The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye

By Michael Eric Dyson. Basic. 290 pp. 23.95

Long before his premature death, Marvin Gaye had attained the kind of iconic cultural status that shrouds an individual with so many layers of meaning that it may be hard for him to tell where his person ends and his persona begins. Two decades later, Gaye's influence remains so pervasive that it has almost become a cliche for young R&B singers such as R. Kelly, Maxwell and D'Angelo to cite him as a source of inspiration. At the same time, we are no closer to understanding Gaye, a turbulent soul who helped define soul music and became a celebrated voice of his generation. Illuminating the life of the brilliant and troubled musician is the task that Michael Eric Dyson sets for himself in Mercy, Mercy Me.

On one level, we might see Gaye as the latest entry in what we could call the Dyson Icon Project. Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, has an abiding interest in black men who live complex, often troubled lives and die violent deaths. The subjects of three of his previous books -- Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur and Martin Luther King Jr. -- each became a walking metaphor for the era in which he lived, and all three were gunned down in public. These works have provided both penetrating insights, such as Dyson's thorough assessment of King's virtues and limitations as a theologian, and glib observations, such as his unconvincing analysis of the alleged similarities in King's and Shakur's personalities. In Gaye, Dyson has found a figure as enigmatic, complex and compelling as any of his previous subjects -- a man whose troubled life was also ended by a hail of bullets, albeit from a gun that was purchased by him and fired by his father.

Born in 1939 into an extremely religious family in Washington, D.C., Marvin early on became a target of the violent temper of his father, a Pentecostal minister. His adolescence was marked by his father's beatings, the strict religious demands of the household and the ridicule of other children based on from his father's reputation as a cross-dresser. (Dyson contends that this was likely a factor in Marvin's decision to add an extra letter to his surname, hoping to avoid the connotations of carrying the last name "Gay.") The author also cites a third-party source's claim that the physical abuse Gaye suffered from his father was compounded by sexual abuse from an uncle. Regardless, it is clear that the Gay household was far from idyllic. The young Marvin found his outlet in secular music, which was both an escape from the brutality of his family life and a defiance of his father's injunctions against nonreligious pursuits.

Music, as Dyson points out, was Gaye's balm -- not his salvation. He failed in early attempts to forge a career as a black Sinatra-style crooner and moved only hesitantly toward soul music. He devoted a great deal of artistic -- and personal -- energy to reconciling his spiritual and sexual selves, a conflict that heightened his appeal as an artist. "Spiritual tensions," Dyson informs us, "roiled his sexual identity. He won from his battles, at least on record, a level of mature self-awareness." Outside the recording studio, however, was another matter. Gaye, Dyson informs us, fathered a child with 15-year-old Denise Gordy (niece of his then-wife Anna Gordy, who adopted the baby) in an arrangement that recalls the biblical tale of Sarah and Abraham: "Marvin did not tell [his biographer] that he was the baby's biological father. It was understandable: Marvin had made love to a minor, apparently with the consent of all involved. Still Denise was under the age of legal consent and Marvin might have gone to jail for statutory rape."

Many of these revelations have been touched upon in previous works, particularly David Ritz's excellent biography. But Dyson is careful to draw the distinction that this book is not a biography of Gaye but rather a work of what he calls biocriticism. (It is organized thematically, not chronologically.) Dyson's goal is not so much to serve old wine in a new bottle as it is to create a new beverage altogether. Ultimately, this approach is both a virtue and a liability.

Mercy, Mercy Me is at its best when Dyson untangles the complex mythology surrounding Gaye and offers insightful conjectures about the motivations of a genius. Writing of the complicated -- and possibly romantic -- relationship between Gaye and his most noted collaborator Tammi Terrell, he notes that their pairing took place in an "eerie, ironic fashion in which two people who brought such beauty into the world through their art couldn't see it in themselves." His analysis of "What's Going On," the 1971 classic LP, is both incisive and original. He argues convincingly that the title track was Gaye's attempt to break with the formulaic redundancy of the "Motown Sound." (Label founder Berry Gordy initially referred to it as "the worst single he'd ever heard," but after selling 100,000 copies ordered more just like it.) The landmark release, Dyson informs us, was conceived and executed in 10 days.

On the subject of Gaye's murder, Dyson advances the argument that he baited and kicked his father in order to force Marvin Sr.'s hand, that he was attempting a form of passive-aggressive revenge by hanging his own death on his father's conscience. "Marvin," he writes, "extracted from Father a lethal act of generosity in the vocabulary he understood best: violent destruction." While this is an intriguing thesis, Dyson's heavily Freudian discussion (he uses the term "afroedipalism") at times seems a bit contrived.

The book runs aground in the critical parts of Dyson's "biocriticism." He devotes a good deal of space to arguing with other writers and Gaye critics -- a decision that turns stretches of the book into more of a scholarly review of the literature than an engaging approach to a musical legend. This is important information, certainly, but a more concise approach to those arguments might have kept Gaye in the foreground. Ultimately, though, Dyson leaves us with less of Gaye the enshrined legend and more of Gaye the brilliant and frail human being. Mercy, Mercy Me ably sifts through the layers of meaning and myth surrounding its subject and brings us a degree closer to understanding the enigmatic, compelling and ultimately tragic life of Marvin Gaye. *

William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of "The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader."

Pop singer Seal before an image of Marvin Gaye in 1996