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Review: GEORGE MICHAEL A LIFE by James Gavin

Extensively researched biography of the pop superstar

Review: GEORGE MICHAEL A LIFE by James Gavin Review: GEORGE MICHAEL A LIFE by James Gavin 'Wham!' (or 'George and George's Mate' as they were called amongst us college smartarses) were an electrifying presence, first seen on Top of the Pops doing "Young Guns (Go For It)" with its cheesy community theatre does West Side Story vibe. Next it was back to the flop first single, 'Wham Rap!' - its middle class boy does Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a trick repeated with the next hit, "Bad Boys". Finally, "Club Tropicana" was the Ibiza fortnight we all wanted. They weren't cool and they were very young, but they had a bit of humour and that indefinable something that screams Stardom!

Wham! caught a wave on the emerging early 80s Zeitgeist - optimistic, sexy, but also camp, and, for all their command of the dubious new art form, the pop video, somehow authentic in that Blue-Eyed Soul way. Few bands could bring a record's production values to TV studios and add the energy of a gig, but Wham! could (witness this in front of a "The Tube" audience sullenly waiting for Theatre of Hate or some such largely forgotten, hip for 15 minutes NME darlings). And, perhaps most tellingly, George Michael could write hooks, sing them with a precision given to few and no camera could resist his unthreateningly exotic looks, peekabooing out from under the Lady Di hairdo.

He showed he didn't need George's mate (Andrew Ridgeley did a lot of Wham!'s early styling and reinforced the teen demographic appeal - do not underestimate how important that was) with "Careless Whisper", an MOR ballad for the midnight slowies, the all-important Christmas song with the cheesy "Last Christmas" and then a jump straight to "Pet Sounds" / "Revolver" territory with the still astonishing cri-de-coeur, "Everything She Wants".

Watch that video, especially the vehemence with which the 21 year-old Michael spits out his own lyrics and understand that the object of his disappointment, rage, hatred is not the ill-matched "She" lover of the title, but himself - and you have 400 pages of James Gavin's biography distilled into six terrifying minutes.

Much of that rollercoaster ride lay in the future at that point - the gigantic success, the battles with record companies, the vicious press, the arrests, the drugs, the death - but George could see it, feel it. Like many an intelligent person, he knew enough to know that his judgement would always be flawed, that his resistance to temptation was always contingent and that boredom was a dangerous driver towards excess. What he didn't know - few of us did then - was how to stop the black dog of depression barking so often and so loudly, tipping him into an introspective mindset broken open only by extremes.

Gavin brings this to the page in meticulous detail. He has done the interviews, trawled the archives, visited the places and he understands exactly how George's roiling sexuality pitched his life up and down on an unpredictable ocean of desires, once forbidden (by his Greek Orthodox upbringing) then embraced with a convert's fervour, but never accommodated with anything approaching comfort.

If the wrangles with corporate moguls about contracts are a little dry and if the cataloguing of so many DIU incidents becomes both tedious and frightening (surely somebody should have staged what would now be called an intervention or the legal system cracked down for his own good?), other elements of the book are shocking in their laying bare of a man's soul.

The press treatment (mainly by UK tabloid newspapers) of a closeted vulnerable man is cruel beyond belief - except, of course, it isn't so. The vultures were to use the same weapons against Amy Winehouse and they're doing it now to Meghan Markle and they did it to countless others, the utter, utter ss.

The wealth acquired so quickly is also astonishing, leading to absurd spending sprees and generous gestures and the lure of greater and greater risk with more and more dangerous drugs (Robin Williams' line about cocaine being God's way of telling you that you have too much money came to mind a few times). Michael was hauled out of the gutter a few times (as all addicts will be) but the drugs appear more to be a prop for dealing with the backwash of growing up gay in an almost wholly unsympathetic environment. It's saddening to read that his voice, a rare instrument that, ever the perfectionist, Michael would push and push to get right, was sacrificed largely to smoking plain old tobacco and skunky weed, the least exotic of his tastes - and, when it came to substances, those tastes were very catholic indeed.

What the book doesn't quite capture, in the way only the very best showbiz biographies can, is Michael's place in cultural history, his importance beyond his fanbase and the tragic trajectory of a life that would surely have been so much more bearable were he able to afford the easing into an honest public life that appears almost the norm for gay young stars today. I suspect that's partly because Michael's music was spiked with hooks rather than awash with originality - even his greatest fans must acknowledge his debt to Prince amongst many others - and he never quite lost the lack of edge his middle class background engendered. He could also be a little gauche when venturing beyond entertainment - American fans, without the British tradition of camp to fall back on that always leavened his self-deprecation, seized on his anti-George W Bush rhetoric to relegate him to "fading" when he was still in his 30s. He protested so much that he didn't care that it's obvious that he did.

Gavin's book is detailed, occasionally revelatory (inasmuch as a life lived in the full glare of publicity from late teens can be) and never less than readable. But there's a bigger book about Michael yet to be written, one that places him centrally in a tale of how the world has changed since the Bad Boy was big enough to break down that door.

George Michael A Life is available from bookshops now.

From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to... (read more about this author)

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