I surprised myself by how sad I felt on hearing of George Michael's death on Christmas Day. It's the faintly depressing sadness that comes from being reminded, as with Amy Winehouse or Michael Jackson, that a longtime beloved comic figure in Fleet Street is a real human being whose pathologies have finally caught up with him. In contrast to Jacko, the principal victim of George Michael was himself. He died alone at his Oxfordshire cottage, his body discovered by a boyfriend whose relationship with George commanded no fidelity from the star. His protective publicist said it was a heart attack. The boyfriend carelessly revealed that, after years of other abuses, George had latterly moved on to heroin. He looked all of his 53 years and then some.
There was something touchingly sincere in the way his fans took to the internet to observe solemnly that it was his "Last Christmas". I always liked that song, mainly because I was impressed by the scrupulousness of George's feminine rhymes, which was unusual by 1984 and is even more so today:
Tell me, baby, do you recognize me?
Well, it's been a year, it doesn't surprise me...
My God, I thought you were someone to rely on
Me? I guess I was a shoulder to cry on...
I like the conversational ease of the syntax, too;
I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying, "I love you" - I meant it...
That's pretty good lyric-writing. There are all sorts of nice phrases running through the rest of the song - "Friends with tired eyes", which I always thought was quite a sophisticated observation for a 21-year-old, once I'd figured out it wasn't "Friends with tie-dye", which was the way my ear heard it the first 7,000 times. George Michael was a fine songwriter. I blush to say that on this year's Mark Steyn Christmas Show I very nearly did my own arrangement of "Last Christmas", which on balance I'm glad I set to one side - if only because I probably wouldn't have been able to eschew some sort of cheap crack about its author: The British media have a special category of national treasures with feet of clay, and assume they'll always be around.
I had precisely one interaction with him over the years: A quarter-century back, I had an appreciative response to the way I'd used the sax figure from "Careless Whisper" during some BBC featurette. The credit was all his, since it was pretty obvious to me that it was one of the great instant shorthands for an era and a particular sensibility. But this was during his feud with Sony when he wasn't recording, and so presumably had time on his hands. The next occasion he had cause to comment on my work it wasn't quite so favorable, as we'll get to below. But three decades or so back I chanced to be with Simon Climie and our old friend Don Black. Don is the lyricist of "Born Free", "To Sir With Love", "Diamonds Are Forever", as well as the impending Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close. Simon had had some pop hits as one half of Climie Fisher, but had decided to focus on songwriting and had written a number that he wanted Don's opinion of. It included the line:
When the river was deep I wasn't worried...
"It's good," said Don, "but 'worried' is too weak a word. You need something stronger, like 'falter'."
So Simon altered the lyric to:
When the river was deep I didn't falter...
A few weeks later, "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" was a monster hit for Aretha Franklin and George Michael. I ran into Simon Climie at a pop awards night in London, and asked him how much he thought one word of a transatlantic Number One was worth. Don was right: "Falter" is much stronger. The problem for George Michael was that he faltered a lot. He bought his somewhat modest (for a pop star) cottage in Oxfordshire because he'd decided he wanted to lead an ordinary life in an English village where he could go to the pub and have a pint in the snug and be as obscure and unnoticed as, well, Andrew Ridgeley. But, unlike the average country squire, he felt the need to go up to London to cruise for sex amid the undergrowth on Hampstead Heath. In 2006 he was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and lost his license. Two years later he was arrested with drugs in his possession while cottaging in Hampstead Heath again. Two years after that, returning home from the Gay Pride parade, he drove his car into the window of a Snappy Snaps store, and was gaoled for eight weeks. Six months after being released from prison he fell out of his own vehicle on the M1 and had to be airlifted to hospital.
He most famously faltered in 1998, in California. The Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills is named after America's great cowboy humorist, famed for his catchphrase "I never met a man I didn't like". Apparently, most patrons of the park's toilet feel the same way. A photographer from the American tabloid The Globe happened to spot, among the hordes of underclothed hunks rippling their muscular oiled torsos, a certain British pop star: he took a dozen shots of George Michael entering the men's room a dozen times, punctuated only by a trip to the pharmacy.
It was possible George had a serious incontinence problem. Unfortunately for him, the Beverly Hills Police Department had an alternative explanation, and arrested him for performing a "lewd act" in front of an undercover cop. "He motioned for the officer to enter the toilets," said a police spokesman. "They both sat in separate adjoining cubicles and Michael started to play footsie with the officer under the partition." It would be interesting to know what was going through the detective's mind as the superstar's allegedly twirling toes sneaked clumsily under the stall and brushed his trouser leg. Perhaps he reflected ruefully on the most famous line of George's biggest hit: "Guilty feet have got no rhythm."
But no: the officer didn't even know with whom he was canoodling. The pop star was booked under his real name - Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou - and it was only after he gave his profession as singer and was asked if he used any stage names that the officer realized whom he'd arrested. By that point, his boyishly hirsute face was not immediately recognizable in the United States. A few months earlier, when George and Elton John entered Westminster Abbey together for the funeral of the Princess of Wales, the American network anchors failed to identify the younger man, assuming he was merely a favored member of Elton's entourage - his masseur or interior designer or some such.
That wasn't how Britain's troubled, stubbled pop genius saw himself, of course: no one took George Michael more seriously than George Michael. And so the years of sulking, suing and striking for the right to be respected as a great artist were obliterated in an instant, by one ill-considered foot foray under the stall divider, and George was back to square one, waking up to headlines like "Zip Me Up Before You Go-Go".
Lieutenant Kreins of the Beverly Hills Police Department was at pains to point out that the alleged "lewd act" was a solitary one for which the undercover officer was required to do no more than look on admiringly. In this respect at least, the detective's position seems to have been analogous to that of Andrew Ridgeley, George's other half in his pop group Wham! "He was contributing very little, partially through laziness and partially through accepting that what I was doing was going to be so huge that neither of us thought there would be any point in trying to collaborate when it would just dilute what I was doing," said George, discussing his pop partner rather than his men's room one. "It was very difficult for him to even try to contribute, knowing that I had a very fixed goal in my mind."
George took over all the singing, and all the writing, and the arranging, and producing, and the directing and editing of his videos. His disagreements with his record company began because he thought he knew more about marketing than they did. Even then, throughout that long dispute with Sony, he remained free to write songs for other performers: Barbra Streisand, among others, wanted him to. But, if Barbra had sung his song, Michael couldn't have controlled every aspect. When he broke up Wham! to pursue a solo career, few of us realized he'd be pursuing it in the gents across from the Beverly Hills Hotel. In later years, he defended anonymous bathroom sex as a legitimate choice for gay men, while being sufficiently self-aware to concede that, for George Michael, it was sad and dysfunctional.
In the early days it was Andrew Ridgeley who had the upper hand. George, born in 1963 to Greek Cypriot immigrants in Finchley, was the Monica Lewinsky of Bushey Hill comprehensive, an insecure dumpling with big hair. But, at the start of the second year "the teacher ordered me to sit next to this horrible little boy, who then took charge of me". George had wanted to be a pop star since he was seven, but it took Andrew to get him to diet. They left school, spent nine months on the dole, and then wrote a song about it ("Wham Rap").
Most of us look back fondly to the George Michael of those days, bouncing around on "Top of the Pops" in crotch-hugging shorts. But for George it wasn't enough: Serious Artist Syndrome had set in. "Serious" in the rock biz is a relative term: for George, it meant buying a leather jacket and proving that he was old enough to shave. He pioneered the definitive look of the era, the three-day designer stubble that requires more effort to maintain than waxed moustaches.
Sadly, however, his facial growth proved easier than his artistic growth: in 1990, he ostentatiously burnt his leather jacket in his "Freedom 90" video and released a new album called Listen Without Prejudice Vol I. British telly's leading arts interviewer Melvyn Bragg devoted an entire "South Bank Show" to it: at last George's stature as a serious artist was being recognized. Alas, while the album met "The South Bank Show"'s definition of serious art, it didn't seem to meet anyone else's. George announced that he would cease giving interviews and devote himself to his art, and to his lawsuit: he'd decided to sue Sony on the grounds that they were subjecting him to "professional slavery". Until the legal issues were resolved, he said, Listen Without Prejudice Vol II would be put on hold. Sony executives suppressed their sniggers.
He spent $7 million and lost the suit. Now not only was Listen Without Prejudice Vol II on hold, but so were Vols III, IV, V, VI and VII. If you wanted to hear a new George Michael recording, you had to call up his answering machine, where his outgoing message greeted callers to the tune of "Careless Whisper":
No, I'm never gonna sing again
Bastards! Bastards! Bastards! Bastards!
In 1995 DreamWorks and Virgin paid Sony $52 million to buy out his contract. A year later they released his first album since all the trouble began in 1990: Older. George was certainly older, but to the critics he didn't seem wiser, or mature and sophisticated, only ponderous and earnest and, according to Time magazine, as slow-moving as "a beverage cart down the cramped aisle of a passenger airplane". At the dawn of his solo career, when "I Knew You Were Waiting" was Number One, the New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote that "if asked to nominate the one contemporary pop star most likely to be as successful ten years from now as today, I'd cast my vote for George Michael." Ten years later, with a minimalist beard and a permanent scowl, George Michael looked like a Bond villain whose plans for world domination hadn't quite worked out. He would have made a much better new Blofeld in Spectre than the guy they gave it to.
Speaking of world domination, in 2002 he released a "controversial music video" attacking George W Bush and portraying Tony Blair as the Americans' poodle. You'd have to have a will of steel to resist succumbing to the temptation to mock, and I don't. So in that Saturday's Telegraph I wrote a column set in a public toilet with me, George, Bush, Blair and EU commissioner Chris Patten discussing the war on terror in terms of his early Wham! hits. Asked about it on a BBC show a couple of days later, George said sulkily, "Mark Steyn seems to think that if you've been arrested in a public toilet you have no credibility on foreign policy."
Well, yeah, pretty much. There was something oddly moving in the way he took himself so seriously while at the same time lurching trouserless from the men's room to the Snappy Snaps window to the shoulder of the M1, like the boy-band version of a Whitehall farceur. The Greeks have a word for it: hubris. The Singing Greek (as he liked to call himself, Nana Mouskouri notwithstanding) had rather more words for it, disdaining those who got on well enough with their record companies not to sue them:
Counting your money till your soul turns green
Counting the cost of your desire to be seen...
But that's not really the choice, is it? Pop-culture wiseacres spent three decades maintaining Andrew Ridgeley as a byword for the pathetic also-ran. But, as Kathy Shaidle says, he's alive and George isn't. Andrew married Keren from Bananarama and has lived happily ever after, with great memories of youthful pop stardom and none of the pain that comes from trying to hang onto it. He's part of most of George Michael's good times, and none of the bad times.
And yet, and yet... There's a George Michael album I play quite a lot, released in December 1999. He called it Songs Of The Last Century, and picked numbers from (if memory serves) all but two decades of the 20th century. They were good songs, too - whether "My Baby Just Cares For Me" by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, or Sting's "Roxanne", or "Wild Is The Wind" by Dmitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, which I had the pleasure of hearing him sing live, excellently, a few years ago. He very obviously loved the song, and loved singing it. He had good taste and sensitive interpretations. He listened widely, which is why he got all his two-syllable rhymes right on "Last Christmas" at a time when hardly anyone else did.
Years ago, Artie Shaw, having outlived Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James et al, said to me, "My music was better than theirs, and my life turned out the best, too." It was an either/or deal for Wham!: George Michael won the former, and Andrew Ridgeley the latter. And perhaps, even knowing the final score, George would do it the same all over again.