Ostend, the blowy Belgian resort on the North Sea, has international aspirations and Marvin Gaye, the late prince of Motown, has emerged as central to realising them.
In February 1981, struggling with drink and drug dependency and being chased by the IRS over a multimillion-dollar tax bill, the 42-year-old singer-songwriter took the Southampton ferry to the faded fishing town.
He was expected to stay for a few weeks in the family home of the music promoter and hotel owner Freddy Cousaert. But Gaye ended up living in the down-at-heel resort for nearly 18 months, during which he penned one of his biggest hits, Sexual Healing, from his seafront rooms at the Residence Jane apartment block.
Gaye would have turned 80 this April. He was shot dead by his father, a Pentecostal preacher, the day before his 45th birthday – barely 18 months after leaving Belgium’s shores.
On the back of that poignant anniversary, a “walkumentary” that is available for visiting Gaye fans, during which they can visit the star’s hideouts while watching original footage on an iPod of him in the town, has had a 10% rise in takers in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2018.
But Ostend’s tourist board thinks there is a much bigger market to tap into. News that the record producer, rapper and business mogul Dr Dre has acquired the film rights and the rights to Gaye’s musical catalogue, with the approval of the family estate, has set hares running. There is even talk of a Marvin Gaye museum.
“I think about 75% of our tourists are from Belgium, so that is our main audience, but we are going to work more on the countries around us, and Marvin Gaye is one of the stories that has the possibility to work internationally,” said Pieter Hens,
the marketing manager at Ostend’s tourist office.
“I think it would be possible to do more but we need a [catalyst]. A big movie would be it. The walkumentary is very nice but to really make tourism out of it we really need a museum.
“And I think we would need a movie project to make that happen. If you are a big Marvin Gaye fan and you want to spend a weekend in Ostend then the walkumentary is two hours, but you need to offer more than that. We have had talks with some people – nothing concrete – who still have some material about him and there are possibilities but building up a museum is quite a big thing to do.”
Hens said Dre had not yet made contact with the town, but a call would not be entirely unexpected.
“There was a film project five years ago in which Lenny Kravitz was going to play Marvin Gaye. Kravitz was here in Ostend doing research and we did the tour with him. We went to Residence Jane and Moere (a village close to Ostend where Gaye bought a property).
“Lenny Kravitz backed out because the family didn’t support it. The family contacted him and he backed off. There is still a trailer online because they tried to sell the movie but it didn’t work out.”
Gaye turned around his health while in Ostend, running on the wide open beach, playing basketball in the local courts and avoiding the temptations of Los Angeles, where he would die in 1984 at the hands of his father in the mansion he had bought for his parents.
“There are plenty of places I’d like to be rather than Ostend,” Gaye once said, “but this where I need to be.”
Marc Van den Kerchove, 58, the owner of the Taverne Floride, a bar on the wide Albert I promenade frequented by Gaye, said a film would be a massive boost to the town.
“He would come in here for a Leffe beer after having a jog,” Van den Kerchove said. “All the other bars he would go to don’t exist now. We get a lot of his fans from all over in here, from Japan, America, everywhere. The regulars remember him. I’m a fan of his music certainly and a film would be great.”
Gaye’s last European performance was at Ostend’s Kursaal concert hall, where there is a statue of the star. “At the end of his life he was considering going back to Ostend because here he could be himself without being seduced by drugs and all the problems related to that,” Hens said.
“We are still waiting for the film – but that’s the fun thing about Marvin Gaye: it’s timeless. There will always be Marvin Gaye and Sexual Healing.”
What’s going on: timeline of Gaye’s life and career
2 April 1939 Marvin Pentz Gay Jr (he would only later add the last “e” to his surname) is born in Washington DC to the Pentecostal minister Marvin Gay Sr and Alberta Gay, a domestic worker.
1959 Gaye joins the Moonglows vocal group and comes to the attention of Berry Gordy Jr who signs him up for his label, Motown Records.
1963 Gaye marries Gordy’s daughter, Anna, who is 17 years his senior. They divorce in 1975.
1971 Gaye writes What’s Going On after witnessing police brutality at a rally against the Vietnam war. Motown releases the record.
1972 The prince of Motown, as he became known, moves to Los Angeles where he meets Janis Hunter, who would later become his second wife. He records Let’s Get It On.
1981 In dispute with Motown, hunted by the IRS over a tax bill and struggling with a cocaine addiction, Gaye takes up the offer of a Belgian concert promoter to stay in Ostend, a Belgian seaside resort.
1982 He signs with CBS records and works on the album Midnight Love. The first single, Sexual Healing, is written and recorded in Ostend. It would be his biggest career hit, spending a record 10 weeks at No 1.
1984 The day before his 45th birthday, Gaye intervenes during a fight between his parents. He kicks and beats his father. Gay Sr shoots his son in the heart, and the left shoulder, at point-blank range. Gaye is pronounced dead at California hospital medical centre.