use, and when she claims that “I started to grow as our relationship grew,” one of the things she means is the unique kind of emotional “growth” that must occur in anyone married to a man like Marvin Gaye:
I wanted to let him have his flings, even if I had to bite my lip later and cry when he was away. I gave in when I probably shouldn’t have. I danced along that dangerous line of being accommodating but not giving in too much, and I was often left alone and hurting.
Jan was also determined to give him the children he desired, and did so before his divorce from Anna was finalized. They had a daughter, Nona, in 1974, but Jan knew how much Gaye had really wanted a son. When she saw him shortly after giving birth, her first words to him were “I’m sorry,” to which Gaye responded, rather magnanimously, “That’s all right, dear. She looks just like you. She’s just beautiful.”
Gaye got his son with the next one, Frankie Christian, just over a year later. (Gaye technically already had a son, Marvin III, whom he and Anna had adopted from within the Gordy family, and who turned nine years old the day after Frankie was born.) As much as these children must have been bringing the two of them together, they also — in spite of the counseling-room platitude that holds that it’s never the children’s fault — were certainly pulling them apart in at least one way. “Surely there is a way to rid yourself of those things,” Gaye said to her one night, indicating her stretch marks. Jan was not charmed by the suggestion.
None of this is as surreal or unorthodox as Gaye’s desire — previously well documented in Ritz’s biography and elsewhere, but never documented so elaborately or intimately as here — that she engage in affairs with other men, for the sheer stimulation it delivered to his sexual imagination. “To watch purity turn to perversity is a fascinating thing,” he once explained to her, with characteristic eloquence. “You were once my angel. But now you have fallen. And yes, I do admit, it is exciting to watch the fall.”
He was encouraging her to fall in such a manner well after they finally married in 1977 and, to compound the perversity, was even encouraging her to do so with those musicians threatening to usurp his status as America’s preeminent — and preeminently desired — soul singer: Teddy Pendergrass and Rick James. Or rather, he was encouraging her to do so with Pendergrass and James when he wasn’t jealously accusing her of having already done so, or holding a knife to her throat while declaring, “I’ve loved you too much. This love is killing me. I beg you to provoke me. Provoke me right now so I can take us both out of our misery.”
The case of Marvin Gaye never has been very useful for those attempting to prove that beautiful music often emerges from a well-adjusted psyche.
It’s amazing how much of the best of that music was inspired by Janis. Even though Gaye was already in the midst of recording the material for Let’s Get It On when she walked into the studio that fateful day, her subsequent presence throughout the sessions really put the fire into Gaye’s vocals, according to everyone present. And, anyway, she did arrive in time to inspire the composition of at least one of that album’s tracks, the heartbreakingly devout “If I Should Die Tonight.” On the tour following Let’s Get It On’s recording, Gaye premiered a new track, “Jan, ” which, as he tactlessly told the audience, was written at her request. (This performance, the only extant version of the song, would later appear on greatest-hits albums and other anthologies.)
“Jan” is not a particularly distinguished song (unless you mean distinctly unremarkable), but Gaye more than made up for that by channeling the libidinous ardor of their early romance into his next full-length LP. I Want You (1976) is an album for which Gaye received considerable help — from Leon Ware and others — in just about every way imaginable: writing, production, instrumentation. But one thing about the album that belongs entirely to Marvin — or that belongs entirely to Marvin once you’ve acknowledged Janis’s undeniable influence — is the singing. The singing on that album, as on all of his albums, is entirely Gaye’s own, sui generis and positively unreplicable by any other human voice. In its own day, the album was widely regarded as little more (or less) than a canny Barry White knockoff. Recent decades, justly and fortunately, have been much kinder to the album, and Jan’s fingerprints are all over it. (The memoir she has written here is named after one of the album’s signature songs.)
Nowhere in Gaye’s musical canon does Janis’s influence function more strangely than in what many people — myself included — have come to regard as Gaye’s masterpiece. Here, My Dear (1978) was written as part of a divorce settlement with Anna Gordy, who would receive all of the double album’s proceeds. She is the stated subject of many of the songs, and these songs are every bit as flattering toward her as you’d expect. But at the time of the album’s recording, Anna was not the only person Marvin had married with whom he was having serious difficulties. He and Janis’s own marriage was well beyond the honeymoon stage, in ways far surpassing the literal.
That doesn’t mean Marvin and Jan’s passion for each other was anywhere close to expiring just yet. There’s a lovely up-tempo wah-wah number — a lusciously funkified torch song called “Falling in Love Again” — that’s meant to serve as epilogue to the bitterness, resentment, and remorse found throughout most of what precedes it. Jan appears to have inspired most of what’s musically superior about the album as well, and she has the good taste to understand the value of what she helped create.
For all of Gaye’s varied and frequent psychological difficulties, his music itself — the finished product — always remained free of what was most pernicious in his life. If anything, those psychological difficulties existed only in service to the music. And yet, Gaye found himself, as he was beginning work on Here, My Dear, confessing to Janis that “the music I intend to make will have no commercial value. I will not contribute to the Gordy wealth in any way. ” (He was fighting at this time not only with Anna but also with her brother Berry, still in charge of Motown.) “If I have to make an inferior album to satisfy the divorce decree, so be it.” (Marvin had agreed to pay as alimony the royalties of his next two albums, a requirement met by the length and pricing of Here, My Dear.)
“But as I watched Marvin begin to work in the Sunset studio,” Janis writes, “I saw proof of what I had long known to be true — Marvin Gaye was incapable of making inferior music.” (And here’s a fun fact that never made it into Ritz’s biography: it was militant comedian Dick Gregory, of all people, who provided Gaye the idea for what to call the album, a fact that only ratifies the playfully bitter nature of the title.)
If Janis is to be believed — and I see no reason why she shouldn’t be — she also served as a kind of co-producer or editor on the project:
When he showed me some of his original song titles, like “You Never Really Cared,” “Fourteen Years of Nothing,” “A Messed Up Mind and a Pocketbook to Match,” and one referring to me — “Younger, Prettier and Twice the Woman” — I told him that he had gone too far. He had to tone down his attitude and become more subtle — which is just what he did.
Sometimes, muses work in mysteriously muting ways.
An accurate and detailed account of all the estrangements and reconciliations, the movings-out and movings-in — to say nothing of the wheres and whens — belongs not in an essay but in a flowchart. Even after the couple finally divorced in 1981, things continued to run hot and cold, off and on. Who knows how long this all would have continued if Marvin Gaye Sr. hadn’t put a guaranteed end to things, shooting his son twice in the chest on April Fool’s Day, 1984?
Jan is now, as she poignantly writes near the end of After the Dance, “fifteen years older than Marvin will ever be. It’s taken me thirty years to feel safe enough to tell my story. Doing so has brought joy, pain, fear, satisfaction, and a sense of freedom.”
After Marvin died, Jan finally quit drugs, with the help of Rick James (which is somehow both perfectly appropriate and perfectly absurd). There were certainly some lost years, or years in which she found herself lost. But Jan, at last, is perfectly reconciled to it all: “That I lost myself in someone else — someone as remarkable as Marvin Gaye — is no longer cause for self-condemnation. It is cause for sublime celebration.”
Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large and the features editor of Bangkok Post: The Magazine.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!