A new biography of pop superstar George Michael, who died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016, paints a gloomy picture of a lost and lonely soul. Steve Braunias pays tribute to a genius.
We have to be grateful to snobs, because their special talent for being so hopelessly wrong about popular things — food, clothes, music, all the essentials — helps to illuminate why the rest of us love them. Even when they get it right, snobs manage to be appalled. In 1979, an editorial in the Washington Post agonised over Frank Sinatra: "That such beautiful music should emerge from such vulgarity is one of the great mysteries of the age." Sinatra was a bit of a thug, also a sensitive and dedicated artist; what's the contradiction? No one is any one thing.
Sinatra moved in the violent, ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack world of Vegas and the Mafia. It's got a certain phoney glamour. But the case of George Michael is much worse: he was merely suburban. Film director Lindsay Anderson was hired to work on the Wham! tour of China in 1985. They hated him and he hated them, his contempt raining down on George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley from a great snobbish height: "How on earth have two (lower) middle-class boys from Watford managed to transform themselves into these vibrant figures of pop myth?" Love the parenthetical "lower". Elsewhere in his diary, Anderson described George as "a shivering aspirant plucked from the street".
Again, the mystification that yobs should make beautiful music. George was in possession of genius — Faith (1988) and that strange, tormented follow-up album Listen Without Prejudice (1990) are pop masterpieces — and he also had such an ordinariness about him. He began the day with a Starbucks coffee, he walked his dog, he watched EastEnders, he couldn't be bothered reading books, he hung out with Britain's stateliest bimbo, Princess Diana. All of which is shorthand for saying he was a lot of fun. "He makes me laugh and laugh and laugh," Diana is quoted as saying in Smith's book, and you can picture those two hounded and exquisite souls up at Kensington Palace, unguarded and gossiping, happy.
But the picture that emerges from a new biography of George Michael is of just about the unhappiest man in the world. Poor old George. Rest in peace, died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016. He was 53. George by Sean Smith (author of biographies Kylie, Robbie, and Adele) is a fast read, too fast for basic proofing — TV presenter Melvyn Bragg is "Melvin", Faith is called Fame. Interviews have been conducted with a few passing acquaintances but no one especially close — no family, no ex-lovers, no Elton or Geri or even Tony Parsons, who wrote the 1991 biography, Bare, and remained friends until George excommunicated him for some unspecified sin. George is padded out with a nine-page astrological chart. Yes, really.
Still, the basics are all there — Smith writes about Michael's family, his career, his love life, his descent into drug addiction, his habit of always crashing in the same kind of car while out of his mind on ecstasy, pot (20 spliffs a day!), antidepressants (he started taking Prozac after his mother died in 1997), and sleeping pills. It's one of the saddest books ever written about a pop star. There are brief interludes where things seem pretty good in George's world but they never last very long and the enduring impression of him is that he suffered some deep and incurable loneliness.
Normal childhood. Loving parents. Good friends. And then a peculiar thing: he fell down the stairs, banged his head, and was never the same again. "It was his Damascus moment," writes Smith, mixing his metaphors: can you take the road to Damascus on a staircase? At any event, before the accident, child George collected bugs, read voraciously, played outdoors; afterwards, all he cared about was music. "It's possible," he once said, hopefully as a self-effacing joke, "that a flight of stairs contributed to musical history." He learned the violin. He bought his first record, Carly Simon's The Right Thing To Do, which you could take as a template for his own catalogue of gorgeous, beautifully arranged piano ballads. He also liked The Wombles, David Cassidy, and Staying Alive: forged in the fires of 70s pop.
He met Andrew Ridgeley at school. They formed a band and stayed friends for life, loved each other dearly, but even very early on Ridgeley hung out with a different crowd. There was a chaste romance with a girl. She dumped him. Did it touch the sides? Michael was in his own world, and miraculous things happened in it. He caught a bus and was giving the driver the change when the melody to Careless Whisper arrived in his head. He sat at the back of the bus, and put the words to it.
Another time he was watching Match of the Day with Ridgeley, or not watching it at all, really; he took no interest in football. Suddenly he bounded up the stairs and wrote Last Christmas, the saddest Christmas song of all time. The shivering aspirant, plucking songs from thin air.
SEX — its pleasures, its absence — moves through the book like a strong current. Smith writes that George first told someone he was gay when he was 19, and filming the video for Club Tropicana in Ibiza. The video should have told the world. It's the one poolside, with gleaming, oiled George in Speedos. But he was too afraid to tell his parents, and he calculated it would ruin his pop career. He resigned himself to being "a sex symbol to thousands of virgins".
There's something unpleasant about that description but there's no trace of misogyny in Smith's book. Lonely, horny, brilliant; and throughout, incredibly nice, especially to anyone needing a hand. "Charity is a cloak you wear twice a year," he scorned the rich on Praying for Time. George gave away millions. Smith details two small incidents — Michael once overheard a nurse in a bar worrying about her debts, so he wrote her out a cheque on the spot for six thousand quid; another time he saw a woman on TV wishing she could afford IVF treatment, so he called the programme and covered the cost.
Ah, but where did he go to, when he was alone in his bed? There was an attempted hook-up with Brooke Shields. He slept with two or three women on tour, "joylessly", according to Smith. In 1988, when he was the top-selling artist in the US, he lived alone at his home in London. His mum came over once a week and did the vacuuming. Giorgios Panayiotou, his birth name, stayed in the closet and shut the door tight; George Michael wrote I Want Your Sex, and appeared in the video with Kathy Yeung, who wore suspenders and a corset, and was naked in bed while he wrote the word EXPLORE on her thigh. The video attracted outrage. George responded, "If I was rubbing oil into my girlfriend's arse there might be something to talk about."
"Places with danger and sex are good fun."
SHARE THIS QUOTE:
Interesting line. What was with "the girlfriend"? It was all secrets and lies, until he found Anselmo Feleppa, in 1991, and could finally fall in love. They went scuba diving and hang gliding. Six months after they met, Feleppa told him he had Aids. He died in 1993. George wrote to his mum and dad the next day and told them he was gay. Later, there were relationships with Kenny Goss, and Fadi Fawaz. There was also a lot of sex with strangers in public toilets. Smith writes, "He'd slip a condom into his pocket and casually tell his partner he was popping out to Hampstead Heath." Well, it was fresh air and exercise, and anyway it was none of anyone's business. "Places with danger and sex are good fun," George said.
But the book runs out of fun. Michael got pneumonia and nearly died. He got treated for drug addiction. The last photos of him suggest he was close to obese. Fadiz slept in his car outside George's house on the night he died. Smith writes, bizarrely, "Much was made by the media of the fact ... [but] it was a red herring because George always preferred to sleep alone." It was a big house. Plenty of rooms. Why sleep the night in the car?
Poor old George. Candle in the wind. The first show he ever went to see was by Elton John, and he was knocked out by his performance of Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me; the two performed it as a duet at Wembley Stadium in 1991, and it's one of his greatest moments — George's, not Elton's, who sings the song like he's beating a carpet, while George explores the song for subtlety and lyricism. What a singer he was, on Kissing A Fool and Father Figure and Cowboys and Angels, devoted to making every second a thing of beauty. He was his own best producer, too, on Faith and Listen Without Prejudice, as well as arranging, and playing most of the instruments.
Perfectionist, loner, unwell; also a very smart, courageous guy, who stood up for what he believed in, taking his record company Sony to court, and satirising Tony Blair and George Bush in an anti-war video. Wham! performed at a benefit show for miners during the strike of 1984. They were repaid with scorn from right-on left-wing poseurs such as Paul Weller. Smith quotes Michael telling the foppish Weller, "Don't be a w***er all your life. Give yourself a day off."
That's a good line. He sounds like he would have been fantastic company, when he wasn't stoned or miserable or filled with self-loathing. You can picture him hosting a very jolly dinner party at his London home, cracking jokes, making sure everyone had something to drink and that the food was the best, and then slipping out to a room, clutching at thin air for some melancholic strain of music that only he could hear.