Marvin paused at the entrance of the Dakota. He scanned it and willed himself on. A stout, white doorman saluted, Good afternoon, Mr. Gaye, go right in, Mr. Lennon is expecting you, and Marvin faded into the recesses of the legendary building. “Mama, there’s too many of you crying,” the doorman awkwardly sang.
In a plush elevator, sort of a confessional, Marvin sank onto a banquette. Rosemary’s Baby was heavy, he thought. The legs that appeared to start at his waist felt useless. He stroked the velvet cushion beneath him. Sweet.
John jumped up from the grand, making a picture with those wire shades and babydoll smile. “Hey, Marvin, what’s going on?” Ironic but it’s cool. John has dug Marvin forever, before “Let’s Get It On,” maybe after hearing “Can I Get A Witness?” I love too hard, my friends sometime say, but I believe, I believe, that a woman should be loved that way, Can I get a witness. Marvin Gaye was out of John’s reach in 1963. Witness, witness. Then the Fab Four arrived in New York for the Ed Sullivan Show. John phoned into Murray the K’s radio show. “Hey, Marvin, did you know—I asked him to play ‘Pride and Joy.’” John sings, “Pride and joy, baby boy, pride and joy, telling the world, you’re my pride and joy.” Marvin’s embarrassed.
It’s 1979, and Marvin has tumbled into his dark ages, spiritually, he’d say; psychologically, John’d say. Marvin tells John: “I’m splitting to London, I’m all played out, this business is killing me.” He also hears himself admit: “I don’t know about the duets, John. I’m fucked up.” Marvin can usually open up some to John, something about their backgrounds, even the primal scream thing. We all have our demons. Mother, you had me, but I never had you. Mama don’t go.
Marvin’s talking but can’t get Jackie Wilson to leave his head. You never know, you’re on top, and then zero. Last week Marvin visited a hole in the ground, the rest home where Jackie, Mr. Excitement, lay in a vegetative state. Withering, shrinking, ugly. Jackie shouldn’t be ugly. The listless attendant told Marvin that Jackie couldn’t hear anything, but Marvin sang to him, anyway.
John’s hippie-dippy male secretary hands Marvin a mug of tea, sweet and dark. Ain’t this the life, white grand, white couch. Marvin kicks back, the weed relaxing him. Jackie was singing his hit “Lonely Teardrops” when he collapsed, Dick Clark saw Jackie drop, and hit his head real hard on the stage, and that was it—over, man—in a coma almost five years. Jackie danced like a boxer, like Joe Louis, man, he could move. “In the place I was after Tammi died. I didn’t want to sing, I couldn’t.”
“You and she weren’t. . . .” John says.
“It wasn’t like that.” Marvin watches something behind John. “She was young and good, so good.”
“I’m no Tammi Terrell,” John says.
“Man, you’re so right, ‘woman is the maker of the world.’” John laughs and tells Marvin he wants to find a groove, a straight-ahead sound, round up the best sideman, a top rhythm section, with a bass player like James Jamerson (Marvin knows there’s no-one like him around, either), and turn a lyric like “Love is wanting to be loved” funky. Real, on the money, no bullshit. John’s tired of the bullshit. His cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” was pathetic, but Marvin doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say he’s dying for the kind of respect John gets. Marvin starts to croon, “Lonely teardrops, lonely teardrops,” and his palms tap his thighs. He stands, John walks to the piano, Marvin follows, swaying a little. “Come home, come home, just say you will, my heart is fine, just give me another chance for our romance, every day you’ve been away you know my heart does nothing but burn.” John reaches for the lines, Marvin’s already there.
Collaborating puts you through a lot of intense shit. They both know that. Marvin was once married to Berry Gordy’s sister. He thinks Yoko and she could be twins. “That was heavy, my boss’s sister is my wife for seventeen years, it’s like you with Paul, it didn’t go down great around Motown,” Marvin says.
“Imagine” was soulful, Marvin tells him, not funky but soulful. John shoots him a familiar half-smile, half-frown, and Marvin sits beside him at the piano. John slides over. Marvin looks at the keys and begins noodling “Imagine,” but his left hand belongs to Ray Charles. John returns to his mother Julia, the familiar refrain. “Yoko is actually more like my mum, don’t laugh, she’s no nonsense, like Julia. Yoko took me back after I’d been a foolish lad. I really hurt her. Julia would’ve always been there if she could.”
Marvin shakes his head affirmatively and sings, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, imagine all the people living for today, imagine there’s no country, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too, imagine all the people living life in peace . . .”
John could never have written it without Yoko. He cocks his head and, like a chorus of one, talk-sings: “Father, father, we don’t need to escalate, war is not the answer . . . You know, we’ve got to find a way to bring some loving here today . . . Don’t punish me with brutality, talk to me, so you can see, what’s going on.” They’re trading lines, then blending them contrapuntally.
What’s going on. Marvin can’t go home, shouldn’t, he’s escaping to London, but his mother needs him here, his children, too, and he can’t make it, he has to save himself from the madness, his madness. He doesn’t know what else to do. He’s weirdly determined to give something to John, their bond is new, maybe peculiar, ain’t that peculiar, but he wants to leave him with promise, a song they can do. It’ll be about hope and home, motherless and fatherless children. It’s more for him than for John, probably. John stands, singing the line “Don’t punish me with brutality” over and over. “Imagine” and “What’s Going On” are talking to each other. Marvin pumps the pedals, his left hand striding, his right bridging more than songs now, and he looks up at John. That intent face has crumpled, sort of, but he’s content, maybe. Marvin intones, “Nothing to kill or die for,” while John chants, “Don’t punish me, don’t punish me.” That’s it, Marvin thinks. It’s a beginning.
More weed and lines of coke. Marvin tells John they’ll go to the studio, get a version of it down, they’ve got their idea, a duet of two minds, voices, old songs into new. Dynamite. It can work, and they’re both wired. Marvin hears himself saying again, “I’m fucked up now. We’ll get it down, when I’m back in the States.” Imagine. The sun is coming up over Central Park. Marvin pulls on his coat. “It’s a promise, man.”
“I’ll be here,” John says. “Later.”