Audio recording of an interview from July 2012, Phil Marriott meets singer/songwriter George Michael to chat about his near-death experience due to ill health, his Symphonica tour, and his ‘White Light’ single. This interview was the basis for the October 2012 article published in Out Magazine.
George Michael has had an enviable couple of years. First, there was a spell of four weeks in prison at the end of 2010 for driving under the influence of drugs. Then, he officially split from his long-term partner Kenny Goss, and last, winter, his triumphant orchestral tour, Symphonica, was cut short in Vienna when he was struck down by a life-threatening case of pneumonia that saw him rushed into intensive care. For a few days, fans feared the worst, but Michael fought back, embarking on the slow road to recovery.
Now a year later, he’s allowing himself to feel confident and positive about the future. He’s fit and healthy again, is enjoying a new relationship (with an Australian hair stylist called Fadi) and has been busy in the studio. He capped his return with a triumphant appearance at the closing ceremony of the Olympics, performing in front of a worldwide TV audience of hundreds of millions, and with the release of his latest single, “White Light” written about his near-death experience. He’s now back on the road, completing the Symphonica tour that he was forced to postpone, and looking forward to the release of his new studio album in the early 2013. Ahead of his UK dates, he talked to Phil Marriott …
PM: First of all probably the most important question is how are you? You look fantastic.
GM: Thank you. It’s been a very difficult few months. I feel great. I’m working every day in the studio and writing … for me, when it’s going well, that’s about the best feeling … well, next to standing in front of the audience, sharing it with them. Writing when things are going well is the best feeling I know.
PM: And something like this is, it’s life-affirming isn’t it? You were in such a bad place, and it’s taken you not that long to recover …
GM: Well, yeah. I was I was told to take it easy this year. I was advised to lay off work, and I promised everyone that I would, but I just don’t know what to do if I’m not working.
PM: Has work got you through?
GM: Yeah, work has definitely got me through this year. And I must admit I have made a pretty strong rod for my back … no pun intended … because I do actually have a rod in my back. But I made a rod for my own back by squashing everything together … but I don’t know any other way to be really. If I’m not creating, then I get very restless very quickly. So I’m doing the album and then doing the tour straight after and an Australian tour after the British tour … it’s going to be a packed out year, really. I’ve made myself a promise that I will take it easy next year and start to enjoy some time with my lovely new man. Well, he’s not new. It’s eight or nine months now, which is about five years in the gay community, isn’t it? So we haven’t really had a chance to really relax together for very long for a good while now because I’ve been working so hard.
When I started cruising, which was when I was very young, I would have been so unbelievably thrilled if someone that I liked musically had made that [‘Outside’] video, because it would have lightened the burden of shame by 90%.
PM: Has what you’ve been through brought you closer together as a couple?
GM: Oh, definitely. I mean we’d only been really seeing each other at the time for about a month, and I can only imagine what it feels like to fall in love with someone and then have them nearly die on you. I think it was a very horrible time for him and he’s been an absolute rock for me this year. It’s fantastic.
PM: It probably strengthens you as a person, that kind of experience … for both of you.
GM: Yeah, for both of us. It’s a very unfortunate way to start your relationship … it brought us closer … that sense of emergency and relief.
PM: It’s very difficult to comprehend how that experience was for you. How does it change you as a person to go through that?
GM: I don’t think it changes you as a person. I think it hopefully will. I mean … I’ve got a tracheotomy scar there and it really bothered me for a while, and I was thinking, well, maybe I should get something done about. I know you can have scar treatment. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I was looking in the mirror and I thought, you know what? It does actually remind me every time I look at it that I’m lucky to be alive. So I decided to keep it.
PM: Like a little motif.
GM: Like a little motif, yeah. Anyway, it’s quite butch, isn’t it?
PM: Yeah, absolutely!
GM: Scars here, scars there. I’ve got a few.
PM: Looking on the bright side, you’ve obviously got positive things to come out of experience, and ‘White Light’, the single
GM: I’d like to think it’s the most powerful thing in terms of up-tempo music that I’ve written for quite a while.
PM: It gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it.
GM: Really? That’s great. That’s what I want to hear. You know there are so many people in our community who’ve come through terrible times, whether it be through their outing, through HIV diagnosis, or anything. There are so many things that gay people have to kind of celebrate these days. I think it resonates with the lot of us.
PM: Yeah it’s ultimately joyous.
GM: Yeah, ultimately it’s a celebration of survival
PM: And Kate Moss in the video … she saves you. Was the coin tossing symbolic?
GM: Yeah, it’s all very symbolic. Metaphors everywhere. The black Ravens and the white doves and the black and white zebra representing the darkness of death and the brightness of life, really. And there are also references in there to some of the amazing singers that we’ve lost in the past couple of years, and you can’t help that as a singer, especially from the era Michael and Whitney came from. You can’t help feeling that you dodged a bullet that they didn’t manage to dodge, you know? I was never a heroin addict, but I did dodge a bullet, no question. And in a way, that kind of reinforces the feeling of privilege I have. I do think my real privilege is that I still believe in what I do and I think I’m still capable of making people happy with my music and after 30 years, that’s just amazing!
PM: Can we talk about revolving urinals? That was a fantastic idea!
GM: Which was my idea!
PM: I’ll never forget seeing that [‘Outside’ video] for the first time because I thought you were so brave during that whole time, to actually do it in such a tongue and cheek way.
GM: Can I tell you how it happened? I had already made ‘Fast Love’ and ‘Spinning the Wheel’ with two genius video directors. They were a business couple, a working couple called Anthea and Von – they stopped working together — and Von came to LA because he wanted to make something for ‘Outside” and he sat with me looking very nervous, and I couldn’t work out why, and after about half an hour he said, “Can I be really honest with you?” And I said, “Yeah, of course you can,’ and he said, “Can we do it in a toilet?” So I sat and looked at him and it took me about 10 seconds to say, “Yes but it’s got to be a disco toilet’, and that’s basically as simple as it was, you know, and then I immediately had the idea of the revolving urinals and everything, which is probably my favorite three seconds of any video I’ve ever made.
PM: Did you ever think that was a bad thing to do though? Did you ever consider at the back of your mind that it would go horribly wrong?
GM: No, I didn’t think it would go wrong. I thought if it’s funny enough and if the record is good enough … then you can get away with murder!
PM: People got it as well … I don’t think it was just the gay community that got it.
GM: Yeah, and the other thing was … as a man who stayed in the closet to keep his poor mother from worrying about HIV everyday, who was desperate to come out … I just felt, what can I do in one fell swoop that I know will be good for some of the gay community? I immediately thought, well, when I started cruising, which was when I was very young, I would have been so unbelievably thrilled if someone that I liked musically had made that video, because it would have lightened the burden of shame by 90%. I would have been thrilled. I thought this is really going to help some kids overcome some of their shame, you know what I mean?
PM: How do you feel about it now, looking back? Obviously it was a while ago. How do you think you’ve changed? You strike me as the sort of person who doesn’t feel uncomfortable talking about it, which I think is great …
GM: A lot of people, they don’t talk about it or they lie. What’s the point, you know? In terms of discretion, that horse bolted that afternoon.
I was trying in every way to say, ‘look.
PM: Do you wish you’d come out sooner, in hindsight?
GM: I’m sure, once there was a public understanding, which I still don’t think there is, of how treatable HIV is now … maybe then, maybe a little later, I would have come out because I would have been able to explain to my mum ‘you don’t have to worry about this happening everyday’. But I would do it again because I was protecting her. The stigma and the fear around HIV at the time was so real, and I thought if I’m this neurotic about it – because I really was neurotic — I was more careful than careful, you know what I mean? And I thought, if I’m this neurotic about it — my mother – I knew it’d be a constant weight on her. For God’s sake, when I made Older and dedicated it to my late partner, around the promotion, at one point I had a proper handlebar moustache. I was trying in every way to say: ‘look I’m not trying to hide something here I just don’t want to talk to the press!”
PM: The Symphonica tour is back. Are you going to be touring the States as well? Because a lot of people have been asking if you’re going to be touring the States.
GM: Um, I’m hopefully going to be touring the States early next year. I’ve got to get these shows done and an Australian tour done, and I think, you know, God willing, I shall be in America at some point early next year to start the whole process. It all takes so long to set up, you know!
PM: I’m amazed you’re doing it so soon.
GM: Yeah, like I said, I was supposed to take it easy but I just couldn’t. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and the only way to distract myself, if there’s anything that distracts me from everything, it’s music. It’s the safest place in the world for me, the recording studio. You have to focus on every tiny detail. So there’s no room for you to you know to sit there worrying about your life – unlike a lot of nine to five jobs where there’s of time for anxiety.
PM: I’m very careful about asking you about Wham! but obviously it’s the thirty year anniversary since you started, isn’t it?
GM: It’s pretty amazing that 30 years later anyone gives a shit, really.
PM: Fond memories?
GM: I said this in a recent press release. Everything that’s happened is way, way, way beyond anything that I expected. All I wanted as a child was to be on Top of the Pops. That to me, was the peak of fame. I didn’t think of international fame. I didn’t think of 30 years. I just wanted Top of the Pops.
PM: But the reunions not happening?
GM: Absolutely not! No reunions. Nada reunion. That just comes up every year, doesn’t it? Sorry people, but it’s not happening.
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- Dutch Radio Interview with George Michael (July 2012)
- George Michael’s Interview on Magic FM Radio (2007)