I had a deeply spiritual experience during last week’s edition of our monthly Gusto Vinyl Happy Hour at the Sportsmen’s Tavern. And it caught me off-guard.
We – myself, co-host Anita West, and an ensemble of musicians from the funk, soul, rock and gospel sectors of the local music community, as well as a vocal and enthusiastic crowd of music lovers – were celebrating the timeless majesty of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album.
The previous Happy Hour events have been spirited affairs, and I’ve cared deeply about the albums we’ve been unpacking and celebrating. The musicians performing music from those albums have been stellar, too. But this one was different. Because this album is one of those rare collections that actually transcends itself. When you listen to “What’s Going On,” you’re hearing music being employed in service of something that is even greater than music itself.
I’m not necessarily referring to religious beliefs, although they are present in this music, and many who have reacted to the album will likely cite those beliefs as paramount to the experience. For me, however, this goes beyond religion. It’s about what it means to be human. And how we might cling to and foster that humanity in ourselves and others during times when, quite frankly, it often seems like it would be easier to abandon that humanity, to hunker down, and to hide in our shells.
When Marvin Gaye made “What’s Going On,” he did so against the wishes of his boss, Motown head Berry Gordy, who also was his brother-in-law. Gordy wanted Gaye – and all his Motown artists – to stick to more trifling thematic concerns. Relationships, love, losing love, finding love, and so forth. But Gaye’s social and political consciousness had been awakened by the events of the day. The war in Vietnam. Violence at home and abroad. Inequality. Racism. A serious deficit in our collective capacity for compassion, empathy, decency.
It would have been easier for Gaye if he went along to get along. But he didn’t. He gifted us a profound musical statement born of the courage of his convictions.
I opened the Vinyl Happy Hour gathering with some of my thoughts on what this album meant at the time of its release in 1971, and what it might mean to us now. I thought I’d keep it short, but from nowhere, words flooded my brain and directed my monologue, almost as if I had nothing to do with their formation. I ended up saying something like “This album is a mandate for us to ask ourselves the question: How willing are we to do what we know is right, despite what it might cost us personally, financially, socially?” I ended up opining that “There is power in this music, and that power is human compassion.”
Sounds preachy, but it was not meant to be. I've been asking myself these question often, of late.
These ruminations were still banging around my brain when I awoke on Friday morning to the news that a self-proclaimed white supremacist had murdered 50 people as they gathered to worship at a Mosque in New Zealand.
Hate is on the march. Perhaps that’s as it ever was. Regardless, we’re seeing far too much of it.
Gaye’s mandate is more important than ever. Yes, it’s incredibly idealistic and hippie-dippy to believe that music can change the world. But it is equally undeniable that it can indeed change each of us individually. I’ve seen it and experienced it too many times to believe otherwise.
I’d urge you to spend some time with “What’s Going On,” and to seriously contemplate the questions it poses. And to ask yourself if you are willing to fully engage in a compassionate way of life.
These are no longer merely philosophical or metaphorical questions. They’re essential to our future, and our children’s futures, too.
“Some of us are aware/that it’s good for us to care,” Gaye sang.
That might just seem like a simple rhyme. But it’s not. It’s an invitation to live a meaningful, compassionate life. We need to accept that invitation and pass it on.