Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Friday, September 03, 2004  

Reading: Dyson doesn't do Gaye justice

I said I would be writing about two bad books earlier this week. Both are books about Marvin Gaye, the singer many socially conscious people consider a cultural critic of his times. I discussed the pitiful biography of Gaye's younger brother, Frankie, in my last entry. It fails as biography, and is interesting only as an artifact of a man unable to face reality. Black studies guru Michael Eric Dyson stops short of calling his book a biography, though it is partly that. Unfortunately, Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye, also falls short as an intelligible and intelligent examination of Gaye's life.

The review at Publisher's Weekly is the most accurate I have encountered.

Dyson, a leading figure in black studies who is as comfortable discussing Tupac as Malcolm and Martin, offers a "biocriticism" that reflects on the themes of Marvin Gaye's music and personal life. Too much of the analysis, however, relies on nitpicking earlier critics, often reduced to accusing 1970s record reviewers of not getting Gaye's genius. While his examination of the cultural significance of What's Going On and follow-up albums is somewhat stronger, if not exactly revelatory, Dyson's ruminations hit shaky ground when he declares Gaye's shooting death at the hands of his father a suicidal acting out of an "Afroedipal" family drama. This queasy mixture of psychoanalytic theory and celebrity gossip undermines his narrative.

Breaking with previous biographies, Dyson takes dubious assertions by a second-string Motown vocalist (contradicted by just about every reliable source) as proof Gaye had a sexual relationship with singing partner Tammi Terrell. At times, the writing is simply sloppy, contradicting itself from chapter to chapter and stretching out interviews until they trickle into irrelevancies. Dyson's personal fascination with the turbulent blend of spirituality and sexuality in Gaye's life and music is obvious, but it can't sustain an entire book. Though the mashing together of pop culture with gender and race studies is sure to score some points with academics and public intellectuals, it adds little of substance to Gaye's legacy as a musician.

Dyson does come across as a gossip, not an academic interested in understanding how a gifted artist's muddled life can tell us about both the individual and the society he lived in. In an apparent effort to supply hooks that will attract attention and sell the book, he relies on several 'revelations' that are either shrug-worthy or not very believable.

?Gaye's oldest son was not adopted, but fathered by him with the teenaged niece of his wife, Anna Gordy Gaye.

?Gaye had a sexual relationship with singing partner Tammi Terrell.

?If listened to closely, Gaye's recordings during his 'sexual healing' period reveal he was into oral sex, which Dyson believes to be unusual for an African-American man to admit.

?An uncle is alleged to have raped Gaye when he was 15.

In regard to the first allegation, it may be true. Anna was 17 years older than Marvin, and reaching the end of her fertile years, when they married. Whatever the adults who may have manipulated a child thought as justification, the situation would have been statutory rape. An intriguing aspect of the rape, if it occurred, is that years later, Gaye would seduce and impregnate the girl who would become his second wife, Janis Hunter, when she was 17. This would be evidence that Gaye had a predilection for ignoring the rules of sexual interaction, which his experiences during later years supports.

I don't believe Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were lovers. Their years as duet partners occurred during a time when Gaye was in love with his wife and trying to make his marriage work. Terrell was in love with David Ruffin, one of the Temptations. Both Terrell and Gaye denied being lovers. The only sources who make the allegation are former divas Martha Reeves and Brenda Holloway. Their motive was probably to get their names in circulation again. Dyson seems to have a hard time believing an attactive man and a beautiful woman could have been friends, but not lovers. I don't.

The third 'revelation' is just plain silly. I'm sure that if one listened very closely to many a singer's oeuvre, she would find 'Easter eggs' -- hidden messages that are insiders' jokes. Some of them would surely be of a sexual nature. As for the specialness of a black man admitting to indulging in oral sex, again, I think Dyson is giving an insight into himself moreso than Gaye.

I don't consider the hearsay offered in support of the claim an uncle raped Gaye when he was a teenager reliable. The inclusion of the allegation in the book strikes me as sensationalism.

There is information in Mercy, Mercy Me that sheds light on American culture in the '60s, '70s and '80s. But, the reader must interpret much of it for herself. During his early career Gaye performed in racially segregated settings. There are insights to be gained from that experience, but, Dyson misses the point. He hails Gaye and Terrell's performance at a segregated Southern college as progress toward integration. Actually, allowing blacks to entertain whites was nothing new. The practice dates back to slavery. And, those colleges still often have vestiges of segregation today, despite admitting a few nonwhite students. Dyson also might have considered how Motown's exploitation of singers and songwriters began with background singers who were paid a pittance. (In fact, at one point, background singers paid Motown to sing on their records.) The lawsuits by stars that would come in the '80s and '90s had their roots in the '60s. Dyson reports the information, but doesn't see its signifcance.

As the review in Publisher's Weekly implies, the worst aspect of the book is Dyson's effort to try to turn the screwy dynamics of the Gay household into a psychological theory he calls "Afroedipal." The Gays differed from most families mainly because of the father's rigid adherence to a particularly odd type of Pentecostal religion. Their practices would have been foreign to most Americans, including African-Americans. The other aspects of the Gays' home that made it difficult were Rev. Gay's abusive treatment of his wife and children, especially Marvin, and his cross-dressing. Since research has shown an overreliance on corporal punishment in African-American households, Dyson has a leg to stand on in regard to that. But, cross-dressing and other signs of gender confusion are cross-cultural. Dyson fails to convince one that thet any Oedipal drama in the Gay family was 'Afro.' I have no idea what his goal in asserting his psychological theory is. I doubt he does, either.

Dyson's book will be read because of the degree of name recognition he has among people interested in contemporary cultural criticism. However, Mercy, Mercy Me does not earn its stripes. It is an embarrassing effort that I hope is not typical of Dyson's work.

posted by J. | 11:00 PM

Monday, August 30, 2004  

Reading: Gaye brother's book fails badly

I am ambivalent about reading bad books. An excellent argument can be made that once you realize a book is an embarrassing display of incompetence, you should put it down. Why waste your time? But, some of us habitually try to finish what we start. And, sometimes, one can learn something worthwhile from the inept. That is why I've finished reading three books I don't like this week. Today's review is of My Brother, Marvin Gaye, by Frankie Gaye, the reknown singer's pathetic younger brother. I am interested in Gaye because I believe his music chronicles the culture of both the black American sub-culture and American culture in general. (The two are inextricably bound.) So, the more I learn about Gaye, the more I learn about the times he lived in and his continuing influence on our culture. Unfortunately, his brother's book is pretty much useless for that purpose.

Frankie Gaye, who died before the book was published, has three objectives:

•To cover up the pathology rampant in the Gaye family, especially his father's abusive nature and sexual confusion.

•To partake of his brother's adulation.

•To promote himself.

The first is most important. On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gay, Sr., shot and killed his son, the famous vocalist, songwriter, and producer. The killing was the culmination of a life time of abuse. Gay, a fundamentalist preacher who rarely worked, had ruled his home with an iron fist for years. Though all family members were mentally and physically abused by him, Marvin, Jr., was the main target of his wrath. The son fled the father's whippings while in his teens. A few years later, he reinvented himself as the gentle singer of duets with gorgeous female vocalists that help put Motown on the cultural map.

During the next two decades, Gaye would produce the seminal album of cultural criticism, What's Going On, and revive his flagging career with his ode to sensuality, Let's Get It On. He would also unsuccessfully battle sexual obsession and addiction to alcohol and cocaine. Furthermore, Gaye was almost certainly mentally ill, possibly bipolar. All this is well-documented by other sources, including noted biographer David Ritz' biography of Gaye. But, you will find little discussion of what made him a success or a failure in his brother's book. Frankie Gaye is too busy trying to obfuscate. When honest information does slip through, it is often in spite of, not because of the author's intentions.

Perhaps we should feel sorry for Frankie Gaye. Obscure folks like us live out our family problems, including sibling rivalry, in obscurity. Frankie (he changed the spelling of his last name to match Marvin's) was continually exposed to the admiration the public had for his famous brother. All the while, he barely made ends meet while wanting stardom himself. This may explain his obvious jealousy, which his claims of love for Marvin do nothing to dispel.

Frankie Gaye uses his brother's fame as an excuse for why he never developed much of a career as a singer himself. He says an enamored public would have ignored the efforts of another Gaye. But, there have been many situations in which one sibling became reknown, but others also were performers. They didn't become famous, but knew the satisfaction of doing their own thing. Gaye, on the other hand, was a hanger-on when his brother allowed him to be. After Marvin Gaye's death, he had a little success as a Marvin Gaye impersonator, mainly in Europe. The imitation included performing with former Marvin Gaye duet partner Kim Weston, and, releasing an album consisting mostly of covers of his brother.

Gaye's effort to recreate reality fails. His father was not just a strict parent. He was a monster. His brother was not just misunderstood. He was both a genius and his utterly incapable of managing his life. And Frankie Gaye was not the beloved brother who wanted the best for his sibling he would have people believe. Just how dishonest is he? You will find no mention of his first wife, Judy, and their two daughters in Marvin Gaye, My Brother. Instead, he gives the reader the false impression his Scottish second wife, Irene, is the only woman he ever loved or married. In the same fashion, Gaye erases and distorts what matters about the Gaye family and its relationship to Marvin Gaye. Without understanding the family dynamic in a household in which the father cross-dressed and beat both is wife and children, then preached on Saturday, one can't begin to understand why Marvin Gaye's life was tragically shortened. Co-writer Fred E. Basten does nothing to extricate Frankie Gaye from his maze of misrepresentations.

My Brother, Marvin Gayee is a bad book because it purposely turns the purpose of biography upside down, using the genre to produce a work that serves the author's psychological needs instead of informing us about the subject of the book. I suppose something can be learned from that.

What's the art?

A young Marvin Gaye. At first, Motown marketed him as a sex symbol.

Reasonably related

Heatwave shared the charts with Marvin Gaye during the '70s.

posted by J. | 7:50 PM