George Michael died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016 of suspected heart failure. I always associated him with Christmas because of his classic 1984 hit Last Christmas (written, produced and recorded by him when he was 21 years old, amazing) and to a lesser extent with December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas), one of his last releases in 2009. Now the anniversary of his death will always be December 25th, tying him to the festive season permanently and in a much bigger way.
So many of the 80s generation of stars I grew up listening to are gone now; George, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston. And so many musicians have died this year including the great David Bowie (the first anniversary of his passing is in a fortnight), Prince, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo earlier this week (who sang on the Band Aid record with George) and now poor old George Michael is added to that tragic list.
The body of work of stars like those become the yardstick by which we measure our lives. Hearing a hit of theirs immediately transports you back to an earlier time in your life. George Michael had a 34-year career, but his legacy was really assured after about two decades. He was controversial, getting into legal battles with his record company, releasing songs like ‘I Want Your Sex’ in the era of the AIDS epidemic, being arrested for lewd conduct in a toilet in California, a string of car crashes, one of which lead to him spending time in jail and a series of health scares including an emergency tracheotomy to save his life when he got pneumonia on tour in Austria.
Last Christmas is a classic for me as it captures the bittersweet feeling of the festive season. I’ve had Christmases of great joy and extreme sadness in my life. You just approach each one thinking ‘let’s hope it’s a good one’ like John Lennon cautiously wrote and sang in his Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over).’ The song ‘Last Christmas’; and its memorable snowy video, deals with the trials and tribulations of young love and all the heartache and happiness that’s a part of it. It’s not automatically happy clappy, there’s a sadness there that echoes George’s own life.
I’ve heard ‘Last Christmas’ four times in the past few days before news of George’s death was reported. The pilot of a plane I was a passenger on played it on the plane’s sound system as we landed in London, I heard it again half an hour later in Heathrow airport itself and twice more on a CD in a car I was travelling in, including Christmas Day 2016, just hours before his death. Little did I know its creator was about to leave us. There have been over 395 cover versions of Last Christmas and, no doubt, that will only grow and grow in the wake of George’s death.
George remembered Christmas as a child: ”I do love Christmas. I always have loved it, ever since I was a child. When I was young both my parents used to work so hard and they always seemed quite stressed to me. But at Christmas everyone would calm down and be nice to each other for a few days, and that used to make me feel very safe. It’s Frank Sinatra who reminds me of Christmas. During the school holidays, when I was a kid, I used to work behind the bar of my dad’s restaurant in Edgware [North London], and he’d always play Sinatra records for the customers. So that association is very strong for me. Why doesn’t it snow at the right time anymore, like it did in the ’60s? If it could snow on Christmas Eve or something that would be perfect.”
George nearly died of pneumonia at Christmas 2011 and he recalled how much he appreciated things that year: ”Best Christmas I can remember, surrounded by the people I love. And knowing that Christmas could have been very different this year for everyone at that table. As it was we stuffed and laughed ourselves silly. I’m such a lucky man! I hope you all had a great one.”
Sadly, he didn’t survive Christmas 2016.
I was lucky enough to see George in concert twice in Dublin within six months on his 25 Live tour. The first one in what’s now called the 3Arena was my favourite. He hadn’t toured extensively and his voice was still in great condition. At one stage, all the girls in the audience screamed simultaneously and a soundwave went right through my head, rocking me a bit. It was a little taste of what Beatlemania must have been like with that wall of screams filling the concert venue. The second gig was outdoors at Dublin’s RDS in the showjumping arena where I’d seen Prince fifteen years before (everyone I see in concert seems to die, I might bar myself from future shows to save lives.)
We need our musicians, the way we need all creative people to try and make sense of our lives and the world around us through their work. When they die, part of us dies with them. George Michael really was a genius. He was a huge fan of Queen and sang with them at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, but he achieved what they did alone. There were four songwriters, producers and musicians in Queen. So George is more like Bowie in that respect, but George was producing his own songs by himself from his early 20s, whereas Bowie always had a co-producer helping him, so George’s achievements are even more impressive in light of that.
Wham! were even starting to enjoy an ironic mini-comeback thanks to the year’s big hit movie Deadpool where the hero keeps mentioning them to comic effect throughout the movie. Sad that he won’t get the chance to take advantage of that as there are some great songs there. Predictably though, there will be an inevitable huge surge in sales of George Michael and Wham! songs in the coming days, weeks and months.
I was going to bed on Christmas night and checked my messages to see if British Airways had traced my missing luggage for my wedding (they haven’t!). That’s when I saw George had died and my heart sank. Then I reminded myself of his self-destructive nature and that we were lucky to have had him as long as we did. In this age of karaoke X-Factor wannabes stealing their 15 minutes of fame by parroting old songs, he was a true original. We really will never see another like him. Rest in peace, George.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved