George Michael: The Dream with a Nightmare Stuck in the Middle

George Michael

Of all the untimely deaths in 2016’s mass cull of cultural luminaries, the one which made my eyeballs almost leap out of their sockets, then my bloated body out of its complacent Christmas sofa slouch, was George’s. In a way this shouldn’t have been so; unlike the ailments of Prince or Bowie, George’s troubles were frequently, sometimes luridly circulated – most strikingly in the form of a unilateral media ‘intervention’ by concerned friend Sir Elton John. We knew that because George Michael began as a pop star, and to some extent remained one, the implications of that fame came to chafe against his desire for artistic validation and freedom, and for privacy. Coupled with a succession of personal traumas, and his problematic need to self-medicate on both accounts, George’s lot had seemed increasingly to echo that of the flawed icons he depicted in ‘Star People’, “a dream, with a nightmare stuck in the middle”.

And yet, as George himself was given to observe, however many times his unconscious tried recklessly to sink his life and career through sexual or drug misdemeanours, the ship George Michael always seemed to right itself. Coming on that day and on top of all those other losses it seemed gratuitously, surreally cruel; not least because it was so abundantly clear, even before the extraordinary acts of charity and largesse which were soon made public, that George Michael was one of the good guys. He may have lost, early into his solo career, his regard for the inane and impeding fripperies of fame – as great artists often do – but he seemed never to lose his enchantment with music and with the alchemy of performance, nor his palpable reverence for the extending tapestry of popular music history, into which he had long been inextricably woven. Though that perhaps never quite sank in – witness the striking humility of his commentary for the film documenting his awesome performance at the Palais Garnier opera house in 2012. George narrates, endearingly, as though he were merely a beguiled tourist, a boggle-eyed spectator like us viewers, full of reverence for the building, the occasion, and for his musical collaborators. “My name”, he says humbly over the film’s intro, “is George Michael”. It’s okay, George, we know who you are…

If I had been born a decade earlier it would likely have been Bowie, but on reflection I find that George Michael’s evolving output has punctuated my life, and seemingly even worldly developments, more than any contemporaneous artist. You probably have your own associations; here are mine. My earliest recollected smack of Wham! (while I was in fact smitten with A-ha) was ironically their leave-taking swansong single ‘The Edge of Heaven’, for which the buzz on Top of the Pops was something akin that of a modern-day end of season finale. (A bit later ‘Last Christmas’ was the demo tune on my portable keyboard, though the white coats at Yamaha couldn’t quite replicate the original’s gloriously over-programmed drum machine part.) Then, a year on, the lead single from the coming behemoth that was George Michael’s Faith was cryptically, censoriously referred to merely as ‘I Want…’ on Top Ten rundowns, showing to a pre-adolescent boy that pop records could have an edginess like the naughty boy at the back of the class, and apparently be similarly punished for it – the misdemeanour here being to do with something intriguing called ‘Sex’. Fast forward a few hormonal years, and in retrospect Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 with its unglamorous monochrome artwork and rootsy, stripped-down sensibility seems to have heralded a change in the zeitgeist amid the comedown to early Nineties drabness, recession and war a full year before Nirvana’s Nevermind and the ascendancy of Alternative. Then in 1997, amid the biggest British news event of the decade, George’s stunning, elegiac ballad ‘You Have Been Loved’, although released coincidentally, seemed to me a much more apt and worthy soundtrack to the mourning for Princess Diana than Elton’s clunky, bombastic rework of ‘Candle in the Wind’ which kept it from the number 1 spot.

In 1998 George’s chunky Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of CD was the incessant Christmas soundtrack to my belated first proper job at HMV where, reflecting the public’s emphatic endorsement of his recent coming out, it was literally selling faster than we could put it on the shelves. And the Millennium Eve covers album Songs from the Last Century, with its sombre, at times doom-laden tone, held a portent of the century to come – who would have guessed that less than a decade later ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’ would again be so apt? Then in 2002 George displayed conscious foresight, not to mention considerable thick-skinned bravery, in releasing the anti-war, commercially doomed single ‘Shoot the Dog’, and his fearsomely eloquent warnings against the looming Iraq catastrophe on BBC TV and in the sympathetic Daily Mirror – and the inevitable backlash, sometimes tinged with homophobia, from everywhere else – are for me as much a memory of the period as the two million-strong anti-war march which I joined. Finally in this selective list, the South Bank Show’s episode on George in 2006 around his warmly-received 25 Live tour proved a memorable late-period high point for the seminal but since axed arts programme, depicting him uninhibitedly extolling the virtues of cannabis – while actually smoking the stuff on screen.

I remember how in that South Bank Show interview George explained with his customary luminous enthusiasm that he had always known that his art would have mass appeal because it just so happened that the music that had inspired and influenced him was the inherently catchy pop and soul music of the golden Sixties period. That his own music was infused with that sensibility and thus eminently saleable means that he might easily be viewed, even dismissed, as merely a popular singer, an entertainment figure. Indeed on the 25 Live tour he appeared alone, singing his pick of the peerless hits with his anonymous backing band consigned to the rafters – which with George Michael is of course what you want to see. But the fact that he was a consummate singer-showman, not to be seen cradling a guitar like Prince, or pummelling a piano like Elton John (let alone singing from behind a drum kit à la Phil Collins) belied the fact that George was a multi-instrumentalist and a deft and tasteful producer/arranger; a man of deep and instinctual musicality. He was also a passionate musicologist – a bit like Noel Gallagher but with much more varied enthusiasms. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the eclectic and inspired choice of covers on his Songs from the Last Century and Symphonica albums; from Passengers’ gem ‘Miss Sarajevo’ to the fine ‘Let Her Down Easy’ by Terence Trent D’Arby, an artist who briefly snapped at George’s heels in the late Eighties before squandering his momentum with an ambitious/pretentious second album on which he forgot to include any tunes – an omission of which George was congenitally incapable.

And he was, or grew to be, very much the singer-songwriter, recognised as a real and compelling voice in the most self-consciously authentic circles – one of the most heartening spectacles in the wake of his passing was the other Gallagher brother, having posted ‘Praying for Time’ in tribute, taking down a homophobic Twitter correspondent in his own inimitable four-letter style for presuming to mock George. But singer-songwriters to my mind fall roughly into two camps; those cultish, sometimes eccentric voices who demand you reach into and make sense of their own quixotic worldview (post-protest Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Kate Bush) and those who, while often similarly drawing on personal experience, convey their reflections in an accessible and somehow universalised manner (Carole King and much of Paul McCartney’s output come to mind). As a (rather less illustrious) singer-writer in the former mould myself I actually view the latter as the greater gift, and his possession of it helps to explain how huge commercial success and celebrity continued stubbornly to attach themselves to George Michael even as he came to address, unsparingly and from first-hand, the most harrowing of life experiences.

Largely downtempo, languid and ambient, 1996’s Older may have sounded like a dream (and sold like one; around twelve million copies) but its key tracks are informed by a nightmare, the recent lingering death from AIDS of George’s lover Anselmo. In its treatment of bereavement, and the questions and responses it provokes, I bracket the Older album admiringly with Peter Gabriel’s Up and Crowded House’s Time on Earth. Its slow-burning opener ‘Jesus to a Child’ is with hindsight now widely interpreted as a veiled, tentative coming out; George compares his lost love to Jesus and thus is singing about a man. But to me, perhaps naively, it seemed instead to display that inclusive talent in opening out his own story by evoking a figure of compassion and suffering significant to millions, while also conveying the transcendental, almost spiritual quality love can attain. In reflecting both the haunted and restless artist and the (increasingly jaded) superstar it is arguably Older, not Faith, which is George’s signature work. The two collide on the slinky, sexy but ultimately sad Fastlove, as he seeks to numb his grief through random assignations. Perhaps only George Michael could offer to “make a little room in my BMW” and invite neither envy nor admiration for his gilded lifestyle, but sympathy for the isolated loneliness at its core.

And then there is ‘You Have Been Loved’. For me perhaps George’s finest single moment, it is a long and winding ballad where sophisticated and stirring key changes underlay a sublimely sensitive vocal performance (which he had no trouble replicating in on the live Symphonica album) and an astounding lyric of profundity and great power. George may not often invite comparisons with Nietzsche, the nineteenth century prophet of our postmodern times, but just as the slow death of Nietzsche’s pastor father led ultimately to his famous philosophical declaration that ‘God is dead’, so here Anselmo’s fate finds the singer grieving with his lover’s mother and similarly disabused of any belief, as expressed in a few compressed, devastating lines:

“For what’s the use in pressing palms

When children fade in mother’s arms?”

In contrast the mother herself clings on to her faith, though bewildered and now “searching for her crime”. Yet in this, and her parting sentiments, there seems to be some hint of solace:

“Take care my love, she said

Don’t think that God is dead

You have been loved”

Years ago when I was less intimate with ‘A Different Corner’, the Wham!-era solo moment which for the critics first announced George as a serious artistic voice, I imagined its title referred to him secluded in his lonely place as the unusually sensitive, vulnerable pop pin-up. (The video may have influenced this interpretation.) Of course the lyric actually alludes to the hand of fate initiating romantic entanglements (“Turn a different corner and we never would have met”). But in a sense my impression still stands; there sat George, located at the intersection of crowd-pleasing appeal and artistic angst; not Lionel Richie and not Leonard Cohen either. As uncomfortable as this space was, perhaps tragically so, yet it puts George Michael in the league of just a handful of acts, such as The Beatles, who have commanded the very broadest popular audience through songs that while supremely accessible are of high craftsmanship and deep thoughtfulness, among them a clutch of modern standards which he had come to appreciate would long outlive him. Indeed in the weeks after his passing it has become clear just how many of us, some perhaps more than we realised, were in George’s corner with him.