By Scott Sullivan
When I’m 65
Whoa, mercy mercy me.
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be …
Marvin Gaye sang that 49 years ago, but could have today. Or anytime.
I was 16 when “Mercy Mercy Me” was Gaye’s follow-up hit to “What’s Going On.” Nothing is what it used to be. All will change in the time it takes you to read this sentence.
I studied history in college believing its value lies in its service to tomorrow. We can’t change what’s passed, but we can and do change the way we look at it. We edit, burnish and fabricate stories, based on select facts, to suit our purposes. But we’re doing that now, not then.
Gaye’s nostalgia tour ended when he was shot to death by his father. What was going on is Gaye, who per critic Michael Eric Dyson “chased away the demons of millions with his heavenly sound and divine art,” couldn’t shake his own demons.
In late 1983, one year removed from his return to the pop charts with “Sexual Healing” and first Grammy, Gaye, 44, was struggling with debt, depression and drug abuse. He moved into his parents’ house, not a good choice either.
Marvin Gay Sr. (Jr. added the -e for his stage name) was a hard-drinking, cross-dressing Hebrew Pentecostal preacher who enforced a strict moral code on his children. Not an easy role model.
On April 1, 1984, after a father-son argument turned into a fistfight, Marvin Sr. took a revolver Jr. had given him and shot the singer three times in the chest. Gaye’s final statement, per his brother Frankie, was, “I got what I wanted … I couldn’t do it myself. So I made him do it.”
I’d rather remember the songs. Still, beauty springs from unlikely sources. Learning artists may be as screwed up as we are makes the art they’ve left even better.
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying awake,” James Joyce wrote 100 years ago. Revising it can serve a corrective purpose and lead us astray as well.
For instance, March is Women’s History Month, February Black History Month, June Gay Pride Month … I am leaving out more, but including all these events meant to be inclusive would take up volumes.
It is great that we honor cultures long given short shrift by historians. There is making up to do. But let’s add and accept, not replace one restrictive lens with another.
Losin’ you would end my life you see
‘Cause you mean that much to me.”
Gaye’s first hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” contained what turned out to be these prophetic lines. But he wasn’t the first to record it. Barrett Strong, the singer on Motown Records’ 1966 breakthrough hit “Money (That’s What I Want),” based its lyrics on a phrase used by black slaves during the Civil War to describe their own form of telegraph, the human grapevine.
The Miracles first recorded the song, then Gladys Knight and the Pips. Gaye’s version, released in 1968, was Motown’s biggest hit until then but depressed him. His success, he said, “didn’t seem real,” he “did not deserve it.” We can be slaves to the past and our minds as well.
One year after Gaye’s death, “Grapevine” was re-released in the UK and reached No. 8 in the charts, thanks to a Levi’s commercial using it. “Class” can turn into “cash” can turn into “crass,” but I’m not objecting. Not too hard anyway. Commerce is part of this paper’s name.
“When I’m 64” was a bad Beatles song, Paul McCartney at his most cloying, but sold records. “Granny $#*! music” John Lennon called it. Now I’m 65 I may write about 3-legged cats but agree with John that young pop singers have no business sentimentalizing my dotage.
Nostalgia is not what it used to be, but the past isn’t wasted. It’s what propels us. The old songs come back and, heard new, live on.