Raised in Shaw, and a graduate of Cardoza High, Marvin Gaye grew up on these very streets.
While nearly all know of his God-given talents and his impact on American culture, especially the masterpiece LP “What’s Going On”, few know of the generous contributions that the people of Ostend, Belgium gave to Marvin Gaye.
Marvin Gaye’s Belgian Soul Salvation
Marvin Gaye was literally on the brink when he crossed the English Channel on a ferryboat bound for Ostend, Belgium, a sleepy sea-side town that, like Marvin, had a storied past but whose star was fading. Racked by substance abuse, facing a broken marriage, on the outs with Motown and hounded by the IRS, Marvin was near the bottom. A move to Belgium, at the request of friend and boxing/music promoter Freddy Cousaert, was literally a last resort. According to Marvin and others who remember the time, the move ended up saving his life. Ostend, Belgium and it’s gracious people gave him 2 years of quiet rejuvenation and healing that were to form the eye of his personal storm.
Far from his Washington, DC inner-city roots, the sounds of the waves of Ostend were a constant, soothing presence, and the vastness of the sea seemed to have pleased Marvin. By all accounts, he flourished in Ostend. With no knowledge of Flemish or French, and with few local residents who knew of or cared about his musical achievements, he could have easily felt quite isolated. Instead, Marvin found solace in the salty sea air and worked himself back into shape by jogging along the beach and boxing in a local gym. Soon, he began to rehearse in a local studio and a comeback album that would become an international smash was in the works.
Monique Licht, an independent-film producer in Belgium knew Marvin when he lived in Ostend. She later worked with Gaye on a 30-minute film for Belgian television, 1981’s Marvin Gaye: Transit Ostend. “He rebuilt himself in Ostend,” she says. “He was quiet and peaceful. At that time, he was free of drugs. He could walk in the streets. He was calm. He was happy alone in front of the sea. In my opinion, he should have stayed in Ostend. I don’t understand why he went back to the States. That is the cruel reality. If he had stayed, he might still be alive today.”
Marvin made many friends in Ostend and they all tell a similar tale of kind man that they adopted as one of their own. “He made friends easily and never acted like a big star”, says Jan van Snick, who today runs Jan’s Café but who used to be the proprietor of Le Bistro, where Gaye was a regular. “He came in every day with the basketball players who were his friends,” says van Snick, who has a signed poster from Marvin on display at his new restaurant. “He was very generous, very nice, and he liked the girls. He acted like a normal person – no glitter, no show. He spoke about his problems in the United States. He was very popular here; he spoke to everyone, he sang in the church, he went to the fishermen’s cafés. He was a good man. He did not have a big head.”
One of Gaye’s jogging partners was Dirk van der Horst, a local soul music fan who had, by coincidence, named his first son Marvin as a tribute to Gaye, his favorite singer. When Gaye came to Ostend, a friend took him to van der Horst’s apartment unannounced to meet little Marvin, who was only one year old at the time. “He was completely normal,” van der Horst says. “It was not the real big soul singer who was at my place; it was Marvin. He would come by about once a week. It was really nice, and he enjoyed it. We jogged together on the beach. He was about 10 years older than me, and he was faster than me. He liked the people in Ostend. He liked the simplicity, and he liked not being recognized. He said he could be himself here.”