David Gately

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What’s Going On: 40 years on

In David Gately, Marvin Gaye, Motown, Uncategorized, What's Going On on June 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm
The album cover

Forty years ago, in early June 1971, Marvin Gaye released the title track from his seminal masterpiece album, What’s Going On. Next Tuesday, June 7, Motown will release a special 2 CD and vinyl box set containing a remastered version of the album plus 28 bonus tracks, 16 of them never released. It’s on Amazon for $47.23.

The story behind the making of the album and song is transformative, both for Marvin and contemporary music. It catapulted the artist into an iconic stratosphere and sealed his legendary footprint in modern music. Together with the Rolling Stones and Beatles’ music at the time, Marvin’s brilliantly visionary concept album continues to influence everything about music today: how we listen, make, consume, sell and interpret it.  

Marvin had been with Motown since the early 1960s. After a few solo hits – How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You), Ain’t That Peculiar, and I Heard It Through the Grapevine – he was restless and in a funk in early 1970 over the death of his singing partner and fellow Motown artist (and maybe lover) Tammi Terrel. He wanted to create a more gospel, soulful sound, unlike anything being played on contemporary AM/FM radio. He wanted to write about real social ills, like poverty, crime and the Vietnam War. But Motown founder Berry Gordy (who also happened to be his brother-in-law at the time) kept muffling Marvin’s inspirations.

So, mopping around the Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters in Detroit, aimless and disheartened, Marvin stumbled on songwriters Al Cleveland and Renaldo “Obie” Benson (of the Four Tops), who were writing a socially and politically conscious song called, What’s Going On. After Marvin contributed lyrics, Cleveland and Benson persuaded Marvin to record the song. He did. And when Gordy resisted again, feeling the song too radical and unmarketable because it lacked that popish Motown Sound formula, Marvin stood his ground and…the rest is history.

About the creation of What’s Going On, Marvin once told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me fromVietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Contrary to Gordy’s fears, critics and fans immediately embraced the album. It remained on Billboards charts for more than a year and sold more than 2 million copies by the end of 1972. Rolling Stone ranks What’s Going On #6 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time, and ranks the title track #4 on its list of greatest songs of all time.

The first time I heard What’s Going OnI fell in love. The groundbreaking lyrics, bathed in a rarely heard-before soulful, smooth-groove orchestration, exploded from my 1971 Realistic AM/FM transistor radio, grabbed hold of the bootstraps on my Sears Toughskins jeans and shouted: Boy! You ain’t never heard nothin’ like this before. And, with a few exceptions, I ain’t never have.

For a suburban Boston white boy, barely 10 hears old, with zilch personal testimony in urban strife or war, Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On deeply affected me. It was the start of a lifelong yearning for “the different,” a longing to relate to what’s on the other side as a way of understanding, maybe finding myself. The journey never ends.

What’s going on? Please tell me.

Picket lines (brother), and picket signs (brother)
Don’t punish me (brother), with brutality (brother)
Talk to me (brother)
So you can see (brother)
What’s going on?
Yah, what’s going on?
Tell me, what’s going on?
Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah….

Apocalypse Crazy: Marlon Brando by way of Judgment Day

In Charlie Sheen, Crazy, David Gately, Judgement Day, Marlon Brando, Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 10:45 am
Bungle in the jungle: Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

All this talk of an Apocalypse tomorrow is crazy.

If you haven’t heard, this old coot named Harold Camping, a Christian evangelist, has declared tomorrow, May 21, to be Judgment Day. Supposedly, thousands of people around the globe believe him. Tomorrow, Harold and his kooky cohorts will be hunkered in their bunkers with their cans of Campbell soups, rolls of toilet paper and iPhones. Who they gonna call?

Speaking of crazy, in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Mark Seal’s has a magnificent deconstruction of the meteorically unglued orbit that is Charlie Sheen. Psycho- interpreting Sheen made me feel compassion for his father Martin Sheen, who triggered memories of Marlon Brando, and it all comes back to crazy.

Everyone seems to be going bonkers lately. So Brando – the original celebrity bad-boy – merits revisiting in light of the celebrity crazies our 21st-century has so far offered: our Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, certainly Mel Gibson and, of course, our tiger-blood warlock, Mr. Sheen.

In Seal’s VF piece, there’s a gripping anecdote about the elder Sheen’s notorious un-gluing under the strains of a grueling 17-month film production in the Philippine jungle for his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. The film, considered a masterpiece, was plagued by lots of calamitous production mojo. A recently sober Sheen fell infamously hard of the wagon. And Brando showed up so bloated Coppola had to film much of him in shadow.

Brando as the crazy man-boy with the don’t-give-a-fuck attitude found its zenith in the 1970s, particularly during the filming of Coppola’s movie. But let’s go back a bit.

The early Brando was an actor of meteoric talent. Multiple Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, once said of Marlon: “There’s BM and AM: before Marlon and after Marlon.” No actor since has so radiantly mesmerized audiences in master works like Streetcar (1951), Waterfront (1954), The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (both 1972) and Apocalypse (1979).

Unfortunately, by the 70s, Brando had rubber stamped his reputation for kookiness: selfishly not memorizing scripts; driving directors, producers and fellow actors mad; and, for no apparent reason, affecting strange accents on film. In Stephan Kaner’s 2009 biography, Somewhere: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, Kaner says Brando bizarrely assumed an Irish accent for the role of a Montana bounty hunter in the movie Missouri Breaks (1976). When he showed up to film Apocalypse “his appearance shocked everyone.”

Brando wasn’t a sloppy boozer or heedless pill popper. Food was his thing – lots of it. He ballooned to more than 300lbs on a 5’10” frame by the 70s. “A vastly, overweight, compulsive figure for whom meals had become what strong drink” is for others, says Kaner. On the set of The Nightcomers (1971), the prequel to Henry James’ classic Turn of the Screw, the director, Michael Winner, “set aside a dining room just for Marlon.”

By any generations’ standards, Brando could definitely be strange. In comparison, however, his crazy was primarily hidden from public scrutiny. He was never on tape for (allegedly) stealing jewelry. He never collected DUIs. He didn’t shave his head or have repeated emergency room run-ins. He was never on record for spewing to cops “fucking Jews…the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Followed by “what are you looking at, sugar tits?” Brando’s veins never pumped tigers’ blood. He didn’t came out as “bi-winning” to a gazillion global TV and internet viewers.

No, Brando was a rarity. If he was an enigma, he loosely knotted it in an obvious pun. There was a Brando joke there somewhere, but it was on us. As oddball and baffling as he could be, Brando was the real deal. His convictions were sincere. He took public chances, social and professional, before anyone else. A pioneering and generous civil rights crusader, his blunt comments on race and ethnicity were too raw for some.

But if he spoke his mind and sounded crazy he never suffered penance. Before video, TMZ or Sober Valley Lodge, Brando never back-pedaled; for him there were no empty mea culpas or half-hearted 12-stepping (though he certainly could have a few good OA meetings).

Like his 21st-century wannabes, Brando depended on the public for praise and paychecks. Yet, unlike his contemporaries, he hated the limelight, loathed the media. Tectonically talented and ridiculously recluse, his tabloid image – erratic behavior, troubled family, obesity – unfortunately came to overshadow his monumental gifts to American cinema by time he died in 2004, at the age of 80.

Webster’s defines crazy as unsound, crooked, askew, mad and insane, as in: he’s been acting kind of crazy lately. And when he is, we all love to watch. Greek tragedy, after all, is based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. Sadly, though, behind every crazy act and crazy person is but a bucket of pain.

In Kaner’s book, fellow actor Maureen Stapleton says, “Marlon, oh man, you want to talk about pain?” Kaner adds “the anguish that showed in so many of Marlon’s performances was earned, not imitated.”

I’m not sure whether we see earnest performances yet in our Britneys, Lyndsays, Mels or Charlies. Maybe they’re in pain too? If not, each has imitated Oscar-winning vignettes.

Truth is, crazy is relative. We all act a bit askew at times. Even poor Mr. Camping, the Judgment Day evangelist, for whom crazy must be a permanent vocation. I guess we’ll know tomorrow when the Apocalypse hits. I’m setting aside a can of Campbell’s just in case.

Freedom Riders: Documentary at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

In 1961, DC Events, Documentary, Freedom Riders, Smithsonian, Uncategorized on February 9, 2011 at 9:18 am


Freedom Riders in 1961

Freedom Riders
Carmichael Auditorium, National Museum of American History

The acclaimed documentary by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson that tells the inspirational story of the more than 400 black and white men and women who risked their lives to challenge segregated facilities in the South in 1961. In conjunction with the National Museum of American History. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities in collaboration with WGBH/Boston.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is pleased to present a series of programs examining American history through an African American lens. Our programs will highlight historic or current events, themes, collections, or individuals explored in exhibitions on view in the NMAAHC Gallery at the National Museum of American History or any of a series of NMAAHC traveling exhibitions. We invite you to check our calendar often as new programs are added frequently. We hope you’ll join us at our exciting series of screenings, discussions, workshops and performances.