George Michael was my neighbor, or so I was told, because, in truth, I never saw him coming or going out of the house at the end of the street, a tony address in Kensington, a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace, where I could only afford to live as a lodger to spindly Ms Haigh who, most of her fortune lost, took in girls like me, with little money and too many dreams.
The dry cleaners around the corner, on Kensington High, knew me as Ms. Michael, the first name that came to my mind, the day I got tired of spelling my surname, being misunderstood and having to wait forever for my clothes to be found. George Michael must have had the same problem, as he was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, a mouthful indeed for the English language.
If I never caught a glimpse of him when he was my esteemed neighbor, I saw plenty of him at the then called Hammersmith Odeon, when he had just come out as a solo act and “Faith” was a platinum seller. My friend Sara, who worked for CBS/Sony, Michael’s record company, bartered tickets: three nights of George Michael for me in exchange for Bon Jovi for her. I still remember those concerts as enormous fun. George Michael had an effortless ability to write pop music, and an effortless voice. Watch him perform “Somebody to Love” with Queen, in a rehearsal for a Freddie Mercury tribute concert – and you will hear the depth of his voice despite the crappy sound (and check out David Bowie and Seal looking on admiringly).
But, if one looks past the bubble gum of his early career and the dance inducing tunes that made him famous, a darker, more complex songwriter emerges, one who wasn’t entirely comfortable with fame on a large scale and who had a hard time balancing his private and public life. That struggle made his music more interesting, more personal, easier to connect with. We can all relate to the struggle of establishing our identity.
As I washed up the Christmas lunch dishes, alone at home, I listened to song after song, all of them carrying memories of lightness, of broken hearts but boundless hope, of a wide open road to a future I couldn’t fathom but in which I had immense faith. With George Michael dying on Christmas day, I felt the last shreds of innocence draining away, like dirty water down the sink.
Maybe that is what it feels like to get old: witnessing people one loves or has attached meaning to pass away in too rapid succession, leaving us back here, mulling the past and trying to give new energy to whatever future is still in front of us.
Image from AP