67A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.



“Father, father, everybody thinks we’re wrong, Oh but who are they to judge us…”

What's Going On
November 28th 2009

In the Spring of 1971 Motown recording artist and visionary musician Marvin Gaye independently released a single, stunning audio recording titled - “What’s Going On.”  It became an immediate monster hit, adopted by both black and white communities as an anthem set against the turbulent times of the Vietnam War.  It spoke to the millions of men and women aghast at the nightly televised news of young men dying on a foreign battlefield for reasons they could not define.  It spoke to the black community as the source of thousands of poor and disenfranchised who were drafted or enlisted out of sheer desperation to escape conditions at home.  The music, written by Gaye and orchestrated by Dave Van dePitte, is lyrically described by PBS American Masters author David Ritz as “A whirl of crosscurrents — silky rhythm-and-blues, string-laden pop, gospel sensibilities, free-form jazz.”  It is simply electrifying, combining ad-libbed street greetings, verite sound effects and pointed lyrics that dare question our political leaders.

The lyrics were written by two men - Obie Benson of Four Tops fame, and Motown staff writer and producer Al Cleveland.  Benson had witnessed a terrifying confrontation between San Francisco anti-war protesters and a truculent police force ordered to clear the streets.  The violence so disturbed Benson he sat down and wrote “What‘s Going On,” partly to address his anguish.  But he found the song difficult to get recorded.  The Motown brass and marketing men viewed it as simply an un-commercial protest song.  Benson shopped it around and even tried to get Joan Baez to record it, to no avail.  Finally Gaye, looking for material to represent his independent voice, chose to make it the flagship of his solo producing career.  Marvin brought in signature tenor sax player Wild Bill Moore to wail beneath Van dePitte’s smooth orchestrations, he unconventionally double tracked his own vocals - and legend was born.  The legend was pure musical majesty embraced by a public thirsty for an expression of anti-war sentiment. The Motown market makers were shocked, confirming again that no expert authority could successfully gauge public reaction to art.

The brilliance of “What‘s Going On”  is in its clear statement of dissatisfaction with authority.  A sentiment unheard of in typical R&B offerings from Motown or other urban labels.  “What‘s Going On” starts out by stating flatly that too many mothers are crying and too many brothers are dying.  It protested the Nixon Administration’s decision to escalate the massive bombing of Vietnamese villages that supposedly harbored terrorist Viet Cong - the purported enemy.  The late sixties and early seventies viewed anti-war protesters as a tiny minority of stubborn malcontents who challenged the status quo for lack of anything better to do.  The lyrical suggestion that “Only love can conquer hate,” was the ranting of drug-induced idealism divorced from the harsh necessities of war.  While we had listened to protesting folk songs, The Who and the Grateful Dead, there were very few pleas for benevolence coming from pop music.  There were few black artists willing to openly question the moral authority of the war, or the police, or military, and fewer still who would suggest that our leaders had succumbed to a plague of blind corruption.  Marvin Gaye changed all that in three minutes and thirty seven seconds.

On June 13, 1971 just as Marvin was releasing the album titled “What’s Going On,”  The New York Times published the first in a series of leaked classified documents called “The Pentagon Papers.”   The Papers contained the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The leak soon launched an epic struggle between the Executive Branch of the United States and the Constitutional guarantee of a free press under the First Amendment.  In the end the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the press allowing both the Times and the Washington Post to continue to publish what government claimed would cause “great and irreparable harm to the security of the United States.”  Supreme Court Justice Stewart, writing in support of the majority said this:

“…the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry – in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.”

Three months after the Pentagon papers were published, a clandestine “plumbers” unit burglarized the office of the leaker’s psychiatrist launching the infamous Watergate scandal, and the eventual fall of the Nixon Administration. 

The Vietnam War was ostensibly fought for the greater good.  It was declared a battle against Asian infidels, evil, primitive sinners from a godless society bent on destroying our evolved way of life.  If defeating the enemy meant using brutal, unethical tactics like carpet bombing and flesh burning napalm - that was the price.  It wasn’t until disclosure that we learned of government collusion behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing entry into the war.  Or of the secret bombing of Cambodia.  Or of covert assassinations, Agent Orange and the deliberate under-reporting of battlefield deaths.  When men are committed to a war of necessity, they will justify all manner of immoral behavior in defense of the common good.  It is usually only in hindsight that we understand how flawed our thinking is in the face of what we believe is necessary. 

What remains beautiful about Marvin’s musical suite and its impact on millions of lives, is that it confirmed our feelings about an ugly war - and it made a open plea for the solution.  That solution admittedly naïve and idealistic at the time, was offered without apology or calculation.  It was at the heart of a generation of men and women starting out in life hoping the previous generation had not doomed us to oblivion.  The same could be said today; but with the learned understanding that moral compromise and deliberate corruption of truth can only lead us to a swifter demise. 

.Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going on
Ya, what's going on
Ah, what's going on

Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
What's going on

© Renaldo Benson, Marvin Gaye & Alfred Cleveland Jobete Music Co.