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George Michael: A Life Tells The Story Of A Gifted, Tortured Soul

George Michael performing in Amsterdam, June 2007. (Credit: EVERT ELZINGA/AFP via Getty Images)

James Gavin already has three acclaimed biographies to his credit, books about Lena Horne and Peggy Lee, and his Chet Baker book, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, was translated into more than a dozen languages. George Michael: A Life is the writer’s most intimate biography of all, and, he told me, the most difficult to finish. “The George Michael book has a much more widespread, strong interest than anything I’ve written before.” Gavin says he’s drawn to “stories of people in pain and people struggling and taking all of that turbulence and translating it into beautiful art.” 

With George Michael, Gavin portrays a talented artist, full of fear, and someone who’d built a cage for himself. And yet, his music was almost the antithesis of that—with seemingly coded lyrics that tell a story of a man desperate to have love in his life.

The book is a stunning, meticulously researched and emotionally complex life story about how the pop star was tortured by self-loathing, drug addiction, and most prominently, his own sexuality.

SPIN caught up with Gavin after his month-long book tour, and after the book had amassed a collection of rave reviews.


SPIN: What compelled you to write a biography of George Michael?
James Gavin:  When I first listened to his album, Older, it spun my head around. That was the album that made me feel George Michael. He made great pop music. Some of it had autobiographical strains in it, but Older was just raw and so full of hurt and loss. And I respond deeply to all of those things. I responded much more to the sad George Michael than to the happy George Michael. And even though it’s dedicated to Anselmo, his Brazilian boyfriend who died from AIDS, George was still officially in the closet. And yet Older has a lot of clues to George’s inner life and it was agonizing for him to write. In a way, he was trying to resurrect Anselmo in that album. 

It was traumatic for him that the album flopped in the U.S. It was number one in the UK, but that was no big deal for George. He was used to that. He knew that his stuff was going to go to No. 1 there, but he wanted to be No. 1 in the U.S., no matter how out of step with the charts his music was.

And then in 1998, the arrest took place. George was struggling to save face after this mortifying fall from grace that had made him, in many ways, a laughing stock. He was now faced with trying to justify having stayed in the closet for so long. 

Michael kept referring to himself as a pop star, and that interested me. He didn’t call himself a singer or an artist, [but] a pop star, which told me how desperately he needed to be famous and loved by everybody. The depth of his need was obvious in interviews. 

The fact that he thought of himself a pop star, makes me think of Madonna and when she was hanging out at the Pyramid Club in NYC and not saying anything about wanting a singing career, but that all she wanted was to be famous. 
Yes, but George, of course, took the art very seriously. George knew how gifted he was, and he really struggled and labored over every one of those tracks because he knew what he wanted. And a point comes in the George Michael evolution in the early ‘90’s when he begins to lose touch with cutting-edge dance music, for example. He was becoming out of step with the times and not realizing it. A lot of the beats on the Patience album released in 2004 sound dated. They sound like old club music. Madonna did a much better job. She had advisors and she went to clubs, and she was right, up to a certain point, on top of what was going on in that scene. George was not.

Why was it so hard for him to break away from the cult of his own family—especially after he started making so much money and becoming a superstar?
That’s a great question, because that is part of what kept him in the closet for so long. He was afraid of his father. And his mother, he realized very early on, was afraid for him, afraid of what would become of him as a gay man. George’s Uncle Colin was a tortured gay man who took his own life. And when George was growing up, mothers, of course, always know. And I think she sensed that her son was different and feared that he would follow in the dire footsteps of her brother Colin. For that reason, she somewhat shared the homophobia of the father. It was only in 1993, when the love of George’s life died, did he crack open the closet door enough to write a letter to his parents telling them that he was gay. 

There’s one little paragraph in this book that I just loved and I’m curious to know where you got it from. You write: “…Feeling lonely and flawed, Georgio retreated into his own world. He rose at dawn, then walked in his pajamas to an overgrown field behind the house and dug up worms, caterpillars and ladybugs which he stored in matchboxes and jars…” That presents such a different way of looking at him. Did somebody tell you that story?
 No, I have that in George’s own words,  played for me. It’s an unreleased recorded interview that he did for a project that never saw the light of day. I got to hear hours of George talking mostly about his early life. And a lot of the details in my first chapter that are so specific like that came out of George’s own mouth.

Was there ever a time in George Michael’s life when he felt safe, or happy?
The only place George seemed to feel safe and contented was alone inside his car driving around in big cities. The multitudes, the millions of people that he had pursued the affections of and placed himself in front of on arena stages only made him feel false and lonely. He felt so lonely and disconnected from those audiences because he had sold them a lie, having created a George Michael character that had very little to do with who he actually was. This was supposed to somehow make him happy, and it didn’t. This is an old, old story of super stardom. Of course, it didn’t originate with George, but George was suffering a lot in that period because when you achieve the thing that you felt would make your life complete and it leaves you feeling emptier than ever, where do you go from there?