Words & Photographs by Johny Pitts
Even the Belgians I spoke to gave me strange looks. Why would anyone go out of their way to visit the faded Flanders seaside town of Ostend? “I’m searching for the ghost of Marvin Gaye” I would tell people, wondering what excuse Marvin himself gave to his LA in-crowd friends, when, on a wintry day in 1981, he found himself on a ferry leaving Dover to cross the English Channel to live in Belgium. I was searching for the ghost of Marvin Gaye, but I quickly realised I would be haunted by two phantoms, because King Leopold II of Belgium seemed to lurk around every corner.
I caught the afternoon train from Brussels on a wind-swept Wednesday and, after an unremarkable journey through damp, grey-green countryside, dotted with the odd factory, a couple of large storage buildings and a few bland post-war residential estates, I suddenly got that feeling humans sometimes have when they sense they are near the sea. Perhaps it was the marine light, which was the colour and texture of blue-tinted tracing paper. Or maybe the sea-scarred buildings; veterans of wars with winds and salt water. Whatever it was, it made me feel mellow and melancholy. To be by the sea speaks of both freedom and loneliness, and even before I saw the shore, I felt the silent power of the vast expanse nearby. It was this magic; the moody, stirring atmosphere of the sea, that would lead Marvin Gaye to write the biggest hit of his career, ‘Sexual Healing’, with a rhythm inspired, apparently, by the movements of the North Sea waves (when you listen to the track with this knowledge, you can almost hear the swells. You also realise where the inspiration for some of the lyrics came from… “I think I’m capsizing, the waves are rising and rising…”).