I drafted a fresh post about George Michael on Boxing Day, but before I could hit publish, another icon, Carrie Fisher, had died. People we don’t know die every day, the loved ones of others. Sometimes it’s someone dear to us and it’s terrible. But when an icon dies, someone who may have occupied your thoughts and woven their sparkle into your pop-cultural tapestry of reference, you also feel the loss. Sometimes you’re prepared for these events, other times not.
I was not prepared for George Michael’s death. 53 is young. Not to the 15-year-old me, but to me today, 53 is young. When David Bowie and Prince died this year, I felt sad. But George Michael was not just a musician to me, he was part of my emotional landscape for much of my teens and I just took it for granted that he would be around for a long time.
As I drafted this on Boxing Day, self-medicating with champagne and liqueur chocolates, I felt a poignant mix of sadness and gratitude. Sad that George Michael’s gone too soon, but grateful that such an artist existed in the first place and gave me, and all who wanted it, his gift of music.
George Michael may have started as just a popstar, derided for his penchant for a gimmick (Choose Life, fluro clothes, happy brain-candy pop tunes and lyrics) but after the 1987 release of his solo album Faith, it was clear that George had real talent, the respect of other established artists (Elton John, Aretha Franklin) and the voice of an angel with a knack for lyrics and musical arrangement.
I know many people my age have uttered these words the past few days, but George Michael provided a soundtrack to much of my generation. He was there for every heartache of my teen years, and in troubled times I would look up at the poster on my bedroom wall, to see George gazing down at me. I felt reassured by his smile showing off amazing white teeth, and his blond tipped hair. I just felt assured that everything was going to be OK.
I first heard of the pop duo Wham! when the singles were released from their 1983 album Fantastic. I was 13 and thought Bad Boys was so cool when I heard it on Sydney’s “Rock of the 80s” 2SM. They were bad boys in leather kissing girls in pearls, as the lyrics from Young Guns go. But in this era of one TV in the house, no video recorder and decades away from the internet, I didn’t actually lay eyes on singer George Michael until a year later. It was at my friend Naughty Kate’s house, and Wake Me Up Before You Go Go and Careless Whisper were both played on Countdown.
Who’s THAT? I thought, immediately taken with his hair, his teeth, his shorts. Kate and Nadia, my Wham!-partner-in-crime, seemed to know who he was. I was 14 and I was instantly in love.
It wasn’t long afterwards that Wham! announced Sydney concert dates. They played the Entertainment Centre on 26th January 1985. Nadia and I were there with four other girls from school, right up the back, a gaggle of gigglers in electric blue mascara and tube skirts. And it was only days after this that I came face-to-face with George in the flesh after stalking him at the Sebel Town House, which is a whole other blog post.
My career plan from the age of 15 was literally, that when I turned 18 I was going to go to England, hunt down George Michael and marry him. Or if that didn’t work out, I was going to join the cast of Neighbours. I was deluded, but at least I had the sense never to admit it to the careers counsellor at school, prefering to hide my true feelings behind the more socially acceptable “journalism”. I maintained the facade of joining the real world sometime in the late 80s when I completed that Diploma in Journalism. Really, I saw it as an entree to the world of celebrity.
I was convinced George would be mine – I’d done my research. I knew, from reading the English version of Smash Hits, that George’s favourite foods were Mars Bars, Scotch, and Mayonnaise and that he liked to go to a London club called Stringfellows. A quick google search more than 30 years later, tells me Stringfellows is a lap-dancing club, but no matter, I’m sure it would’ve been a great place to start my search.
I knew George’s father ran a Greek restaurant on Edgware Road, Edgware. Again, thank you Smash Hits. My friend Nadia and I even rang the damn restaurant from the pay phone in the girls toilets during school recess once. We found the phone number without the internet thanks very much.
I found out all about his personal life. Oh the jealousy I felt towards; Pat Hernandez, his rumoured girlfriend, Brooke Shields, rumoured to be dating him, and even poor Pepsi and Shirely his backup singers, because at least they got to be actual friends with him. Oh why couldn’t I just be five years older, like Brooke Shields – then he’d be mine.
Nadia and I would get the bus to Grace Brothers Bondi Junction on Saturday mornings and stand in front of a video jukebox that had their song Club Tropicana as one of the selections -we could choose life in our Choose Life t-shirts but we couldn’t even select the damn song on the department store jukebox- we had to wait for it to randomly come on. We would stand there for all morning, waiting to get a glimpse of George’s thigh jiggling in his white speedos. No, we didn’t have a video recorder at home. Back in my day, we had to wait for things. My son, Spider Boy, who in a happy coincidence, is also called George (named after his Greek grandfather), just can’t believe it. If he wants to see something now he just
looks it up asks me to look it up on You Tube.
The problems of teenage life and school seemed to be diluted by a big Wham!-shaped distraction. Sticking pictures of George and Andrew in short white shorts, ever-present fluro tops and blonde tipped hair all over our school diaries, reading Smash Hits and Countdown Magazine out loud and squealing with delight at lunch, and fantasising about how our lives would be when we finally met George and Andy. But mainly George.
Nadia showed herself to be a true friend of the highest order when she announced to me in a study period one day, “You can have George”.
“What? Really?” I asked.
“Yes. I prefer George, but I know how much you like him, so when we meet them, you can have George. I’ll have Andrew.” What a friend.
But sometimes Nadia liked to play bizarre mind games, one day randomly uttering to me in another year 10 study period, “You hate George’s mother.”
“What?” I asked.
“You hate George’s mother” she repeated.
“Why? Why would I hate George’s mother?” I asked, incredulous.
“You think she’s trying to take George away from you” she stated.
I got a strange sense of enjoyment from that exchange, because Nadia was acknowledging my “relationship” as a real-life thing. She was making it all seem possible.
It was this bizarre fantasy world we lived in that probably contributed to my abysmal HSC mark, or perhaps helped me cope with my teenage issues of the day.
We were famous for our Wham! obsession. Gigi, Nadia’s neighbour who I’d heard of but hadn’t met before, approached us at the bus-stop one day in the summer holidays of 1985. She smiled quizzically with her hot-pink lipsticked lips. “So Nadia, do you still like Wham!?” she questioned, as though liking Wham! was something vaguely amusing. Gigi was just a little bit cooler with her preference for Spandau Ballet. But Tony Hadley was no George Michael.
“Well yes, actually I do, and that’s why Alex and I are going into the city today.” She told Gigi. Nadia and I were getting the bus into town to see a display of George Michael’s concert outfits that were to be auctioned off for Live Aid, Bob Geldof’s charity event to raise money for famine victims in Ethiopia.
30 years later, it would be Gigi who first alerted me to George’s death, with her text on Boxing Day morning “Did you hear about George Michael?” with a crying emoji.
Our Wham reputation culminated in a school camp, where Nadia and I clearly couldn’t cope with four nights away from our Wham! posters at home, so we just bought one to camp with us and hung it in our tent. The other girls started singing Wake Me Up Before You Go Go around the campfire. Not in the spirit of inclusiveness, but to mock us. You know when you’re being mocked. The poster may have been defaced from memory. I’m pretty sure it was. The cool girls liked Duran Duran and U2.
My love for Wham! never went away, I still listen to the music from time to time and love to belt out George’s brilliant lyrics in songs like Freedom (NOT 1990, but the 1984 song of the same name; Like a prisoner who has his own key, but I can’t escape until you love me, I just go from day to day knowing all about the other boys… and Wham Rap. But my fan-obsessiveness fell away as I grew up and other things took its place, like actually growing up, real life, job, study, actual males and not just an image on a poster or a video.
Even though I never would meet him in his dad’s restaurant, or share a Mars Bar with him at Stringfellows, George gave me more than he could ever imagine; Not only did my crush provide me with a “boyfriend” without the hassle of actually having one, I was able to harness the passion I felt for him between 1984 – 1986 and later use it in my job as editor of Smash Hits magazine more than a decade later.
It was this understanding of the passion our readers felt for Taylor Hanson and Leonardo DiCaprio that allowed me to write down my vision for the relaunch for Smash Hits magazine in 1997 and turn it into the fastest growing magazine in Australian that year. I knew what our readers wanted. I knew that they really thought they were going to marry Taylor Hanson. Just the way I knew I was going to marry George. They wanted to be close to the stars and I knew how to make the readers feel that Smash Hits was their ticket to the first class carriage on the pop star express.
My love for George became a fond memory. I’ve thought at various times in my life that I would be sad when he dies one day. When I’m old. When he’s older. It wasn’t meant to happen now, and not on Christmas Day. But that’s the thing about life isn’t it? A sobering reminder that anything can happen and there’s so much we can’t control.
In Wham!‘s debut single Wham Rap (1982) George prophetically sang the words …you can dig your grave, I’m staying young... Well he did stay young, simply in the fact that he will now never grow old.
I like the advice he raps in the same song, Make the most of every day, don’t let hard times stand in your way, give a wham give a bam but don’t give a damn cos the benefit gang are gonna pay! Forgetting the last bit about doing what you want cos you can just get the dole, the sentiment about making the most of every day serves as a warning.
I stopped following George’s career closely after I gave up on my dream of marrying him, I only took a vague interest in news items about him in the ensuing years. Did he make the most of every day? Maybe he did, probably more so after his near death from pneumonia in 2011. but in any case, it can serve the rest of us as a poignant reminder of how to live.
So remember to give a wham, give a bam (whatever the hell that is) but don’t give a damn. Don’t give any f*&%s about what’s not important, and make the most of your days. Each day. Because we just don’t know what the next day is going to bring.
I showed this post to Nadia who is still one of my dearest friends to this day and she texted me after reading”… the bit about me saying ‘You hate George’s mother’ etc, cracks me up as I’d forgotten about it.” I told her how funny and original she is, and she replied “…2017 is going to be the year of fun! I can feel it. Too many people dying and getting sick so remember YOLO – you only live once.”
So Wham Rap will be our new philosophy-in-a-song. Just as well, as I’ll never be able to listen to Last Christmas, one of my favourites that does double duty as love song and Christmas carol, the same way again. We listened to it at Christmas.
My ex-husband who played DJ this year, told me “Alex, this one’s for you”. We had no way of knowing that the very next day, the grim reaper would not give George’s heart away, but completely destroy it, as my ex joked about George’s character in the song having a new girlfriend and still being hung up on the one from last year.
I feel for George’s loved ones, including best friend and partner-in-Wham!, Andrew Ridgeley, that they’ve lost George so young, so unexpectedly, and on Christmas Day. That song will take on an extra significance now.
Thank you for helping shape my youth, George. Thank you for providing a mental escape route from the hardships of growing up, and for a catalogue of songs that have added colour, melody and texture to the lives of a generation.