Monday, December 26, 2016

BYE GEORGE

This is feeling like a trend. Bowie. Prince. And now George Michael. I’d add Natalie Cole to the list as well. (I’m just glad Joni Mitchell seems to have pulled through.) So now it’s time to end the trend. Let passing away be passé. Lionel Richie, Madonna, Phil Collins, you’ve got to live until you’re ancient. No one will remember you. Except other ancient folks and, when these other ancients reminisce about you dancing on the ceiling and pretending cones were your breasts, the young ‘uns will just think they’re having a delusional moment. Morphine and memory challenges will do that.


But back to George. His death may not come as a surprise. He’s had problems over the years. Maybe he was never supposed to have the spotlight solely on him. Maybe Andrew Ridgeley served a purpose after all. I think the Brits followed his problems more than those of us on the other side of the water. Here, he went from scandalous to a joke to obscure. We moved on. This is the land where we need to know about parking tickets issued to neighbors of fifth cousins of those Kardashian sisters. (Don’t ask me to name them. I’ll only sidetrack you with an analysis of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Inception”. You won’t be able to argue. But we’ll go back to normal talk, disparaging Starbucks while nonetheless slurping down our caramel mocha half-sweet non-fat frappuccinos.)

See what I’m doing? I’m straying. Because I’m not sure what to make of George’s death. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t part of his circle of friends. I wasn’t even a neighbor of a fifth cousin. I never had a backstage pass to allow me to forever tell every acquaintance my one takeaway: He said hi—well, not to me, but to a hotter looking guy beside me—and I swear he had a distinct scent of green tea, scotch and pot on his breath. (Or maybe it was just Hubba Bubba watermelon.) No, all I knew was the George of MTV and awards shows and of one particular cassette that I’ll always consider a classic. (If only I could play it. Bought it twice as all that damn ribbon had a tendency to unravel in my car radio system.)

I got much more from George than the nickel he got from me in royalties. I had a little crush on that handsome, blond-streaked bopper who first emerged looking way too happy in a CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt. At the time, I thought Wham! was another one-hit wonder. Like Kajagoogoo. And Haircut One Hundred. Oh, those pretty pretty Brit boys. George’s debut act—was it even a band?—didn’t deserve continued success, not with an exclamation mark in its name (just wrong!) and an odd song with a “Go Go” tagged on the end. (Another tangent: I always thought Jane Wiedlin should’ve had as much solo success as Belinda Carlisle.)

But Wham! lived on because the lead singer had more than good looks; he had a voice. And despite “Everything She Wants” and the solo hit “I Want Your Sex”, I always felt there was a sensitive man wanting to emerge, wanting vocals to matter in the pre-Adele era. “Careless Whisper” gave us a window to something greater. I always felt “A Different Corner” and “Jesus to a Child” would never have been released as singles if George had been a lesser pop star.

I will admit that I enjoyed seeing him shake his stuff in those faded jeans in the “Faith” video as much as anyone else. And I enjoyed all the gay chatter. Is he?! But what about Brooke Shields? He was a master at feeding us an infectious hook, from the dopey “I’m Your Man” to the slick “Fastlove”, from the cheery “Freedom” with Wham! to my favorite single, his solo “Freedom ‘90”. These were the songs I danced to in gay clubs between Madonna, Janet Jackson and Bananarama videos. George gave us a good time. Over and over again.

But he went from pop icon to artist with the release of “Listen without Prejudice, Volume 1”. “Praying for Time” haunted against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. The song begins with a plea for charity but ends in the kind of uncertainty that fit the period:

It's hard to love, there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it's much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time.



“Freedom ‘90” represented an artistic shift in its absence of the singer in the video, something that must have given record execs ulcers even as they dropped hundreds of thousands into a delicious fashion video with the supermodels of the day. (My roommates were obsessed with models at the time and we argued playfully (?) over which model was supreme. Being the prideful Canadian, I always went with Team Linda.) Behind the gloss of the video and the groove of the music, the lyrics begged for us to see George as he truly was:

Heaven knows I was just a young boy,
Didn't know what I wanted to be.
I was every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy,
And I guess it was enough for me….


But, today, the way I play the game is not the same;
No way.
Think I'm gonna get me some happy.
I think there's something you should know.
I think it's time I told you so.
There's something deep inside of me.
There's someone else I've got to be.

But nobody—other than the gays—wanted George to be anything different. And, really, George already had the gays in his denim pocket. I’ll always believe “Listen” was grounded in a real relationship with a man but no one wanted to see that. Or maybe I wanted to see that too much.

The album didn’t get the sales or the recognition it deserved, perhaps because its songs demanded that the listener actually think, perhaps because he didn’t want his ass or even his face to be a part of the promotion, perhaps because his record label wanted to teach him a thing or two about corporate conformity.

When news broke of George propositioning an undercover police officer in a Beverly Hills park bathroom, I took perverse pleasure, not in seeing a star humiliated—at least not that much—but in finally having confirmation that Georgie Boy was one of us. Hell, he could be mine! If only he’d look beyond urinals or bathroom stalls in public restrooms. (I don’t have a clue where exactly the propositioning occurs. I’m more concerned with there being soap and a hand dryer that works even just a little. (They never work beyond “just a little”, do they?))

I’ve read that George never embraced his coming out. He didn’t want to be the trailblazer. And who can blame him. His career in North America dried up after the bathroom incident. No more U.S. charting singles, even with the buzz-generating “Outside” video. Sam Smith et al. have no idea what homophobia was like back in 1998, particularly for an artist whose sexy looks were part of the draw.

And so a mega-star with ten Number 1s and twenty-three Top 40 singles flamed out. But I continued to have my “Listen Without Prejudice” binges. It was part of the soundtrack to many of my road trips and, just two weeks ago, I spent a Saturday night playing my own George Michael marathon, even discovering a new gem, his Rufus Wainwright cover, “Going to a Town”. Admittedly, I have less than stellar weekends, but there was renewed joy and appreciation in listening to the man sing.

We’ll always have that. It’s unlikely that he would have had any kind of musical resurgence. The real tragedy is for those who knew him personally. I don’t know how he died but I hope it wasn’t at the hand of one of his demons: drugs, depression or a combination of the two. George Michael helped define my days of coming out and the years that followed. He added feel good moments to the process. I’m not sure he ever gave as much to himself.

I’m still listening, George. Without prejudice, but for now with great lament.  






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