Why do I miss George Michael so much? This in various forms is a question that I’ve been asking myself for most of 2017. I never met him in person (although his house in Highgate is a 15-minute walk from my own and over the years my wife and I have often walked by and taken a sneaky peek), I never saw him perform live, I owned most of his albums but not all. And I never bought a single record by his former band Wham!. Yet still I miss him. Deeply. Painfully. Mournfully. And since his death I’ve been to the modest shrine erected in a small park outside his house – which mourners have still not completely abandoned – and planted the odd flower or two.
Moreover, of all the many people – ‘stars’ if you will – who died during the cruel, relentlessly unforgiving days of 2016, the Bowies and Princes of this world to name but two of so very many, more than anybody else it is the music of George Michael that has been on my turntable most of the year. By turntable, of course, I mean the music that I have asked Alexa to play for me.
In many ways I’ve found myself missing George Michael more than I’ve missed real, flesh and blood people whom I’ve known that have died; some of whom, I’ve been present at funerals dedicated to.
It’s not even as if I can claim that George Michael was even loosely linked in any way to my own life in the way that someone like David Bowie was. Bowie, who I again never met personally, I could claim formed some sort of backdrop to my own personal journey through life. Bowie was ever-present during my youth; his music provided some sort of soundtrack as I shed my teenage pimples, began going to clubs, discovered girls and hair gel, dallied with punk and New Wave, became a ‘serious’ muso, drawn in by the music of Kraftwerk, Eno and other so-called ‘intellectual’ musical artists. Bowie was in the foreground when I went to art college and put on make-up to try and look a little like him.
Yes, George was there while all this was happening but I bore no allegiance to him. I liked his music but wasn’t mad about it. I recognised that he was a good looking boy but never felt any desire to dress like him or rearrange my dwindling barnet to resemble his own. He was just there. It was quite obvious to me that he had talent, that his vocal chords were clearly impressive, that his songs were pretty good, some very good. But he wasn’t part of me in the way that plenty of bands and performers were.
A little background: it was probably in a club in Bristol in the early-1980s that I would first of heard George Michael during his Wham! incarnation. I can’t, of course, remember my precise reaction to what must have been something like ‘Bad Boys’ or ‘Wham! Rap’, but I can tell you that I definitely wasn’t impressed. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that at one point I totally despised it. I despised it so much that wouldn’t even have spoken about his music to my own friends. It was as relevant to me as the Bay City Rollers or The Wurzels.
This opinion changed slightly, albeit grudgingly, when I first heard ‘Everything She Wants’ by Wham!. This, I immediately recognised, was something different, a mature piece of work that had style and even gravitas. I wouldn’t have admitted this to anyone at the time but I found myself sort of liking what could only have been a freak aberration. This seed change was, however, further exacerbated when I heard ‘Careless Whisper’. Again. It wasn’t really my ‘kind’ of music but no one could argue that it was a particularly brilliant piece of pure pop music; it had an instant hook that reflected the work of a mature artist. Not some good looking blonde idiot in a suit with rolled up sleeves.
By the time that I had heard ‘A Different Corner’, however, there was no denying that I had become an admirer of George Michael. Here was another special song, mournful, yearning and beautiful, sung in a voice that sent a shiver down the spine.
But there was a little respite: when I heard ‘Faith’ the first single from George Michael’s upcoming solo album my admiration began to dissipate somewhat. I saw the song as a pretty weak copy of something throwaway such as ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ by Queen; derivative in a bad way, a sure sign that the George Michael bubble had burst.
Not so, of course, because its entirety the album ‘Faith’ was/is close to perfection. Songs such as ‘Father Figure’ ‘Kissing A Fool’, ‘One More Try’ and ‘Last Request’ were/are simply sublime; strong enough to project George Michael to a level of superstardom that rivalled and even surpassed contemporaries such Michael Jackson and Madonna. The kid from the kebab shop sure had talent.
By the time that ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ came out in 1990 I was by then doing a bit of music writing for cash and was actually commission by one mag to review the album. With very few reservations I enjoyed it immensely, giving it four out of five and advising George to quit looking for respect and just stick to making great dance tunes.
Evidently this was advice that George chose to ignore because it was a whole five years before the appearance of ‘Older’. Yes he’d filled in a little time with singles with Elton John and that appearance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert (in which he proved to be the only performer capable of matching Freddie’s range – I, for one, will never forget the ‘will-he-won’t-he’ moment that preceded him not only hitting but totally obliterating that positively inhuman high Ab5 at the end of the song) but he’d kept well away from dance songs.
George was the first to admit that ‘Older’ – his next album five years later – was his best work and it’s difficult to argue with him. I could wax lyrical, or try to, for a long time regarding the qualities of this incredible album; suffice to say that it’s brilliant from start to finish. The jewel in the crown in most people’s opinion being the sublime ‘Jesus To A Child’, surely one of the most powerful songs about loss that has ever been written or performed.
After this there was the court case, the disappointing cover album and the underwhelming Patience, which came out in 2004, comprising already released singles and a disparate collection of new material (or so I thought at the time, however, recent plays have compelled me to change my opinion.)
Back to my original question: why, then, am I missing him so much?
It has, I suppose, to be down to a combination of factors: first of all it’s the inherent vulnerability of the man and his music that seems to strike such a chord. Like many of us, George was a flawed human being: despite clearly being handsome he was unhappy with his appearance (indeed, having gained weight in his middle years he refused to be seen in public during the last few months of his life); he was unbelievably successful and had far too many friends to count yet still considered himself alone. And his music came without embellishment – always stylish and produced to perfection. Some might say overproduced but I tend to disagree.
My feelings may also have something to do with his relatively close geographical location to my own. For a while I lived in South End Green and can remember laughing with my wife whenever we walked past the public toilets that he once got caught doing something in. Likewise, we were often on Hampstead High Street and were able to witness first hands the marks that were left when he crashed his Range Rover into Snappy Snaps.
More than anything, of course, it’s the music: the songs and the voice that leaves the world a sadder place. Over the past year I’ve played all of his solo albums almost relentlessly; to a degree in which I’ve come to believe that I almost know him personally. A big part of me wishes that he was still alive so there would be a chance I might bump into him in Highgate Village and I could throw my arms around him and give him a hug, tell him that he was someone special. One suspects that despite the worldwide acclaim that surrounded him for most of his life, there is a fair chance that he didn’t know this.
I miss George Michael. If you’d have told me thirty years ago that I’d be writing this down in public I’d most certainly have laughed in your face. But I’m not laughing now. I miss him.