I started this blog entry earlier this year. It’s still a work in progress.
I have to start this entry with the tragically funny “2016” by the comedy team of Tom and Hubert.
I think many of us can relate to Tom’s shock when being told that David Bowie died. That seemed to kick off the unbelievably long list of beloved celebrities who left us in 2016. This list in this video stops at December 9th, however. Had it been filmed on the 31st, there would be several additional names of celebrities whose deaths left us as gobsmacked as Bowie: we lost George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds in the space of several days. We were glad to see the end of 2016.
I don’t really follow celebrities. I have from time to time, but for the most part, I don’t have the time or the inclination to do so. When celebrities started dying left and right, however – musicians especially – I started thinking back over the course of my life. The first time I saw Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” music video, or Prince in”Purple Rain.” Star Wars. Harry Potter (Alan Rickman). All treasured memories.
Here’s the strange thing, though. I was a George Michael fan when Wham! took the world by storm and afterwards when he went on to have a successful solo career. But I wasn’t a FAN – do you know what I mean? And yet, out of all the people we lost in 2016, his death hit me the hardest. I’m trying to make sense of it.
When I was in my mid 20’s, I saw “Rebel without a Cause” for the first time. My god, James Dean! I was blown away by his performance. I watched “Giant” soon after that, probably the same week. After that, I couldn’t find any more of his movies. It didn’t make sense. How could such a phenomenal actor have only been in two movies? I happened to bring this up during one of my daily phone conversations with my mom, and she told me that James Dean was killed in a car crash when he was 24. I still remember my reaction. My eyes filling with tears, I said, “He died at 24!? But Mom, I’m 24!” I thought about what he could have gone on to achieve, had his life not been cut short, and I grieved for someone who had died years ago. Read everything I could find on him. Watched the few television appearances he made.
Fast forward to August 1997. Princess Diana was killed in a car crash. Again, someone taken in the prime of life. Someone who had given so much to the world, and still had so much more to give. Diana and I were only six months apart in age, so again, her death hit hard. I’ve lost track of the number of biographies I’ve read and movies I’ve watched about Diana’s life in the years since her death.
George Michael was 53 when he died on Christmas Day. I’m 55. I didn’t realize we were that close in age. That gave me pause. The manner of his death – and that the coroner was called in to investigate further – became a story that I followed. I mean, who dies of heart failure at 53, right? And within the next few days, stories of his philanthropic work were reported in the news. He never wanted anyone to know. He just gave quietly. Gave millions, in fact. He was a generous, kind man – not a pampered pop star. I heard also about the tragedies he suffered in his life. He had serious bouts of depression. I could definitely relate to that.
I saw his last music video, “White Light” …
Saying this ain’t the day that it ends
There’s no white light
And I’m not through
I’m alive , I’m alive
And I’ve got so much more
That I want to do with the music
Not exactly the best song to listen to the day after he died.
A few days later, I was at work, and decided that I wanted to honor his memory by doing a tribute to the man and his music. I loaded up a playlist on Spotify with everything George Michael had ever sung, and started listening.
Of course, the good memories came flooding back – “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” “Everything She Wants,” “Faith,” “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” “Father Figure,” and so on. My knowledge of his discography was quite limited though, so there were many songs I was hearing for the first time. I was working away at my desk, doing my thing, the music playing in the background. Occasionally something interesting would wander into the present moment, but for the most part, I wasn’t really paying attention. When I heard “Jesus to a Child” for the first time, I looked over at my second monitor to make note of the song, so I could listen to it again later. I liked the chord changes.
And then it happened – the moment that started my grieving process in earnest. George Michael sang a lot of cover songs – a lot of them – including Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” As soon as that song came on, it crashed into the present moment, forcing me to stop working. I looked at the monitor, horrified. Thinking, “My god! What have I done?!” I started to cry. His voice was so heartbreakingly beautiful, so poignant, so packed with emotion, that I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to it again. “How did I not know?” I asked myself. “How did I let all of these years go by without realizing that this man had the voice of an angel?” Listened to my George Michael Spotify playlist in the car for weeks. Had to pull over to the side of the road and weep the first time I heard “My Mother Had a Brother.”
And, as it had with James Dean and Princess Diana, so began my pilgrimage to George Michael. The news articles. The videos. The interviews. His sexuality (emotionally gay, retro heterosexual: interesting). His smooth dance moves. The few times he acted in skits or had a recurring role in a television show. He played all the instruments on “I Want Your Sex.” He called his Twitter followers, “My Lovelies.” He adored his fans, and they him. And there was the occasional, “Damn! That is one beautiful man!” thrown in. I’m not ashamed to say it (well, maybe a little).
I saw the hundreds of grief-stricken fans who paid their respects at one of George Michael’s homes. So many musicians who acknowledged the contributions he made to music. Adele in particular was devastated, and the version of “Fastlove” she sang at the Grammy Awards … nope. Not listening to it a second time. Members of the gay community who expressed their appreciation for someone who understood what they were going through – they didn’t lose a pop idol, they lost a good friend. I feel as if I lost a good friend as well.
Months – months!!!! – after George Michael passed away, the ME was finally able to determine a cause of death. Yeah, he died from a heart attack – years of depression, drinking, and drugs took this beautiful person away from us way too soon.
More months have passed now. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to any of the 100+ songs on my George Michael Spotify playlist. He has been buried next to his mother; his family and ex-boyfriend are fighting over his estate. Life is back to normal. I’m at the age where this sort of thing is going to happen more and more – I think, who’s next? Who will be the next “star” or “celebrity” to pass away, causing this grieving process to begin all over again? I don’t know. But in the meantime … Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, you were greatly loved, and will be greatly missed. Rest with the angels.