George Michael Should Be Remembered as More Than a Troubled, Kind Icon

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By Tom Teodorczuk | 3:17 pm, December 28, 2016
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When it comes to the reaction to the death of George Michael, to quote the opening line of Careless Whisper, one of his most-loved songs, I feel so unsure.

Unsure about how all his achievements seem to be getting lost amidst the digital sound and fury that accompanies the death of an entertainment celebrity in 2016.

Unsure that one of the creative geniuses of his generation is not getting his due with social and traditional media instead focusing on the causes he espoused and the troubled times in the latter years of his life.

I’m aware that the celebrity death focus has moved onto Carrie Fisher. I’m aware too that plenty of tributes have been paid to George Michael’s music. But many of them seem like perfunctory afterthoughts to the main events of his life in many people’s eyes which revolve around him coming to terms with his homosexuality and the fact he was a nice and kind but extremely troubled person.

That tweet speaks volumes for George Michael’s generosity and is all very interesting. As is the scandal that surrounded his life. But as fascinating as Michael’s 1998 arrest for lewd conduct in a Beverly Hills toilet that led to him coming out as gay or serving a brief stint in prison for driving into a London branch of the Snappy Snaps photo shop while being under the influence of drugs might be, the art of his crooning is taking a backseat to the coverage of his cruising and narcotic dependency.

Just under a year ago when David Bowie died, everybody spoke about what a musical chameleon he was. Well, George Michael had astonishing range too.

He was beloved for his ballads which were commercial without being tacky; he became the first white artist to reach number one on Billboard’s “Top Black Albums” chart; he pioneered modern adult contemporary pop with 1990 record Listen Without Prejudice. You don’t need me to tell you about how ahead of its time that album was; just listen to Adele’s most recent album.

All this after he burst on the scene crafting quintessential teen pop with Wham! (even though it was always a good deal more than that– their first single Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) was about youth unemployment.)

Before he stopped playing the game with Listen Without Prejudice, Michael was a superstar to rank with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Prince. Five singles from his 1987 album Faith hit the top two of the US singles chart. With the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen, he was more relatable than any of his musical contemporaries.

After all, his songs were about everything. To select ten themes at random: human nature (Praying for Time), compromise (Freedom!’90), childhood (Round Here), musical influences (John and Elvis are Dead), losing your virginity (Nothing Looks the Same in the Light),  marital unsuitability (Everything She Wants), the middle of the night (Spinning the Wheel), the morning (A Ray of Sunshine), loss (Jesus to a Child) and drugs (Monkey). 

No beat was ever misused in a George Michael record. Note  how his seven and eight-minute opuses all feel half that length.

What’s more he did it all virtually by himself. Michael composed and produced his songs. He benefited from collaborating with friends and other musicians of course but to a remarkable degree he was self-sufficient. As his friend Gary Farrow said in 1990, “There are people George listens to. But nobody controls him.”

When I became Arts Correspondent of the London Evening Standard in 2005, I wanted to write a piece about George Michael’s creative habits. I uncovered as many stories as I could to be published in an article when he next released a studio album (he never released another studio record after 2004 album Patience and I never wrote the piece).

But the tales I heard about his talent were astonishing. Michael wrote Freedom (the Wham! hit, not the 1990 supermodel video v-sign to the music biz of the same name) in a taxi in France en route to recording 1984 album Make It Big and completed its recording the same day.

Last Christmas was written in ten minutes while he was watching soccer highlights show Match of the Day with Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley. He recorded it overnight and it’s become a festive fixture ever since.

Ridgeley was often mocked for contributing little to Wham! The joke was he supplied the group’s exclamation mark and Ridgeley himself quipped he “was along for the ride”. But it’s clear his presence acted as an invaluable boost to Michael’s self-esteem and confidence. Ridgeley was the fool ( a word Michael was fond of using in his lyrics) to Michael’s King Lear.

For while Michael had a highly capable and acute voice, ironically he harbored huge doubts about being a singer in the first place. Former Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell told me that Michael’s original intention was to be the songwriter and manager of ska band The Executive, (Wham!’s precursor).

The protracted court case with Sony in the early 1990s undoubtedly hit Michael’s creative confidence.  It derailed his plans for an upbeat Listen Without Prejudice Volume 2 and it’s easy to forget how much flak he received for describing his situation as “professional slavery”.

The lawsuit has long been rumored to have been triggered by then-Sony President Tommy Mottola dismissing him as a “limey fag” for his disinclination to promote Listen Without Prejudice. (Intriguingly Mottola’s ex-wife Mariah Carey  later covered Michael’s song One More Try.)

Shaken by the death of his Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppa in 1993 from an AIDS-related illness, the death of his mother from cancer and a longstanding drug addiction, Michael gave his loyal following precious little new material to enjoy in the 21st century.

Indeed his career began to mirror that of the music industry of which he had grown so suspicious.  He still played live knockout gigs but he focused on cover versions and  a 2004 pledge to release his new music digitally never took off in the way that his fans had hoped.

He fell out with some hitherto close friends and family (his second cousin Andreas Georgiou who had been an incredibly tight member of the entourage, even wound up selling George Michael memorabilia on e-Bay).

Michael checked himself into expensive addiction clinics to fight his drug addiction, such as the Kusnacht Practice in Zurich last year where treatment costs $230,000 a month, but it was all to no avail.

“Maybe in 10 years time I will be the Howard Hughes of pop”, Michael joked in 1987 to Smash Hits, referencing the reclusive billionaire. To some extent he did become just that and of course it’s natural to reflect on what went wrong in his life.

But more attention should be paid to how George Michael ever got himself to be in a position where his creative destruction mattered so much to so many instead of yet another well-intentioned tweet being sent that depicts him as some kind of reverent saint who got eclipsed by scandal.