Listen without prejudice: Look past the sex, drugs, the weird TV. George Michael can *sing*
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's the one good thing that I've got.
— George Michael, "Freedom 90"
I don't know about the whole show, ABC's new "Eli Stone" — it looked a wee bit hokey, like "Touched by an Angel" for couples who conceived their kids after episodes of "Ally McBeal" — but the George Michael clips give great YouTube.
Check out his debut in the series premiere. Eli's having sex and becomes ... distracted by ... music. He stops, investigates — and finds George Michael in his living room singing "Faith." George Michael interrupting someone's sex life for a moment of religious clarity! And still they claim that irony is dead.
Throughout this first season of the show, there was George Michael continuing to repurpose his songs as a guardian angel in Eli's dream sequences. The stuffy law firm winds up singing and dancing to "Freedom 90." The firm defends a teenage girl for playing "I Want Your Sex" over the PA during an abstinence-education rally. In the season finale, George Michael brings Eli out of a coma by singing of "a new dawn, a new day" in the standard "Feeling Good." But first Eli asks him, "Are you God?" George Michael smirks and replies, "Well, some men have said so ..."
It's wholesome! It's lurid! It's both!
George Michael — and for the purposes of this article he shall be referred to by his full name, a la his namesake on another of the pop star's rather inadvertent TV touchstones, "Arrested Development" — isn't God. He ain't even saintly, God knows. But as he comes ashore this summer for his first American tour in 15 years (with a stop Wednesday at Chicago's United Center) thank heavens we can finally re-examine the man for what brings him here — and what really matters in our lives as pop music fans.
Because when we're done chuckling about his latest arrest for public sex (Larry Craig was such a copycat) or drugs (as he lit a joint during an interview on Britain's "South Bank Show" in 2006, he explained, "This stuff keeps me sane and happy") or drug-related traffic stops (green means go, red apparently means nap) — entertaining as those are in pop culture's hippodrome of hypocrisy — the scandals have nothing to do with why we still listen to the music.
And we do still listen to the music. Turn on a radio, real or online. He's still in the playlists. He's a favorite quick, universal pop cultural reference in movies as well as TV. ("The Rules of Attraction," for instance — dreadful little adaptation, but the hotel-bed dance scene scored by "Faith" redeemed every penny of admission.)
Perhaps this is a good reminder as we recover from the R. Kelly child pornography trial — look at all those fans still eating up his output (OK, bad choice of words) — and as we brace for another comeback by the self-proclaimed and similarly acquitted King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Wacko Jacko, certainly, deserves the nickname, but who out there is so self-righteous that they could suddenly deny the basic bliss of "Off the Wall" just because its creator wound up in court? Likely the same gnarled gnomes who pick apart a politican's every gaffe in a frustrated attempt to canonize a saint instead of hire a public servant.
Some young trick even claimed recently that Boy George chained him up as a slave in the pop star's basement. Now the bloke is barred from entering the United States (Homeland Security finally pays off!). And you wanna diss George Michael for smoking the occasional spliff and not averting his gaze when a hot cop makes eyes?
So we welcome back George Michael — the beleaguered pothead, the lonely john, the misguided angel with the angelic voice — and with his new tour arriving here this week and his new greatest-hits CD ("Twenty-Five," out now), let us remind the masses of the most important part of his rollicking, ever-evolving Wikipedia biography:
Dude can sing.
Give him five songs
Without getting too old-man, everything-was-better-when-Roberta-Flack-was-on-FM on you, the robots are taking over popular song. If it's not a young woman showing off her vocal gymnastics by cramming 18 notes into each syllable (thank you, Mariah), it's a young mallpunk whose mediocre voice has been so "doctored" by ProTools software that he sounds like the second cousin of Matthew Broderick's computer in "War Games." Those who hunger for real singing — who relish the experience of being lifted up by a single powerful voice carefully evoking the words of a well-crafted lyric — are reduced to making pop stars out of young opera tenors. Mamma mia!
Pull out your old George Michael records. You didn't sell them all, despite what you claim at parties. Log on, catch up with the last few albums you probably didn't buy. Listen again. The familiarity of his hits can obscure his formidable talent. There's gold in them thar skills.
I'm not even that big a fan. I only own two full albums, "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" and "Songs From the 20th Century," plus a few of the hits. I just never thought he was worth the butt of the joke. (OK, the butt of Dana Carvey's "SNL" butt jokes, funny stuff.) Here we are in another election year; let's take this opportunity to train ourselves to keep perspective amid petty character assassinations. Suck it up and listen to at least these five songs — five songs from the solo George Michael catalog that showcase the man's incomparable pipes and will make all the gags irrelevant:
— "A Different Corner" — After proving that Andrew Ridgeley's contribution to the Wham! equation was virtually nil (as everyone with ears suspected) by scoring a massive solo hit with "Careless Whisper," George Michael released this second single in 1986, and was it ever solo — the first record to top the British charts that was written, performed, arranged and produced by a single person. The song sways ever so gently in a somnambulant cradle of bass, piano and patient synthesizers, over which George Michael's voice coos, aches and, when the words demand it, wails. The only special effect you hear on this recording is the perfect echo of the room.
— "Faith" -- Wondering what all the fuss was about a few weeks ago when Bo Diddley died? Wasn't he just some academic hero of bluesmen? The simple, chukka-chukka-chug acoustic guitar riff that props up this easy, urgent hit is a prime example of how far Diddley's influence spread. When an artist like George Michael — berated by then as a bubblegum trifle — needs to lean on some credibility, he brings out the shave, the haircut, and both bits. (Heck, this riff was so simple even Ridgeley could've played it.) But its freshness — dig the way he shifts gears between the breathless and the bombast — is evidenced by its near ubiquity in pop culture, even eclipsing the song everyone wouldn't shut up about in 1987, "I Want Your Sex" (which is — huh? — not on his new greatest hits double disc!).
— "My Baby Just Cares for Me" -- Did anyone buy this collection, "Songs From the 20th Century"? Released in 1999 — when doing a covers album was past de rigueur and had become de manded — George Michael tossed out his take on a bunch of his favorite tunes, spanning the century in question, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" to the Police's "Roxanne." His reading of this old, jazzy standard brims with effervescent, almost mischievous joy ("even Ricky Martin's smile ..."), and his vocal delivery over all those runs is smooth as buttah.
— "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- Recorded in 1985 at Live Aid but not released until 1991, this exciting concert moment ("Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!") shows how strongly he delivers outside the studio. His reading of this classic rock ballad is so fluid and lovely, almost soulful, that Elton's entrance is frankly an unwelcome interruption.
— "They Won't Go When I Go" -- George Michael's most awesome performance. On the acclaimed but less successful 1990 "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" album, George Michael set out to prove himself an artist and adult, which he could have accomplished simply by choosing to attempt this Stevie Wonder album track. But his transcendent recording, afloat on a tidal gospel arrangement, bests Wonder's original and sets us all up for the notion that — yeah, Eli — maybe he is an angel.
It's not all golden, of course. He's tossed off his share of stinkers — try to stay awake during "Jesus to a Child," I dare you — and all we can say for the Wham! years is, hey, it was what it was (and sometimes, c'mon, it was fun). But compare him to his contemporaries, and he indeed begins looking pretty saintly.
Boy George? A crap solo career and the aforementioned legal troubles. Rick Astley? He's about to release a greatest-hits set with more than one song on it, go figure. Pet Shop Boys? Undoubtedly iconic, but they didn't exactly rise above the dance-club rut. Paul Young? (Crickets chirping.) Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet, Dead or Alive and all the other 1980s chart toppers now playing the state-fair circuit? Shudder.
George Michael stands with the icons of that particular age (and their peccadillos), with Madonna (spiritual slut) and Bono (spiritual hack) and Michael Jackson (arrogant oddball). And these days his voice — granted, it's been well-rested of late — sounds better than any one of them.
So, children, come back. Forget the jeers of rock critics, and ignore the sanctimonious temperance leagues. Put down the gossip rags. Give some thought to what the experience of listening to music means and the power a strong voice can transmit through your bones. Come see a happy, fulfilled singer at possibly another peak of his performing career.
It may be your last chance, after all. He once again recently mulled over the possibility of retiring, with a maturity to his perspective that made us love him all the more: "Mainly the reason is because I'm 45 and I think pop music should be about youth culture. ... It shouldn't be an endurance test."
I won't let you down
So please don't give me up
Because I would really, really love to stick around ...
- - -
GEORGE MICHAEL THROUGH THE YEARS
You'd be perfectly within your rights to have forgotten that George Michael has a shred of talent. In the last 10 years, he's had plenty of media coverage, hardly any of it about him singing. To his credit, you'd be hard-pressed to find a worldwide celebrity who has taken his public embarrassments in such easy stride. He copped to the whole bathroom arrest by joking with Oprah in 2004: "They don't send Columbo in there, you know. They send someone nice-looking."
Here's a look at the high notes and low notes of George Michael's nearly 30 years in the public eye. And consider this: Can you think of a single moment in all these years when he's been clean-shaven?
November 1979: Forms his first band, a ska group called The Executive, with pal Andrew Ridgeley.
April 1982: Ridgeley and George Michael, now teamed as a duo called Wham! (named, so the record company said at the time, for the sound these two made when they came together ... now stop laughing ...), release their first single, "Wham! Rap," in which George Michael (gulp) raps lines such as, "Hey, jerk! You work! This boy's got better things to do."
July 1983: The debut Wham! LP, "Fantastic," enters the British albums chart at No. 1.
June 1984: Now on a bigger label, Epic, the single "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" hits No. 1.
August 1984: Even though the song appeared on the second Wham! album, "Make It Big," the single "Careless Whisper" is billed as solo George Michael. It's an instant No. 1 and is Epic's first million-seller.
December 1984: A Wham! world tour begins as George Michael is featured on the charity Band Aid hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
April 1985: Wham!'s tour of China, the first visit to that country by a Western pop act, generates enormous worldwide media coverage, much of it centered on George Michael.
July 1985: George Michael duets with Elton John on the latter's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" during Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. The recording won't be released until December 1991, and it hits No. 1 two months later.
June 1986: Taking a stand against the band's manager selling out part of his interest to a South African company (or at least seizing on a fantastic excuse), Wham! decides to split up and plays its farewell concert for 72,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.
April 1987: "Faith" is released, the George Michael solo debut. It'll sell 6 million copies in a year. Today, it's minted at least 15 million copies.
June 1987: The "I Want Your Sex'" single hits the streets, but not many airwaves. Some American radio stations ban it, and British DJs are allowed to discuss it only by referring to it as "I Want."
March 1988: Wins a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," his duet with Aretha Franklin.
February 1989: Wins another Grammy for Album of the Year, for "Faith." (Yes, it was released in '87. The Grammys, to put it mildly, are slow on the uptake.)
September 1990: "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" is released. It sells "only" 4 million copies.
1991-95: Begins a long legal fight to escape his contract with the Sony corporation. A casualty in this battle is "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2," which dies in preproduction. (Three songs from the project are eventually donated to the AIDS charity disc "Red Hot + Dance," and the song "Crazyman Dance" turned up on the B-side of 1992's "Too Funky," his final recording for Sony.) He's silent for the next three years during the court fight.
July 1995: Settles with Sony, signs with Virgin Records.
May 1996: "Older" is released, becomes the fastest-selling album in the history of Virgin Records.
June 1996: Meets his current partner, art dealer (and former cheerleading coach) Kenny Goss.
April 7, 1998: Arrested for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public bathroom at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills, Calif. Anyone who didn't know he was gay gets the memo. He's charged and released on $500 bail.
April 10, 1998: Finally comes out of the closet in an interview on CNN, saying, "This is a good of a time as any. ... I want to say that I have no problem with people knowing that I'm in a relationship with a man right now. I have not been in a relationship with a woman for almost 10 years." Not a single gasp is heard.
May 1998: Pleads "no contest" to the charges, is fined $810, ordered to perform 80 hours of community service and seek counseling — and was banned from the park.
November 1998: The video for "Outside," from "Ladies & Gentlemen — The Best Of George Michael," parodies the restroom incident.
December 1999: Releases "Songs From the Last Century," an album of covers, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" to the Police's "Roxanne."
April 2000: Joins Melissa Etheridge, Garth Brooks, Queen Latifah, the Pet Shop Boys, and k.d. lang to perform in Washington, D.C., as part of Equality Rocks, a benefit concert in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian organization.
May 26, 2004: Appears on "Oprah" — his first U.S. television appearance in more than 10 years — to promote a new album, "Patience," and discuss his arrest.
Early 2005: Goss and George Michael open the Goss Gallery in Dallas.
Feb. 26, 2006: Arrested for drug possession after he's found slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes near Hyde Park Corner in London. He later describes the incident as his "own stupid fault, as usual."
May 2006: While driving his Range Rover in London, hits three parked cars. Later is found by a passer-by again slumped over the steering wheel at a traffic light.
September 2006: Scandal again, but one we can support — he's chastised for a tour prop, a giant figure of George Bush in a ... compromising position.
Oct. 1, 2006: Found unconscious again at the wheel of his Mercedes in the middle of traffic. He pleaded guilty and was banned from driving for two years, plus more community service.
December 2007: Plays himself in a public park looking for action in the series finale of HBO's "Extras."
Jan. 16, 2008: Signs a fat book contract with HarperCollins for a memoir which he is to write "entirely himself."
April 1, 2008: Releases the double-disc greatest-hits CD "Twenty-Five," featuring 29 songs, including a new version of "Heal the Pain" recorded as a duet with Sir Paul McCartney.
June 17, 2008: Opens his first U.S. tour in 15 years in San Diego. Tells the California crowd, "I was watching TV yesterday and saw two women get married!" He then launched into the song "Amazing," which he dedicated to Goss.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.