Twenty years ago, a Belgian coastal resort became the unlikely residency of one of the world’s greatest soul singers. Jeremy Duns went searching for the spirit of Marvin Gaye
This article was first published in the February 2002 issue of MOJO.
It’s Wednesday afternoon: schoolchildren out for the holidays careen along the promenade in cuisse-tax buggies, while pensioners buffeted by the biting North Sea wind struggle to keep hold of tubs of shellfish bought from seafront stands. Gulls circle overhead, and there is an inescapable fishy smell in the air.
Ostend is not a sexy town. And yet it is in this faded coastal resort that one of the 20th century’s sexiest songs was written—a song that sold over a million copies and won a Grammy on its release in 1982, and that has since been the soundtrack to countless midnight trysts the world over. Its plaintive evocation of longing and lust has entered the pantheon of great soul classics. The song is, of course, Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye.
The singer’s life reads like a Hollywood script: the rapid rise to fame in the 1960s, when he had a string of R&B hits for Motown, including the blistering I Heard It Through The Grapevine; the broken marriages, drug abuse and financial problems in the 1970s; the self-imposed exile in Europe; the comeback; the murder.
In 1980, Gaye was living in London, partly to escape the US tax authorities. Partying with aristocrats and overdoing the cocaine, Gaye’s life was spiralling out of control until, in September that year, music and boxing promoter Freddy Cousaert stepped onto the scene.
Cousaert, a flamboyant Fleming in his early forties (like Gaye), was best-known for having arranged a Belgian tour for the young Cassius Clay. A huge fan of R&B since the mid-Sixties, he had once owned a nightclub in his native Ostend.
In London to talent-scout, Cousaert heard that Gaye was in town, and down on his luck. He immediately sought out the singer and the two became friends. Then, after Gaye raved to Cousaert about a recent trip to Brighton to escape the pressures of London, the Belgian invited him, and his 24-year-old Dutch girlfriend Eugenie Vis and five-year-old son Bubby to Ostend. Gaye agreed, and on February 15, 1981, the trio boarded a Sealink ferry.
Gaye’s 18-month sojourn in Belgium was to be a pivotal period in his life. Ostend’s windswept promenade would become the backdrop to a multi-million-dollar record deal, set in train the disintegration of three relationships and trigger an internal battle. The trip would rekindle Gaye’s career, but would also lead him toward madness and a violent death.
On his arrival in Ostend, Cousaert loaned Gaye $30,000 and set him up in a fifth-floor apartment (77 King Albert Promenade) with a sea-view. Cousaert owned a small hostel nearby, which he ran with his wife Lilliane. Gaye was a frequent visitor, soon becoming integrated into the Cousaert family.
Cousaert planned to relaunch Gaye’s career from Ostend; Gaye, imagining himself as a general regrouping, also viewed the trip as an opportunity to cool his heels after the chaos of the preceding months.
The first task was to divorce Gaye from Motown. After 20 years with the label and a bitter dispute over previous album In Our Lifetime, Gaye wanted out. His lawyer Curtis Shaw contacted Larkin Arnold, who had been responsible for luring Michael Jackson from Motown to CBS. Arnold headed for Ostend, where he brokered a deal: CBS paid off Motown to the tune of $1.5 million, and agreed to give Gaye $600,000 per album. Gaye immediately turned his attention to producing new material for CBS, and regaining a normal life.
Gaye was no recluse in Ostend. He strutted down the promenade, made friends and gave interviews. But perhaps the most revealing document of the time is a half-hour film shot by Belgian director Richard Olivier, Transit Ostende.
I met Olivier in his spacious flat in Brussels. An elegant man with carefully-coiffed grey hair and an ever-present cigar, he was keen to talk about his collaboration with Gaye. ‘This is a story that has been with me for twenty years,’ he told me. ‘And it isn’t finished yet.’
Olivier had read about Gaye’s arrival in Ostend in Tele-Moustique magazine. ‘It was just three lines, but I knew it was big news. It was like Frank Sinatra turning up in Chaumont-Gistoux.’ He immediately called a friend at the magazine and asked for Gaye’s contact details.
With the agreement of Cousaert and Gaye for the project, Olivier put up most of the cash and the film was shot in a matter of days. The spontaneity paid off: Olivier’s film contains some of the most candid footage of the singer in existence. In one scene, Gaye chats and plays darts—badly—with some regulars in an Irish pub. ‘He had nothing to lose, but he knew how to present himself,’ says Olivier. ‘Every take was good. Freddy hated the pub scene, though, because he thought it belittled Marvin. But Marvin loved that scene.’
The film opens with Gaye’s mellow voice-over, drawn from a long interview Olivier recorded in the singer’s flat: ‘My father was a minister...’ he says, going on to talk about how happy he was growing up. The unedited version reveals a more confused perspective: when asked what he remembers of his childhood, Gaye’s first response is: ‘Being alone.’
Gaye is also shown rehearsing with his band in the basement of Ostend casino—Cousaert had set up a date there for July, 1981—in which the singer lies back on a bench and languidly ad-libs through I Want You. Another scene shows him walking into a church in Middelkerke in his Adidas running gear and breaking into an extraordinary a cappella rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. ‘That was a strange day,’ says Olivier. ‘The moment Marvin finished singing, this guy came running into the church to tell us that the Pope had been shot.’
Gaye liked Olivier’s film: a note thanking the director for ‘making me imortal [sic]’ is conspicuously displayed in his flat. The film has never been released, due to the prohibitive cost of paying for song rights, but it is often shown on TV—channels only pay a one-off fee for the broadcast rights. Olivier has recently been negotiating to release a record of Gaye singing The Lord’s Prayer, which is not covered by copyright. He plans for Gaye’s voice to be accompanied by ‘other famous names’. Olivier also showed me a book he has taken 15 years to complete, a 60-page semi-fictionalised account of Gaye and Cousaert’s relationship, with illustrations by Louis Joos.
‘This is a story that has been with me for twenty years. And it isn’t finished yet’
As Olivier’s film shows, Gaye liked hanging out with the locals. His keyboard player, Odell Brown, had come to Ostend to work on some new material, and was staying with the Cousaerts. After befriending a local couple Donald and Maggie Pylyser, Brown ended up staying with them for three months. He introduced them to Gaye, and they became great friends. ‘We didn’t really know who he was,’ Donald Pylyser says today when I visit the couple’s apartment. ‘I was only twenty. I was vaguely aware of his Motown stuff, but in those days it was hard to find his records in Belgium.’
The couple were charmed by the singer. ‘He was very charismatic and good-humoured,’ says Maggie. ‘We knew nothing about his problems. He rarely talked about his past.’ Despite the age difference, the Pylysers seem to have had an easy relationship with the singer. ‘Marvin was young at heart,’ Maggie says.
The couple remember visiting Gaye in his flat and watching him tinkering around on a synthesizer. ‘He asked for requests,’ says Donald. ‘So I said the only song of his I knew—I Heard It Through The Grapevine.’ Slightly taken aback, Gaye struggled to remember the opening chords.
Donald played guitar with various local bands. Soon, Gaye, Pylyser and Brown were regularly jamming. ‘Marvin was a great improviser,' says Donald. ‘It was just magic.’ He reels off a list of six or seven songs he recorded with Gaye and Brown on a Portastudio. I ask if he has by any chance kept any of them, and after some rummaging he finds a tape and puts it on the stereo. A few chords on a keyboard ring out, and then that unmistakable voice appears.
In the demo, titled Rubato, Gaye takes Pylyser's sheet music as a prompt for his lyric, working the denotations into a metaphor in which he suggests to his lover that they take things fortissimo or pianissimo. On the last track on the tape, Gaye embarks on an extended romantic litany, crooning:
‘It’s all right to make love tonight
It is good to love you like I should
It is correct
To get your feet soaking wet...’
Is it a classic Marvin Gaye song? No. But it‘s exhilarating and somewhat eerie to hear that pure voice echoing through the apartment. Gaye’s tone is as astonishing as it ever was, as is his seemingly effortless gift for making one believe anything he sings. This was a man, after all, who on Sexual Healing would bring a yearning urgency to lines like ‘I’m hot just like an oven/I need some lovin’.’
When the music wouldn’t come, Gaye wound down by watching television, mostly the BBC on cable, as he spoke no Dutch and hardly any French. He also loved to cook—the Pylysers fondly remember his lamb chops and moussaka. Vis says that, after the maelstrom of life in London, they both savoured the domesticity. ‘It was great,’ she says. ‘Marvin could finally breathe fresh air and spend time with his son.’ Bubby attended a local school, and Vis also taught him at home, reading him Mr Men books with Gaye.
'Marvin was hiding out,’ says David Ritz. ‘He wanted to kick the drugs and get clean.’ Ritz was a 38-year-old journalist who had worked for Rolling Stone. He had been approached by Gaye after the singer saw Ray Charles’ autobiography, which Ritz had co-written. The two had talked extensively in Los Angeles a few years previously, but had fallen out of touch. Ritz decided to go over to Belgium ‘to see what was going on’.
He arrived in Ostend in March 1982. When he visited Gaye at his apartment, he was shocked. ‘Marvin had huge bags under his eyes. He had aged ten or fifteen years since I had last seen him. He looked like a man who had been through hell and back.’ Seeing that Ritz was disturbed, Gaye leaned over and whispered in his ear: ‘Don’t worry—the worst is over.’
On the surface, that seemed to be true. Gaye spent his mornings running on the beach, visited local churches, and grew to love the work of Ostend’s most famous son, Belgo-British painter James Ensor. ‘He used to hang out at the (Ensor) museum a lot,’ says Ritz. ‘The irony and the sexual ambiguity appealed to him.’ Gaye was particularly fond of Ensor’s Self-Portrait in a Flowered Hat—like his father, Gaye had a predilection for cross-dressing.
According to Ritz, the singer had a love-hate relationship with Ostend. ‘Marvin liked being a big fish in a little pond, and he loved the calmness. He liked the open expanse of sea, which seemed to symbolise hope at a time when his world had been very closed in and claustrophobic. But, at the same time, he felt restricted by the bourgeois, provincial feel of the place: he complained that everybody walked their dog at five o’clock.’ Not surprisingly, Gaye could hardly go incognito in the city. ‘He once told me that he felt like a raisin in a bowl of milk,’ says Ritz.
Gaye wasn’t out of trouble yet. Although his drug use was more sporadic, he never managed to kick his habit entirely. A visit by his ex-wife Janis Hunter in the summer of 1981 also upset his new rhythm. ‘Marvin was still holding a torch for Jan,’ says Ritz. ‘He was hoping for a reunion.’ When her visit ended in yet more recriminations, Gaye sunk into depression. His relationship with Eugenie Vis had become increasingly strained, and she left to study in Amsterdam, returning to Ostend at weekends. ‘I didn’t want to get between Marvin and Jan,’ she says, ‘but I was hooked on him.’
Meanwhile, Ritz was getting the scoop of his life. The proud Gaye had started to resent having to live off Cousaert. Now, he had a new record deal, and a new listener. He talked to Ritz extensively.
‘It was a biographer’s dream,’ says Ritz. ‘To have your living subject isolated in this little town with nothing much to do—it was a gift.’ Ritz was enamoured of his subject: ‘Marvin was an enormously charismatic individual,’ he says. ‘Everybody loved him. He was sweet, good-looking, smart, spiritual. You just wanted to be with him all the time.’ Ritz accompanied Gaye on trips to Bruges and Brussels, and the two would discuss art and poetry. ‘We would talk until two am about Dante, Jackson Pollock, John Lennon, John Keats.’
Like Keats, Gaye was himself ‘half in love with easeful death’. His father’s sect, which mixed Pentecostal rigour with Old Testament fury, had given him a unique perspective on the subject, and he had witnessed violence at home throughout his childhood. On his 1973 album Let’s Get It On, he sang: ‘If I should die tonight...’
In the original tapes for Olivier’s film, Gaye mentions his desire to come back to Ostend later on, to ‘revisit the scene of the crime’. ‘Of course,’ he adds, ‘there hasn’t been a crime yet.’
Gaye was torn over his religious beliefs and his sexual appetites; he felt under pressure to live up to his self-created lover-man image, but was ashamed of his lifestyle. He also suffered from premature ejaculation. To combat his loneliness, Gaye immersed himself in hard-core pornography and visited prostitutes. A sequence in Transit Ostende has him cruising the city’s red-light district, while his voice-over proclaims: ‘I love women, but I hate womenkind.’
One day, in Gaye’s apartment, Ritz found some misogynistic cartoons in a book of illustrations by Georges Pichard. In a moment that would change both men’s lives, he suggested to Gaye that he needed ‘sexual healing’.
Gaye had been trying for months to fit lyrics to one of Odell Brown’s rhythm tracks—a catchy, reggae-tinged number—with little success. Taken with Ritz’s phrase, he asked the journalist to write words to go with the song. Ritz’s lyrics—the first he had ever written—reflected Gaye’s tortured soul at the time, referring to waves building and threatening to capsize the singer. Ritz says that Gaye never fully understood the lyrics’ positive message, although his improvisation toward the end of the recording, when he sings ‘Please don’t procrastinate/ If you do, I’ll have to masturbate,’ shows at least partial recognition of his own problems.
Ritz says that he never knew if Gaye would use his words. ‘I thought that at least I could tell my grandchildren that I had once given lyrics to Marvin Gaye.’
Gaye set about fitting the new lyrics to the track, trying many different approaches. ‘It looks like we’re going to put the ‘Get up’s at the beginning,’ he says at one point on the tapes the Pylysers have kept of him working through the song by himself.
Sexual Healing would become Gaye’s biggest hit, but would signal the end of his friendship with Ritz. When the song was released with Gaye and Brown listed as the writers and Ritz merely thanked in the linernotes for the title, the journalist sued for a lyric credit, eventually winning the case after the singer’s death.
Cousaert also fell out with Gaye. Dreams of being the man who would resuscitate his idol’s career were dashed when he was sidelined by the music moguls. When Gaye’s old mentor Harvey Fuqua arrived at the studios in Ohain, outside Brussels, where Gaye was recording the new album, the writing was on the wall.
Cousaert’s problems were compounded by a mix-up over a Swiss bank account that left Gaye thinking his friend was trying to rip him off. And Gaye and Brown were both forced to leave Belgium a couple of times during their stay, because neither was registered there. At one point, Interpol turned up at Cousaert’s home looking for Gaye in connection with a drug shooting in Denmark. Belgium was becoming a hassle.
Then, Gaye heard that his mother was due to go into hospital for a kidney operation. The singer, who had a classic Oedipal complex, rushed back to the States. Freddy Cousaert was not in Ostend when he left, but Gaye told Lilliane Cousaert that he would return in a couple of weeks. He probably meant it—he and Eugenie Vis had just bought a 21-room mansion in Moere, outside Ostend, which had been a Nazi headquarters during the Second World War. ‘But as soon as he left Belgium,’ says Ritz, ‘that was it.’
In a brief detour to Rotterdam, Gaye fell out with Vis. She returned to the house in Moere, cleared out all the new furnishings, and left for Amsterdam. She never saw the singer again. Gaye arrived in the US in the autumn of 1982, his career reborn, but his life falling apart.
He toured to support Sexual Healing and its accompanying album Midnight Love, but soon slipped into his old ways: backstage, he had a preacher in one room and a stash of drugs in another. Eventually, he moved in with his parents, and retreated into paranoia. On April 1, 1984, after a petty argument over a lost insurance form, Gaye’s father shot him twice in the chest at close range with the .38 calibre handgun his son had given him for protection. The singer would have celebrated his 45th birthday the following day.
Eugenie Vis is now a clothes designer in Amsterdam.
Freddy Cousaert went on to promote acts like Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas. He died in a car crash in Bruges in August 1998.
Donald and Maggie Pylyser still live in Ostend. Donald ‘does lots of different things’, including teaching music.
Richard Olivier continues to make films, and is currently trying to find a publisher for his book.
Odell Brown worked with Curtis Mayfield and Muddy Waters, among others, but suffered from depression and panic disorder in the 1980s and 1990s, and was homeless for a while. The Veteran’s Association helped him get back on his feet—he had been in the army in the early 1960s. He is now married and lives in Richfield, Minnsesota.
David Ritz’s conversations with Marvin Gaye in Ostend became a central part of his book Divided Soul, widely recognised as the definitive biography of the singer. Ritz also co-wrote the autobiographies of Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin, and has written lyrics for Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers. ‘Ostend was a particularly important time in Marvin’s life,’ Ritz says, ‘It was where he should have got it together.’
Richard Oliver agrees. ‘You can’t ignore Marvin Gaye’s time here,’ he says. ‘It would be like a history of Napoleon without Elba.’