by Alexander Quaresma
There is no question that with the Christmas Day passing of pop music icon George Michael the world lost a true visionary and an immense talent at the all-too-young age of fifty-three. Immediately after learning of his death, I couldn't help but feel the stirring of many ghosts. There's just so much to say, so much.
Undoubtedly George meant a great deal to a great many people on a great varying array of topics. Both artistically and socially Michael was an important figure emanating out of the music recording industry; about as important a figure as there was when you consider his career got its start out of a very socially conservative decade.
I will not be writing about George Michael's significance to one sector of the social spectrum or another. I will leave that to those who followed his career far more closely than I ever did. What I will do, however, is discuss what George Michael meant to me ...
I never had posters of George Michael on my wall. I never would have included George Michael's name as one of my favorite performers or music artists had someone asked me to compile a list. And I rarely included a George Michael track on a playlist I'd set up on an iPod. Nevertheless, George Michael was still a huge part of my childhood.
My mother was younger than I am now in the mid to late eighties. She grew up loving The Beatles in the sixties and seventies. But as we all know, musically speaking, the eighties was a whole other animal. By the time I came into the picture it was Wham's "Careless Whisper" that had been my mother's favorite song, as I recall. In fact, I think it still is. At more than one wedding my parents would take me to when I was still a child my mother would have me go to the hired deejay and request that the song be played. I will opt not to discuss her fondness for "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go."
When George Michael's Faith was released sometime in 1987 my mother very happily got her hands on an audio cassette of the release. She was never one to spend much money on luxury items in those days - the days before credit cards easily came to anyone and everyone. In fact, I think it might have even been one of the last gifts my father ever gave her before their divorce. My father loved the record shops in the malls he would frequent during his off days on the weekends. It wouldn't surprise me if it was he who had purchased the tape for her. But how she really got a hold of it, I really couldn't say for sure. But she had it and she loved it.
I played soccer ever fall and spring. Every time my mother would take me to a game on a weekend or to a practice during a weekday in the fall of 1987 or anytime in '88 Faith would be playing from the car radio's tape player (I must add that I do recall on certain longer road trips in this time period she'd also employ the use of an audio cassette to the motion picture soundtrack of Dirty Dancing). I must have heard every song on that Faith tape at least two hundred times. She loved every song on it. She never fast forwarded to re-listen to one track in particular; she just left it in the player and let it start wherever it had left off. That's not to say she didn't have her favorites.
She loved "Kissing a Fool." It would be hard for anyone not to love that particular song. It's so beautifully arranged and sung.
And of course she loved the title track, "Faith." I think she liked the music video of George swaying in his jeans and leather jacket which was always being aired on VH1 better, but she certainly loved the song, too.
When "Monkey" would come on she'd swerve the car in rhythm to the beat if nobody was driving behind her and the road looked desolate enough.
"I Want Your Sex" was certainly a very controversial song when it was released. Some even deemed it "obscene" and not suitable for children. And in fact my mother was one of those people who often would do what she could to shield me, or any of my brothers or sister, from media that she thought was inappropriate. But when it came to that song being played on the A-side to Faith, she didn't care. She let it play and she gave no fucks. "I Want Your Sex" was actually something of a revelation to me in my adolescence. It was the first time I had ever heard the subject of sex "spoken" of so frankly, and even described as "natural" and "chemical." The evil stigma of such a word was exorcized for all of us who listened to the song in those car rides. It helped me realize that sex was just something people did. It wasn't something that required the hushing of voices when spoken of in front of children. It was something to sing about, just like anything else life has to offer, like love. Sex is best when it's "one on one" after all. At least according to some people it is.
To this day I can pretty much sing the lyrics to each and every track off of Faith by memory as a result of all those car trips, even without the songs being played. The fact was I liked the music almost as much as she did. Even today the tracks "Father Figure" and "Hand to Mouth," and are some of my favorites. And each can easily be considered as some of the best musical recording art produced during the decade.
Critically speaking, I'd even have to consider George Michael's Faith as the best pop album of the entire decade after Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982).
A few years later, just before the Christmas holiday of 1990, I'd contract the chicken pox. I was eleven. One late night just a few days before Christmas I sleepily walked in on my mother wrapping presents on the floor of a middle bedroom. She was happy to see me and wanted me to share in her excitement that everything this Christmas was going so smoothly, in spite of the chicken pox that I didn't just have, but my two younger brothers had as well. She was happily telling me what she was giving her mother, her brothers, my sister, my brothers, etc. I liked seeing her happy like that. But then something struck me, something I hadn't ever considered before. I wondered what it was she herself would be getting for Christmas. So I asked her. Quietly she answered that it would probably be nothing. After all, she and my father had long since been separated at this point in time. That just didn't sit right with me.
The next day when I saw my grandmother I asked her to do me a favor. Being as I was still ill with the chicken pox I wanted to know if she would go to a record store and purchase an audio cassette of the newly released George Michael album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (1990). I gave her ten dollars I had stashed away. Though my mother had nothing to open that Christmas morning as my brothers and sister reveled in all of our gifts, later that day, when the family started to arrive for Christmas dinner, my grandmother took me in a back room, gave me the audio cassette and helped me wrap it. Just before dinner was served I walked up to my mother and I happily handed her the small gift. It very much took her by surprise and she was very happy to have received the present.
Though my mother's fondness for Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 never quite equaled her enthusiasm for Faith in the months which followed, the fact still remains that the first Christmas gift I ever gave my mother was a George Michael audio cassette.
George Michael, by whatever wrinkle in the unwritten unfolding plan the universe has had in store for me, has always seemed to have some sort of significance in my life - at Christmas time in particular.
When I was in tenth grade in 1994 I remember a very attractive brunette from the smart kid popular "it" crowd in my grade approaching me during an assembly the last day of classes before Christmas break. She enthusiastically told me that one of her friends liked me and that "we needed to talk" as we were passing by each other to get to whatever our next class was after the assembly was letting out. I was in a rush to get to my P.E. class. Where she was heading, I had no idea. But this individual had never spoken to me in the year-and-a-half I had been going to this school and she had no reason to tell me such a thing at that time. She wasn't known to be a practical joker and I detected no sarcasm when she told me what she did. We knew none of the same people personally. There was no reason for me not to believe that what she was telling me wasn't the truth.
I knew who her friends were and they were all pretty hot. So that one allegedly "liked" me was something of a revelation, I couldn't stop wondering who it might be. The other thing running through my brain in that moment was George Michael's voice singing "Last Christmas" which was being played for some reason over the school's sound system as part of the assembly which was now over. Later that same day, riding the bus home I stared out of the window happy to know I'd be off of school for the next ten days thanks to Christmas break. But I was also happy to know that when I came back I might have a shiny new girlfriend waiting for me. I sat in my seat full of Christmas "happies," eager to get home and begin celebrating how I celebrated best: eating cookies, sleeping in, watching movies, and playing video games. And, of course, a few minutes before my bus stop Wham's "Last Christmas" was once again playing on the radio station that my santa hat-wearing bus driver was tuned into.
Of course, that attractive popular girl who had approached me during the assembly just before Christmas break never did re-approach me after the break to let me know who it was she was talking about. So there was no shiny new girlfriend to help me usher in the new year after all. Looking back I simply chalk it up to too much time having gone by between the Christmas break. Whoever it was probably had their sights set on someone else by the time classes resumed in January. A lot can happen in ten to eleven days when you're fifteen. I never did learn who it was she was talking about. But to this day, whenever I hear "Last Christmas" by Wham for the first time each holiday season I am taken back to that mysterious day of my sophomore year in high school. Just like the song itself, it is always bittersweet.
That George Michael would pass on from his earthly existence on Christmas of all days, to me, simply feels like the universe impishly winking at me to find out if I've been paying attention to it all these years.
In the grand scheme of things Michael's death was yet another disheartening loss in the music performance and recording arts world that 2016 has been made to make us suffer. In my own little orbit, however, Michael's death was a reminder of days that are long gone. Days from a time that were as beautiful and innocent as they were bittersweet. There was always a lot of drama underlying many of those car rides to soccer. Divorce is a serious matter to a ten year old, and it was something that always hung in the air. I don't have many memories of seeing either one of my parents very happy in those days. But for my mother, those drives in the car with her as she listened to George Michael constitute a few that I do have. I didn't have an easy go of it while I was in high school - but twenty years later I can look back at how simpler things were when your biggest problem would be if you'd fail science or algebra and have to go to summer school.
With Michael's passing I can't help but feel like a beautiful golden Christmas ornamnet from another place and another time has fallen off of the Christmas tree of my past and shattered into a hundred pieces- with no such ornament available to adequately replace that one that is now lost. May the man rest in peace. May his memory and his example live on forever.