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Opinion | Leonard Pitts Jr.: 'What’s Going On' still feels urgent, still feels now
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Opinion | Leonard Pitts Jr.: 'What’s Going On' still feels urgent, still feels now

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Fifty years ago.

Left-wing terrorists exploded a bomb at the U.S. Capitol.

An Army officer was convicted in the massacre of civilians at My Lai.

Vietnam chewed up another 2,414 American lives.

And across the country, needles were lowered for the first time to the grooved surface of a certain spinning vinyl disc, and there came the murmur of a party — “a groovy party, man,” one of the guests pronounced it in the parlance of the time. A sinuous saxophone twined among the revelers, the congas set an easy pace, the bass played it cool like, Don’t start none, won’t be none. And in a voice that ached and yearned, Marvin Gaye sang.

“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying

“Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying ...”

It was a good year for music. Carole King released “Tapestry,” the Rolling Stones put out “Sticky Fingers,” the Temptations had “Sky’s The Limit.” But even in that august company, “What’s Going On,” the album Gaye debuted 50 years ago this week, stands out. There’d never been anything like it before. There’s never been anything like it since.

Gaye, to that point a singer of amiable songs about guys and gals in love, had turned his attention to war, injustice, faith, addiction, police brutality, the spoilage of the planet, the plight of the inner cities, the loss of our children. The result was less a suite of songs than a prayer rising from the pit of our common brokenness. “What’s Going On” was the lament of a man trying to make the senseless make sense, its very title a question to which no one seemed to know the answer.

Now it’s 50 years later.

Right-wing insurrectionists storm the U.S. Capitol.

A global pandemic takes 3.3 million lives.

The GOP wages a war on truth.

America is pulling apart.

And "What’s Going On" still feels urgent, still feels now.

It was the first Black concept album and the first to multi-track a singer’s voice so that he performed in a choir of himself, music floating in a dreamy stream of consciousness, songs bleeding into one another, “What’s Going On” becoming “What’s Happening Brother” becoming “Flying\’ High (In The Friendly Sky)” becoming “Save The Children,” becoming . . . And sadly, its themes remain relevant: We still struggle with war, drugs and, Lord knows, police brutality.

All of this is part of why it still resonates. But there is one reason more.

One seldom hears anyone talk about — much less sing about — the existential pain of being alive, the sheer exhaustion sometimes of simply being, in a world stained by sins of malice, abuse, selfishness and despair. But Gaye did. So this masterpiece — named the greatest album ever by Rolling Stone — doesn’t get old or become corroded with nostalgia because it is tethered not to time, but to that common brokenness and the shared humanity from which it springs.

“Mother, mother” could be a woman whose son died in Vietnam — or Tamika Palmer, whose daughter Breonna Taylor died in Louisville.

“Brother, brother, brother” could be someone who overdosed in ’71 — or Ahmaud Arbery, killed in February for jogging while Black.

“Make me wanna holler,” sang Gaye, as the album came to an end, “throw up both my hands.” And who, alive in this world, hasn’t at some point felt exactly that? The question he posed 50 years ago compels us still for one reason above all.

We don’t have an answer yet.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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