One generation before Atlanta singer Usher put his 2004 Confessions on wax, Marvin Gaye revealed his, documenting the ends of his failed marriage to his first wife, Anna Gordy Gaye, the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Released in 1978 on Tamla, Here, My Dear announced Gaye’s intentions to move on from a fraught public marriage into the life that he had carried on behind the Motown lights. His narratives of flight on the album are irrevocably tethered to that label, that history, and the family that helped him become a household name. As both an expression of penance and a tribute to his distressed ex, Here, My Dear is the sound of his transition, his crossing over, from the camera intimacy of the Gordy empire to the realities of his second family. All of this is audible in the conversations he has with his listeners and himself in the double album. Documented by the rotation of its fourteen tracks, Here, My Dear shows how a move away from Anna was always on the verge but never possible for a man whose career was yoked to the crossover giant of Motown. His mobility was curtailed by his failed relationship and his stunning career—yet the evidence of his thoughts on the album hazard a future in which a debt can be paid or at least, forgiven.
We must confess: we love a good confession. To know the salacious details we must sometimes mine other sources and search for other sites of declaration, farther from the lights of Hollywood or the Senate and closer to real life, offstage. Marvin Gaye’s ongoing affair in the 1970s was an open secret protected only by his marriage, which lasted, officially, from 1963 to 1977. His and Anna’s courtship was made by music: her business acumen and songwriting, and his cashmere, magnetic soul—along with the multi-instrumentalism of a little wonder named Stevie and the effervescent supremacy of Diana Ross—these are the things that made up the Gordy dynasty. By the time Motown took flight to Los Angeles in 1972, the marriage was in decline, leading to a separation and eventually divorce. Their union would not end with the demise of their marriage, however. They would continue to be joined to one another as parents as well as business partners, however reluctantly. The final transaction between the couple would be in and through the form that brought them together. As a part of their divorce agreement, Gaye surrender half of the royalties from his fifteenth studio album, the confessional, Here, My Dear.
This double album covered a number of issues related to love and its end, including the seriousness of marriage vows, lawyer fees, and acts of vengeance. It is not surprising that Anna found Gaye’s stories on the album unimpressive, but interestingly so did the popular marketplace. Though it received praise after Gaye’s death in 1984, Here, My Dear was a commercial and critical disappointment in the moment of its release. Gaye’s “self-involvement” on the record—described by Robert Christgau as “so open and unmediated, guileless even at its most insincere”—failed to impress most consumers, who undoubtedly expected another erotic evolution following 1976’s I Want You, an album grown from and dedicated to the passion that he shared with his then-lover, Janis Hunter.1 Here, My Dear is a critical departure from I Want You—the Here in the former’s title is a relinquishing, a concessionary and final glance at his once beloved while I Want You ignites a declarative passion that borders on a plea: “I want you, but I want you to want me too.” These two albums mark the turn from the promise of love to the reality of its impermanence. Here, My Dear was an attempt to cross over from the past failures of marital isolation to a hopeful future; its disruption to Gaye’s narrative evolution, however, came with a price for his career and his ability to leave his unhappy marriage.
The release that Gaye sought from Anna—the release that would allow him to pursue new love, new desire, and, by extension, new music—was impossible for at least two reasons: one was the project’s origination as debt. Debt is inherently a restriction and one that, according to the western popular marketplace, accrues the most value for the lender or possessor of goods if the recipient pays over time. As we know, the financing of goods at high percentage interest rates disadvantages those who cannot pay outright, binding them to a contract that will increase their payment over time. Asking one million in their divorce, Anna was poised to take advantage of the inevitable payment plan that Gaye required. Hence the fiscal arrangement that included the art labor of Here, My Dear, which was predicted to fetch her 60% of her initial request. Yet even the payment would not completely dissolve their union, for debt, according to anthropologist David Graeber, is “an exchange that has not been brought to completion.” And this failure to honor both his debt and his wife in marriage, led to “a condition of guilt on both moral and economic grounds.”2
This guilt, of course, turned an album intent on revenge into a rotating confessional; the endurance of the recording offers the second reason for Anna and Marvin’s permanent tie. Here, My Dear is now the transcript of an accompanied public record, one in which he is heard lamenting the demise of a relationship with a woman whom he did not always like, nor presently respected, but with whom he co-parented and, at one time, shared a loving union. This archive of his relationship is never fully closed—it remains as artifact, as his songs are preserved for repetition as well as remake and remixing by artists including Bootsy Collins, Prince Paul, and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def). Gaye could never outrun this moment of conciliation; it was a perpetual past that never passed.
Our track-by-track journey through their relationship is not linear, though the album jacket encourages us to believe otherwise. The album cover—so influential in our approach to the project and our listening practice—appears to represent the “before” of the Gaye-Gordy love affair. On the left we see a statue of two naked lovers in a passionate embrace next to the grand winged monument bearing the epitaph “Love and Marriage.” The passion is juxtaposed with marriage, suggesting that all is well with the institution. While the lovers kiss, to the right is Gaye as sculpture, alone. Unlike the lovers, he is clothed, perhaps suggesting his error, his sin in the garden for which retribution is due. No longer naked within the purity of personkind, he now is set apart and cast out, ashamed and clothed. His body’s position is not unlike that of Greek gods cast in stone, such as Zeus, god of sky, lightning and thunder, and well known for his eroticism and numerous lovers. In Gaye’s outstretched left hand we find his offering, which draws our attention back to the title Here, My Dear. This is our entrance to the sound, track one, which begins:
I guess all I have to say is this album is dedicated to you,
although perhaps I may not be happy.
This is what you wanted, so I’ve conceded.
I hope it makes you happy. There’s a lot of truth in it, baby.
Gaye’s all-male chorus backs up his claims that his love used his son against him, bullying him into submission, and that the stories he’s about to tell are truthful. Indeed, the “unusual documentary charm” of the album, as Christgau describes it, is one of its most compelling features, though Gaye’s admission that the album is not entirely an offer of his own free will certainly shape its narrative. As he talks of money and disappointment, the language twists and turns creating moments of intense introspection as well as flippant dismissal. The listener is batted back and forth and sometimes far afield of the relationship, providing a respite from the concerns of their marriage. From the lament “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” and the straightforward funk of “Anger” to the jazz-influenced optimism of “Sparrow,” listeners who expect salacious details are kept off balance in their attempts to distinguish fact from fiction and respect from spite by a series of songs stuck between two loves, two lives.
The litany of sexual advances made to other women on the LP ruined any effort to mend his relationship with Anna. Though dedicated to his jilted former love, Here, My Dear was not composed for her in the same way that I Want You was for Hunter. In the latter, Gaye was attaching himself to her, using his words and sounds to bring her closer, woo her, to expose his and animate her love; Anna’s album was not built from love but from a public obligation to make amends. It was repayment for a debt. That bitter request foreclosed the possibility of a private act of forgiveness and gave Gaye a platform to act out; even in moments of considerate attention to his relationship, like “Anna’s Song,” he oscillates between milk baths and satin sheets on the one hand and her demands for money on the other, all unified by his strained, chillingly impassioned screams of “Anna.” This moment is the climax of the album. Here we hear him struggle for the release that the album is meant to hasten. The escalation of her name in pitch and volume and the raw command of it as a heavily laden text is, in spite of its singular reiteration, the most honest statement on an album that otherwise vacillates between authenticating narratives and tales of pure fantasy.
Songs like “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” tell us that his love for his wife, while genuine at one time, was troubled by incessant disruption, leading them to perform reconciliation, as he sings, “a million times, again, again, and again.” While he’d rather “remember all of the fun we had,” he’s compelled to forgo that past—that fond memory—in service of her demands for reparations in the present, and as he suggests, into the future as well. He calls into question her investment in him when he sings, “If you ever loved me with all your heart, you’d never take a million dollars to part.” Here currency—one million dollars—is both the value and temporality of their marriage; it is an extraordinary amount that connects Gaye to Anna well beyond the end of their relationship—from their infatuation, through the moment of his singing, and into the future of debt that keeps them bound to one another.
By the time that we hear the final reprise of “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You”—a song that exists in some form on three of four sides of the double album—we’ve moved through the interior space of the LP and its representation of love and landed on the other side of “Love and Marriage,” now labeled on the monument as “Pain and Divorce.” The post-apocalyptic scene of smoke-filled skies and structural ruin returns us to the lovers who, while still in their embrace, are now slowly becoming engulfed in flames that burn most brightly at their genitals. Even as the hope of “Falling in Love Again” on Side Four encourages us to believe in possibility and loving futures, we run into the limits of the cosmos with his alimony anthem, “You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You.” That we have to consult regularly the back of the LP for the track listing suggests that we must always return to the reality of this image—his reality—that marriage is not meant to last and may be dangerous or even deadly.
The most funky-free expanse of possibility on the 73-minute project appears just before “You Can Leave.” The final side of the LP begins with a “reincarnation” as Gaye describes it and requires leaving Earth, putting a great distance between himself and his former love. This track is one of the few on which his lyrics do not focus on her. Instead we hear about a new love; someone who will join him in his “spacebed” and to whom he proposes, singing, “We gon’ get married in June. We gonna be getting down on the moon.” Like Sun Ra, “space is the place” for Gaye’s self-fashioning as a lover of otherworldly dimension. His litany of decades—“2,073 . . . 2,084 . . . 2,093” suggest not only his presence in the future but also his stamina, which he reserves for Miss Birdsong. He flatters his intended and makes a final confession to her and to the listeners: “I don’t know what’s happening, you know. I’m really involved but sometime I be checking you out, you know, my [*wink wink*] be gettin’ some other reaction.” He justifies his erotic transgression by arguing, “It seems to me though that the reason we together here is we supposed to be together.” His rationale, which announces that he was fated to be with someone other than his wife, is his absolution and statement of Free Love on the final side of his musical penance.
As the double album suggests, Gaye’s attempts at crossover, from married to single, anger to acceptance, are a long process that is never completed. The confessional of Here, My Dear is an attempt to pay an emotional debt, and as such provides us no true resolution, only some perspective. The final song, again a reprise of “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You,” is the echoing sound of divorce organized by those two enduring questions that usher the listener to the exit of the album and him to the end of his marriage.