I was thinking about writing another “What I Learned in [fill in the year]” blog post today, but my thoughts aren’t there. Besides, I didn’t learn very much, at least not enough for a ten-things post. I could have made it a five-things post, but that too would have been a stretch. I spent most of last year sleep-deprived because of chronic pain, daily plodding up and down the stairs of my two-story house always feeling the nearness of the ceiling just above my tender and heavy skull containing my tender and heavy mind.
I’m not talking about the literal ceiling height of my downsized house. I’m talking about the metaphorical ceiling height of my life.
At the Christmas dinner table, my sister announced that George Michael had died that morning. Stopped in my tracks of thoughts, I braced myself for a possible tsunami of unreasonable grief to reach up and wash over me. Thankfully I held it together and thought that maybe my Prince bereavement was a one-time thing and that losing George wouldn’t affect me in the same way as losing Prince did. And so I went on into the evening, overeating along with everyone else, including a lovely slice of homemade apple pie (made by yours truly) topped with delicious gelato.
It seemed I might’ve escaped my usual reaction to untimely deaths of pop stars and religious icons, Madonna being the exception. I know she’s not dead yet, but with her it’s different. In her early years I admired her genius as a self-promoting marketer, but now she disappoints me. I don’t see her in the same way as I see Pope John Paul, Princess Diana, Prince, and now…George Michael. Madonna just wants to be famous and honestly, I don’t think she’ll leave much of an artistic or spiritual legacy behind when she passes.
Once I got home from Christmas dinner, I climbed up onto a high slope, one that seemed somewhat slippery, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I began reading online articles…just to get a few details, which of course linked to a couple of YouTube videos. Yes, I was a fan in the early 90’s when I lived in Tampa Florida, the land of big muscles, big hair, big bugs, and small intellect. I thought his albums Faith and Listen Without Prejudice were extraordinary, offering melodies and arrangements that comforted me during a season of terrible isolation. The lyrics were profound for such a young man to have written. I felt he was reaching beyond a boundary he feared would cage him in if he allowed it to limit how people saw him.
It’s January 2nd, eight days since George passed away at the age of 53. No I didn’t stop my research project. I slid all the way down the slope and for the last five nights I’ve been secretly watching YouTube videos until after midnight. And I have some theories about George.
But first, I offer an interesting observation. George was working on a documentary of his life. Just like Michael Jackson was working on a huge tour before he passed, and Prince was working on his Piano and a Microphone tour before he passed, and David Bowie had just completed his good-bye album before he passed. First, they knew. Second, artists must leave a legacy. That’s what makes them artists. And if there’s any doubt about leaving a mark, they will sometimes take on an end of life project to be certain they have the last say. It’s a strange thing we do as humans, but I think it must be normal; artists have an insatiable need to express…and for that expression to matter.
George Michael wanted to matter. And he did matter, but being a pop star wasn’t enough. He wanted to matter in ways beyond the confining and defining boundaries of his own unwieldy stardom. But four years as WHAM had set the foundation of his life’s course. He knew he needed to break free, but even after leaving the two-man group, he continued to act out of a seemingly conflicted set of desires, insecurities, needs, and creative/intellectual endeavor.
George Michael was an intelligent man, and could be very direct in speaking his mind. He took on some interesting topics, not all of them appropriate given his unwanted but glorious station in life. Certainly, it was appropriate for him to speak out against the record industry, challenging practices that boxed him in as an artist. I don’t blame him for that at all, especially given the freedom I enjoy as an indie author who is no longer constrained by the traditional publishing industry. I’m sure he made a good case, but the real issue with his record company was that he didn’t want to go on tour to promote his albums.
You see, the emotional George…the introspective and dissatisfied George, didn’t like having to sell himself or his music. In fact, up until he was in his early forties, he felt self-conscious about his looks, shying away from cameras and crowds. George Michael was a gorgeous man, and anyone would find it hard to believe. I think it just goes to show how impactful early childhood experiences can be. As a kid, he was shy and without confidence, sporting a mop of curly hair and big round glasses. When his WHAM partner Andrew took him under his wing in elementary school, he transformed George into a beautiful swan…and unleashed the ravenous appetite of an extremely talented young man who didn’t understand what he was hungry for. Music and stardom became everything. He said many times that he wanted to be known and to leave something behind.
Then there were the losses. He lost his partner, the first person he’d ever loved unselfishly. Dropping into a deep depression of bereavement, he soon thereafter lost his mother too, the one person who’d always supported him. The trauma ignited a firestorm of pain that fractured his already brittle emotions and led to what some saw as reckless behavior and a loss of, in his own words, his dignity. He was arrested for engaging in a lewd act in a public restroom where an undercover policeman entrapped him. Although he tried to turn the situation around by using the incident as a platform for defending the socializing habits of gay men, George Michael was an emotionally fragmented artist, unable to write to his former level of genius for quite a long time. It was like that…a few years “on” living out a season of frenzied artistic success…and then a few years “off “ living confined by the doldrums of loss and depression…and then back “on” again.
Convincingly self-aware, at one point when he wasn’t writing, he admitted an intense need to tackle something important, so he decided to get involved in politics. His rationale was that he was in the perfect position to be the voice of mainstream society. He would go have a little talk with Tony Blair to straighten him out on the Iraq war. It didn’t go well. He retreated into his home and turned off the news so as not to be further discouraged by the sad state of affairs.
I wonder. Could it be that his need for being known and taken seriously was so great that he failed to realize his own lack of credibility as a voice on the topic of the Iraq war? I think so. I don’t think George Michael, despite his obvious talent, intelligence, and intellectual capacity for argument, ever really saw himself as he truly was both as a person and as someone in a particular position of fame and influence. He wanted fame, but only certain parts of it. He wanted to be taken seriously, but engaged in behaviors that undermined his own objective. On top of that, with his direct and highly opinionated way of communicating, he often alienated the very people he wanted to be heard by and from whom he needed respect. When one interviewer questioned him about his sudden interest in politics and why he believed he should be given an ear, he said, “This is my time.”
I understand what he meant, but the world doesn’t work that way. George Michael didn’t want to take the bad with the good. He just wanted the good and if the bad came, which it does for all of us, he let it confine him into the small spaces of debilitating depressions. In his own words, his depressions became physically restrictive, causing him great difficulty in just putting one foot in front of the other. I understand that too.
One of the YouTube videos was an Oprah show with George Michael on as the guest. It was one of many talk show appearances he did after the incident in the public restroom. In the second segment of the show, Oprah’s camera crew visited George Michael in his old English home on the Thames.
George opened the entry door, welcomed them in, and then under his breath said, “How did you get my address?” He was joking…but not really. He was quite tall you know, nearly reaching the top of the threshold with his perfectly coiffed hair.
The cameraman stepped through the door, capturing the interior of a small room with a couple of comfortable looking chairs, an old stone fireplace, and an upright piano against the wall within just a few feet of the small entry door. When he swung the camera back around to George, I understood the problem.
George Michael’s home was a very old manor, built when English people were much shorter. You know how I feel about low ceilings. Even metaphorically low ceilings.
I stumbled across this today:
[Ceiling height] has a major impact in maintaining a sense of freedom and space. Everybody knows that these are vital if you want to create that particularly welcoming feeling! A room with low ceilings may give you the impression of living in a small birdcage.
If we were to talk about the psychological effects, it is said that low ceilings often provide a low state of mind…
Maybe George Michael became famous at too young an age. And too quickly, missing the opportunities to gather the herbs and spices of life that make us whole-hearted and capable of absorbing life’s cruel blows without completely falling apart.
George Michael, it’s sad that you are gone now, but you’ve been freed from the cage and all of its boundaries. And there are no more ceilings. You will be missed. But you did leave some beautiful things behind, didn’t you.