It’s 8:45 on a late May evening in Manhattan, and Marvin Gaye is not feeling well. He’s just played seven sold-out shows in six days at Radio City Music Hall—all the while nursing a seriously sore throat—and now he’s in bed in his suite at the Waldorf with the covers pulled up to his bearded chin. To complete the look, his white-pajama-covered right arm pokes out from the sheets to press a blue ice bag to his head. It’s difficult to hear him—“I have a very soft voice, actually,” he says softly—so I put the tape recorder on his bedside table.

Gaye had left the States for London four years before with his life in chaos: bankruptcy, a bitter divorce, a government claim of $2 million in unpaid taxes, another bitter divorce, a custody fight with his second wife over their four-year-old son, a fondness for cocaine that culminated in a suicide attempt, and fast-fading record sales. Now, at 44, he is midway through his first American concert tour in six years, a tour inspired by the success of the million-selling album Midnight Love (his first for CBS Records after 20 years with Motown) and the classic No. 1 single from that album, “Sexual Healing.” His comeback is the talk of the industry.

Tonight, though, Marvin Gaye isn’t feeling celebratory. His throat still hurts, and he has a headache. Nonetheless, several interviews have been scheduled, and he is gamely meeting those commitments. A shy man despite his sex-charged public persona, Gaye is wary of the press, feeling that his obligations as an artist end with the creation of his art.

“It’s not anybody’s business to understand me,” he says, but after four years of negative publicity, these chats with journalists mark his acknowledgment that he may have become too misunderstood.

Take his relationship with Motown Records. Gaye, whose honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force noted that he had a problem with authority figures, spent the 60s screaming in vain for artistic control. “I always wanted a career as a crooner, a torch singer, or a balladeer,” he says now, sitting up in bed and setting the record straight. “I wanted to be a singer like Sam Cooke or Nat Cole. Motown said, ‘Sing rock ’n’ roll.’”

He did, and was wildly successful, with dozens of Top 10 singles across the world. The biggest of them, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” gave him the clout to become the first Motown artist to produce his own records. He used this freedom to create the landmark protest album, 1971’s What’s Going On.

His record label, grown increasingly conservative in the wake of its phenomenal success in the 60s, didn’t know what to do with an album that so totally failed to conform to the corporate sound and image. Motown was about dancing-in-the-street sugar-pie-honey-bunch baby-love. What were its fans supposed to make of lyrics like “Inflation no chance / To increase finance / Bills pile up sky high / Send that boy off to die / Make me wanna holler / The way they do my life”? When three singles from the album hit the Top 10, Gaye knew he had to maintain total control of his art.

“It’s not anybody’s business to understand me.”

The tension continued through the 70s, exacerbated by the release in 1978 of Here, My Dear, a bitter and despairing double album chronicling the breakup of his first marriage (to Motown president Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna, 17 years Gaye’s senior). The album sold poorly, but, as Gaye pointed out, “commercial success depends largely on how much money the record company intends to spend to ensure that success.”

His next record, In Our Lifetime?, was going to examine religion and the possible imminence of end times. Motown, impatient with its temperamental artist’s reluctance to record blatantly commercial music and his failure to complete the record on schedule, polished up the work in progress and dumped it on the market in January 1981 as a finished album. Gaye publicly disowned the disc.

“Would you take an artist’s unfinished canvas and finish it up for him?,” Gaye asks, his half-whisper barely containing the fury he still feels over the incident.

“I was really unhappy at the time. It had nothing to do with my relationship with Berry Gordy personally. He’s a fine person and a great friend. But administration-wise, I had had all I could bear. The creative controls that I’ve always insisted upon were gone, and my wishes were totally ignored. I had just become very tired. I knew that I had to leave.”

Gaye left Motown and America. “I spent nearly four years in Europe, and the first year and a half it was quite traumatic, quite difficult for me. I wasn’t in the greatest economic shape of my life, so it was quite a rebuilding process I had to go through to regain whatever stature I’ve regained at this point.”

From left, Stevie Wonder, Jermaine Jackson, and Marvin Gaye, second from right, at a Motown party in 1980.

In Europe, he says, “I feel incredibly safer. A Black man in Europe, if he’s an American Black man, enjoys a great measure of adoration, because Europeans admire Black music. They think that if America can make claim to any kind of cultural heritage, that heritage would be Black music. Except for a few countries. They’re not too happy with us in Austria.”

“The English people are of a much higher consciousness than most other peoples of the world,” he continues, sipping a glass of orange juice. “English policemen don’t need pistols, they tend to have much more empathy for humanity, much more patience. You can talk to the bobbies, you can explain. You can’t talk to a cop in L.A. or explain anything. It’s ‘Shut up or you’re dead.’

“I’m afraid for my life in America when I’m confronted by any policeman. I’m concerned for my life if I get stopped for a traffic ticket. One can’t be a man under those situations here. One must be ready to die if he intends to be a man. He must be ready to accept death, or a beating, or something, if he wants to feel like a man when confronted by another man who’s carrying a pistol and has the authority to kill, and probably be acquitted for it.”

Does anything strike him as different about America after living abroad for four years? “I haven’t noticed any change, but I do notice that this country is asleep, and the rest of the world is awake. We Americans live under this sort of psychological false security. We feel we’re invulnerable, but I think subconsciously we know we’re not. That we’re in for it, sooner or later. Believe me, our sins will not go unpunished, and unfortunately this country has a lot of karma to pay the rest of the world, and you can bet your bottom dollar it’s gonna pay it.”

“I’m afraid for my life in America when I’m confronted by any policeman. I’m concerned for my life if I get stopped for a traffic ticket.”

When CBS Records executive Larkin Arnold learned of Gaye’s problems with Motown, he flew to Ostend, Belgium—where Gaye was living—to meet with him. After listening to cassettes of new songs and receiving the singer’s assurance that he was serious about resuming his career, Arnold convinced CBS to sign him. “You don’t lose genius,” said Arnold, explaining his decision. “You just make it hard to recognize.”

Gaye certainly didn’t lose his genius for singing about sex. His 1973 album, Let’s Get It On, may be the most lushly erotic record in the history of rock, and the lyrics to “Sexual Healing”—“You’re my medicine / Open up and let me in”—prove that he hadn’t lost his touch.

“Americans are a fairly closeted nation of people, especially sexually,” says Gaye, the son of a Washington, D.C., pastor. “It’s been said that I’m hypocritical in my music, that I preach love and peace and harmony and then I turn around and advocate sexuality. They don’t seem incompatible, do they?”

For the moment, Gaye seems happy with the corporate CBS. “They appear to be a class company, which is not to say that Motown isn’t, but CBS seems to fit my style much better at this point. But then, we’re only in our first year. I’m sure we’ll have some conflicts between my artistic temperament and their commercial insistence.”

In fact, conflict has already arisen. The label is less than enthusiastic about what he wants to be his next single, “Sanctified Pussy.” Gaye says, “They thought that was a bit strong.”

Unfortunately, such a song would require a lot of bleeping for airplay, which incenses him. “I don’t think disc jockeys have the right to tamper with your records once they come out. I think that’s horrible. I think that’s abominable. My music is my art, it’s personal, it belongs to me until I release it to the public. I don’t think anybody has the right to tamper with it.”

So, will “Sanctified Pussy” be released? “I don’t know. I mean, what am I gonna do if they don’t release it? I can go on strike, but that’s my only recourse. I say, ‘O.K., if you don’t put it out, I don’t work. I don’t give you any more music.’ Which is a pretty strong position. They’ll probably try to adjust it and come to some sort of reasonable compromise with an artist of my supposed stature and caliber, whatever that is.”

“I suppose a record company has a right to be concerned about its image,” Gaye grudgingly concedes. “If a record company feels that an artist is recording certain material which might hurt its reputation, then they perhaps have a right to object. But,” he adds ominously, “if there’s ever something that I would like to release that they refuse to release, I think the courts will have to decide.”

And what does Gaye think his image is? “I don’t know what my image is,” he says after a long pause, “and I don’t think anybody else can accurately define it.” He pauses again. “I still feel all of my Aries attributes: my arrogance, my ego, my artistic temperament, my empathy for humanity, my love, my religious convictions, my wickedness. I’m a total person, I feel, in those respects.”

“The English people are of a much higher consciousness than most other peoples of the world.”

“I’m here on this tour because the people seem to love me,” he adds, “and I can’t turn down love. It’s very difficult for me to turn down love. Money I can turn down. Love is difficult for me to turn away from. People love me, so I’m here.”

Still, performing is not easy for him. “It’s very lonely on the Radio City Music Hall stage if you’re a single performer, extremely lonely. It’s a large stage, it’s very difficult to work, very tiring, very exhausting. It’s the largest stage I’ve ever worked in my life. To work the entire stage takes a great deal of physical endurance. If ever there was a theater that confronted you with a moment of truth, it’s Radio City. I get more nervous each time. I’m always nervous when I go onstage. I’m not an exhibitionist. It takes a lot for me to do the things I do.”

Gaye just won two Grammys—his first ever—for “Sexual Healing.” He sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the N.B.A. All-Star Game. He performed a memorable “What’s Going On” on the NBC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. There’s a European tour on the horizon, as well as a new album. His future looks brighter than his recent past.

And, for all of his grievances about Motown, he is proud of what he did there. “I think my stuff will live for generations and generations. And even when I’m gone. I think my stuff will be greater when I’m dead.”

A young woman comes in to say my time is up. Marvin Gaye leans back into his pillows and allows a hint of a smile to flash briefly. “To come back and enjoy this triumphant moment in my life is very pleasing to me. It’s a coup for me, and it’s one that I feel I’ve earned. I paid all of the dues, everything that one should pay to deserve whatever I’m receiving right now. I feel I deserve it.”

Paul Slansky is the Los Angeles–based author of The Clothes Have No Emperor and the newsletter There Is No Bottom. He is starting a YouTube channel for Senior Swifties