New York, the crazy 80s, a sleezy bar, and George Michael.
I couldn’t even write about this last Christmas without my heart breaking and this year really isn’t much better. It’s still so close. I feel as if a gentle soul has, in some strange way, been watching over me.
I met him in the seedy Mudd Club in 1982, I’m fairly certain, and I knew immediately he was gay. I had just moved to New York and I loved it then — the grit, the desperation, the anticipation, the various states of squalor and indulgence. My dear friend, Robert, was an agent so he had access to a bevy of up and coming actors and musicians, producers, cast parties, tickets to private affairs, and star-studded events. I was tagged to come along for the ride on many of those occasions — though clubs were not my scene and this club was a doozy. I was a theater rat and would rather be typing away creating a play at 3:00 am. That night however, Robert told me I had to come with him because he was bringing a singer who was going to be “huge.” Robert often said this about movie and music people and I always just shrugged it off since most of the people I’d never heard of or didn’t give a shit about.
That, gorgeous, emotional, sinuous voice and the lyrics that identify the searing isolation in his heart and heat seeking search for a passion that so often eluded him — and often eludes us all — will forever be ours to embrace.
George Michael wasn’t even a blip on my radar. First of all, theatre was my lover so whoever was hot on the music scene held little interest for me. I loved certain music but never went out of my way to track any particular artist. I met Robert outside the club — situated on White Street — in a throng of people. Ever solicitous, Robert took my arm, and with his other hand, he took the hand of a young man and we were all dragged into the club. Robert guided us, and I think George’s band mate, through the crowd to banquette in a corner. I also knew Robert very well and I suspected he was just counting down the seconds until he could get into George’s pants. George, on the other hand, was having none of it. Robert introduced us [George shook my hand like a true gentleman] and plopped himself beside me — I think in an attempt to deflect Robert’s advances but also to distance himself from the women who were already stalking him. Then, I was a very serious, nerdy girl with huge glasses and burgundy hair to my waist and I looked hopelessly out of place and uncomfortable — mostly because I was — and I’m certain George sensed my anxiety. He asked whether I was a musician. “Oh, no…I’m a playwright — and an actor,” I responded, at which point, he immediately refocused on me.
He began to ask me about how ideas came to me, what did I write about, what kinds of inspiration did I draw from, how did I get the words on the page to make sense, and then make the actors get it too, did I ever direct the work — dozens of questions that he really wanted the answers to. He’d press me for clarity and actually made me analyze my position until he could make sense of it himself. It was exhausting — and exhilarating at the same time. At one point, I thought he was never going to stop asking me questions. He was so intense and curious that I thought about leaving just to get away from him [silly, I know]. But I didn’t. We talked for about 40 minutes and it became obvious his intensity was genuine. I was struck by his self-possession, maturity and seeming laser-like focus on what he was doing and what needed to be done. He was more than just mature for his age — and very cute — he was remarkably intelligent and something else… There was a kindness and vulnerability mixed with the bravado — almost an obsession to succeed but on his own terms. I could tell he was stubborn and demanding and it wasn’t very likely anyone could push him around.
He asked if I’d ever heard the lyrics to one of his songs that I believe was getting airplay in the UK and I was mortified that I couldn’t answer him because I just hadn’t paid attention to any of his music. I knew he was part of a band and they were becoming popular but I just wasn’t that interested. From what I understood, his music appealed to teenage girls and I was far from that age by this point. Of course, I didn’t say that. He laughed — really hard — and shook his head in mock misery. “I’m sorry,” I said, I’m not much into popular music right now…” He flashed the biggest, most beautiful smile and said, “That’s okay.” He had me with the smile. I may not have listened to his music — then — but I had nothing but a sincere hope that all his dreams would materialize. I knew in that instant the person in front of me was decent, courageous, and self-deprecating, able to laugh at himself and persevere in the face of great adversity. Little did I — or he — know what adversity would follow.
One of my students recently said to me, “The greater the blessing, the more bullshit you have to go through to get it.” She was talking about her struggles with academic writing, but I immediately thought of George. I thought it was hugely unfair he always had to go through so much shit to realize the mythic beauty in his heart and soul.
When he got up to leave he thanked me for talking to him — which was hilarious because he did most of the talking and I don’t think I could have shut him up even if I tried. Then, the unexpected. He took my hand in his and said, “Don’t ever stop writing. That’s what you’re meant to do…”
I should have listened to George Michael so many years ago. I let decades go by, derailed by events and people and stupid choices and self-doubt and a bunch of other shit but he knew — a boy I’d only just met — what my true calling was. Of course, since then I’ve listened to nearly all his music and marveled at the exquisite, soulful voice and songwriting skill that effortlessly peels back the layers of unrequited love, joy, pain, and loss.
Through the years, the constant hype and miasma of a vitriolic media alerted me to his many scrapes with the law — the drugs, the arrests, and the excesses that seemed to plague him, and I was saddened by what seemed to be happening to the beautiful boy I had met so long ago.
What angered me most was the way the media incessantly preyed on him. Why, why, why, couldn’t they just leave him alone to write and sing his music? They didn’t and it didn’t matter in the end because a strange thing happened. As George became fodder for tabloids, I listened more closely and came to appreciate his talent even more — so did millions of others who were moved by his vulnerability, candor, and passion.
At the height of the AIDS crisis, while gay men were beaten in the streets, fired from their jobs, or targeted in other vile ways, George was trying to work out what the fuck he needed to do to survive and create without succumbing to oblivion. It must have been excruciating for him to assume the debilitating façade of a manufactured persona — to never be able to come to terms with what was in his heart.
We forget the 80s and 90s and the cultural cataclysm that defined gay relationships of the AIDS era. I recall vividly the homophobia and rancor. This week, in a Time magazine article, Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy, states “I don’t think I could have come out as a gay athlete 30 years ago and expected to be successful.” The Caption beside his photograph reads: “Kenworthy, 26, is set to be the first openly gay man to compete at the Winter Olympics.”
Being gay, evidently, continues to fuel news cycles. But Kenworthy’s admission in 2017, is still fraught with anxiety. In a 2014 interview, when asked to name his “Valentine Crush,” he refrained from citing his boyfriend and instead pointed to Miley Cyrus — a lie to protect himself. His “time has come” touts the article but the very fact that we must call out his “difference” points to the widespread intolerance that still dominates cultural discourse surrounding gay relationships.
Now go back 30 years ago to 1987. We were subjugated by an intolerant, chauvinistic mentality that waged war on anyone who dared to embrace their true life’s choices, and George Michael was smack in the middle of a deadly war to silence difference, to dismantle choice, and to destroy those who sought to live their lives truthfully.
George finally came out, or at least, his unceremonious “coming out” was documented and exploited ad nauseam. It was an event the tabloids seized upon and used to vilify him endlessly. George was constantly held up for inspection and peddled as a poster child for “immoral” gay sexuality. It was categorically wrong and abhorrent and it probably destroyed his heart more than he could admit. Shame on all those who persecuted him for his life. All he wanted was someone to love him for who he was. Don’t we all?
Most of all, George Michael owned his own shit. It’s why so many people will always love and adore him. He was tough and fearless without the toxic liability of classic male machismo. He was able to plumb the depths of his soul and psyche to create some of the most soul crushing and voluptuous pop music ever written. His voice can destroy you — with the turn of a phrase or a tremulous breath at the end of a note. He was honest about his flaws and vices and we could see that all his bravado was really an impassioned plea to be loved on his own terms. He maintained courage and gentleness in the face of excruciating personal and professional challenges and then wrung his heart out for us and asked for nothing in return except perhaps, for us to listen without prejudice [to borrow a poet’s turn of phrase].
In the face of potential defeat, he remained gracious, strong, gentle, and always found his sense of humor. I would hazard to guess that most people were simply jealous of him — a beautiful, sensitive, man who could be tough and relentless regarding his professional choices but able to temper it all with grace and dignity. His songwriting and singing talent remain unmatched. He really has the voice of an angel, he could, and still does, bring me to my knees. That, gorgeous, emotional, sinuous voice and the lyrics that identify the searing isolation in his heart and heat seeking search for a passion that always seemed to elude him — and often eludes us all — will forever be ours to embrace.
It will be a long, long time before we see anyone remotely like George Michael again. Probably never. Dear, sweet George, Merry Christmas. You will always and forever be deeply loved.
D. E. Johnstone