My Pop Life #73 : ‘Til Tomorrow – Marvin Gaye

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‘Til Tomorrow   –   Marvin Gaye

Hey girl what you doin’? gettin up?  You got to go ? …ah, don’t go just yet baby…Tu es encroyable…that’s French baby…it means you are incredible…mm?  …why you got to go?  baby don’t go, don’t go right now I can’t stand it please….

Now here’s a pop star who translates as he goes, unlike Grace Jones.  Tu es Encroyable.  And he has a decent accent too.   This is because he’s been living in Belgium for a year, coming off cocaine and becoming fit, healthy and writing songs again.  Marvin Gaye was in a terrible state in the early 80s, a cocaine/crack addict, owing the Revenue millions of dollars.

He was rescued by little-known Belgian entrepreneur Freddy Couseart who made a connection in London through boxing, one of Marvin’s soft spots, and offered him shelter and sanctuary in his pension in Ostend on the Belgian coast.

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Marvin & Freddie in Ostend, 1982

Marvin, worn out with Motown (who had just released In Our Lifetime “before it was ready” which infuriated Marvin)  and drained of energy, dread and desire, needed a rest, needed a break, needed a change of scenery.  He found all three in this unlikely setting and started getting clean, getting physically fit, and writing songs.  By the end of 1981 he had an album’s-worth of material and a number of record labels flew over to Belgium to bid for the next MG product.  CBS were wise and sent Harvey Fuqua who’d sung with Marvin in The Moonglows back in the 1950s before Motown and all that excitement, and CBS got the final LP Midnight Love (released in October 1982) and the lead single Sexual Healing.  Marvin went back to the USA, scored a huge hit single, paid his tax, sang the National Anthem at the 1983 basketball final, (an astonishing performance), moved back to his parent’s house and got shot by his father on April 1st 1984.

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I bought Midnight Love when it was released in 1982 and played it a lot.  I was living in Finsbury Park at the time with Mumtaz.  I’d started acting, in Moving Parts Theatre Company – (see My Pop Life #18), and then in pub theatres such as The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road doing an expressionist Clockwork Orange adapted by John Godber who I knew from Edinburgh days, also starring Paul Rider, Andy Winters, Pete Geeves.   I was a hopeful monster.    Some of my new feminist friends from Moving Parts came to see it and were horrified to find their pet man doing ultraviolence.   But I scored an agent – David Preston – a shaven-headed queen ensconced in his purple velvet-lined office with brass candlesticks somewhere in deepest Soho – well I had to start somewhere…

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This track ‘Til Tomorrow was the one that stood out for me (alongside the obvious charms of Sexual Healing) – the only ballad on a funky jazzy synth-heavy set, and with lyrics and instrumentation that are sparse to say the least, and a spoken Marvin-persona intro (which I include above) which is frankly hilarious, but somehow still sexy.  That’s just how he was.  I think my favourite Marvin Gaye LP(apart from WGO) is Live At The London Palladium from 1976, all the between-song chatter is fantastic, his voice is amazing, the band are great.  Only the duets are a little weak.

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Marvin Gaye in Ostend, Belgium, 1981

In 2013 I was cast in a Marvin Gaye biopic called Sexual Healing.   Julien Temple was directing a script by Matthew Broughton about the last three years of Marvin’s life, (played by Jesse L. Martin) centred on the Ostend story with some flashbacks to Dad (Dwight Henry from Beasts Of The Southern Wild) and Mum (S. Epatha Merkers).  Freddie Cousearts was Brendan Gleeson.  I was Jeffrey Kruger Marvin’s tour manager in wig and large specs, the man who started London’s Flamingo Club a real music person, and a real person who now lives in Brighton.  I never did look him up – it’s weird playing real people – you want to be true to them, but you don’t want to feel obliged, and in the end you have to play the script and what is written.

Featured imageSo there we were in Luxembourg in nice hotels, working with a lovely local crew (mainly) and immersed in the world of Marvin Gaye – I discovered (much like Columbus ‘discovered’ America) his 1981 LP In Our Lifetime which has some classic moments including opening song “Praise”, and I enjoyed working with Julien since we had a lot of mutual friends.  I flew back to Brighton with one more day to complete – backstage at the Royal Albert Hall.  We never shot it.  The crew flew to Ostend and shot all of that stuff, but the London end of things was never completed, neither was the film, and nobody got paid.  Another one of those stories.  Julien hawked the rushes around for a couple of years, maybe still is doing so, but nothing doing.  Essentially he’s trying to sell a huge debt with a possible money-spinning film behind it.  Given that every film ever made is entirely a leap of faith, when one comes off the rails it is very very very hard to put it back, no matter who is involved or how sexy the project looks from the outside.  Or the inside.  Damn shame.  A story that needs to be told as much as any I’ve ever done.

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The Gaye family recently won a lawsuit against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for stealing Got To Give It Up, but I have no doubt that the decision will be reversed on appeal.  The idea that you can copyright a groove is frankly preposterous.

But Marvin’s legacy is still being fought over, Berry Gordy holds on tight to the Motown era songs, there has been a play based on Frankie Gaye‘s book Marvin Gaye My Brother, but somehow we had got the rights to the CBS LP Midnight Love so some of his tale could be told.  Too many crooks as ever in this dirty business.  Damn shame.    Frankie Gaye died in 2001, and I would recommend the book.  Frankie went to Vietnam and his experiences there in the late 1960s inspired Marvin to write and record What’s Goin’ On.   Marvin’s son is also named Frankie.

So I miss Marvin Gaye.  Miss him twice.   ’til tomorrow…  Thinking about him again, I have to say just this – his backing vocals are always completely amazing.  Cluster chords, stretching what is vocally possible behind his soaring lead vocal.  The guy was a master.

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Oh but I didn’t mention our cat, our kitten Marvin.  A Devon Rex with large ears and short fur, he would crawl up my body to sit on my shoulder whether I was wearing clothes or not.  We bought him at 9 weeks old and he lived for another eight blessed weeks.   Bled to death after cutting his mouth on a wicker basket, chewing it.  Took him to the vet but he had genetic Factor 8 deficiency.  Bless him the blood wouldn’t clot.  He died lying on my chest in the middle of the night.  Buried with full honours in the back garden.  Wept buckets.  So yeah, I miss Marvin three times.

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Ralph Brown & Jesse L. Martin, Luxembourg, 2013

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My Pop Life #39 : Knocks Me Off My Feet – Stevie Wonder

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Knocks Me Off My Feet   –   Stevie Wonder

…but there’s something ’bout your love… that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…

It is an indication of how musically unformed I was at the time that I didn’t rush out and buy Talking Book when it came out in 1972 –  I saw Stevie Wonder singing Superstition on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  I liked it – and ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life‘ – but it wasn’t until I was 16 and hanging around with girls that the magic started to work it’s course under my skin, into my bones.  Tanya Myers was in the year below me and friends with other girls that Simon knew mainly called Jane.  We were at Tanya’s house in 1973 – she was gorgeous but I was with Miriam Ryle at this point – and we listened to Innervisions from start to finish.  Quite soon after that I bought it, and Talking Book, then late in 1976 Songs In The Key Of Life, a double album with an extra single inside the packaging, 21 songs in all.  By then I had also heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale since Mumtaz owned it and we listened to it a lot, I think at some point in my mid 20s (the soul years) I bought Music Of My Mind from 1971.   

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Thus we have the run of LPs from 71-76 that represent a Himalayan mountain range of musical excellence, with Songs In the Key Of Life being most folk’s pinnacle moment.  It’s hard to have favourites with Stevie Wonder, but mine is Innervisions.   And if you go back to 1970 there’s another superb LP called Where I’m Coming From which was his final LP under the first contract with Tamla Motown and is the true beginning of Stevie making the music he wanted to make, rather like Marvin Gaye his label stablemate, who made What’s Goin’ On in the same year, with the same desire to stretch out beyond the pop confines of Motown.  And beyond 1976 is the pause for breath before the brilliant but uneven indulgence of Secret Life Of Plants in 1979 and 1980’s genuine masterpiece Hotter Than July and on into the 1980s with more wonderful music (Overjoyed is outright stunning) right up to the present day.  A Time 2 Love was released in 2005 and is a five star piece of writing and singing, a really great LP that everyone inexplicably ignored.  But critical focus has always been on that run of five albums from 71-76 when Stevie wrote every song (some co-writes) played almost every instrument, arranged and produced every song after teaching himself how to play every instrument (and he’s an excellent drummer as youtube will testify).  Of course the list of credits on Songs.. is as long as your arm though, trumpet players, vibes, harps, singers.

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I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time sitting at a piano trying to play Stevie Wonder songs.  There are chord books.  I’ve got three of them.   Before the internet of course.  I think “Golden Lady” was the first one I could play all the way through.  I learned about complicated music via Stevie Wonder.  The Beatles Songbook taught me the major, the minor, the sixth and occasionally the seventh or major seventh.  Stevie Wonder taught me the minor 9th(last word of “you are the sunshine of my life), the diminished 5th (My Cherie Amour), the Gminor7th/ Eb bass (Golden Lady), the Bbminor9(11) (Lately).   You’re into an arena where each chord voicing can be written any number of ways.  I had to count down the stave to find out  what they are.  The chords sound amazing, stretched, deep, rich.   Apparently he learned keyboards at Hitsville USA in Detroit singing hits with The Funk Brothers, (Motown’s backing band of jazzers who played on every song the label produced) “he’d come up to me and ask me ‘what chord is that – show me'” said Earl Van Dyke the main keyboard player.

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I’ve seen Stevie live three times.  First time : Wembley Arena, 1990.  Second time 02 London 2009. Third time last Sunday April 12th 2015 Barclays Centre Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn.  It’s a basketball arena so it’s like sitting inside a nutshell, tight, steep sides, all great views.  We had floor seats because we’d missed this show in October at Madison Square Garden, thinking a friend would be able to get us in, sometimes in life You Have To Buy The Ticket.  So these were “expensive” in the vernacular but I would have paid triple, quintuple.  It was overwhelming.

He came onstage with India Arie guiding him and stood still – to a standing ovation naturally.  He thanked us and said it was his honour to be able to play the show tonight for us.  It made me wonder how old he is, a question that went up and down our row of seats throughout the show.  When he smiles he looks under 40 years old.  At other points, singing blues, he looked 80.  He spoke softly about wanting to play us the whole of his 1976 masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life, then sat down at the keyboard and the concert began.  Immediate goosebumps, eyewater and hairs on the back of the neck rising as the singers moaned the opening harmonies to Love’s In Need Of Love Today. “Good morn or evening friends, here’s your friend the announcer…”  I was crying by this point, 30 seconds into the show.

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So hard to place into readable words what was happening at this show.   So just a few facts before I melt into hyperbole.  Village Ghetto Land had a twelve-piece string section.  Contusion showcased the guitar players in a red-hot jazz funk workout.  Sir Duke destroyed the building when the six horn players stood up and stabbed it to death – we could feel it all over, everyone was on their feet dancing and stayed there for the irresistible groove of I Wish when we all transported ourselves back to childhood for the song.  Then I was in tears again for Knocks Me Off My Feet which is one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and is in my Stevie top five.   Then he took a noodle on the piano and started making the singers copy his vocal trills.  One at a time, talking to them, mimicking their voices, making them sing complex vocal melodies that he made up on the spot.  At one point the three women stage right – who were all unfeasibly gorgeous and busty by the way – broke into En Vogue’s Hold On before Stevie stopped them and told them to be quiet.  He was in such a great mood.  Then he got the lead violinist – a local chap – stand up and play, solo.  Believe me when I say he took his moment, astonishing work.  Then Stevie stood up and took the mic and the sharp sad strings of Pastime Paradise sliced through the arena, as the band were joined by a choir for the final heart-rending moments.

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Summer Soft was immaculate, Ordinary Pain was fierce, then on came India Arie in a science fiction dress and hat to help him sing Saturn, one of my favourite songs.   Then Stevie stood up unassisted and walked across to the stand-up joanna, or tack piano, honky-tonk to you.   A ripple of relieved applause made him turn “What you clapping for?  You think I’m not gonna make it?”  We laughed.  “I been lying about being blind for the last two years – I can see y’all!’  and into latin-jazz showtune Ebony Eyes, complete with talkbox tube guitar effect and cracking sax solo and we were into the interval.

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Everyone’s eyes were glazed, people were smiling, Tony Gerber and I were stunned, sat down, Lynn Nottage and Jenny went to the ladies together.  The french harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet who played the opening to Have A Talk With God was talking with his friends just in front of us and I thank him for the gig, he thanks Stevie.   Stevie was trying so hard to be ordinary, joking, using a faux english accent, messing about musically but then in the middle of a song I would find myself staring at him singing and thinking “OH MY GOD IT’S STEVIE WONDER”.

Part two opened with Stevie introducing us to his grand-daughter who is about 2 years old and said ‘Hello’ which took us into “Isn’t She Lovely” and the greatest harmonica playing I have ever witnessed in my life.  More tears, another highlight.  Somehow the next song – un-noticed by me usually – was even better, even more emotional.  Joy Inside My Tears became a church-hall testimony as Stevie pounded the keyboard and shook his fists at the sky and the crowd roared its approval.  Amazing moments.  Black Man continued the hot-tempo passion as the band moved into funk workout mode and steam started rising from the stage.  Jenny shouted “Harriet Tubman – A Black Woman” at Lynn at the appropriate moment.  Now they were using some of the original sounds and quotes from the LP and as we slid slinkliy into All Day Sucker, which is funk cubed, the roof was being raised.   Stevie then stood up with his harmonica and walked over to the side of the stage and performed the quirky exotic instrumental Easy Goin’ Evening with the other harmonica player and the sax player.  This was a moment to treasure, I’ve never heard anything like it.  It sounded like a gypsy lament.  You could hear the proverbial pin drop.  India Arie and singer Jessica Cruz joined him for Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing which was beautiful and joyful and happy.  All the actual songs from the LP Songs In The Key Of Life – the 21 jewels in the crown – were presented with incredible attention to detail, real passion and love and clearly the players were all experts.  They each had a place in the sun, a moment to themselves, and they all took it with pride and aplomb.

Then, Stevland Morris, 64 years old (Jenny correctly guessed) back centre stage, produced an odd-looking lap instrument – a zither ? that appeared to have at least 12 strings and sounded like an electric guitar with effects, but he played it like a piano.  Although it had a fretboard.  He started chatting to us.  He started playing notes, anything, noodling.  “We’re musicians, we like to jam”.  It’s called a harpejji.   I heard Yesterday, Mrs Robinson, and many other snatches of melody that I can’t remember already – two days later ! – before settling on the four-chord cycle of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ and India Arie joined him as he covered the whole song.  Then he asked India to sing “Wonderful” her own tribute song to Stevie.  He liked that. He asked us if we liked it, and we said yes, so he asked us to sing along to ‘Tequila‘ a 1958 hit from The Champs (!)  (You’ll know it.)  Next was Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel and we were in Stevie Karaoke land.  He made us sing (ladies first, then gentlemen) a melody line that he’d just made up.  We belted it out.  These excursions into covers, improvisations and chat seemd like a way of taking the monumentality out of the show.  A hugely influential double-LP played live as if it were a classical piece  – which it is obviously – interrupted by rehearsed jams.  Chat.  Jokes jokes.  But they only served to deepen the intimacy already present in our  knowledge and love for the LP, carried inside us for years as a treasure, now unfolding before us, not as an edifice, but as an old friend, a jam session in Stevie’s sound world.  His continual reference to his blindness had the same effect : “I see it how I hear it” .   But the monumental feeling remained : the temple of love was real.

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And then we were hushed and Stevie explained that the world’s premier harpist who’d played on the album in 1976 – a black woman called Dorothy Ashby – would be accompanying him on If It’s Magic, but that since she died in 1986 they would be using the original music from the LP as a backing track. Stevie sang it perfectly, mimicking his 26-year old self – more tears, more vulnerable open hearts, more hand-holding as Jenny and I and thousands of people melted together.

Every time you hate on somebody you are blocking your blessing.  And your family’s blessing.  Your street’s blessing.  Your city’s blessing.  The world’s blessing.   We have to release the power of love.  It’s the most powerful force in the world.”

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

We’re on our feet, we’re singing, the entire band is on stage – two drummers, bass man Nate Watts (who has been with Stevie for decades) three guitars, two more keyboard players, six brass & woodwinds, two percussionists, six backing singers, twelve strings, 15 in the choir plus India Arie and Frédéric Yonnet, over 30 people are playing Another Star and we’re going to church in Stevie’s parlour, the joy is infectious and huge.

The don’t leave the stage after Stevie takes his bow and introduces us to every single member of his band, saying “Wow – we did it – we played it all – it’s 11.40”  we looked at our phones – he was right ! “we’re gonna play til midnight.  This is Stevie’s disco”  He had a table with button on it and we got bits of Boogie On Reggae Woman, Jungle Fever, Do I Do, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Uptight, then the whole band sang Living For The City (woo!) and Superstition (wow!) and that was it.

It was midnight and he’d been onstage (with a 20-minute interval) since 8.20.  We were lifted up into the night air and floated home, high.  It was a huge cultural moment, like watching Gustav Mahler conduct his 5th Symphony or Chopin playing the Ballades.   And yet he’d been so humble, so funny, so human. And one of the greatest singers I’ve ever witnessed in a live setting.   Knocked off my feet.

Songs In The Key Of Life.