Twenty-five years ago, Marvin Gaye rebuilt his mind, body, and eventually his career in an unlikely place: a tiny town on the coast of Belgium. retraces Gaye's steps to find out what was going on back then.
Marvin Gaye was on the brink when he crossed the English Channel on a ferryboat in 1981 seeking refuge in the small Belgian city of Ostend, a faded seaside resort town that had once hosted Europe's moneyed classes but was now, like the great soul singer himself, facing harder times. The man with the string of feel-good Motown hits in the 1960s and the 1971 breakthrough album What's Going On was leaving America behind. The reasons for his self-imposed exile were many and complex, and included two failed marriages; financial woes, highlighted by a losing battle with the Internal Revenue Service; a career that seemed to be in terminal decline; and an increasing dependence on hard drugs. Gaye, in his early 40s, still had the charm, looks, and talent of a star - his voice would never fail him - but he was squandering these gifts. Michael Jackson and other talented newcomers had eclipsed him at the beginning of a new, video-dominated era that focused attention on younger performers. It seemed the music world was passing him by as his successes of the '60s and '70s faded into memory. He was lucky to be well enough to even travel to Belgium. At the end of a chaotic European tour, Gaye had declined to return to Los Angeles and instead plunged into London's drug scene, living in squalid conditions and shunning his contacts in the music business who had brought him fame and fortune. Those close to him feared that, like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison before him, Gaye would die on foreign shores.
But Gaye flourished in Ostend, an unlikely setting for an urbane black American accustomed to Los Angeles, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. At first, the move seemed like another blunder. He did not speak Flemish or French, there were few local residents who knew or cared about his musical achievements, and he was often quite isolated. Still, he found solace in the salty sea air and worked himself back into shape by jogging along the beach and boxing in a local gym. He started work in a nearby studio on a comeback album that would become an international smash, and, more importantly, he cut down on drug use.
This troubled man found a measure of inner peace in Ostend that seemed to vanish when he returned to the United States after almost two years in Belgium. Gaye started abusing drugs again and eventually was shot dead by his father after a series of confrontations in their home.
"Marvin was a special man, very distinguished, very impressive, but it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," says Monique Licht, an independent-film producer in Belgium who worked with Gaye on a 30-minute film for Belgian television, 1981's Marvin Gaye: Transit Ostend. (A new film about Gaye, starring Law & Order's Jesse L. Martin as the Motown legend, is scheduled to begin production later this year.) "At times, he was like an elegant zombie walking along the beach in Ostend," says Licht. "He was there, but at the same time he was not there. His mind was working all the time, thinking a lot of things, and he was far from his family. Everything was broken in his life and in his mind. He was suffering."
Like so many who knew Gaye, Licht was both enchanted by his warmth and intelligence and alarmed by his deep unhappiness, which he was unable to mask in his later years. She remembers a vibrant man who was at times utterly delightful and at times completely lost.
"He rebuilt himself in Ostend," she says. "He was quiet and peaceful. At that time, he was free of drugs. He could walk in the streets. He was calm. He was happy alone in front of the sea. In my opinion, he should have stayed in Ostend. I don't understand why he went back to the States. That is the cruel reality. If he had stayed, he might still be alive today."