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Style / April 2018

Style Heroes: 1970s Marvin Gaye

A bonafide Motown hit-maker in his early career, Marvin Gaye shed his skin to become one of the most intelligent, outspoken and politically-charged artists of the 20th century.

Marvin Gaye recording at Golden West Studios in Los Angeles, 1973. Photo by Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images.

When asked in a 1983 video interview about why he exiled to Europe, Marvin Gaye responded with the collected eloquence of a spoken word poet: “Let's see, it’s a result of three or four things. I was undergoing two divorces at the same time, which can be rather traumatic by itself and then I was in bankruptcy all my property had been confiscated. It was millions of dollars and that was rough, leaving me penniless, and then I was really having quite a political upheaval with Motown at the time and we weren’t getting on at all. Things didn’t look too good, so I was stuck in this forest and I couldn’t see my way out”. He pauses, slowly chewing gum before a dismissive final blow: “Oh yeah and I didn’t tell you, I owed the government four million bucks too, so that’s enough to leave the country, you know?”

Gaye is brutally honest in his recalling of this story, as he was throughout his professional career. He undoubtedly had his demons, but there’s no denying his way with words and who else could talk of such a traumatic period of one’s life with such openness and elegance?

Often misunderstood, Gaye’s shy sensitivity and fierce intelligence was overshadowed by his reputation as a ceaseless lover and, in his final years, his uncontrollable drug addiction, which formed the root of his personal peaks and troughs. And then there was his ongoing dilemma between serving God and satisfying his carnal desire. Although most widely known for his highly sexualised records and passion for ‘fooling around’, he was an outspoken artist who tackled race, police brutality and the injustice of the Vietnam War in his lyrics. Just listen to his 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On and see how this seminal album is more relevant today than ever. That it was even released at all is a testament to Gaye’s relentless drive to bring about social change, or at the very least awareness, despite the lack of support from his record label.

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Charlie Thomas

Charlie Thomas is a former staffer at The Rake.