Relay: Mercy, Mercy Me

Finally, that year is over. But will it ever fade to black and be gone? Or will it prove a harbinger, someday to be known as Year One of the Bad Times?

I think I speak for many of us when I say 2016 was a horrible year. Personally, it was particularly hideous. I wonder how others have been coping with its ceaseless parade of death, of violence, of ever-more-dire warnings of climate cataclysm. How did they weather 2016’s political campaign, surely the ugliest and most dispiriting of our lifetimes, and how do they manage the gnawing, ever-present anxiety over what is to come? 

I listen to Marvin Gaye. A lot of Marvin Gaye. Above all, of course, “What’s Going On.” Surely the greatest soul album ever, it is on a near-constant loop of late.

To listen to this 1971 release on New Year’s Day 2017 is to know a curious condition: at once saddened by its lyrical content and ecstatically moved by the music to which those lyrics are set. Last year’s lesson, I regret to conclude, is that for all the world’s incremental progress — in scientific discovery, in health and human rights, in the eradication of poverty — we’re still the same people, after all, making the same mistakes.

Like Stevie Wonder, his colleague on the Motown Records roster, Gaye broke free from the label’s insistence on pop sounds palatable to white audiences, refusing to record again until “What’s Going On,” the song, was issued. Upon the single’s success, he quickly recorded the rest of the album, giving birth to a poem of deepest sorrow and yearning set to a 35-minute symphony. To these ears, the artist had never sung with such passion, nor would he again. 

On one hand, the album feels like a requiem. “There’s too many of you crying. . . . There’s far too many of you dying. . . . Say man, I just don’t understand / What’s going on across this land. . . . Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas / Fish full of mercury. . . . What about this overcrowded land / How much more abuse from man can she stand?”

And yet, musically, “What’s Going On” is a genre to itself, an amalgamation of languorous rhythm and blues, lush, dreamy strings, and sensual percussion grooves such as no one had heard before. Can one listen and not feel moved to dance?

The climactic final track, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” is a five-and-a-half-minute shock wave of frustration, a multitracked Gaye pouring out humanity’s anguish. To listen, four and a half decades later, on the first day of 2017 was unnerving. “Make me want to holler / The way they do my life / This ain’t living / No, no baby, this ain’t living. . . . Crime is increasing / Trigger-happy policing / Panic is spreading / God knows where we’re heading.” It has a familiar, troubling ring. 

In what has become a sad refrain, Marvin Gaye was shot dead. One of America’s innumerable victims of gun violence, the artist, strung out on heavy, prolonged cocaine use, had intervened in a dispute between his parents. Allegedly afraid for his life, his father, an alcoholic minister with whom he’d had a most arduous relationship, shot him twice.

We hurtle, or stagger, into 2017, and I can’t help but feel an ominous mood of upheaval in the offing, of disorder and possibly violent change. 

“Father, father, we don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some loving here today.”

That part is up to us. Unless, of course, we’re still the same people we were in 2016, making the same mistakes.

Christopher Walsh is a reporter at The Star.