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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

David’s Blues

This is the beginning, hopefully, of a series of thoughts on the music that has touched my life. Most of this music is over thirty years old, or sounds like it. Even though I’m still young, I find more and more that I need the sounds of ancient dusty traditions in order to make my life seem new. Regardless of its age or genre, nearly all of this music is essentially blues, spiritual, or soul music, at least to me. It all contains enough melancholy to be the same.

I hear melancholy–soulfulness, spirituality, the blues–in the songs of Hank Williams as well as Mahalia Jackson, in John Coltrane as well as Van Morrison. I even hear it in Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” but don’t tell anyone. Of course, I’m not alone in my reactions. Certain baby boomer rock critics have made their careers writing entire books on the subject. Anyway, I’ll start here.

I’m beginning with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, because it, aside from a handful of other albums has deeply affected my spirit since I was thirteen. Marvin recorded it in 1971 during the days of Nixon, the Vietnam War, Black Power, and the deepest of “inner city blues.” At the time, it seemed to be a radical departure from the romantic contentment of his duets with Tammi Terrell such as “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” or even the melancholy paranoia of his solo “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It was a testament in song from an artist in pain, informed by dark political realities and troubled spiritual faith. It was a call for mercy. From the album’s first song to its last, What’s Going On specifically addresses the violently torn fragments of early 1970s American life, and now serves as an eloquent document of that time.

I grew up in the Eighties, and though I feel like I’ve known the title song forever, I didn’t seek out the entire record until the awkward beginnings of my teenage years. I lived in safe and dull middle-class suburbs and didn’t know much about the struggles of the Sixties and Seventies outside hearing my mother’s stories of marching with The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and what I’d read about Kent State and Angela Davis in school books. There were obviously certain pains Marvin sang of that I honestly just couldn’t relate to.

Still, the first time I really listened to What’s Going On, in my room, by myself, as a half-silly brooding adolescent, I related to it in a way that was at least approaching honest experience. I intensely felt the spiritual troubles it represented even though I never lived through the history it depicts. The album’s spirituality transcends any intentions Marvin Gaye may have had to simply mirror and respond to the circumstances of his immediate world. This is what I felt as a teenager, and what I still feel now.

What’s Going On is gospel music; if not by letter, then in spirit. It’s a lot of other things as well, but essentially it’s gospel music. As I hinted before, I consider myself to be a spiritual person, though I don’t care much for religion. When I listen to Marvin’s anguished scatting near the fade on the title track, or the angelic choir at the end of “Mercy Mercy Me,” or the divine James Jamerson’s sensuous, spirit-lifting bass on every note of every song, I feel joined to something that, through lack of adequate language, I can only call holy.