Last Christmas, the news broke our hearts. This year, we’re saving our tears to remember someone special: George Michael, singer, song writer, philanthropist and free spirit.
The only time I ever saw George Michael in the flesh was at once surprising and entirely typical of the man. It wasn’t at one of his famous gigs, nor was it at some high-profile guest appearance at concerts such as Live 8 or The Freddie Mercury Tribute. No indeed. Far more prosaically, it was at the Côte chain restaurant in Highgate in 2012, near to where he had a house. What surprised me most was that Michael, who arrived quietly with a friend, had precisely none of the airs and graces that most 115-million selling artists would doubtless exhibit. He was warm, unpretentious and just seemed content that nobody bothered him. I mentioned to our waitress how remarkable it was that George Michael, of all people, was in our midsts. “Yes”, she said, nonchalently. ‘He’s been in every day for the past fortnight.’
Michael’s far-too-premature death last Christmas, at the age of 53, robbed pop music of one of its greatest practitioners. It is no exaggeration to say that throughout his career in Wham! and as a solo artist, Michael defined what intelligent, catchy and brilliant song writing could, and should, be. It helped that he possessed one of the great voices in popular music, which could soar, swoop and caress like the fine instrument it was. He possessed a stage presence that was virtually without comparison, and it is no great surprise that Brian May and John Deacon later said, after his barnstorming performance of Somebody To Love at the tribute concert, that he was the only possible singer who could hold a candle to Freddie. Yet it is probably a blessing that he never did become a member of Queen; he was always far too individual a talent to be held down in a band, especially singing songs made famous by someone else. He followed his own path, never losing sight of himself.
As was illustrated in a recent documentary about him, Freedom, Michael made no bones about a clear ambition: to be famous. As he said, “I have a musical ability that as a teenager was powered by this desperate ambition to be famous and be loved and be respected and whatever. All I wanted at that time was success. If I was looking for happiness, this was the wrong road. I still suffered terribly with insecurity about my looks. It goes back to a family background where conceit of any kind was considered an absolute sin, so no one was ever fazed about the way they look.”
Success, and fame, were achieved on an almost inconceivable scale. For Michael, this was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he recalled that, as a solo artist, “I was terribly lonely…I can’t really explain how overwhelming the hysteria can be if there’s only one person to absorb it.” His hatred of the attention that he received at the height of his celebrity led none other than Frank Sinatra, who knew something about mass public recognition, to chide him for his perceived ingratitude. In a famous letter, he urged him to “Loosen up. Swing … And no more of that talk about ‘the tragedy of fame.’ The tragedy of fame is when no one shows up and you’re singing to the cleaning lady in some empty joint that hasn’t seen a paying customer since Saint Swithin’s Day.” It was typical of Michael that, far from being chastened, he instead commented “I don’t think he wrote the letter. I actually believed that was the work of a publicist, not the work of a genius.”
His songs have, of course, supplied the soundtrack to countless people’s lives. From the early pop bliss of Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Careless Whisper, to later, more considered efforts such as Faith and Jesus To A Child, he was a songwriter who had few serious rivals. Little wonder, then, that, when he was asked in Freedom what he hoped that his artistic legacy would be, he replied simply: “Great songwriter.” Indeed, he would not be disappointed that his reputation has remained constant since his death; you would be hard-pressed to go a day without hearing some of Michael’s music.
Yet what was little mentioned during his lifetime but came out in countless stories after his death was his enormous generosity. Contrary to the tabloid image – memorably mocked in his guest appearance in Ricky Gervais’s Extras – of him as a semi-recluse who shut himself off in his mansions with a kebab and a joint, he instead took great interest in helping others. It transpired, for instance, that he had given Childline millions of pounds over the years, including the considerable royalties from Jesus To A Child, and made considerable donations to Macmillan Cancer support and the Terrence Higgins trust. Helping others have families was an issue of particular interest to him; several people came forward after his death to tell of how he – a complete stranger to them – gave them considerable sums of money to pay for their IVF treatment.
George Michael was no saint. The tabloid press had a great deal of sport with him over the years, whether it was some of the more bizarre incidents that he was involved in – such as falling out of a car on the M1 and exposing himself to an off-duty policeman – or his straightforward, candid attitude towards his fame, sexuality and music. Yet the amount of pleasure and happiness that Michael brought to millions during his four-decade career is something very rare indeed. He is much missed, and will continue to be as long as people listen to his songs which, thankfully, show no signs of diminishing in popularity. It is they that are his best, and greatest, epitaph.