“If you can’t find your empathy with your subject, you shouldn’t write the book.”
This resonant line was spoken to me by James Gavin – whose in-depth new biography of the late George Michael has just received acclaim. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of talking with Mr. Gavin to quickly realize he’s getting the late music icon.
Mr. Gavin grabs our hand and leads us with clear eyes through the waters of all things George Michael. These waters are murky, deep, and often turbulent – far more so than perhaps even the most dedicated fan would ever imagine.
As dark as the tale may get in parts, it leaves us not in distress but with a clarity that comes from a far greater understanding and appreciation of one of the greatest and most gifted singer-songwriters in our time.
Q: You are a prolific writer-journalist on a wide variety of subjects, but so far your literary work has been entirely devoted to jazz and cabaret. What drew you to George Michael as a subject?
“What drew me so deeply to George was that I realized during the ‘Older’ days that this guy was in a lot of pain, that he was lost and that clues existed in this album and really in all the music he did after that. I saw this huge confusion.
“What was I looking for in telling this story? An honest account of a beautiful talent who was struggling and couldn’t bear the pain of never liking what he saw in the mirror. How all the factors that drove him to become the biggest pop star in the world for a while also pushed him to destroy everything.
Q: How did you start?
“It’s always daunting to let family or heirs know that you, that stranger, are now going to write a book about their loved one because you’ll be instantly suspicious, at least most of the time. The first year or so of this book was really tough because people either wouldn’t respond to me or they said no, because I guess the aforementioned reason of distrust, but also because George’s death was so recent that I think some were still raw to her, and not particularly inclined to talk.
Q: The book was initially rejected by many publishers, why?
“All of this, I guess, tells you something about how George Michael was perceived, despite his death. I think he was seen as some sort of faded 80s pop star who had fallen out of favor. And he wasn’t seen as eternally cool like Bowie and Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen and Prince, who all died around the same time.
Q: The buzz at the start of the book focused almost entirely on the sex and drug parts, how does that make you feel?
It was painful for me to see the descriptions in my book as a bunch of garbage because that was all I had been fighting against.
Q: Your portrayal of George’s childhood friend and other half of Wham!, Andrew Ridgeley, is completely honest. Have you spoken with him?
“No to both questions. He hates giving interviews. When he was forced to give interviews because of the publication of his memoirs, he seemed very uncomfortable, very tense and very unrevealing too. I think Wham! was a lark to him. He wasn’t doing the heavy lifting, but on the other hand, if it wasn’t for Andrew, there wouldn’t have been a Wham! and not George, because Andrew’s sense of style and attitude at the time were role models for George, who was a pimply nerd.
Q: George Michael has been underestimated for his songwriting skills. You quote George Martin and Elton John on different occasions describing his writing on par with that of Paul McCartney.
“One of the interesting things about his childhood is that he was such a voracious student of pop music from the past, especially Motown and R&B, although his focus was always on pop. wasn’t rock and roll. George wasn’t much into rock. He liked pop because he understood that it was wide-ranging, that it was ingeniously designed and appealing, that it transcended age and language barriers. He wanted nothing less than everyone to like him. And George would listen to the records of Supremes and Smokey Robinson, and he would analyze them and sort them out in his brain. And he understood the mechanics of writing songs like that. And he welcomed them all.
Q: While researching the book, was there one thing you came across that surprised you the most?
“I was surprised and saddened by the depth of George’s self-loathing, really.”
“He set out to destroy himself as methodically as he set out to create himself, but I’m glad that in the end he is not seen as a tragic figure and that the happy aspects of George Michael and the good feelings that George Michael sired won. They don’t always do it, you know.
Q: Do you have a favorite George Michael song?
“Without a doubt, my favorite George Michael track and song is ‘Spinning the Wheel’ on the ‘Older’ album. I think that track is a masterpiece. didn’t pay attention.
• Christian Josi is a seasoned political operative, writer and media consultant. He is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union and CPAC, and is currently the managing director of C. Josi and Company, a Virginia Beach-based public affairs and media consulting firm.
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George Michael: A Life (Abrams, June 28, 2022)
By James Gavin