Twenty years after his murder at the hands of his own father, Marvin Gaye continues to define the hopes and shattered dreams of the Motown generation. A performer whose career spanned the history of rhythm and blues, from doo-wop to the sultriest of soul music, Gaye's artistry magnified the contradictions that defined America's coming of age in the tumultuous 1970s. In his most searching and ambitious work to date, acclaimed critic Michael Eric Dyson illuminates both Marvin Gaye's stellar achievements and stunning personal decline -- and offers an unparalleled assessment of the cultural and political legacy of R&B on American culture. Through interviews with those close to Gaye -- from his musical beginnings in a black church in Washington, D.C., to his days as a "ladies' man" in Motown's stable of young singers, from the artistic heights of the landmark album What's Going On? to his struggles with addiction and domestic violence -- Dyson draws an indelible portrait of the tensions that shaped contemporary urban America: economic adversity, the drug industry, racism, and the long legacy of hardship. Published to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Gaye's death in 1984, and infused with the soulful prose that has become Michael Eric Dyson's trademark, Mercy, Mercy Me is at once a celebration of an American icon whose work continues to inspire, and a revelatory and incisive look at how a lost generation's moods, music, and moral vision continue to resonate today.
Dyson, a leading figure in black studies who is as comfortable discussing Tupac as Malcolm and Martin, offers a "biocriticism" that reflects on the themes of Marvin Gaye's music and personal life. Too much of the analysis, however, relies on nitpicking earlier critics, often reduced to accusing 1970s record reviewers of not getting Gaye's genius. While his examination of the cultural significance of What's Going On and follow-up albums is somewhat stronger, if not exactly revelatory, Dyson's ruminations hit shaky ground when he declares Gaye's shooting death at the hands of his father a suicidal acting out of an "Afroedipal" family drama. This queasy mixture of psychoanalytic theory and celebrity gossip undermines his narrative. Breaking with previous biographies, Dyson takes dubious assertions by a second-string Motown vocalist (contradicted by just about every reliable source) as proof Gaye had a sexual relationship with singing partner Tammi Terrell. At times, the writing is simply sloppy, contradicting itself from chapter to chapter and stretching out interviews until they trickle into irrelevancies. Dyson's personal fascination with the turbulent blend of spirituality and sexuality in Gaye's life and music is obvious, but it can't sustain an entire book. Though the mashing together of pop culture with gender and race studies is sure to score some points with academics and public intellectuals, it adds little of substance to Gaye's legacy as a musician.