MARVIN GAYE / “The Star-Spangled Banner”

This three-way conversation between me, Kalamu and my sister Kiini (who is also a writer) started when Kiini sent the two of us this link. It’s Thomas Dolby (of “She Blinded Me With Science” fame) talking about how he was reduced to tears when he finally got to witness Marvin Gaye’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” To fully understand what we’re talking about and what we’re reacting to, it’s probably best to click the link and read Dolby’s original comments. And, while you’re at it, check out this video of the performance. Briefly though, back in the mid-Eighties, Dolby got the opportunity to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” with Stevie Wonder. As the two artists tried to come up with a new way to perform the National Anthem, Stevie played and sang Marvin’s version for Dolby. Dolby was very impressed by both Marvin’s arrangement and Stevie’s replaying of it, but he was even more effected by Stevie’s comment about the aftermath of Marvin’s performance: that Marvin never appeared on network television again. Kiini forwarded Kalamu and I the link, along with these comments:

I don't even really know what to say about it. To me it was a very personal rendition of the song. It's like he just made it this really intimate internal narrative and the audience was something of a formality (as it seemed to me).
The bombs bursting in air turned into a really hot night way back when. It just felt like a wistful, melancholy, profound reminiscing. If anyone took issue with it, I would imagine it was b/c it wasn't bombs bursting in air as in dominance and the grand greatness of nationhood. It didn't uphold the blood-thirsty, God-on-our-side patriotism that the song is supposed to unleash. What do y'all hear in it? Kalamu responded:
Thanks. I knew about it and dimly recall (probably) hearing it, but checking it out on this clip made it clear to me – the mainstream will never ever let us transform America as is into the America that proclaims itself to be…. Langston Hughes peeped this a long time ago with a poem about “let America be America again, an America that never was….”
Marvin was obviously a master at channeling rich emotions thru the eye of the popular American-idiom needle…. There is no version of the national anthem that I know of that even comes close to this one….
Given that Marvin Gaye is my all-time favorite singer and given that I’m overly fond of running my mouth, I of course had lots to say on the subject. To whit:
Exactly, Kiini. Your description is excellent. It was almost like Marvin used the lyrics and the public context of the song as raw material for something else he wanted to express, something about sensuality and love. … Marvin had an almost mystic belief in the power of love. And of course I don't mean love in the sense that people like Gandhi or Jesus or King meant it in (although I'm sure Marvin would've been for that as well). I'm talking about romantic love. I'm talking about sex. Marvin didn't see sex as just sex. It was some mystic-type thing to him. … In performing the cherished anthem in the way he did – the anthem for which we're supposed to remove our hats, stand, and place our right hand over our hearts – Marvin was stripping the song of its patriotism, its bloodlust, its proto-nationalist fervor. He was performing it as though it were a seduction song.
marvin national anthem.jpg The other thing is, Marvin is just a cool, bad-ass motherfucker. Even as fucked up as he was by then, he was still a cool, cool cat. And he could sing his ass off. He was just so mellow about it all, you know? So I think people were reacting to that too. He had the sharp suit on and the aviator sunglasses and all. Just clean, you know? When you think of the best-known performances of the anthem (the ones that come to me right away are Jimi at Woodstock and Whitney Houston at the Superbowl), they're fiery. They have that boldness and that obvious, big passion. (Of course, Jimi's passion was directed right back against the war-like themes of the anthem. He was raging against the machine, so to speak, but that's another story.) The point I wanted to make was Marvin nailed his performance by mellowing it out. His power was in his softness. He wasn't loud. He didn't hold any long notes. He didn't reach up for any high notes. Didn't worry the melody or anything. He was – as he always was – cool. So anyway, I didn't mean to go on this long. What I basically wanted to say is, I hear a sensual tribute to the power of romantic love. Laugh if you want, but we all do it: we all make love. If all we were doing was trying to prolong the existence of the species, well, you know.... There it is.
And then after I saw Kalamu’s response, I got started on the political issues Dolby brought up:
I don't know about the whole, "They're not ready for a black man being sensuous with the National Anthem" thing. You have to remember, during this time, Marvin was very messed up emotionally and with drugs. He was barely recording at all. I don't know that Marvin would've been in the public eye much regardless of what he sang at the NBA game.
Another thing…more context. The NBA wasn't what it eventually became with Jordan and Bird and Magic. I don't even know if NBA All-Star games were being broadcast live at that point. I remember being in my early teens and closing my eyes during the evening news because they'd show the final score of the Finals games but the tape-delayed game didn't actually come on until after the news. Meaning, this probably wasn't a major television event. And one other piece of context. When I've read accounts of this performance, the responses have been nothing but congratulatory. Remember, Marvin was performing with the Naval Color Guard band (or something like that). Every quote I've ever read from people who were there or who saw it live talked about how great it was. This is the first time I've seen any reference to someone having a problem with it. Last thing. There were only three network channels. So, the questions to ask are: How often did major R&B recording stars get on TV then? How often did Marvin get on TV PRIOR to that performance? How often did ANY one major recording star get on TV? It's a great performance that I've enjoyed over the years, but I think Stevie Wonder (if he was quoted accurately) and T. Dolby might be blowing things out of proportion with the whole 'blacklisted' thing. If Marvin and other black performers weren't on TV, it was because of the institutional racism of the entertainment industry. Hell, even MTV wouldn't play black videos until "Billie Jean." What I'm saying is, Marvin not being on TV can be explained quite easily without playing the "that performance was too much for them to handle" card. You have to look at the big picture. And the last word goes to Kalamu:
Yes, Sherlock, you are absolutely right about the context. My point remains about transforming America. Indeed, I think America is transforming us more than we are transforming it.
* * *
As far as I know, the only way to get Marvin’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is on a compilation called The Master: 1961-1984 (Motown, 1995). It’s a 4-CD set, but you can get used copies for under 25 bucks. Happy Fourth of July, everybody. —Mtume ya Salaam I’ll never stand for it What to we in New Orleans is the 4th of July? Essence Festival time. And that’s about as far as it goes. Esinam Seanehia, a young sister who graduated from high school this past May 2007 wrote an essay in our English IV class. I’m simply going to quote Esinam and add Jimi from the April 26, 1969 L.A. Forum concert to the jukebox.
Almost no one cares anymore, well at least in New Orleans that is, and I for one don’t blame us one bit. Before Katrina, just about everyone would stand, with hesitation. It was no problem to stand up for a country that had your back through thick and thin, through tragedies such as 9/11. Our respect for our government’s current leaders and their actions has become dismal. We ignore the pledge and turn the channel whenever bush is on the TV.
…Promise after promise, we were told help is on the way, even to this day. We’ve been bamboozled! Many families in this city go to sleep every night dreaming of a better life or at least the old one, only to wake up the next day and the next day looking at the same four tight walls of a small trailer, or what many may call hell on wheels. “Where is Bush, Where is FEMA?” These questions still echo in the streets of New Orleans since August 2005. It seems as if no one in my city has respect for the president, and he somewhat controls our lives, so are we really satisfied? …The day Bush stands up to his responsibilities is the day we stand up to pledge. esinam.jpg —Esinam Seanehia
Listen to Esinam. Listen to Jimi. That's all I got to say about that. —Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 1st, 2007 at 1:29 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “MARVIN GAYE / “The Star-Spangled Banner””

Todd Mintz Says:
July 2nd, 2007 at 7:52 am

Yep, Marvin nailed the Anthem. I was there and wrote about it here: An amazing experience.

Russ Says:
July 4th, 2007 at 12:24 am

Got to hand it to you guys, BoL always does two things to me – makes me buy more music, and makes me think. I still can’t respond clearly to the music and your comments, except for three clear thoughts:

Marvin Gaye!

I gave up on Louisiana a long time ago. Its still home, but I’m never going back

Still hoping for America

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