BYE GE­ORGE

THREE MONTHS AF­TER THE SINGER’S DEATH, MIKE ATKIN­SON TAKES A LOOK BACK AT THE CA­REER OF GE­ORGE MICHAEL

Pride Life Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Look­ing back at the life and ca­reer of Ge­orge Michael

Long be­fore his 1998 ar­rest for “en­gag­ing in a lewd act”, which thrust his sex­u­al­ity firmly into the pub­lic do­main, Ge­orge Michael had been drop­ping clues that had be­come in­creas­ingly hard for his gay au­di­ence to miss. And for some of us, the trail of ev­i­dence led all the way back to the ear­li­est days of Wham!

Lis­ten­ing to the duo’s de­but sin­gle (Wham! Rap) in the sum­mer of 1982, my cu­rios­ity was piqued in the very first verse. “I may not have a job, but I have a good time, with the boys that I meet down on the line,” Ge­orge de­clared, later sug­gest­ing that “maybe leather and studs is where you’re at”, and pro­claim­ing, some­what prophet­i­cally, that “I choose to cruise.”

“Look­ing at them pos­ing in match­ing leather jack­ets on the Bad Boys video, or FROLICKING BARE-CHESTED by the pool for Club Trop­i­cana, you sensed that they were hav­ing fun play­ing around with archetypes” “When in 1998 news of his ar­rest in a Bev­erly Hills pub­lic toi­let broke glob­ally … Ge­orge’s re­fusal to be hu­mil­i­ated was mag­nif­i­cent”

On its fol­low-up, Young Guns (Go For It) – which be­came the band’s first hit, pick­ing up ra­dio sup­port that even in­cluded a play on the John Peel show – we find Ge­orge lament­ing his best buddy’s drift into het­ero­sex­ual monogamy. But al­though you could ar­gue a case for a queer sub­text, Ge­orge’s re­la­tion­ship with An­drew Ridge­ley never coded as gay, but rather as a clas­sic bro­mance, be­tween two cheeky, play­ful part­ners in crime. Look­ing at them pos­ing in match­ing leather jack­ets on the Bad Boys video, or frolicking bare-chested by the pool for Club Trop­i­cana, you sensed that they were hav­ing fun play­ing around with archetypes, in that know­ingly ironic way that was so preva­lent in early 80s “New Pop”.

Dur­ing the first flush of Wham!’s suc­cess, Ge­orge was a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to a North Lon­don gay club called Bolts. The duo per­formed there a cou­ple of times, their 1984 sin­gle Free­dom re­ceived its first ever play there, and a photo even sur­faced in the gay press show­ing Ge­orge at Bolts, flanked by its res­i­dent DJ and the drag star Di­vine.

Later in 1984, in an in­ter­view with the NME, the openly gay band Bron­ski Beat even at­tempted to “out” Ge­orge – but for the vast ma­jor­ity of fe­male Wham! fans, the singer con­tin­ued to be viewed as a het­ero­sex­ual heart­throb. And yet, tucked away on Fan­tas­tic, the band’s chart-top­ping first al­bum, the bal­lad Noth­ing Looks The Same In The Light de­tailed, with aching poignancy, the im­me­di­ate emo­tional af­ter­math of a one-night stand that could only have been writ­ten from a gay per­spec­tive.

As Wake Me Up Be­fore You Go-Go cat­a­pulted Wham! into the ranks of international star­dom, the hints be­came fainter, the im­age more neutered… and the vis­its to Bolts stopped al­to­gether. In the video for Last Christ­mas, Ge­orge has a fe­male love in­ter­est, and its flip-side, Ev­ery­thing She Wants, is un­equiv­o­cally sung to a girl­friend. Wham! were now in the big league, but while sales con­tin­ued to soar, their mu­sic started to be­come rather less in­ter­est­ing.

By the sum­mer of 1986, it was all over for the band. As An­drew es­caped to early re­tire­ment and a happy life out of the pub­lic gaze, Ge­orge be­gun to pre­pare the ground for what was to be the biggest com­mer­cial suc­cess of his ca­reer.

Shift­ing nearly 25 mil­lion copies world­wide, the Faith al­bum es­tab­lished the tem­plate for ev­ery pop star look­ing to swap teen-scream ap­peal for artis­tic cred­i­bil­ity. The al­bum was not only self-writ­ten, but also self-ar­ranged and self­pro­duced, with an ex­act­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail that ri­valled fel­low 80s megas­tar Prince. A ses­sion mu­si­cian friend, who played on one of its tracks, told me that Ge­orge di­rected ev­ery last de­tail of his per­for­mance, with a level of con­trol that my friend had never ex­pe­ri­enced in any other stu­dio.

But for all the ac­claim which Faith brought him, some­thing still ran­kled with Ge­orge. Back­ing away from the spot­light’s glare, he de­clined to do any pro­mo­tion for its fol­low-up, the grandly ti­tled Lis­ten With­out Prej­u­dice Vol. 1, or in­deed to ap­pear in any of its videos. When the al­bum – a more som­bre and down­beat af­fair, which made rather too much of its de­sire to be taken still more se­ri­ously – duly sold less well than Faith, he pinned the blame on his record com­pany, for fail­ing to give it the sup­port which he felt it de­served. There was, need­less to say, no Vol. 2.

By the early 90s, hav­ing fi­nally re­solved all ear­lier per­sonal con­fu­sion re­gard­ing his sex­u­al­ity, Ge­orge was in a set­tled re­la­tion­ship with a Brazil­ian man, Anselmo Feleppa. Fol­low­ing the loss of his part­ner in 1993, he re­leased Older, ar­guably the finest al­bum of his ca­reer, in 1996. It opens with Je­sus To A Child, a di­rectly worded lament to Anselmo’s pass­ing that leaves the lis­tener in no doubt as to its mean­ing. The records then in­stantly shifts gears with Fast­love, a song which seems to cel­e­brate the de­lights of no-strings sex, be­fore twist­ing the knife in the fi­nal verse: “In the ab­sence of se­cu­rity, I made my way into the night. Stupid Cupid keeps on call­ing me, but I see noth­ing in his eyes. I miss my baby.”

Else­where, on Spin­ning The Wheel, Ge­orge plays the part of the lover left at home, while his other cruises till dawn. The sub­texts were back, and less covert than ever. In­deed, you could al­most say that Ge­orge was hid­ing in plain view.

When in 1998 news of his ar­rest in a Bev­erly Hills pub­lic toi­let broke glob­ally – “Zip Me Up Be­fore You Go Go,” scoffed the Sun – Ge­orge’s re­fusal to be hu­mil­i­ated was mag­nif­i­cent. In­stead, he crafted Out­side, the ul­ti­mate in screw-yous, whose video turned a cot­tage into a dis­cotheque, com­plete with gy­rat­ing, snog­ging cops. As fur­ther busts fol­lowed – in­clud­ing a tabloid sting on Hamp­stead Heath, and nu­mer­ous ar­rests for drug-driv­ing that even­tu­ally saw him spend four weeks in prison – he re­mained de­fi­ant and un­bowed, al­though one had to won­der whether his life­style ex­cesses had con­trib­uted to the de­cline in his recorded out­put.

Af­ter Older, only one more al­bum of orig­i­nal ma­te­rial fol­lowed – Pa­tience, in 2004 – and Ge­orge’s pro­file was main­tained by one-off sin­gles, cover ver­sions, celebrity duets, the oc­ca­sional bonus track on a great­est hits set, and live shows – the lat­ter still hugely suc­cess­ful, and show­ing no dim­ming of the singer’s star power and in­ter­pre­tive range.

Per­haps, hav­ing once striven so hard for star­dom and artis­tic recog­ni­tion, he felt no need to keep meet­ing those same needs, once they had been at­tained. But if his later ef­forts never again reached the heights of his 80s and 90s suc­cesses, Ge­orge Michael still leaves be­hind a re­mark­able body of work, the best of which has a timeless abil­ity to stir our hearts and soothe our souls.

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