The style icon and creative lightning rod at the core of ASVOFF reflects on Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On and tells us why it’s as relevant today as it was at the time of its release
There is no denying that when you hear a certain piece of music you get flooded with memories, and that is how I felt when I was watching Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods with that wicked soundtrack, including Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. You know how sometimes you listen to tracks and you get so pulled into them and emotional that, in a way, you set the mood to fall down a deep dark hole?
Watching that film brought me back to the days I was playing the record on repeat and was involved with a guy, who actually was the first man I ever truly loved. Prior to that I always thought that I was in love, but the reality was I had no idea what love really was. It was a doomed relationship from the start, but a very passionate one. He was married – in fact, recently married – and I even knew, by coincidence, the father of his bride, who, of course, had no idea that I was going out with his daughter’s new husband.
It was one of those fatal attractions, I guess. I also have to admit that in those days I was experimenting with different drugs – uppers, downers, weed – so I my reactions were skewed. At any rate, it was an extremely passionate relationship, maybe one of the best on a certain level, and I would want to see him all the time. It was an obsession. Finally, when he left his wife, I didn’t want to be with him anymore. There is, of course, more to that story, but I don’t think we have that much time. That was all a long time ago. I haven’t done any drugs since the age of 25, except for smoking a bit of weed. That is how ancient this history is.
It seems little wonder that Spike Lee wanted to incorporate as many tracks as he could from What’s Going On for Da 5 Bloods. I’ve already watched that film twice, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again. With everything that is happening now with Black Lives Matter, What’s Going On could not be more relevant. Marvin Gaye is just so timeless and relevant to these desperate times. He told us the future. You simply cannot listen to that album and not think about George Floyd – some 50 years after the lyrics “don’t punish me with brutality” were penned. Most of the songs on the album are still so relevant, particularly his ecology track: “Mercy, mercy me / Things ain’t what they used to be/Fish full of mercury/Radiation underground and in the sky”.
When it was created, Marvin’s older brother Franklin was doing tours in Vietnam, so he was getting a first-hand account of the war from his brother, and was seeing black soldiers coming back from Vietnam, all jacked up – and it was probably those things that gave him the impetus for what I consider one of the greatest albums for all times. Gaye was fatally shot by his father in 1984 in Los Angeles when he intervened in an argument between his parents, and I believe he is now in heaven singing with the angels: “Don’t go and talk about my father, God is my friend, Jesus is my friend /all he asks of us/is we give each other love again…
As told to John-Paul Pryor
Check out more from Diane Pernet at ASVOFF.COM