Songs for the End: ‘Sexual Healing’

by Rosa Abbott | 25th March 2020

Marvin Gaye was in Ostend when he wrote ‘Sexual Healing’. In the winter of ‘81, he arrived by boat and checked into the Residence Jane. Looked out upon the sparse waterfront of this out-of-season Belgian seaside town, grey hunk of sky hanging low as he wrote. “Baby. I’m hot just like an oven. I need some lovin’”.

Did you think it was a song about getting hot with a stranger? Listen again. It’s a song about loneliness, about isolation, about longing for the human touch. He wrote it while mired with financial problems, breaking up with his second wife, and severing his record contract with Motown. He was also trying to wean himself off cocaine and went into relative self-isolation in Ostend to kick the habit. “Baby. I can’t hold much longer. It’s getting stronger and stronger.”

I first became obsessed with ‘Sexual Healing’ when I was 23 and crashing out of a bad relationship. It was the sort of break-up that empowers and emboldens you, makes you realise how strong you are. And yet, inevitably your window to the world is still tainted blue. Sadness felt as a pinch in the pit of your stomach. I moved out of my old place and in with a friend, threw a space-themed party with a cardboard rocket in the living room to ward off my anxiety. I played ‘Sexual Healing’ on repeat so many times that I almost got kicked out of my own housewarming. “And when I get that feeling, I need… sexual healing.”

Marvin stayed in Ostend for around 18 months. There, he ran on the empty beaches, played basketball, stared endlessly at the sea. He abstained from coke and sex and built up a collection of S&M comics. “There are plenty of places I’d like to be rather than Ostend,” Marvin said in a shaky documentary made on his time in the seaside town, “but this where I need to be.” In this fruitful period, Marvin penned his final album, ‘Midnight Love’, only leaving the town reluctantly when he ran into visa issues. He’d never refind the peace of mind Ostend offered him, slipping back into a cycle of coke-fuelled paranoia upon returning the States.

As for me, the rocket party is reduced to a murmur in my brain now. My only tangible evidence of it is a folder of blurry iPhone photographs that I spend my time in Corona-induced isolation uploading to a Google Drive folder named ‘2014’. Drinking a glass of red wine at 2 am I watch as each file flickers into cloud storage one by one. I took 942 photographs that year and they shape the memory I form of it. It feels like a lifetime ago.

And yet, I still bang on ‘Sexual Healing’ whenever I feel an acute sense of aloneness in the world. I still get a chill down my spine when I hear those whispered back up vocals: “getup-getup-getup-getup”. The finger-clickin’ groove, made with almost entirely synthetic sounds on an 808 drum machine: “wakeup-wakeup-wakeup-wakeup”. The anguished coda of “please don’t procrastinate, it’s not good to masturbate” as the track dies out. Something about this track is a tonic for the soul. My despondency can always find kinship and solace in Marvin’s yearning, his voice escalating, soaring through the particular pain of being horny and alone: “Baby, I feel like I’m capsizing, the waves are rising and rising.”

In equal parts spiritual and libidinal, it’s the song we need for impending endtimes.

Liquid explores expressions of intimacy in the private and public realms, in our digital and offline lives.