Christmas Day 2016 didn’t end well. The news of George Michael’s death flashed across my social media and stopped my evening. It stung. His songs were integrated into the soundtrack of my youth. I felt like a part of my own life had just been wrenched out.
I was also filled with regret. For the countless times that George Michael’s songs and passionate on-screen persona had filled me with feelings, I had left business unfinished with him. I had taken so much from this star as he put his music out into the world. By not expressing gratitude, telling him–in some way–how much his effort and artistry meant to me, I squandered a chance to make this one-sided relationship whole. Now I was left only hoping he—in some way—felt the gratitude and attachment I felt in my heart.
The horrible irony of his death at Christmas made this ending more sad. For as long as I can remember, Christmas is only complete when I’ve heard his emotional rendition of the story-ballad “Last Christmas” being played at least once, somewhere. When it was first released, in 1984, I was a fledgling, gawky, brooding early-teen, awaiting life in a changing body. To top it off, I was growing up straddling three cultures: I was Indian, living in Berlin, Germany, and going to a British school.
I must become particularly sodden at times, because I remember my mother forcing me to go run around outside because she felt I needed to expend physical energy and shake off a bad mood. I trudged through the snow to the park and did a round there. I remember singing “Last Christmas” to myself. I plotted that when I grew up, I would have a fabulous set of friends who would rent a ski chalet with me for a holiday. And there, I’d exchange shy glances of affection and intimacy with a special someone by a fire place, in a cosy room around a softly twinkling Christmas tree.
In the 1980s, George Michael was a broad-mouthed, gorgeous, Mediterranean-looking man, who practically jumped out of the screen with his vervy, flopping, big hair and sexy dance moves. His vibrant energy was sufficient to sanction my own tenuous circumstances sanction. He gave all the meaning and color to a thirteen year old’s misplaced life. I latched on to him.
I picked up my second-hand acoustic guitar and finger-picked the melody of “Careless Whisper”, repeatedly pressing rewind and play on the tape recording that I had made from the radio.
My sister, with whom I shared a bedroom, felt the same way. We played his songs on our silver cassette deck over and over, and danced around the little space, whiling away time. We had lots of it, then. I’m convinced that his songs are embedded deep in my subconscious, in my amygdala at the base of my head where the brain and spine fuse. On my death bed, as my cerebral faculties fade away, and I can no longer speak or be rational, if someone were so kind as to play George Michael songs, I probably will respond by instinct. His songs will stir my emotions and give me pleasure. I will still be able to anticipate the phrases and crescendos.
The name Wham! itself, was bold and brash. Their music pulsated with the synthesizer. Their beats were infectious and fresh. Just hearing the name makes me smile to this day, at the happy, excited feeling it brought on in my youth.
Wham!s music takes me back in time to a world in which Europe was divided by an iron curtain and Berlin was walled. I was a teen, in a walled city, making up a future, anticipating life. Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael dancing with Pepsi and Shirlie (their back-up singers) in an easy, seamless, inter-racial ensemble seemed to present exciting possibilities then. They sent a message of a vibrant, out-loud life, inspiring me to feel my own such aspirations in an unknowable future.
At the time many male performers often wore a veneer of edginess, a disaffected, tough sneering perhaps (think Billy Idol or the boys of Duran Duran) but George Michael was different. He was characteristically, unabashedly expressive. He appeared on his sumptuous videos with an out-sized articulation using his angular Greek jaw, big eyes, and thick eyebrows. He was a sex symbol sure, but his masculinity was not oppressive. It seemed fluid and easy. Although I had no such words to describe his style at the time, looking back, I was drawn by his emotive qualities. At the time I didn’t have eyes to see that he was more gender fluid and didn’t come in the mold of a traditional man. He seemed like a man who was respectful of women. I noticed that in the way he danced. He didn’t objectify the girls, rather he was a partner. He danced with the girls. To a teenage girl this mattered. He spoke to our female spirit.
I had heard he was of Greek origin, and I appreciated that. I recognized that he too knew what it was like to speak a different language at home and not fit in seamlessly with the culture at school and the world around you. I felt he might share something of what I felt.
Over the years I moved to the United States, began working, and lived in Washington D.C. In the 1990s I didn’t have a television and was no longer captive to the “Top of the Pops” curated playlist. In the more diffuse American world of the 1990s and 2000s, I had a wider repertoire but I still heard his music, and listened to his later CDs. I admired his evolution from afar. I heard him grow up. The new songs were more jazzy, syncopated, and spiritually-alive. “Faith” and “Father Figure” were profound and emotional in a way that the shouty-guitar sounds of the 1990’s couldn’t begin to reach.
In his adult transition, he brought the sensibilities of soul into jazz and worked them both into pop. The songs were masterful and moving, whether in irrepressible dance-y numbers, or in deeply personal ballads. In his lyrics he let us know he never forgot the working man, he never eschewed working class sensibilities. The songs about loss and attachment (to his mother, to lovers) were unflinching. His perky, upbeat songs got onto my gym play list. Always, his trademark, pure vocal touch stirred a chord of resonance. He gave it all without the overbearing, didactic clobbering of a Beyoncé. The production was masterful.
As a star, he effortlessly sang duets that dazzled with their piques and purity. He could stand toe to toe with Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, and Whitney Houston with a kind of self-possession, and humility that both showcased them, and displayed his own brilliance. As he wove in his voice and body into songs with these powerful divas, I again saw that respectful, real way he had with women. The dancing was delightful. There was honesty. There was a touch of angelic purity in his voice. It was so, so beautiful.
He evolved in his own path, as I too changed, inevitably buffeted by life. I wondered how that lively, hip-shaking George Michael had become a mature, man. I saw how time deals life, punctuated by meaning and growth, destruction and disappointment. I saw slivers of the former young star but largely, I didn’t know this mature man. Once, I caught an interview with him. I heard his rich voice saying he was grateful for all that he had in life. His words connected me back to him. I trusted that spirit. (And I was glad he was finding peace and truth.)
I know the universe doesn’t work in a lop-sided way. When you receive something, you have to complete the circle by giving something back. A gift is also a responsibility. Of course, in the consumerist, fast-paced world of today, that may seem lost. However, these principles are still beating in heart of life. When Michael Jackson died in 2010, I felt an enormous loss that I had taken so much pleasure and excitement in the music he made and devoured it without finding a way to say, “Thank you”. It especially hurt that this man who was rather vilified by the press and seemed often misunderstood, might not have known the love that millions of fans such as myself felt for him. I made up my mind then, to write a letter to George Michael. I abstractly composed it in my mind, while driving sometimes. But shame on me, I didn’t put it down on paper.
For decades, I consumed his musical gift, his toil, thought, and energy. He gave, and I took. I suppose the commercial music model has an exchange mechanism for that. Yet music lifts us and defines our lives in invaluable ways that the price of a CD can’t begin to capture it. Innumerable times, I have felt uplifted, comforted or smoothed over by George Michael’s music as invaluable medicine, and there is no way to “pay” for that.
I knew that life was full of hard knocks. I knew he strove to maintain a private life that he didn’t like to have pried open for the rest of the world. I knew that his voice had been choked with depression and darkness caused by a too-prurient world in which social suffocation and profit-motivations got the better of well-meaning souls. But this person, who just like the rest of us, had struggled, had given me so many wonderful moments that I wanted to give something back.
The only thing I had to offer was language and words. My friend Michi suggested I still write the letter to him, even though he was no longer with us. Back in the 1980s, the inner fold of the cassette tape had a mailing address of the record company-managed fan club, and that’s how you could send a fan letter. But today, it would have been so easy to tweet him or send him a letter on the Internet. It was so easy in fact, that I didn’t find the time. Send it to him in heaven, Michi said, he’ll get it.
So here is my late letter.
To: George Michael, Singing Angels Way, Amazing Light, P.O. Box: L.O.V.E. Heaven
Dear George Michael,
You don’t know me from millions of others whose lives have been touched forever by your profound and beautiful music. I wanted you to know, that I, like others, heard and appreciated the effort, hard work, thought and artistry you put into perfecting your productions. Your voice was instantaneously recognizable and listening to you gave me a range of feelings: happiness, melancholy, empathy, and love.
No matter how weighty or full of drivel the world could be, your music that took me into a sublime place. You voice gave us insight into beauty and love, the things that let us know we are alive.
I especially like the fact that you stayed true and close to the material that hurt you, the social constructs which choked people, searching for the truth of emotion between people, laying out the vulnerabilities of personal change, and about getting older. I felt you when talked about running out of time, letting go, of mothers, of father figures, of angels, and of misplaced love, of aspirations, and of trying to get to a better life. “Strange”, is a word, you used exquisitely, to let us know we aren’t alone in the unease of living slightly askant from what was expected. Thank you for putting it all out there, in your unique style.
I am grateful that you expressed your compelling, inner thoughts with your poetry and lovely voice. Thank you for not playing it safe with your music, but for sublimating pain and love to something we could hear and enjoy. Thank you for not hiding behind shouting thrashing loud guitars, and abstracted words that hid behind a veneer of remove.
Thank you also for your infectious, instantaneous dance sound, your syncopated rhythms, and melodious tunes. I ran a lot of miles to your music, and sweated off pounds!
Your fans are now pouring out their hearts with stories of how you touched them, and how you helped them. You touched my heart. It was real. It was my life. Your music helped formed my dreams, my sense of beauty, my sense of what was possible in life, my sense of how I saw the world.
It’s a little late to have to write you from my silly computer on earth, but I hope your spirit will always feel how much we cherish you, with deep love and abiding regard.