Singer George Michael during his Faith World Tour (1988).Image Getty

    I remember the first time I Careless Whisper of George Michael heard so well because that one, as the English say, watershed moment used to be. Lumbling on the beach of a sand quarry in Handel, with an oblique eye on Ilse from Boekel, I heard Careless Whisper for the first time from the portable radio. After which I fell head over heels for, yes, Ilse, but also for the musical talent of a man who until that moment was regarded as nothing more than a superficial poster boy with a blow-dried mane and snow white teeth.

    With the band Wham! George Michael already had six hits, including the worldwide number 1 listing Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. wham! he would later describe it as an exercise in ‘ignoring my intelligence’. Careless Whisper was a different story, with that weeping saxophone solo by Steve Gregory, the veteran who Honky Tonk Women of the Rolling Stones had issued his business card.

    Nowadays, Careless Whisper fairly widely regarded as a classic (with over 600 million streams, it’s his most popular song on Spotify). But in 1984 it marked a turning point for George Michael, who was barely 21 at the time (compared to my 16 years). Michael turned out to be a gifted songwriter, according to his childhood hero Elton John even ‘the best of his generation’. And then he still had to start on his first solo album, that musical Pandora’s box with the title track Faith (360 million streams) as a twinkling flagship.

    In Barehis 1991 autobiography, Michael had already told how Careless Whisper had come into being, namely in his head, as he thought up all the songs in his head before the recordings started. The saxophone riff came to him—he still remembered it like it was yesterday—while handing over money for a ticket for the bus he used to chug to his side job. Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, who was then 18 years old and still living with his parents, christened the song Guilty Feet (‘guilty feet have got no rhythm’). After which it was on the shelf for three years. He was only 18 years old at the time!

    It’s been six years since Michael died of heart disease in December, and it’s nearly impossible to listen to his music without a sense of unfulfilled longing. Just like Michael Jackson, that other pop star who died in great loneliness at about the same age, George Michael thinks: so much talent and such a musical instinct to let other people enjoy… how could a person not be there himself? to be happy?

    George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley as pop duo Wham!  (1983).  Image Getty

    George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley as pop duo Wham! (1983).Image Getty

    Well, James Gavin gives an extensive answer to that question in his biography George Michael – A Life. In five hundred pages, Gavin paints the picture of an incredibly insecure boy who thought everything would be all right once he became famous. And not famous as a singer-songwriter, no, he wanted to be a pop star. As he once said: ‘I didn’t want to be rich; I just wanted to be filthy famous’; he didn’t want to be rich, but obscenely famous.

    Biographer James Gavin

    James Gavin (58), George Michael’s biographer, not only wrote biographies (about Lena Horne, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee, among others – indeed, all of them troubled musicians), but also cover texts for hundreds of CDs, the so-called ‘liner notes’ . The essay he wrote with the CD box Ella Fitzgerald – The Legendary Decca recordings even earned him a Grammy nomination.

    The popularity that came to him at an early age did not turn out to be the medicine he hoped for. Gavin places much of the blame for Michael’s pain and insecurity on his father, Greek Cypriot immigrant Kyriacos Panayiotou. Like Jack Panos, he had worked his way up from dishwasher to restorer. He was ‘a mean bastard’, we read. He had a knack for belittling his son, with words Michael didn’t even dare to repeat later in life. “I never got over it,” he later confessed.

    Jack Panos was an ultra-conservative homophobe, who as a father, to put it mildly, didn’t really lay a foundation for his gay son’s sexual budding. Until Michael came out publicly about his sexual orientation to CNN in 1998 (which he was forced to do after being caught in a public restroom in Beverly Hills by a cop with another man), he lived a life in the closet.

    At first, Michael himself denied the feelings that manifested themselves in him at a young age. He only dared to confide in his older sister Melanie. When Michael ends up with Shirlie Holliman, the childhood friend who is the backing singer of Wham! acts, tells about his sexuality, she does not believe him at first. When they then tell it together to Andrew Ridgeley, the best friend with whom Michael had a bromance for years before the word even existed, he replies: “Well, that’s a bit of a surprise.”

    Ridgeley, with whom Michael formed the duo Wham! formed, comes off poorly in the biography. He oversleeps all the time and misses everything from the recordings of Band Aids Do They Know It’s Christmas? to the American Music Awards. Not that he is ever missed, because his musical contribution is literally nil. Ridgeley’s guitar is never plugged in, nor is his microphone. But Ridgeley was the inspiration for Wham! and that’s enough for Michael.

    George Michael during his Faith World Tour (1988).  Image Getty

    George Michael during his Faith World Tour (1988).Image Getty

    The realization of that loyalty is described graphically by Gavin. When Father Jack starts earning more and the family moves to a new home in the posh north London neighborhood of Radlett, shy Georgios (“I was fat and ugly”) registers hesitantly at his new school, afraid of being ridiculed for his unusual name, his unibrow or his jam jar glasses. To everyone’s surprise, Andrew Ridgeley takes care of him. Ridgeley is the hottest kid in school with a style and a swagger that Michael then seamlessly copies. Even if the duo has already gotten a bit carried away, manager Simon Napier-Bell claims that Wham! consists of ‘a real Andrew and a fake Andrew’.

    As popular as Michael would become, he continued to see himself as the mirror image he hated so much as a teenager. Even in the video clips for Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) or Club Tropicana he thinks his ass is too fat or his right ear too ugly. While, you should check out those clips. Michael is in it youth and attractiveness incarnate. But the heartbreaking insecurity of his childhood will never leave him. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, in the last photos before his death, he has become the puffy parody of his adolescent perception.

    The tragedy of that uncertainty is only surpassed by the other common thread in this life story: the hidden homosexuality that turns his life into a palace of lies. He builds that palace all by himself, but there is no one to try to change his mind either.

    For years Michael keeps there so-called beards except for, women who enter into a relationship with him to camouflage his true orientation. He tells them he is bisexual, some women fall in love with him. He is accompanied by models and singers. For example, there is first Pat Fernandes and later Kathy Yeung, who gains some fame herself with her performance in the video at I Want Your Sex. While on tour, George and Kathy disappear into the same hotel room, after which they split up into adjoining bedrooms. Even the American actress Brooke Shields is taken off as a girlfriend. Indeed, the same Brooke Shields who is said to have been in a relationship with Michael Jackson before.

    It is wry to read about all those caged feelings in the recently published biography, which came out in a month in which Pride is celebrated in the Netherlands and elsewhere. It’s all mustard after the meal, of course, but you would also give Michael such a proud moment, actually.

    James Gavin: George Michael – A Life. Publisher Abrams; 528 pages; €32.99.

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