Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Beautiful Wreck

When you're sitting alone in an airport, having shown up extra early to get the mandatory (in)security strip search over with, waiting to board that big bus with wings, you have a lot of time to think. Or read. Or listen to your preferred portable music device.

In my case, the last occasion in which I had the honor of experiencing air travel in the 21st century, I did some of each. Now, if I was smart, I would have bought myself a laptop computer so I could chronicle my thoughts as they arrive (much earlier than the plane I'm waiting for), then I wouldn't have to force myself to extract something from my brain that I stuck way on its back shelves weeks ago. You know what happens to thoughts when you do that? Same thing as the food you forget about in your refrigerator -- they ROT. Or they ferment and take on a richer flavor, if you prefer the vintage wine perspective.

Actually, it's probably safer to go with the fermentation explanation here. Because, you see, I don't like to air my thoughts before they're ready. It's not always easy to know when "ready" is, and many times you just have to take comfort in the idea of a late expression being far superior to no expression at all.

Which brings me to the reason I'm writing tonight. Marvin Gaye. I had just acquired the "Expanded Love Man Edition" (more on what this means later) of Marvin's 1981 album In Our Lifetime, the record that turned out to be his last for Motown, and it was getting some serious play on the old (2 years old this month and still going strong!) iRiver. Now, this is a serious record with a very interesting story, even without the extra 90+ minutes of music. And it was cause for some serious thinking while sitting in the airport.

See, Marvin's method of creative madness was much, much different from mine. Whereas I tend to work things out in my head and try to spit out my words and thoughts fully formed so that there are as few mistakes as possible to go back and correct, Marvin took an equally inefficient route. He would, rather than write words out long-hand (or even short-hand) and be ready to sing something, he would waltz into the studio with nothing, and just improvise over and over until he came up with something he liked. With the kind of money he was making in the '70s, he could well afford the extra studio time to make this happen. Except by the time he got around to making what became In Our Lifetime, he had unfortunately tried the patience of Motown a bit too much.

Marvin started the album in early 1979, and had intended on calling it Love Man. It was to be a return to commercial, get-down-and-get-it-on music following the fascinating but commercially disastrous Here My Dear, which chronicled the breakdown of his first marriage. In spite of his intentions, the first song Marvin finished and released as a single was a philosophical, self-deprecating, and not-very-popular song titled "Ego Tripping Out." He started off the song with a pseudo rap boasting of what we'd refer to now as his "bling" (are we still calling it that? or am I five years behind the curve here?) and his sexual prowess (an irony in light of biographer David Ritz's revelation that Marvin suffered from, uh, "performance issues"). From there, Marvin goes on to take down the pimpin' party state of mind, declaring that "the toot and the smoke won't fulfill the need." Of course he couldn't heed his own advice, but he at least had the decency to warn the rest of us.

Even though "Ego Tripping Out" stiffed (no pun intended) as a single, Marvin nevertheless felt that the Love Man album he started and never completed was "jive" and sought to re-write the lyrics of all the songs to reflect his more philosophical state of mind. Good thing he kept the music mostly unchanged, because those Frank Blair bass lines are all priceless. They jump out of the floorboards and dance alongside you, whether you decide to shake your booty or not.

So, with a perfect set of funky, danceable, irresistible grooves -- perhaps the finest tracks in Marvin's entire catalog -- the master went about converting his Love Man album into the daddy of 1999. Marvin, who was once known as the prince of Motown, was a bit peeved that another R&B superstar was in the making in '79, simply called Prince. "I'm the prince!" is what Marvin thought, and he also recorded "In Our Lifetime" before Prince recorded his big hit with the same theme -- that the nuclear holocaust is probably going to wipe us out "in our lifetime," so let's get down and get funky while we still have the chance. Problem was, Marvin's song, while funkier than a motherfucker, was a) lacking a memorable hook, b) too long, and c) didn't even aspire to be a hit. He had earned the right to eschew blatant hitmaking in favor of high-minded funk, but that choice came with a price. Prince and Rick James stole his thunder (Prince even mined Marvin's oft-used sex vs. sanctity theme to great effect in later years), and In Our Lifetime would lose that battle whether it came out the way Marvin wanted it or not.

And it didn't come out the way he wanted, because Motown grew impatient after waiting two years for him to deliver a final record (two years! How long has Axl Rose been keeping the new Guns N' Roses album under wraps? Ten?), the tapes were secretly taken from Marvin and released without his final approval. In the process, an unfinished piece found its way into the marketplace not only as an album track, but as a b-side to the "Heavy Love Affair" 45. "Far Cry" gave us a view of Marvin's improv composition method -- many of the lyrics were mumbled and almost unintelligible, and sung without much confidence. It's the one song on that album that makes little sense, and this pissed Marvin off so much that he left Motown for CBS (which we now know as Sony-BMG).

Now, we get to hear not only "Far Cry," but all those Love Man outtakes where Marvin sings all those "jive" lyrics he tossed aside. Go backwards from "Heavy Love Affair" to "Life's a Game of Give and Take." Devolve from "In Our Lifetime" to "I Offer You Nothing But Love." Fall from the heights of the morality tale that is "Love Me Now Or Leave Me Later" to a half-hearted come-on, "Just Because You're So Pretty." The A-B comparison between the In Our Lifetime and Love Man versions is striking, and certainly makes a good case for Marvin's decision to re-write the record (dig the off-kilter scatting in "Just Because You're So Pretty" if you dare).

So in effect, we now have two full discs of sessions that never were deemed "ready" by the artist. And in his case, the plane took off while he was still preparing to board. Someone at Motown had the good sense to realize that it was going to crash anyway, so why delay the inevitable? In Our Lifetime is still a beautiful wreck. And if you don't agree, you can at least agree that saving Marvin from what could have easily become his SMiLE was probably a big favor for him -- one that drove him to a new label and, ultimately, "Sexual Healing."

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