Blog: Seaside soul – Discovering Marvin Gaye’s Ostend

This month marks 30 years since the release of ‘Sexual Healing’ – Marvin Gaye’s last hit, appearing just 18 months before his untimely death. The song was the centrepiece of the Midnight Love album that appeared a month later, relaunching Gaye’s career after years of personal and professional strife. What is surprising is that this hit, the epitome of sexy sophistication (if you like that sort of thing), was forged in the unlikely crucible of the sleepy Belgian fishing town and seaside resort of Ostend. An audiovisual walking tour, the Midnight Love Digital Tour, launched earlier this year by Toerisme Oostende, explores Gaye’s time in the town, offering a new view of a music legend and a chance to reflect on the twin issues of pilgrimage and representation in music.

Gaye went to Ostend in early 1981, via Hawaii and London, fleeing an abyss of cocaine psychosis in LA, an IRS bill of $4 million, and an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Motown Records. He had been coaxed to the town by Freddy Cousaert, a promoter, club owner and hotelier who had been flying the flag for black American music in Belgium since the sixties. An emaciated, paranoid Gaye resolved to use his stay there to sort himself out physically and mentally. Keeping off drugs, he got fit by running on Ostend’s wide, sandy beaches, as well as boxing and playing basketball at the local gym (the fact that this was housed in the former royal stables of Leopold II meant there was no mistake about the specificity of his location). A highly religious man, he saw this as a period of monk-like discipline and abstinence and, supported by the Cousaert family, he got back on his feet creatively as well as personally. In his flat on Ostend’s seafront, the windswept North Sea the backdrop to late-night writing sessions, he came up with ‘Sexual Healing’ and a clutch of other songs that would appear on Midnight Love, which was to be his last album. While it wasn’t a record that was going to set the world alight, it marked an important artistic resurrection for Gaye after the professional humiliation of Motown’s confiscation of the tapes of his previous effort, In Our Lifetime, and imposition of their own mix, subsequently completely disavowed by Gaye. Ostend was to Gaye what Berlin famously was to Bowie between 1976 and 79  – a place to escape from the downward spiral of self-destruction that befalls so many stars in LA, and a place to live anonymously, get clean and recharge spent creative batteries. ‘Cleaning-up’ is as much a trope in rock mythology as drug-fuelled excess, and this tour is very much about that process.

The tour itself can’t be faulted as a tourist product. A bargain at 5 euros to rent a pre-loaded iPod from the tourist information centre, the Midnight Love Digital Tour sends you on a two hour, twelve stop, self-directed trundle about the town, with the casino where Gaye staged a low-key comeback performance in 1981 and where the painfully literal video for ‘Sexual Healing‘ was partly filmed, as the centrepiece. Stylishly produced, the tour has a corresponding video for each stop, telling you more about that location, and combining new interviews with those who knew Gaye in Ostend with vintage clips. The creators were lucky enough to have some rich material to draw on – director Richard Olivier’s documentary Marvin Gaye: Transit Ostend (later recut in longer form as Remember Marvin Gaye), which followed the singer in his everyday life in the town. Clips from the documentary make up the meat of the tour and strongly underscore the incongruous nature of this international superstar’s life on the Belgian coast. While drinking in a rough fishermans’ bar, one inebriated patron asks the exotic (for Ostend) Gaye ‘Where you come from – Paraguay?’, while in another scene Gaye earnestly sings the Lord’s Prayer inside the small seafront church of Our Lady of the Dunes in front of incredulous, head-scarfed old ladies. The general effect on the viewer is one of unease at Gaye’s obvious vulnerability.

With a return to some semblance of a normal life as the central theme of the tour, details that are fascinating in their very banality are revealed. There’s an interview with a local chef who used to cook fried chicken for Gaye, and the precise recipe that the singer so approved of is revealed. Meanwhile Freddy Cousaert’s wife Liliane speaks, without getting the pun, about Gaye’s favourite food being sole. We discover his fondness for the tracksuits sold at a local sports shop and hear about his food shopping habits. Gaye himself does not come across terribly well and seems to have been suffering from the typical effect of both drug addiction and fame – self-absorption (he proclaims ‘I’m an orphan at the moment, and Ostend is my orphanage’). Even Gaye’s ‘love god’ image proves unconvincing, as he is filmed cruising the red light district, awkwardly gesturing at the prostitutes sitting in its windows, and it seems that even if Ostend provided the environment for a recovery of sorts, it didn’t provide the answers to his apparently considerable sexual neuroses.  The final video of the tour touches on Gaye’s return to America, having seen his relationship with Freddy Cousaert deteriorate. His violent death at the hands of his father in 1984, Cousaert’s in a cycling accident in 1998, and the subsequent death of his wife hardly leaves you on a high, but it’s the point of Gaye’s Ostend story that it was only a temporary resurrection for him and that it all ended far from well for almost everyone involved.

This tour is important as one of a growing number of European musical tours, from Liverpool’s Magical Mystery Tour, to the rather more edgy Berlin Musictours, and the one-off Depeche Mode fan tour, run as part of a weekend electro festival in Basildon earlier this year. Such tours are inherently about a sense of place and the influence of the urban environment on music-making. But they are also important for looking at how musical icons may be represented through a physical place, as well as the issue of secular pilgrimage, and how ‘fandom’ might be played out through a physical act of pilgrimage. Ultimately tours like this are part of the heritage industry, which was memorably described by David Lowenthal in The Heritage Crusade as ‘not erudition but catechism’, designed to ‘fix the identity and enhance the well-being of some chosen individual’. This is precisely why they’re of interest to anyone concerned with the representation of icons. The Gaye tour is not aimed at diehard fans, and covers just a very small and strange part of his career, but it is important as it reveals him at his most vulnerable, offering a challenge to his two most common representations: as fresh-faced, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’-era Prince of Motown, and later ‘Let’s Get It On’-era sex god. I challenge anyone to think of him the same way again after doing the tour.

With rock’s favourite director Julien Temple apparently planning a film about Gaye’s Ostend jaunt, the story of the Prince of Soul washed up on the Belgian coast seems to be a source of fascination beyond this short audiovisual tour. The tour is certainly highly recommended to anyone interested in music history, or indeed anyone who wants to discover Ostend itself in a creative way. In fact, it didn’t feel like much had changed there in the 30 years since Gaye made it his home, and this was rather underscored by rounding the corner after dropping off my rented iPod at the tourist information centre and bumping right into Danny Bossaer, an Ostend-based guitarist, heavily featured in the tour, who had collaborated with Gaye and supplied the impossibly funky riff for the Midnight Love album track ‘Rockin’ After Midnight’ (although he never got a writing credit). Do the tour and you might not only discover a different side to a soul icon but also encounter a bit of living musical history.