Remembering George Michael … minus the scandals

Although I believed I was right, the minute I made a negative comment on a friend’s Facebook page a few days after British pop star George Michael died, I dreaded getting into a confrontation. 

What got me worked up was her post:  “Another wasted talent.” A news article followed stating that Michael battled a heroin addiction and was rushed to the hospital on multiple occasions before he died Dec. 25. The cause of death, despite reports saying it was heart failure, has not been made official. The results would take several weeks.

I saw her statement to be the equivalent of dancing on someone’s grave. “Maybe if Michael had not gotten into drugs, he’d still be here” the post implied.  It made me wonder if, when finding out someone she knew died prematurely from diabetes, cancer or heart disease, she said to herself, “if only he/she avoided the junk food, watched their diet and exercised ... ‘Another wasted life’.” I immediately responded to her post citing the pop star’s battles with his sexuality, depression, drug addiction and skirmishes with the law. The issues were nothing new. I listed previous musicians and Hollywood actors whose personal demons had gotten the best of them. 

Fans of the entertainment industry were familiar with the sordid stories, but those storiesweren’t what mourners chose to remember. When social media spread the news of Michael’s death, fans laid wreaths, flowers and memorial cards outside his two residences in north London and Goring, England.

Fans did what they had done so many times before in 2016 after learning of the deaths of music icons David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, Leonard Cohen and others. They posted Michael’s lyrics to his hit songs and YouTube videos of concert performances on Facebook and recalled his work as an LGBT rights campaigner and his involvement with HIV/AIDS charities. 

Michael’s passing didn’t hit me immediately the way the deaths of Bowie, Frey, Prince and Cohen did. I saw the singer/songwriter and record producer as a one-hit wonder with the song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” performed with Andrew Ridgeley as the British rock band, Wham!

I was even less impressed with Michael’s 1987 hit, “I Want Your Sex” and viewed it as just another attempt to drum up needless controversy. Then it dawned on me that Michael did a number of songs I actually liked, including the 1984 single, “Careless Whisper,” written with songwriting partner Ridgeley at 17. It was the lyrics that struck a chord with his fans.

“I’m still a bit puzzled why it has made such an impression on people. Is it because so many people have cheated on their partners? Is that why they connect with it? I have no idea, but it’s ironic that this song - which has come to define me in some way – should have been written right at the beginning of my career when I was still so young,  " Michael said in an interview with The Big Issue. 

There was Aretha Franklin’s 1987 Grammy Award winning song, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” that I later learned he performed with Franklin as a duet. I didn’t appreciate Michael’s slow-moving ballad,“Kissing a Fool” until after he was gone. 

If Michael was fighting the demons of drug addiction in his final days, those battles are over now. He is likely somewhere jamming on a stage in the next world with fellow musicians Bowie, Cohen, Frey and Prince and collaborating on some new song. Whatever the case, it’s not his 1988 hit, “Monkey,” which reportedly detailed the singer’s battles with drugs.As for that war of words I was expecting to get into with that friend of mine on Facebook, she posted back saying what I wrote was well said, adding that it breaks her heart when so much talent is lost due to drug addiction.

- Joe Stumpo