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On the heels of what would have been his 55th birthday, June 25th, the late rock great George Michael came into mind. I realized my rare interview with him needed a rethink and I went back to see what I had. And I found he expressed such insightful concerns. “When we did ‘Wham Rap!’ we were trying to do a parody. We were trying to say, ’Dough is shit by saying dough is great.’ I was trying to say that, ‘Just because you don't have a job doesn't mean you're shit.’”
So said the late pop star a little more than 30 years ago. He was detailing the development of "Faith,” his then much anticipated debut solo album which became a huge hit and life changing for the artist.
The boyish singer added, “There were a lot of elements that people took serious about Wham! when we were being totally tongue-in-cheek. We tried to do a parody of sexism with the guy that was rapping in ‘Young Guns.’ He was supposed to be me. We were making out that he was a jerk thinking that girls were only good for fucking and getting married to. Then I got this sexist crap back. I'm used to being misunderstood…”
The former pop superstar and Wham! lead singer said that and much more during our lengthy interview back in mid-year 1987. I was sent to Los Angeles to conduct this intimate conversation with the former teen star who had made Wham! a hit-making machine and who was virtually a household name at the time. Of course, many rock cognoscenti disdained Michael for his bubbly pop in comparison to say the more critically acclaimed Boy George, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet.
But as the conversation and album proved, there was much more to Michael than expected or had been expressed at that time. As is known now he went on to record other powerhouse records, make controversial statements, come out as gay, have drug/alcohol problems, and tragically die of natural causes on Christmas, December 25th, 2016. Some have speculated that his past chemical abuses led to the heart condition that felled him.
In any case, I had pitched the idea of doing Michael for the cover of a new magazine, "In Fashion", a Euro-publishing transplant breaking boundaries between pop culture and style in a way that the burgeoning Brit mags like "ID" and "The Face" were doing. Its cover concept at the time was to pair a male personality with a female one — say a music star with an actor of the opposite sex. This hadn’t been done before; no magazine was crossing the divide between men and women that way, incorporating forward fashion, couture and popular design. So no wonder that the creative team — publisher, art director and editor — thought Michael was a perfect artist to pair with some female icon of the time.
Apparently, the idea also intrigued someone in Michael’s camp because Sony not only thought the interview important enough but they sent me westerly to his manager's LA home and gave me enough time to nail down a substantial interview. And he was giving very few at the time.
As a result, editors at a major rock magazine got wind that I had this interview and that "In Fashion" was hesitating to publish it since Michael insisted they use only his favorite photog — which was Herb Ritts. So another magazine came to me to publish a version which forced "In Fashion" to do so as well. I continued writing for this magazine for another year until there was editorial turnaround again.
The soulful singer ruminated about his controversial single off that album. “‘I Want Your Sex’ is perhaps the most successfully black-sounding record I've ever done. Having spent a lot of time listening to modern black music and dancing in clubs, that song is my reflection of my life at the moment. One of the reasons for making sure there is more funk-oriented material on this album, as part of my new career, is to get people to hear the other songs on this album.”
He added, “The most important songs for me are not the funk songs. There are some songs that transcend anything I could possibly do on the dance level. The stuff I'm most proud of are the ones based around my song-making as opposed to my record-making. My songs are not usually contemporary but are usually something that transcends a contemporary sound.
“People will hopefully remember them in five or 10 years. I feel this is not a pop album. It has a far more earthier feel to it, more black-based, simpler, and more aggressive than anything I've done before. I've even added a jazz ballad. There's a strange mix of influences here that gel together.”
As we spoke, I realized I was getting something special from him detailing his career and how it saw it at the time. As he reflected then, “I’m very proud of the pop music I've made, but it's also had very little to do with my personality. [The song] Go-Go’ was not a reflection of my personality, it was a reflection of my craft.
“I built up this group sound which is really only a hint of who I am. I didn't want people to know who I was at the time. I was just very much enjoying my craft. I have had to spend a lot of time in the last two years convincing people that just because the songs I made were pop, they weren't necessarily disposable.
“I think some of those songs were a lot stronger than a lot of the pop that was made at the time and some of those Wham! records will be remembered for a long time. Just because they were lightweight, I've been having to spend a lot of time in the last three years trying to explain to people that I'm not brain dead.”
Caught between pop and soul, Michael found himself in strange place as the build to the LP’s release began. “Black radio would not play "I Want Your Sex." It's the worst reaction I've had on a record for years. For them it was too dirty. Don't ask me why that is, when every good black song on the charts is full of innuendos. If there was a woman singing, they would have played it. I believe the slant on sex generally in the past several years has made it seem terrifying to kids. I've read that even though we've had huge campaigns about AIDS in my country, there hasn't been a large increase of sale of condoms. The kind of lust in "I Want Your Sex" is all part of something good.”
At the time, no one really had an inkling that this solo debut was going to be the smash hit it became. Somehow, between one machination or another, I got to hear some of it early on — especially the title track. I was also deejaying at the time and could hear in every riff and vocal inflection that this was a special recording that powerfully reflected the zeitgeist of that time — the late ‘80s — on both radio and dance floor.
Michael was open and passionate about it all but especially when addressing sex. Of course, the biggest issue surrounding him at the time were questions of his own sexuality. Though I tried, he pivoted around the issue without actually denying it. “I’m totally used to people saying that I'm gay, even though I don't think I've ever done anything lyrically to provoke that. But I'm used to being misinterpreted on that level. People used to say that the only reason Andy was there was because he's gay, but that's a laugh from day one.
The press has tried to link me with my cousin and they've tried to link me with my friend David Austin. They've done the whole bit, but I don't really care, I've never really cared. I've heard so many examples in pop history of that kind of rumor. What difference does it make? These days it's not even an open question. In the '70s it might have been open for debate. Now, if you want your career, it's another story. Yet I don't think anyone's sexuality should get in the way of their talent or career--which it does.
“I have heard the most fantastic rumors about me in the past few years. There are all kind of orgiastic things; they're not even subtle. They're usually something horribly loud. If my life had been that much fun, perhaps I would have written about it. But I know what my life's been like in the past five years, and compared to what people have said, it's extremely dull sexually. I'm happy with it. Anyhow, it suits me if people are talking about it.”
Drugs were another issue that has been a part of his life and even moreso later in his career. “I wouldn't say I'm anti-drugs. I'd say I'm anti certain drugs. They're a very destructive thing to most people, because people only have a certain amount of perspective. There are some people I've seen handle drugs perfectly well in a moderate amount. Moderation with anything is okay but the effects of drugs on the nervous system are far more of a risk to your body. But I don't condemn people for most things. I wouldn't condemn people for taking drugs.
“I condemn encouraging anybody to take drugs because most people can't handle them, it's as simple as that. Put it this way, if we're talking about moderate use of alcohol or moderate drug use, you should go for mild alcohol. I think alcohol is a far more clear-cut issue. Anyway, I've always been glad I was born too late for the psychedelic era, because I would have definitely been a hippie.”
But it was all part of an overall effort to grapple with the consequences of becoming a rock star. As Michael proclaimed, “The rock business is one of the few ways in which young people can become rich very quickly without having to make the kind of rough decisions which push a person into a right-wing bracket. There are business decisions that are made by entrepreneurial types which are to other people's disadvantage. When people want to make money, they have to step on each other.
“Only if you're lucky enough to have the ability and talent which other people want to make money on can you become rich without having to walk over other people. Then you can turn a blind eye for an awfully long time to how people become rich. I've always thought I was always really lucky that I managed to become wealthy without having to walk over others. There aren't many opportunities where that can happen.”
As I read these words again now, long after we spoke, and in reflection of his untimely death at 53, I see however troubled he was or became, he was also incredibly insightful. “There's obviously a dichotomy in having money, yet seeing the things around you that are wrong. I've stayed in my own country, never left for the purpose of taxes, and yet, at the same time, I'm giving lots of money to a country I disapprove of strongly. Maybe I should leave the country. But what difference would that make? I'd only come to the United States. Your government and mine are becoming much the same entity anyway. What bothers me about American culture is it's based on competition. If you don't have a lot of status financially or in terms of celebrity, then you're not much over here.
“On the other hand, when I go home, it depresses me how little ambition there is in England. People just don't aspire to anything there because people feel they're on a loser to begin with. But Margaret Thatcher has an incredible opportunity to do something no one's ever had the opportunity to do before. She's got her third term.
“When you think about her actual ethics, you can't help but admire her ability to turn ideas into reality. She wanted to put England back on the international industrial map and she's done that. That's why our pound's getting stronger again; she's brought money back into the country. But if she wants to be the best known and most respected prime minister ever, she'll have to put some of the money from the top end back to the low end of the country to prevent the division from becoming so wide that the public, especially the middle class, becomes scared. I think a welfare state is absolutely necessary.
“I think it's a shame the way the one in England is being chipped away to resemble the one here in the United States. I was asked to join campaigns of Conservative and Labour in the last election in England. It terrified me because I couldn't believe they were sinking so low as to take a pop artist and to have them up on the hustings, as they call them. Though I understand how politics work, I find it very hard to be in any political direction at the moment. It's easier to apply myself to individual issues.”
Keeping in mind the recent revelations of the charities he supported and his own philanthropic efforts, it’s a tribute to Michael that he had been a champion of many causes for a lon time. He was no Johnny-come-lately to helping — and his put his money where his words were as well, As he said, “I’ve given financial help to the AIDS cause. Anybody who has even vaguely long-term awareness will be able to see that if you've got kids, in 10 or 15 years time, things are still going to be way out of control. You're going to think, "Fuck, I could have done something."
“I’m also very distressed about how the British national health system is deteriorating, equivalent to the one you have here. From the beginning of Wham! we took a tongue-in-cheek at people to get off their asses and not be intimidated. In my country they wouldn't even call me left-wing because the left has become really left and the right has become really right, which makes people like me moderate. The trouble with moderates is that they're a little too nice.”
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