When George Michael was filming the documentary “George Michael: Freedom,” he wanted the voiceover to sound a certain way. He called on radio personality Kristy Young to prompt him, and the recording was used as the narration for the documentary. As Young stated in one article, “He wanted to sound as if he was speaking more off-the-cuff.”
In November 2017, BBC 2 Radio broadcasted the lengthy interview between Kirsty Young and George Michael, which was his last ever interview.
George Michael: The Red Line was broadcasted on BBC Radio 2 on November 1 (Part 1) and November 8 (Part 2) at 10 p.m. Listen to the interview and read the transcript of the second part of the Red Line interview with Kristy Young (KY), the last interview of George Michael (GM):
KY: He had a voice like no other. His ability to write, produce and perform great music was unrivaled. And so he became one of THE biggest selling artists in the world, earning the status of a legend.
This is George Michael’s final interview.
GM: I was never aware just how successful things were going to be.
KY: Thankfully recounting his life of wild success and adulation
GM: I was truly enjoying that station of my life
KY: Alongside the heartache and tragedy that inspired some of his greatest works
GM: I thought this can’t all be bad. I’ve got to do something good in my life and that’s what I tried to do.
KY: Just before Christmas 2016, I was asked to interview George Michael. The intention was to use elements of our discussion as part of the soundtrack for a new film he was producing at the time. The film would become Freedom, his final work.
Although the initial plan was to pinpoint specific victories and losses throughout his life, the recording became a conversation that flowed naturally for over two hours. Whilst it hadn’t been the intention to broadcast our discussion in its entirety, following George’s untimely death weeks later it began to feel like something that should happen. In fact as we parted George had said, “You should turn this into a radio program.”
What you are about to hear is what was said almost in its entirety with many of the personal asides left as they were. As such there is some strong language from the beginning.
In this program George talks about how his childhood music idols helped during an unsettling time in his career, harnessing the grief of lost love to create some of his most touching music and using humor to silence his harshest critics.
KY: George came to terms with his sexuality during a very turbulent time for gay men in the UK. The early eighties saw HIV/AIDS sweep across the globe and devastating a generation of gay men leaving a trail of fear and stigma in its wake. While there had been much speculation throughout his career, George didn’t come out officially until 1998.
I began the second half of our conversation by asking him if there was pressure to keep quiet about his sexuality.
Coming Out of the Closet
GM: I promise you no one … you know this is a conception and it’s right in most cases. When I was 19 if they told me not to come out and I wanted to tell them to fuck off.
KY: Okay. You’re not ready so that was always a personal thing.
GM: It was ALWAYS a personal decision. I stayed in the closet as long as I was capable of staying in the closet through the AIDS period to protect my family — and I would do it again. I would put them before myself again, foolishly maybe. But I loved my family enough to protect them from the fear of AIDS.
HIV/AIDS Awareness Campaigner
GM: What drives me berserk now is that, you know, having many friends who are HIV and having lost a partner to HIV – that straight people still think it’s a killer disease.
If you live in the Western world and you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that has a health system. Or even now you know that the Clintons have saved millions of lives in Africa with medicine. We don’t have a vaccine but people no longer die in the Western world from HIV. And the fact that some straight people don’t know that infuriates me because there are many, many straight people who are HIV and they live with the stigma of it every day.
I support a couple of charities for straight people with HIV. And I remember the terror of anyone finding out that my partner was HIV. That terror is gone in the gay community, and thank Christ, it’s gone! It means that some of them are quite irresponsible, I suppose, but God I prefer that than the fear that my generation of gay people went through.
GM: It’s time that people in every walk of life understand it is no longer a killer disease. People take a certain number of pills — sometimes just one pill a day — and they never have to deal with it for the rest of their lives. You know that’s less than … I mean I’d rather take a pill than inject myself for diabetes every day, you know. It’s so small a price to pay. And it’s such a huge stigma among straight people.
I think it’s disgusting that the media hasn’t dealt with it as something which has been dealt with by the medical community, you know. It drives me crazy. These poor straight people today are still totally stigmatized and terrified that anyone will find out. Why should they be in that position? Why shouldn’t the public be more informed? That’s something I’d like to help work towards.
KY: George was an active LGBT rights campaigner and HIV/AIDS charity fundraiser giving millions to numerous charities. On the 20th of April of 1992, he took part in one of the most public AIDS awareness fundraisers the UK had seen — the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium. It was organized to celebrate the life of Queen’s hugely flamboyant frontman who died of an AIDS-related illness five months earlier. Sadly the impact of HIV had hit George very personally when it transpired that his partner Anselmo had contracted the then deadly virus. George was determined to make his performance both the perfect tribute to Freddie but also a prayer for Anselmo.
Freddy Mercury Tribute
KY: I was watching the archived footage of you. It was it was absolutely heartbreaking to me actually, not knowing the background to when you were at the Freddie Mercury tribute. And you’re up there and you could … God! I mean at that time, you clearly were singing your heart out; but this was something we were used to watching George Michael – singing his heart out. To then watch it with the knowledge then could you just take me through how the hell you managed it to actually get on that stage and sing that song that day.
GM: I don’t think I was aware. I think subconsciously I was aware. Consciously, I just wanted perfection, which is what I always want. And this was a live because I’m VERY, VERY guarded about performances. There has to be a good reason. For one thing, you don’t have the option of mucking about with afterwards or whatever.
My subconscious knew that singing a Freddie Mercury song after his passing in front of my lover. My subconscious knew this was very probably the most important performance of my life. Because I had to take all those years of standing in a bedroom, whether it be with a mic – I don’t think I had a hairbrush – but I would stand and sing to the mirror and sing all those Queen songs and know them backwards, know the harmonies, know everything about them. And that child was going to take all that knowledge all that subconscious eating in of music from that group and sing one of Freddie Mercury’s songs to the world.
So I went for five days to rehearse. Everyone else went for an afternoon. I went for five days because it had to be perfect. I think it’s probably my most famous performance.
GM: Anselmo was there and I was dying inside. And my whole … I went into another place! I went into another place. This was the loudest prayer of my life. And it’s not an accident … it’s not an accident that the performance, probably most well-known in my career, was sung to my lover who was dying. That will hopefully never happen again. The fact that it happened that way … I mean, my God, talk about destiny.
KY: 1993 proved to be an incredibly tough year for George, both professionally and personally. He was embroiled in a bitter court battle with his record company Sony Music whilst tending to his partner Anselmo whose health was rapidly deteriorating.
Tragically in March 1993, Anselmo died of an AIDS related illness. Understandably this devastated George. It also triggered a creative block which stifled his ability to write new music for almost two years.
Elton John Duet
GM: The other piece of huge destiny I think was in this period of time is two or three years that I should have been thinking because of this (1) this terrible personal situation and (2) this terrible professional situation which I could see no end to — my childhood heroes saved me! Freddie died; his band came to me and asked me to sing “Somebody to Love.” Elton came and asked me to sing with him “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, and it was a huge number one around the world.
I mean, these were my childhood heroes! These are the people that made me and they were just inadvertently falling into my life at the very time that people weren’t hearing music that came from my head. They saved me! I mean, you know, they made a bridge for me. I could walk from one end of this court case to the other and I had these two huge number-one records. It was just miraculous!
KY: “Don’t Let the Sun go down On Me” was part of a succession of tracks released without being attached to a particular George Michael album. George’s next release “Too Funky” was the final single for Sony Music before he started legal action to remove himself from his contract with the record company.
“Too Funky” had initially been earmarked for his follow-up to the album Listen Without Prejudice. George and Sony agreed to donate it to Project Red Hot and Dance which raise money for AIDS awareness. The video was set to be another supermodel spectacular much like its predecessor Freedom 90 but with only Linda Evangelista returning from the original lineup. However, there was a conflicting vision between the star and the video’s art director, Thierry Mugler. It came dangerously close to not being completed.
GM: After Elton’s record and Queen’s record became one more record so I was allowed to contribute to a record which was made to raise funds for HIV and AIDS. Madonna was on it; a few other big artists were on it. Didn’t have a big promotional budget but it gave me an excuse to make some music once again you know with Anselmo half in mind and that was “Too Funky”.
GM: I tried to get over the girls back to do it again but they didn’t all come back. I’ve got to be honest with you: you know much I’m glad that they’re all in this film and thanks very much for that they didn’t want to come back by then so I’ve given them the big push. But the only one who came back, bless her heart, was Linda.
Too Funky was a very hard shoot. I arrived at the hotel where myself and the director Thierry Mugler, the designer, was staying. And Terry was crying, saying that I was about to ruin his artistic vision just with my very presence. [LAUGHTER] And the truth is I’ll then get on with it. We were actually signed up as co-directors. I let him go on with it he didn’t want me to be on the camera. We did some filming, three days of filming, which was genius, genius but we still only had about a minute’s footage and I had put half a million pounds into this project myself and there was no video. We had one day left; so with that one day I took my contractual option and kicked him off for the camera and filmed all the runway stuff because Too Funky is mostly runway and that’s what keeps the rhythm of the song go.
KY: Mostly artists on runway keeps them
GM: Yes mostly artists; spectacular artists
GM: Spectacular! I mean his artistic; his art direction was gorgeous. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t really want to have to co-direct. I wanted his artistic vision as a designer and it was spectacular and I thank him for that. But there was this big commotion because I threw him off because I had to present this video to a charity and it had to be finished. So I just worked 24 hours sending those girls out and down the catwalk and making I think another great video. You know, it’s not Freedom and I’m not David Fincher, but it’s still a great video.
And Linda bless her heart, came back again; we got a bit drunk. I won’t say any more about that. I’ll just say Linda, I think is one of the most beautiful creatures that has walked the earth.
KY: Too Funky’s video concept was based on the iconic Freedom 90 video, which has been filmed two years previously. George, having decided he no longer wanted to be personally involved with the promotion of his music, was inspired by the models on the cover of British Vogue. So he enlisted the help of five of the biggest supermodels in the world to feature in the video that was directed by David Fincher. Although it wasn’t the first time models had appeared in a music video, Freedom 90 had tapped perfectly into the early nineties music and fashion zeitgeist and was well received by critics and fans alike.
[Music: Freedom 90]
KY: I was looking at the incredible video and really, however many times you look at it, it’s always a pleasure for Freedom between five supers in it. Cindy Crawford in the bath and then listening to Mark Ronson say, “Well freedom is a funk with masterpiece.” He said it’s the Mona Lisa.
When you go back and listen to that album — to those tracks from it, what’s your analysis of it? What what’s your opinion of it?
GM: What I’m … I’m hugely flattered by someone who’s known in mainly for their work with Amy Winehouse, who to this day I can’t believe we lost. I’m truly flattered by Mark Ronson calling Freedom the Mona Lisa and I suppose even though I probably preferred the album I made in recovery from Anselmo’s death, I can see what he means. I mean, if I’m really honest, Freedom is by far and away the most used George Michael track for movies, for advertising campaigns, for … do you know what I am saying? It’s durable and it’s kind of it you know the word sells itself, doesn’t it?
GM: If I thought about it, maybe when I was younger, I would have thought, “Oh, what can I make that sounds like an advert?” You know what I mean? But I didn’t think that way.
The Album “Older”
GM: I’m very proud of “Listen Without Prejudice.” But I think the whole experience of losing Anselmo; the period of grief, which was roughly two years that I didn’t write a note of music. And then, the absolute knowledge that the next album I was going to write would be about grief and recovery. Older is my greatest moment, in my opinion. And as I’ve said before I don’t ever want to be that inspired again.
KY: George returned to the studio after Anselmo’s death where intense grief appeared to fuel an incredibly prolific period of writing. The songs he wrote in recording would go on to become his third solo studio album “Older.”
Older saw George adopt a darker, more mature style and featured coded references to his sexuality. It was six years since the release of “Listen Without Prejudice.” and the public was ready for his return.
I asked George about his approach to writing
KY: You said when there was an award you could have written — such was the sort of the suspended animation that you lived in with your profound grief, with this horrendous professional turmoil that you lived through. When was the first time that you sat down with, I don’t know how you write, have you a pencil in your hand or computer … when was the first time that you did that again?
GM: I sat at a keyboard in some studios in Notting Hill which was where I’d recorded a lot of Faith. And I sat at keyboard, played a very simple string part, added a very, very gentle guitar part. My way of making music is very strange; it’s very strange. Generally, I put my backing tracks together very simply on keyboards. In this case, I think I’d added a little guitar. But the moment I think there’s something coming, there’s something important coming, I shove everybody out of the room. I go in; I know how to work the vocal recorder that we use and then I just sing on repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. I sing and I sing and I sing and it’s all total stream of consciousness rubbish that people would laugh their heads off if they heard what I was singing. And then I sang “Like Jesus to a Child” – simple as that.
GM: And I thought, “Oh my God, that’s him! That’s him and me, like Jesus to a child.” And within probably a day, the track was almost finished, which is REALLY unusual for me. And within a week, I was singing it in front of the Brandenburg Gate because I was so excited I was writing again. I could write again and not only that but I’d written probably the most personal song I’d ever written in the space of a day, day and a half, and it was all systems go. It was all systems go from that point on.
I wrote Older within about I suppose eight months, and months I think I wrote the best most healing piece of music that I’ve ever written in my life with that album.
KY: “Jesus to a Child” was George’s first solo single to go straight in at number one in the UK chart. The song is a powerful tribute to his partner Anselmo Feleppa and he would consistently dedicate it to him before each live performance. The video was laced with symbolism principally featuring people coping with various stages of grief.
KY: As listening to again and I was trying to think about the truth of that experience for you and obviously not you can come in close and then I, I started to think about Ian Forster and what he wrote sort of is the same thing. He wrote, only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted; live in fragments no longer and it made me think of the video — that you made to go through it, live in fragments no longer of the two men in the box and holding each other gripping each other. That idea that was your refusal then to live in fragments. It was actually the system: this is all of me. I’m now gonna give you all of me. Does that resonate?
GM: For anyone watching “Jesus to a Child,” I was coming out. Anyone who had a clue about any kind of symbolism, I was coming out.
GM: “Fast Love” took six months to write. Backwards and forwards between studios with my co-producer on that particular track. I was very stoned .. I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna pretend it was the truth. I was very stoned, and you know Fast Love makes me laugh because it’s so clearly once you realize who it’s written by it’s all about cruising. Yeah, I mean it’s all about cruising and you know, blunting out that pain with fast love. Simple as that. Funny word for it, love maybe but that’s what it’s about, you know.
GM: And even where I mentioned you know … kind of step into my BMW, this is Mike. It’s very autobiographical. And there’s not one track on that that album that is not about Anselmo, about the actual grieving, which was the somewhere I wrote with my friend David Austin “You have been Loved” which is my favorite on the album because it explores a Catholic woman losing her gay son to this awful awful awful disease and her unabated love of her religion.
GM: It doesn’t shake her religion. It shook my spirituality to lose a partner. The fact that it didn’t shake a really devout Catholic woman, you know, I found it incredible, incredible. And the number of people who come up to me and say, “Oh, you don’t know how much you helped me with Older when I lost this person or when I lost that person, or when I lost you know, my whoever.”
GM: And that’s to me, that’s the ultimate, that’s the ultimate. That I could have helped someone through the worst experience of my life and done the same for them, done something for them. That, that maybe is why it’s my favorite album. It’s not everybody’s favorite album of mine.
KY: Did it help you?
GM: Oh my God, yes. Oh my God, yes.
KY: I find it fascinating that you say that it’s your favorite album, and you say … I’m sure you spend your life with people telling you what your music has meant to them. But that album, you know I mean this given all you’ve done before the sales were not mind blowing.
It’s interesting that .. it’s your favorite, but also that it was the album that truly revealed you. It was absolutely more of you than anybody had ever understood before was there in that music, in the lyrics and in the sound. And that’s what people responded to the most.
GM: But God knows whether I would have. Had I just plowed on after “Faith” and try to get to my next album and plowed on; and not met, and loved, and lost Anselmo who knows if I would have got to “Jesus to a Child,” Fast Love,” “Spinning the Wheel,” “You have been Loved.” Who knows if I would have got to those things. I don’t think I would have.
I think if I believe in my destiny in any way, I believe I was destined to feel that particular pain so that I could do the ultimate with my music in terms of healing.
KY: And do you believe in destiny?
GM: I do. Yes, I do believe in destiny. I believe I’ve abused my destiny; but then again, I think, also even when I’ve lost control, even when I’ve really hit rock bottom, I believe that the redline is still there. And that this period of downtime will result in something spectacular.
GM: It won’t be spectacular like “Faith” or “Older” or whatever because I’m 53 years old I’m no longer a young male pop star but to me in my mind this period of turmoil will result in something spectacular. It has to.
Subverting the Narrative
KY: In April 1998, George made international headlines when he was arrested for engaging in a lewd act in a public toilet in the Beverly Hills Will Rogers Memorial Park. He finds himself in a similar situation on Hampstead Heath in 2006. A series of drug arrests and driving offences followed resulting in George pleading guilty to driving under the influence of drugs in August of 2010, for which he was sentenced to eight weeks in prison and a five-year ban from driving. A tabloid media backlash was inevitable.
But George showed a natural talent for combating the attention using self-deprecating humor. His two most notable appearances were a cameo in the Ricky Gervais sitcom Extras set on Hampstead Heath in 2007, and sitting in the passenger seat alongside James Corden in a 2011 Comic Relief sketch.
KY: I want to ask you about subverting the narrative and saying to people, you don’t get to decide how the story is told, and the humor that you have used to electrifying nicoreting(?) effect you have chosen to do it. Let’s pick the two best-known which would be in the car with James and then with Ricky on the bench
[SKIT WITH GERVAIS]
GM: Oh, about 20 minutes. Actually I’m on my lunch break
Ricky Gervais: Lunch break?
GM: Yeah, I’m doing community service.
RG: Are you still doing that?
GM: Oh, not that one. No, I’m doing another one now; picking up litter now.
RG: All right. What’d you do wrong this time?
GM: Fly-tipping, believe it or not. I was helping Annie Lennox out with an old fridge freezer and she said, Should I call the council?” I said no don’t bother there’s a skip at the end of my street. So 2:30 in the morning we’re tipping it in there and police show up.
RG: How did they get involved in?
GM: Well Stewart Copeland skip and he called Sting. And Sting called the council because he’s a do-gooder. Now me and Annie are picking up litter. Well I better get going because you know I’m gonna have to get back to work soon
AM: More than you .. I’ll give you a quickie boy
GM: I’m not that desperate matey
AM: Cheeky bastard
KY: That takes real nuts to do that — to really see, I know you might be laughing at me but I’ll show you how to laugh and really really do that. Just tell me about that deciding to do that — does it feel like a big decision or did it just feel like some fun?
GM: I think the truth is I’m just not afraid of being laughed at.
KY: Did Ricky come to you with it written or did you write it together, that bit? Or how did that come about?
GM: Ricky came to me with it written. And I think I made a few changes, just a few changes. As with James Corden. With James, again he came to me with the basis of it and I made a few changes where I thought things could be a little bit funnier. I’m sure they would have made them funnier but they weren’t sure how far I was gonna go.
Whereas I was prepared to go as far as it took to let everybody know that this was genuine self-awareness; that this was someone who understood how badly they fucked up and how easy it was to laugh at. And also there’s some kind of blessing in the laughs being about something which is a about tearing down the stereotype of gay men. And I love what Ricky said about that.
Ricky Gervais: I think he’s challenged the stereotype of the gay man as well and what was acceptable. Because you know it even when people were out in 60s to the 70s they were safe sexless gay men. Whereas George went, I’ve got a cock about that — but that frightened some people, yeah, literally I imagine.
GM: You know what he says so, so sublimely kind of mixed everything I was trying to say with those interviews that were like, “So what? So what?” … is thousand and whatever you know, “so what.” And you know, I wasn’t just trying to be; I wasn’t fighting for my life as an artist, you know. I was just saying, “this is your shit,” you know. I can do what I like wandering about at night. And I did laugh at the headlines. I did laugh at some of the things that were said. And Ricky, God bless him, gave me a perfect way of addressing it head on and saying you know .
GM: James wanted to go further with the whole prison thing. But I said to him, no. Because he was gonna pick me up from prison. But I said to him, no we shouldn’t do that; we shouldn’t actually take the piss directly because I did something wrong, you know. When it came to the car thing, I did something wrong. When it came to the perhaps to the Heath thing, fuck off. As simple as that; and I could really laugh at.
[SKIT WITH JAMES CORBEN]
KY: My interview with George took place towards the end of 2016, just weeks before he died. I had no idea that my concluding question to him would be so poignant. Although I knew it probably wasn’t needed for his film I was curious to understand more about the punishing nature of being an artist, what it demanded of him, particularly being one of the big four video legends of the 80s along with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna.
GM: I think the reason that we lose so many stars is that we live in a world where drug companies get to behave abhorrently and where people who are rich enough and independent enough to demand too many drugs are given them. I’ve had my own battles, but my battles have never been extreme. Luckily for me, opioids and opiates are not allowed in this country.
I’ll tell you something very strange. I remember having conversations with people in the late 80s and I don’t think we ought to discount There are two artists that we … that I didn’t mention apart from myself, if I’m honest. That I do believe the top four, in terms of people’s interest in the person, were Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and myself probably in that order. There was of course in terms of selling records was also Whitney Houston and Bruce Springsteen. Massive sellers.
But the four video legends, as it were the four who you waited for the videos to come out whereas I said Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and myself. I remember saying to somebody, if we could look into the future I think the people that we would survive and have the longest careers would be Madonna and myself. And I said, not because we’re the most talented, because actually I believe Michael Jackson and Prince are both more talented than either Madonna or myself, but because we’re sane. I said because we’re sane. I don’t house same people the guy in these days of 90s probably changed but I think is the truth. They were both vulnerable, incredibly vulnerable because their worldview I think was so overshadowed by their self obsession and their self absorption. For as I think myself and Madonna are still same so saying people. She’s very sane; she’s a very, very smart woman. But Michael and Prince were both always vulnerable. I didn’t think they’d be dead, but they were always vulnerable. Always vulnerable.
KY: As my time with George came to an end I felt like I had a far better understanding of the man who had started out with a burning desire to become something great. His career had shown that he had real character. He operated on his own terms. He wasn’t perfect; he made mistakes which were widely reported, but his kindness and philanthropy was less well documented.
Since his death, stories have emerged that reveal his generous often unplanned acts of immense kindness. From spending time with him, interviewing him, I felt I had a better understanding of George: how he combined his immense gift for music with a level of authenticity and fearlessness that would capture the heart of generations and had his spirit as well as his music will live on.
GM: That was really lovely actually. That was very nice … that was great
George Michael The Red Line was a TBI media production for BBC Radio 2
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