BACK IN JANUARY — just 19 days into what has evolved into a wretched year for celebrity deaths — this segment pondered whether 2016 would be the year celebrity died; at that time, the names lost to the entertainment world and its audiences included David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Alan Rickman: now, dozens of deaths later and still with four days left in 2016, we add 1980s pop superstar and creative genius George Michael to a horribly burgeoning list.
If there is one thing I am thankful for, at least, in being so time-challenged as to prevent me posting in this column for most of 2016, it is that with the benefit of hindsight, I have been spared the need to turn Retro Tuesday into a perennial virtual obituary page; so many entertainment identities loved by millions have been lost this year, and here we are — again — lamenting the loss of another in the aftermath of Christmas.
News yesterday (Melbourne time; late Christmas Day elsewhere) that 1980s pop sensation, creative genius and troubled enigma George Michael had succumbed to heart failure in his sleep aged 53 came as a shock; his passing continues a long, long list of celebrity passings this year — most of them from the Baby Boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964 — that reads like a kind of macabre Who’s Who of the music, box office and wider entertainment industries: and at the risk of being grotesque, it seems appropriate to note that 2016 still has four days left to run.
With Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher critically ill, and rumours swirling about just how ill Queen Elizabeth II really is, it goes without saying that nobody wants to add any more names to the sinister roll call of global icons 2016 has presented to date.
But as one of the millions who spent the bulk of their teenage years in the 1980s, I must note that George Michael’s music made a big contribution to the soundtrack of my generation; and just like some of the giants who have preceded his passing this year — David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, among others — Michael’s presence in our lives was more permanent than just the 1980s, and evolved with us beyond the bubble-gum tunes he pumped out with Wham! as we grew with him, and he grew with us.
It is fair to say, of Generation X, that a lot of us grew up with George Michael.
For some reason, the first track that popped into my mind yesterday (when I realised the retro set for today’s column could only come from one place) was the ultra-commercial, über-chic dance track from the early 1990s, Too Funky: it brought back not-unpleasant memories of well-misspent nights in riverside clubs in Brisbane like Friday’s and City Rowers, that in the latter case at least no longer exist: and, ridiculously, I have one very specific memory of bopping away at City Rowers, close to the 5am closing time one December Sunday morning, with that track blaring as the sun began rising over the Brisbane River and bathing the “night” club in unwelcome natural light.
But the track that first brought George Michael to our collective conscience was the early smash hit he scored with Andrew Ridgeley back in the Wham! days.
It was fun, its was infectious, and — being about 12 or 13 when it was released — it was early evidence to this body at least that music could really make you move: not that I could (or can) dance, mind; any attempt by Yours Truly to do such a thing is a hideous mishmash of left feet and that awful pedestrian, half-marching, awkward shifting shuffle whose practitioners are (rightly) pilloried and laughed at for their ineptitude. My excuse was that, just like John Lennon’s story in Helter Skelter, I “might be a singer but I ain’t no dancer.”
Happily these days, that is another story.
But Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go was one of those songs that etched itself in your brain and stayed there; and Wham! itself provided so many of those mental snapshots for a generation that spring readily to mind many years after the duo’s dissolution: cruising around in the jeep and chilling out by the pool in Club Tropicana. The tale of adolescent rebellion that was Bad Boys. The melancholy, wistful reflections of Careless Whisper. Even before Michael parted company with Ridgeley, it seemed he had it all.
George Michael was, of course, a complicated, enigmatic and to some extent tortured character; never far away from trouble with the constabulary, he led a double life of denial for decades where the question of his homosexuality was concerned, eventually “coming out” after being busted doing something “lewd” in a public toilet block late one night in London.
Busted at one point for possession of drugs, what had been an open secret for years in the form of a marijuana habit took on more sinister — and worrying — overtones when Michael was arrested with a quantity of crack cocaine on his person, raising questions of a more serious problem with drug use that threatened to spiral out of control.
It was, regrettably, an all-too-familiar storyline where entertainers of his generation were concerned. Amy Winehouse’s name comes to mind. Robert Palmer’s, too. Again, the list is as endless as it is tragic.
And Michael had a well-publicised brush with death a few years back, narrowly surviving a bout of pneumonia that might have seen his papers stamped far sooner; 2017 was slated, according to reports, as the year he was set to roar back onto the global stage with a new album and a tour — perhaps remaking himself, and his music, as he had done multiple times already.
For all the catchy, glitzy, showy pop tunes Wham! yielded, it’s hard to argue with the idea that Michael’s music matured — and came into its own — when he set forth as a solo artist: a journey that was marked with the arrival of his Faith album in 1987.
In an age when having music videos banned by the BBC was almost a rite of passage for the pop artists of the day, Michael obliged with the release of the video for I Want Your Sex, and came close to scoring a trifecta on that dubious measure with Father Figure: it was a time when the censorious Beeb, and its sanctimonious, don’t-say-shit-for-a-shilling morality crusades, seem as ludicrous and as laughable now than they did even at the time; other victims of this silly charade included Samantha Fox (Touch Me!) and even our own Wa Wa Nee (So Good), and it seems a badge of honour in hindsight that these relatively innocuous film clips were treated with such a heavy hand.
But Michael’s solo career proved, more than anything, that there was so much more to him than mere schmaltzy popcorn and infectious jingles; his was a talent that stood on its own merits as serious entertainment, and it is another track from Faith! that brings up the double shot in our Retro Tuesday set today: a showcase of the vocal purity and musical genius that proved that when it came to the finest entertainers of his generation, George Michael stood head and shoulders with the best.
There are lots of bonus links today; this piece in no way attempts to serve as an obituary — plenty of those have appeared, and will appear, in other places — but as a celebration of one of those entities that I, and so many around me, grew up with.
None of us were bothered (or surprised) when Michael came out as gay; just like the Pet Shop Boys and others, he was simply a vessel through which great and enduring music filled our lives and frankly, what he did in his own time was nobody’s business.
But this troubled and complex character, like so many of his contemporaries, met with an untimely end on Christmas Day, dying peacefully in his sleep from heart failure, according to official releases from his inner sanctum: a reminder, perhaps, that the rumoured drug use with which he had struggled for decades came at a terrible eventual cost.
Next week, hopefully, we can return this segment to a simple celebration of great music that simply intersects with some aspect of daily life — free from headlines of untimely deaths and the outpouring of grief that accompanies them.
But in closing today, I leave readers with a bonus video, even beyond all the extra links and the clips I have embedded here: and in furtherance of the connection I had with Michael’s music over the years, I should note that about 15 years ago — before screaming at football matches wrecked my voice — I won a hefty prize at Crown Casino in Melbourne singing this song at one of its ubiquitous karaoke pageants.
I include it now not to be jingoistic about the fact Michael’s passing came on Christmas day, but simply to include yet another of his timeless classics in today’s trip down music’s Memory Lane.
After all, there are literally dozens of others we could have included here, but haven’t: and for that, I point people to YouTube if their CD collections, unlike mine, are devoid of George Michael’s excellent releases over the years.