from The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo (Pantheon, 2022)
“What’s Goin’ On?” was something different than I’d expected from Motown and Marvin Gaye, the soul singer already famous for his catchy cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” back in 1968. Black women at my college played it constantly on the stereo during most of my freshman year. I guess it was a way to draw lines, recreate black space, and feel more at home at our predominantly white college. But the new record was nothing like it. The jacket was a headshot of Gaye, taken in three-quarter profile, his face bearded, slick black raincoat collar up, and surrounded by a green background, lush and out of focus.
The title track was the first on the A-side and started with a falsetto trill, like a vocal gūiro with a rising top, then broke into a collage of male voices greeting and murmuring Hey, hey, hey…. Hey, What’s happenin’? Hey, it’s a big party, man. Hey, brother, stop. Right on. I can dig it. What’s your name? Ev’rythang is ev’rythang…. …the git down…. It had the feeling you were entering an apartment where a party was going on. Then came the launch of a wailing figure from an alto sax, accompanied by big, tuneful pulses from an electric bass. This was James Jamerson, part of the group that came to be known as the Funk Brothers rhythm section at Motown, plucking out a walking line with catchy accents and syncopations. A set of congas hit a chopping beat, while someone slapped lightly on a box drum. Then Gaye sang the opening lyrics, softly crooning, rising to falsetto whoops and wails at the end of each verse:
Mother, mother, mother… There’s too many of you crying.
from “What’s Going On” by Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye
I heard a vibraphone playing fills, then fading into the scrum of lush background sounds—backing male voices oohing and ahhing, Gaye’s second lead vocal tailgating in falsetto and stretching out the first lead. Then his voice swirled around the melody and sounded like a higher-pitched echo of himself, doubling on the line Got to bring some lovin’ here today, fixing the thought of the verse and emphasizing its pure sentiment There was a Mellotron in there too, backup vocals switching to Sister, sister hard on the downbeat, fingers snapping sharply. Then an ensemble of strings joined in, swelling and lengthening the vocal line, evolving into sweeping twirls of figures that underscored the overarching sweetness and romanticism of the song. The male chorus switched to chants of Brother, brother backing Gaye and his plaintive lyrics, then Gaye hooted out the song’s insistent question—What’s goin’ on? Tell me whatʻs goinʻ on!—no longer the casual, throwaway greeting but addressed now to love’s lack in the world, to the futility of the Vietnam War, to soldiers losing their lives there (Gaye’s brother got sent to fight), to demonstrations and pickets, to police brutality and all the hurt of everyday life among black people and a whole generation of young in America standing up in protest. Marvin punctuated the sentiments by scatting in falsetto, beguiling and mournful, as the instrumentation wrapped him in a braided flag of sounds, the symphonic sweep of strings, he and his backup boys calling Right on, right on in response.
I put the 1971 album on all during the summer of ʻ75 as I was trying to make sense of the disparate pieces of my life. I was twenty-four, studying Japanese literature at the University of Michigan, and worrying over the cultural mashup of my consciousness, loving black music and Anglo-American poetry, hearing Whitman to the tune of Coltraneʻs tenor sax, reading Willliam Wordsworth interwoven with Weather Reportʻs jazz fusion albums blaring from my stereo. Afternoons, I laid out on the cool loveseat dowstairs in the house in Ann Arbor where I rented a room, closed the blinds to the light outside, and thought back over the short tracks of my life.
I was only a year away from my temple studies in Japan, dating a Chinese American economics student from Princeton, going to readings by poet elders whenever I could, trying to sort out the warring cultural influences and social forces cresting against each other in my blood—my upbringing in a Japanese American family, my immersion in black urban culture during high school, my academic studies in college and grad school, my white and multi-ethnic friends. I felt deeply that I was ready for nothing as a young writer. Not only had I no wisdom, but Iʻd no prospect to stand upon to take in the vast, unarticulated sweep of all that I’d seen in my twenty-four years on the planet. Every admonition I’d heard, every view that claimed to be comprehensive and organizing required that I reject whole swaths of life I’d witnessed—the cruelty of three generations of plantation life for us as children of Japanese immigrants was now instantly to be canceled by our move to the suburbs in LA, the inclusion by my black classmates in high school was belied by my privileged education in college, the devotional purity of my single year living in a Japanese temple was likewise now corrupted by my erotic life with my girlfriend whose dark skin bore the scent of candlenuts.
Only music seemed to bring it all together in a secluded space of respite and approval. Even beyond the sentiments expressed by the lyrics in Gayeʻs song, it was his conviction that lovingness could lead and not hate, serenity in his verses, the great swelling beauty in his music, his voice like that from a tribe that didn’t yet exist, sacred and longing as any mele chanted at the island shore by my childhood neighbors. I read in Rolling Stone that Marvin wrote the songs for the album after a great time away from the music business grieving the loss of Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on many hits, that he’d quit touring, refused to perform love songs, that he wanted to play wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, a few from the team having befriended him. He’d been moved by letters he’d gotten from his brother while in Vietnam, then after that brother returned home, witnessed a dispirited veteran shunned by the young in his own community. Gayeʻs smooth and jazzy song was not only a new sound, but a new message completely different than the teen love lyrics that dominated the building archive of hit tunes from Motown. And it was also completely unlike the militant screeds Iʻd been hearing from black poets at the podium–for just cause decrying racism–but insisting that anger and a macho defiance were the only proper responses to a system run by the man. “ Whatʻs Goinʻ On?” was something else completely–a contemporary spiritual–and matched a wish I wasn’t yet brave enough to have. It put social hope to music, gave it a beat, and amped the volume to the ghostly anthem of the otherwise frail lovingness in our hearts.
Robert Hayden was a teacher of mine that year and was vilified for being an “Uncle Tom” by younger writers, prominently militant poet Amiri Baraka, and ostracized, even canceled by black students. But I’d no idea. Along with asserting ethnic identity and insisting upon the acknowledgment of suppressed histories, the movements that empowered people of color too often carried within their messages strong nationalistic imperatives that “canceled” what was perceived as the culture of the master. For Hayden, this was a terrible burden, as African American poets of his own generation and younger condemned his personal style and his poetry as “like the white man’s,” a fact I was ignorant of until he told me one day in the poetry room at Michigan.
Hayden had written numerous poems celebrating black life and historical figures like Harriet Tubman and even contemporary ones like Malcolm-X. He wrote about the Middle Passage, lynchings, the flight of freed slaves, about urban riots and student demonstrations in the Sixties, and he wrote about his difficult childhood growing up in Detroit—a ghetto ironically called Paradise Valley, where heavyweight champion Joe Louis was also from. Heʻd won honors, distinguished himself, and taught for many years at Michigan and Fisk University, a traditional black college where he himself had studied. He had been a student of English poet W.H. Audenʻs and openly professed admiration for canonical white poets while at the same time remaining loyal to black experience. Hayden wore thick, Coke-bottle eyeglasses and was always dressed formally whenever I saw him. And he was tall as a rising sunflower in a bow-tie.
I’d invited him to read with a slate of “ethnic poets” Iʻd organized and gotten money for from student organizations on campus—the “Third World Alliance” we called ourselves. The poets were to be African American Etheridge Knight, Native American Leslie Marmon Silko, Japanese American Lawson Fusao Inada, and Chinese American Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. The venue was the Trotter House, a lovely manse of many rooms and a posh meeting space that housed the African American fraternity at the University of Michigan. I reveled that this would be a big event, bringing multi-ethnic voices together, that my fellow students would talk about it for a long time.
But Hayden shocked me by declining outright as soon as I asked him, saying, “While I am most flattered by your kind invitation, I’m afraid I must decline as you would not receive the audience you’d hope to were I to appear at the podium alongside your other guests.”
I was shocked. I asked what he meant.
Hayden said, “Have you ever heard the phrase Uncle Tom, son? I’m afraid I am persona non grata at the Trotter House. I am seen as a somewhat corny Negro and my appearance on the bill would only diminish your attendance and not accomplish the accord you likely hope for. Therefore, with regret, I feel I must decline.”
I was devastated. Not that he would not join in, but that he’d been ostracized by other black writers and students. I was naive, of course. Calling two old teachers on the telephone—Stanley Crouch and Bert Meyers back in Claremont–I asked them about it. They both decried the shunning and explained. There had been a public censuring of Hayden, another poetʻs denunciation at a conference of black writers at Fisk University back in 1966. Chicago poet and leader of the Black Arts Movement Don L. Lee (later Haki Madhubuti) denounced him. The attitude spread after that. This pained me deeply. Hayden offered to attend but insisted he would not read.
The night of the event in Ann Arbor, I saved two seats in the second row for Hayden and his wife, composer and pianist Erma Morris Hayden (readers sat in the first row). When they came down the aisles, filing to their seats in the middle, Etheridge Knight (once a student by correspondence, while in prison, of Gwendolyn Brooks’), stood up and applauded, saying something like “I want ya’ll to know that the great Robert Hayden has graced us with his presence.” One by one, the other poets all stood and applauded. Then the audience did too, some sixty or seventy people, slowly, wondrously.
I donʻt often think of this and not in many years. Mainly I recall the moment when Hayden refused to read—a story I have told to myself many times over. But the whole scene comes alive for me, when I let it, and I can see everyone in my mind’s eye–Etheridge in a midnight blue Hawaiian shirt with tiny yellow quarter moons scattered on it, Lawson Inada and Leslie Silko rising to their feet, the two black co-sponsors of the event rising. The memory of it makes me weep.
When I studied with Hayden, it was to be a one-on-one tutorial, and naively, I asked to read “the black poets,” African American writing of the Sixties, but he simply said “We shall read Keats.” I’d not studied English Romantic poet John Keats very closely at all and thought it a lack, so I agreed. I’d actually have agreed to study penguins if he’d proposed it. He met with me every Monday afternoon on his porch, at tea, no less. His wife would bring out a tray full of cookies, cups and saucers, and a teapot, once in a cozy, I recall, the first time I had seen such a thing. He had me read aloud and tutored me to slow my pace, enunciate the words, give them feeling, letting the emotions “emerge organically” as I read, with savor, patience, and sentience, appreciating not only the words but the cadences, phrasing, startling insights, and rhetorical complexity and density. It was a lesson in acting, although not in the theatrical sense, but in terms of inhabiting not just whatever might be the meaning of the poetry, but its shadings into emotion, its rhetorical flavor and flourishes, and its “essential modesty” I think Hayden’s phrase was. He meant not to overdo it. We didn’t talk themes or details or history much, just read the poems aloud and admired them. He asked me what I thought about a passage here and there, and suggested lines of inquiry I might take, but also that I’d “return to ponder” much in the poems in the years ahead if they’d had any affect on me. He was right.
Why Hayden compels me, continues to, is because he was the first and only black poetic voice I’d heard from back then that, while recognizing the history, the culture, the oppression, urged lovingness rather than defiance and fury. He’d ushered me into the entryway to two of the loveliest and fiercely beautiful poets in the language—himself and Keats. It is like hearing Haydn and Hindemith in music. You feel the sweep, not only of their beauteous phrasings, but of how a tragic loveliness persists in the culture and finds its poets. Aside from Marvin Gaye, no other prominent black artist was saying it quite like that. Everything was about revolution, attacking the man, performative rigidity and anger in rhetoric, castigation, exhortation—so one-dimensional and self-damaging to read. Hayden’s poems were beautifully crafted, emotional, and loving. He was a beacon of compassion and self-respect. It hurt me other black voices denounced him.