Above all, MacDonald cared deeply about popular music (and classical and the plastic arts, too, under different hats), and understood intuitively that music has scored the lives of millions and is freighted with personal and cultural value. That affection and seriousness of purpose are born out in The People's Music, published just prior to his death, a book that took me far too long to get to. A miscellany, collecting pieces that MacDnald wrote about mostly 1960s and 70s pop, rock, and R&B musicians and bands for Mojo, Uncut, and Arena, and other U.K. magazines, The People's Music showcases MacDonald's wide-ranging knowledge and taste and his personal style. He's beholden to magazine journalism's economy of space, and so doesn't stretch out as he does in Revolution in the Head, to amazing results, but, forced to three or so pages, as most of these pieces run, he's cogent and focused. (The exception here is "Wild Mercury: A Tale of Two Dylans," a lengthy, terrific essay on Dylan's demons and conflicts.) And MacDonald never loses his voice, and he's never afraid to lead with a devastating take-down, as in this, on late Cream:
The rest, while undeniably passionate and crushingly powerful, is aesthetically grotesque: a blazing blue furnace of crude banality blown into megalomania by a zillion watts of electricity.
Without delving into deep waters, it seems likely that Marvin's problems boiled down to what medieval divines once condemned as the sin of acedia, or spiritual boredom. His restlessness, even when it led to drug-frazzled rages, was basically inert, characterised by drift. In his recent biography, Trouble Man, Steve Turner suggests that Gaye manoeuvred his father into killing him — one of the most deviously passive methods of suicide ever contrived. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the same passivity mars much of his music. What other artist, after all, spawned so many half-finished or abandoned projects?
Gaye's break came with 1971's What's Going On, a record which, while piously elected to the upper echelons of every top 100 albums list, is nevertheless pervaded by an underlying torpor more obvious in his later work. The sound and structure are undeniably original, if samey and repetitious; his ‘political’ lyrics, on the other hand, are trite and often mushily wishful. What's Going On offers as many vague gestures as ﬂashes of talent, its classic moments failing to disguise that Gaye, while gifted, was mainly extemporising off the musical initiatives of his collaborators....
A basic lack of commitment left Marvin susceptible to sentimental dishonesty. His assertion, on the title track of Let's Get It On, that ‘we're all sensitive people’ is true to the extent that few of us are completely impermeable, but risible if taken to mean that we're all equally perceptive and caring about each other. An observant man capable of watching himself washed to and fro by his conﬂicting desires, Gaye must at heart have been aware of the emptiness of such stuff....
Marvin Gaye was a beguiling voice worth hearing even when spinning vocal and lyric clichés or effectively singing about nothing at all — which covers a large tranche of his career. The supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work will strike future listeners as decadent or prophetic, depending on how history proceeds. More certain is that the lushly listless drift of posthumous issues like 'Walkin' In The Rain’ and ‘Just Like’ accurately represents their creator's inner world, wherein ecstasy, melancholy, and ennui were twined in troubled complicity.His takes on Lennon and McCartney, the Stones, Chic, the Beach Boys, Lenny Bruce, Love, Simon and Garfunkel, Miles Davis, and many others are equally candid, concise, and distinctive (if, admittedly, not always blazing ground that others haven't covered). If you care about thoughtful and passionate takes on culture, pop music and rock and roll, and love great sentences that hum with conviction and authority, I recommend you read some Ian MacDonald. He left us way too soon.