Features Let’s Gent It On: ‘Midnight Love’ And Marvin Gaye’s Belgian Adventure

Gareth Ware takes a historic ‘walkumentary’ around Ostend, over 30 years on from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Midnight Love’.

Every so often there are events in life where watching through the cracks of your fingers and having a near-instantaneous religious conversion and turning to prayer are the de facto, almost instinctive reactions. You know the type of things we're talking. When your boss storms into the office frothy-mouthed and white-knuckled with rage at the latest louse-up and you're practically pleading internally that it isn't yours. The moment when a squeal of tyres, crumpling of metal and shattering of glass leaves you reluctant to peel back the curtain and see if it's your parked car that's just been crashed into. An e-mail from your editor informing you you're being sent to Belgium (a country, lest we forget, by another famed for its – ahem – 'after hours' entertainment) on something called the 'Midnight Love Tour' that leaves you turning to a higher power and begging they've read the finer points of what the outing entails.

Perhaps mercifully, 'Midnight Love' refers to the 1982 Marvin Gaye album, which in a bizarre twist was written and eventually recorded in Belgium, with Gaye residing for two years in the sleepy seaside resort of Ostend, a fact currently being acknowledged in the city by a digital tour.

It's safe to say things weren't exactly looking rosy for Gaye in the early 1980s. A non-functioning relationship with his record label, failed marriages, a stalled recording career, potential imprisonment due to tax problems if he ever returned home, and an existence post-European tour that revolved almost entirely of immersing himself in the seedier corners London's drugs communities.

Enter Belgian promoter Freddy Cousaert, who saw the potential long-term benefits to both Gaye and himself if a healthy Gaye were to return to prominence and toured Europe on the back of it. Cousaert himself was a well-known figure in Ostend's musical scene, one of a small-but-enthusiastic band of European blues and soul aficionados in the early 1960s when such music was still considered something niche and exciting.

Cousaert needed to rescue Gaye's reputation, having build up his own. Installing him in a city-centre apartment, the Cousaert family would regularly feed him cooked meals. Elsewhere, the city's relaxed lifestyle enabled Gaye, along with encouragement and assistance as needed, to free himself from the shackles of drug addiction which had blighted him both personally and professionally for the preceding few years.

Gaye's time in Ostend had a calming, and inspiring effect on him: he fought back to peak health, using the beaches and promenade as a running track, while also playing frequent the local Royal Stables community sporting facility to play basketball with stars from the local team and to have sparring sessions in the boxing ring. Gaye himself noted the importance of his time there in terms of both his wellbeing and career prospects, saying: “There are places I would probably rather be but I probably need to be here,” and candidly opining that “I am an orphan at the moment, and Ostend is my orphanage.” His personal attorney, Curtis Shaw, would later describe his period in Belgium as “the best thing that ever happened.”

Continuing to acclimatise and integrate well, he eventually moved to a seafront apartment at 77 Resident Jane, adopting the promenade bar Café Floride as his local. It was in these circumstances he began work on what would become the 'Midnight Love' album and its attendant, Grammy-winning smash 'Sexual Healing'. The ever-supportive Cousaert was never far away, putting him in touch with talented local guitarist Danny Bossaert to work with him (Bossaert would come up with the guitar riff to album centrepiece 'Rockin' After Midnight'), and eventually arranged a well-received if disappointingly attended (for all the apparent excitement in the city at having Gaye as a resident, perhaps as a result of the chaotic European tour that preceded his move to Ostend the concert hall was reportedly only about half full) televised comeback show at local landmark, the Kursaal Casino as part of the short Anglo-Belgian 'Heavy Love Affair' tour in the summer of 1981. In amongst all the excitement, one major obstacle remained – the fact that to all intents and purposes Gaye didn't have a record label to release the ensuing record. After much to-and-from, no less a man than Arnold Larkin, head of CBS Urban came out to Ostend to convince Gaye to sign to the label, eventually negotiating a release from Motown in March of 1982.

With everything now in place, a re-energised Gaye powered ahead with 'Midnight Love', recorded in Brussels between late 1981 and the summer of 1982. Upon its release, it yielded an immediate return to commercial success. In the UK alone, 'Sexual Healing' peaked at number four in the singles chart, while the parent album went top ten and remained in the charts for 16 weeks. It was clear Gaye was back. But with success came perilous developments – the ensuing touring schedule re-opened his mental fragility and paranoia and precipitated a return to his drug fuelled ways. Burnt out once more and now living back with his parents in America, a chain of events would later unfold that led to him being shot in bed by his father. Arnold Larkin poignantly recalls how during their last conversation together how the pair had mooted he should at least consider a return to Belgium, given the upturn it had had on his state of mind, health and career fortunes.

With a little over 30 years now having passed since the record's release, a group of us find ourselves stood in the very same port city that birthed 'Midnight Love', to try out Tourisme Oostende's Marvin Gaye 'walkumentary' (the tourist board's Pieter Hens reasons “we build it up from the locations, so you're really walking in a documentary. That's why we call it a 'walkumentary'”). Centred around pre-loaded iPod touches hired from the local tourist information centre, the route involves a total of twelve checkpoints noted on both an accompanying physical map and smaller, on-screen version on the iPod. Once a checkpoint is reached, there's an corresponding video the user manually plays, themed upon the landmark they're stood by. A simple premise that can supposedly be done in two hours, we found that it took us a tad over three, and that included swapping our heels for wheels halfway through via the bikes we were kindly loaned.

The content itself has been well put together, and revolves primarily around footage from Richard Olivier's wonderfully shot and definitive 1981 documentary 'Marvin Gaye – Transit Ostend'. Bolstering it with interviews from the likes of Danny Bossaert, studio engineer Mike Butcher, singer Jamie Lidell, Arnold Larkin and a wealth of local characters including the Cousaerts (Freddy and his wife from archive interviews, both having passed away before the tour came to fruition, their children from contemporary examples), the clips do a thorough job of telling the story, offering something to both the casual fan, seasoned obsessive and total novice.

As well as a primary clip for each landmark focussed entirely on the story, in a nice touch a secondary clip provides a rarity or anecdote. The route takes in a number of sights including the first apartment Gaye took up residence in shortly after his arrival, Resident Jane, the sports centre, Café Floride, the casino, and the promenade. Though informal advice suggested that anything above groups of three or four would in some dilute the experience, we found that even as a group of a dozen or so it worked well, also offering an unexpected social element. Be careful where you stand though – at one point we had the (admittedly hilarious) juxtaposition of Marvin Gaye singing an a capella Lord's Prayer in our headphones vying for attention with the old-school organ grinder we'd unwittingly stopped next to. Equally funny was the moment later on when another clip competed with the annual Ostend kite festival, where a synchronised kite display performed to the 'Local Hero' theme.

If any criticism could be levelled, the consensus amongst our group was that – while at times almost like an engaging treasure hunt - the 'walkumentary' could do with another level of interactivity. Of the landmarks, only Cafe Floride could actually be entered and for all the mention of the two and a half tonne bronze statue of Gaye situated in the casino lobby, it can't actually be viewed until well over two hours after the tourism office closes, and the opportunity to continue the tour ends. It also rushes over the final act of the story where both Freddy Cousaert and Danny Bossaert are allegedly snubbed/unlisted in the album credits, giving no reason as to why the inferred falling out/distancing between Gaye and Cousaert especially occurred. (Cousaert was later sent a gold disc by Arnold Larkin, along with a note simply reading 'You deserve this.')

Photo Credit: Richard Gray

But what of Ostend today? Heading out to the Lafayette music bar – probably the closest thing the city has to a spiritual successor to Cousaert's original The Groove, with a centrepiece of a vinyl collection behind the DJ booth to thorough that it could serve as start-up stock for a new record shop – there appears to still be an inherent vibrancy and love of music in the city, with couples turning the bar into a dancefloor to established soul and Motown classics. The tour, and Gaye's connection with the city, remains well publicised. Speaking of the city's current relationship with its past, Tourisme Ostend's Pieter Hens thinks that Gaye's influence continues. “Without the intention of sounding spiritual, I believe you can still feel his soul in Oostende. The city still has the same effect on people visiting. The sea has always given inspiration to artists. Oostende has the advantage that there is a vibrant city behind the sea.”

But the question remains: what did Ostend possess that allowed Gaye to return to form so emphatically? Indeed what does it continue to possess that could still inspire the artistically inclined? Hens has no doubts. “The unique combination between a city with rich history and the endlessness of the sea.”

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