The miracle of Marvin Gaye wasn't his singing, wonderful though it was. What's most amazing is that he managed to sing at all in a world that offered him more torture than comfort.
This is the picture painted in Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Love ∧ Demons of Marvin Gaye by Michael Eric Dyson, a perceptive observer of issues related to the arts and to the symbiotic interactions between black and white Americans. Race played its role in the growth of young Marvin Gay, but this was only one of the roadblocks thrown into his path. His decision to add a final "e" to the spelling of his last name, for example, hints at the inner turmoil he suppressed throughout his life; he didn't want his name to cast doubt on his heterosexual virility.
The pace of Dyson's writing accelerates as it moves forward. Through interviews and his own reflections he makes clear just how innovative Gaye was, and in particular how brilliantly he worked as a collaborator with other creative types. Attention is given to "What's Goin' On" and "Let's Get It On," songs that trace the twin trajectories of his artistry, which seems in retrospect to be somehow both enduring and tragically fragile.
At first, it is puzzling how briefly the author recounts Gaye's childhood; it flies by in an instant on the opening pages. But then, in the next-to-last chapter, Dyson takes us back to that time, and for the reader the experience is like remembering a nightmare. In these passages, Reverend Marvin Gay, the singer's father, rises like a wraith from the awful past, a vengeful Lear who commits murder to atone for all their own sins in the son's case, drug abuse, violence toward women, and most of all for not being strong enough to survive his search for love.
At the end Dyson ties this story to what he calls a "bigger pathology" in African-American culture. His is a sobering message: the inflictions borne by Marvin Gaye, incredible as they seem, are a part of life to too many unsung brothers even now.
Robert L. Doerschuk is a former editor of Musician magazine.