GEORGE MICHAEL: A life, by James Gavin
In 1993, Princess Diana asked her friend George Michael to help organize a benefit concert for World AIDS Day. He came through beautifully, lined up the other acts and delivered a strong and heartfelt headliner of his own. When it came time to air the show as a TV special, the English singer insisted on seeing the footage, rearranging the performers and re-shooting himself on stage because he thought his butt was looked big. According to a former BBC producer, “‘Never work with children, animals or George Michael’ became an industry mantra after that.”
Stories like this crop up again and again in James Gavin’s riveting, depressing biography “George Michael: A Life” – acts of generosity followed by displays of irritability, creative aspiration soured to half-hearted compromises. Michael emerges as a gifted, tragic and enraged figure, whose tormented relationship with his sexuality led him into artistic confusion and self-sabotage.
“Almost everything to do with George Michael,” writes Gavin, “from his belly aspiration to his sometimes crippling insecurities, somehow pointed back to his father.” Born Kyriacos Panayiotou, Jack Panos was a Greek Cypriot immigrant with a deeply traditional worldview and an intolerance towards homosexuality that was the lifelong shame of his gay son. “Deep down, part of me thinks that the wrath of God is reality,” Michael told a journalist in 2005.
Growing up overweight and shy, he was still determined to perform and broke through as half of the bubbly duo Wham! alongside his friend Andrew Ridgeley, whose drive was not dampened by his utter lack of talent. The critics were ruthless (“Maybe the guys should have called themselves Spam! – canned, perishable when opened and not as good as the real thing,” said one review) and Michael would call the group an exercise in “ignoring my own intelligence,” but they were immensely popular, culminating in a 1985 tour of China that was unprecedented for a Western pop act.
Once he went solo, Michael released two colossal albums, 1987’s “Faith” (which he described as a “work of genius” and “close to perfection”) and 1990’s “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1”, then released spent the rest of his life alternating between trying to live up to his success and running away, claiming that he was happiest alone in his car and that he hoped “never to be in front of a camera again.” Frank Sinatra responded to this laments with an open letter telling Michael to cheer: “The tragedy of fame,” wrote Ol’ Blue Eyes, “is when nobody shows up and you sing to the cleaning lady in an empty tent that’s been around since St. Swithin’s Day not seen a paying customer again.’
Despite his reluctance to promote his albums, Michael filed a lawsuit to rescind his contract with Sony Music and presented himself as a defender of the creators’ rights. “This is my chance to do something really special and altruistic and change the path of artists’ lives,” he said. But even his own music publisher questioned his motives for the business, which Michael eventually lost: “He’s not trying to change the world. He just hates his bosses and wants a divorce.”
Michael’s ambivalence about his fame and his sexuality converged when he was arrested in 1998 for “lewd acts” by an undercover cop in a public bathroom in Beverly Hills. “There was nothing uncomplicated about George,” says the former Wham! manager Simon Napier Bell. “He would be incredibly careful if anyone knew he was gay, and ridiculously careless.” Michael’s sex- and drug-fueled behavior led to a long-term spiral; he would be arrested seven times in 12 years, including a jail term in which the inmates taunted him by singing “Guilty George Has No Freedom!” to the tune of ‘Careless Whisper’.
Gavin, who has written acclaimed biographies of the troubled singers (is there another kind?) Peggy Lee, Chet Baker and Lena Horne, offers a thorough and well-rounded view of Michael’s artistry and personal chaos. His mastery of contemporary pop can get a little shaky (Bobby Brown is no “rapper”, Bruce Springsteen’s albums “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” were not the follow-up to “Born in the USA”), but he gauges the nuances of Michael’s soul-inflected vocal performances; it would have been nice to read a little more about his recording sessions and less about his video recordings.
By the time Michael dies in 2016 at the age of 53 under somewhat mysterious circumstances on Christmas Day (or is it Christmas Eve?), it comes as a brutal relief. The controversies surrounding Michael, Gavin notes, had “overpowered a relatively thin body of work.” As Michael Pagnotta, the singer’s former publicist, puts it, “Has all the talk about money and lawyers taken the place of what songs should have been on the radio?”
George Michael dreamed of celebrity and saw that dream turn into a nightmare. And he knew all too well that it was pain and guilt that drove his hollow belief in fame as salvation. “It was not listened to; it was a lot of low self-esteem, all kinds of twisted things that go together to make someone famous,” he said. “It’s the things you lack that make you a star, it’s not the things you have.”
Alan Light is the author of “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Likely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’,” which inspired the new documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.”
GEORGE MICHAEL: A life, by James Gavin | Illustrated | 502 pages | Abrams Press | $32.50