George Michael might have died any day across the last 15 years. The story we had – the one that was easiest to hold on to was that he was self-sabotaging and self-loathing and most certainly self-destructive. It was at least as easy to see and hear that he was a phenomenal talent. But in the mainstream that didn’t seem to matter so much – he had his run as a pop star and after a small handful of reported stories featuring drugs and drama we were supposed to just sit and wait for to hear the news that he had passed.
It was strange hearing the news. The tributes flow fast and furious these days – and though there have been (and will continue to be) some great tributes it is hard to make sense of it all. Particularly with people seemingly not prepared to give him his due – worried it might reflect on them, worried if they out themselves as a fan of the band Wham! Or as a fan of Michael’s early pop music – or any of his music.
I didn’t love every single thing he did but I am certain we just lost a magnificent talent. More than that – one of the greatest pure vocal talents of his generation.
I was – in some way – a fan of Wham! I’m probably more of a fan now, listening back to the music now, the album cuts as well as the big, big hit singles, you can hear George Michael’s appreciation for Prince, obviously. But more than that for the house music and particularly the early New York hip-hop and street-party music. There were ideas there. And great tunes and arrangements. And I wouldn’t worry about any sort of outing or protecting of myself by calling it a guilty pleasure; I wouldn’t worry about suggesting that the 80s production was too thick and heavy, or rather – light and clunky. I think the best of his ideas and songs stand up. Just as they always have. There are tributes to Motown. And other types of soul music and in his arrival as a solo singer he was suddenly something absolutely spectacular. The Faith album was good enough. And yet somehow the albums got better – just as he got older and matured into various other sounds and musical surroundings the albums seemed suddenly so sophisticated.
When he released the covers album, Songs From The Last Century that’s when I made my move, that’s when I became a dedicated, committee fan. I already knew – and liked – Faith and the albums that followed (particularly at that point Older). But I didn’t own any of them. After the Last Century album – a collection of perfectly selected pop songs, beautiful renditions – I was sold. It was like that early talent, and the songs I had enjoyed, now all made sense. This guy might have started as a pop-star but he had matured into the most magnificent musician. Well, that’s how I remember it all falling into place.
Just recently I would say my favourite album – if I had to pick one – was Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Maybe for the concept, the mini-mantra of the title – but mostly for the songs and performances.
There was also – within almost every aspect of George Michael’s public life – a deep sense of melancholy; of melodrama.
A couple of years ago I heard Symphonica – yet another reminder of his mesmerising voice, his immense talent – and of the darkness that haunted him.
I liked so much about George Michael – that he made something of himself as a serious musician after the fad of a pop-star career was over, that he wrote good songs and sang wonderful cover versions; that he seemed to never take himself too seriously, that he thought fame and pop-fandom was ridiculous. And I liked a couple of dozen of his songs – some he wrote, some he turned over and found something new in even if they had first appeared 40 or 50 years before he got to them. He was terrific. He was wonderful. He was magnificent. He was all of those things. Those words seem most apt right now. And maybe always. And he was something of a sad-case too. Well, that’s how it seemed. Maybe that was never true. But it seemed true.
And it was a strange day yesterday. Hearing the news. That another hero had died. He was 53. He was never going to make old bones. Not the way he lived. You could say in fact, in some alternate headline, that “George Michael, former pop star, reluctant public figure, incredible talent, had, after 140 years’ worth of life experiences had died, aged 53”. I dunno, something like that. I dunno…
The song Father Figure is just a masterpiece to me. Most of that Faith album. Most of the two albums that followed. All of that covers record, half of the material from that silly little pop-duo with the exclamation mark. He made a lot of great music. And I liked more of it than I at first realised. But across the last 15 years in particular I was a big fan. And I was interested in anything he did and in most of the stories about him – reluctant, tragic, weird…or something like that. I dunno…