Roll up for the midnight love tour
Ostend, Valentine’s Day, 1981. A grey blanket of clouds smothers all the love that’s in the air. The ferry that connects Dover to the queen of the Belgian seaside resorts carries Marvin Gaye, one of the most famous American soul singers of the previous two decades. It wouldn’t have been surprising if he had been humming “Mercy, Mercy Me” when he descended the gangway, because he would have needed it.
Discover Marvin Gaye’s connections to the Flemish coast with a new walking tour
Despite commendable attempts, the Motown artist hadn’t been able to make an album that rivalled his 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On. His love for drugs wasn’t helping his creativity any, and his second marriage, to Janis Hunter, had been abandoned earlier that month. He owed the taxman $4 million.
At the beginning of 1981, after Motown released In Our Lifetime without Gaye’s consent (he wasn’t happy with the sound mix), he swore never to work again with the label he had been with his whole life. But how on earth did all this drive him to Ostend? It didn’t, at first. After a disastrous tour of the UK in 1980, he became stranded in London, where, infamously, he was late for a show hosted by Princess Margaret. Flemish concert promoter and businessman Freddy Cousaert had known Gaye for some years and felt the singer wouldn’t recover in the British capital, where he was exposed to all possible temptations. “I almost didn’t recognise him,” Cousaert said in 1994. “He was pale, skinny, nervous and broke.”
He invited Gaye to Ostend, where Cousaert ran a hotel, to get his life together. Arno, now the grand old man of the Belgian rock scene, but then struggling to start up TC Matic (which would become the seminal Belgian band of the 1980s) was working in the hotel’s kitchen. Gaye adored Arno’s chicken curry. “He always told me I was cooking real soul food,” Arno recalled a few years ago when he cooked Gaye’s favourite dish for a food show on Flemish television.
Sanctuary by the sea
Though Gaye gained nearly seven kilos during his first months in Ostend, he did more than eat. He got himself together, and Cousaert convinced him to stay longer than the few weeks they had first agreed on. Gaye started working again. “I’m here to write. I need the peace and quiet of Ostend,” he said in 1981. In an apartment on the promenade, Gaye came up with the majority of Midnight Love, the album he later recorded in a studio near Brussels.
In the meantime, Cousaert helped him land a three-album deal with CBS. The company’s vice-president, Larkin Arnold, travelled to Ostend to see how the singer was doing. “I wanted to check if he still had it artistically, and if he was able to finish the product within budget and on time,” he said.
Because Gaye’s tourist visa ran out in August of 1982, the final touches to Midnight Love were made in Germany. By that time, the singer had fallen out with Cousaert, and there’s no mention of the promoter on the album, not even a simple thank you.
Mike Butcher, the engineer of Midnight Love: “Without Freddy, the album wouldn’t have existed. Freddy did care about him, but things went badly in the end.” Arnold, on the other hand, had no problem acknowledging Cousaert’s importance to the album. He sent Cousaert a golden record with a note saying: “Because you deserve it”.
The success of Midnight Love – two million copies sold – brought Gaye back to the US and won him his first Grammy Awards. But he relapsed and, while moving in with his parents might have seemed a good idea at first, ultimately it ended in tragedy. The relationship with his father, Reverend Marvin Gaye Sr, was very tense, and the latter shot his son on 1 April, the day before his 45th birthday.
It’s dark irony that Gaye not long before that fatal day had expressed a desire to return to Ostend because he felt it was a way to get his life in balance again. Despite their falling-out in 1982, Cousaert didn’t hold a grudge. In those previous 18 months, they had built up a very strong relationship. As Cousaert described it afterwards: “We did everything except go to bed together.”
Take a walk on the Gaye side
The Marvin Gaye Midnight Love Tour is a documentary walk through Ostend via places where Gaye worked and lived during his stay in the city. For €5, you can pick up an iPod at the city’s tourist office (across from the Casino). It leads you to 12 places in the city that mark as many moments in Gaye’s Ostend life.
Or almost. One stop is called Studio Katy, but it’s no use looking around for it at the Monacoplein: Studio Katy, where Gaye recorded Midnight Love, lies in Ohain, a village south of Brussels. But the recording of that album forms a crucial part of the story and had to be included, and it’s done so smoothly.
Stop number seven is Residence Jane on the Albert I-promenade, where Gaye wrote one of his biggest hits, “Sexual Healing”. You’re not supposed to disturb the residents, but you can catch a glimpse of the apartment from the outside. Time has been less kind to other spots related to Gaye: Freddy Cousaert’s Hotel Mercury is now a nameless apartment building on the corner of Koningsstraat and Kemmelbergstraat, while De Floride is no longer the pub it was in 1981.
Still, this is a highly informative and entertaining tour. For every stop, the iPod offers two videos to watch. The main one, lasting about five minutes, tells the official story: Edited together, they’d form a documentary that could be broadcast on television. It’s a mix of new interviews – the daughters and brother of Freddy Cousaert and Midnight Love engineer Mike Butcher – plus photos and archive material, mainly of Cousaert (who died in 1998), taken from a 1994 BBC documentary, and of course Gaye himself, whose life in Ostend was documented by Belgian filmmaker Richard Olivier in Transit Ostend.
The second video is more like an outtake but is still entertaining, especially the one at number six, Café De Floride. When a patron asks Marvin Gaye for une chanson, he starts singing the French national anthem: “Allons enfants de la Patrie…”
Set aside at least two hours if you want to watch all the videos. A reservation for the tour is recommended.