I was in my local supermarket on the weekend, early morning, trying to beat the rush, not fully awake yet, when I heard something familiar playing through the music system. That, in itself, is not unusual. I like music. I’ve always liked music; or at least as long as I can remember, I have. I like most kinds of music; although I have a clear preference for some over others. But it would be quicker to say what I don’t like than to have to list all that I like. So sometimes, in my semi-awake state, I find myself wandering down the aisles of the supermarket with my shopping trolley, singing along quietly to whatever is playing on the sound system at that particular moment; then feeling totally foolish and embarrassed when I turn a corner and find another shopper, smirking at the sound of my impromptu concert. I’m not a good singer, you see. Not good at all.
So there I was, last Saturday, wandering through the maze of tinned goods and cordials, singing away to a familiar tune when I suddenly realised what it was I was singing; and I was horrified.
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Marvin Gaye’s album entitled: What’s Going On. I was at a friend’s place; he had just bought it and he was just about bursting out of his skin with excitement at the prospect of playing it for me.
“You gotta hear this!” he exclaimed, carefully placing the LP on the turntable and directing the needle to the first track. There was a hiss, as the needle found its groove; then the sound of people talking, like a party and someone saying, “Hey, what’s happenin’.” Then suddenly there was a wail, from the upper register of an alto saxophone, that made me gasp for air and made my skin tingle like I’d been lightly electrified. Even now, when I hear that wail, the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up; even now, as I am writing this, I feel them rising.
What followed, on the LP, was a revelation; music like I had never heard before; so beautiful, so soulful, so sincere. I’d been a fan of Marvin Gaye for a long time but with this album he seemed to have reached a new level, a celestial level. I was instantly captivated. I bought a copy of the LP for myself. And as I played it and got to know the lyrics I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the music, incredulous that anyone could have created something so profound, something so beautiful, so powerful that it would reduce me to tears whenever I heard it.
After my initial euphoria, I made a strange vow. I promised myself that I would only play the album once each year; because I never wanted to loose the feeling I’d had when I first heard it. And I kept that vow; even when the world went digital and I had to replace the LP with a CD. More than thirty years of fidelity and devotion. Until last Saturday morning, as I pushed my trolley down a lonely supermarket aisle, absent-mindedly singing along, when I realised what was playing and suddenly thought to myself: “What’s Going On?”
What was going on?
When the album was first released it was radical and controversial; especially in the social context into which it was introduced; and for which it was written; a society polarised on issues of race, and opportunity, and power. It was a plea for calm and commonsense in a world on the verge of tearing itself apart; an exhortation for people to come together, rather than divide and take sides. It was an important, timely and necessary voice of reason that cut straight to the fundamental issues we all face; and will always face. And here it was, in a suburban supermarket in Sydney, Australia; being used to sell groceries!
Maybe I’m just getting old and what was sacred to me then is now as banal as the products on the supermarket shelves. Or maybe the world has changed. Maybe Marvin achieved what he set out to achieve; and his message and his music have become redundant. But somehow, I doubt that. I still see young men and women going to war. Not in Vietnam, it’s true; but in other countries; too many countries. I still see millions living in poverty and oppression. I still see dictators ruling for their personal gain. I still see mothers crying; and I still see children dying. And it makes me wanna holler.
So this is me hollering.