On the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, I’m reminded of a candid conversation I had four years before that, with another famous Michael. George Michael.
MJ died on George’s birthday, and the day before mine. Actually, an hour or so before mine. When the news was confirmed at around 11pm UK time on 25 June 2009, I was at home in West Hampstead with one eye on the TV and the other trying to finish off my playlist for my 40th birthday picnic in Hyde Park the following afternoon, and as the musical theme was ‘The 80s at 40’, I’d already included Billie Jean and Bad among poptastic choice cuts by Soft Cell, New Order, Pet Shop Boys and even my number one fan Madonna. It seemed churlish to remove his tunes now, even though I felt absolutely nothing about his passing.
Within minutes, my oldest school and college friend Joanne called.
“Have you heard the news! How do you feel?”
“But you used to love Michael Jackson. Remember the time we went to see Moonwalker at the Point in Milton Keynes, and you decided to tell me you were no longer vegetarian by eating a hot dog in my face. I felt sick.”
“Yeah, well, we all grow up.”
Truth be told, I’d almost forgotten the great body of work Jacko had produced in the 1970s and Eighties, before the madness got to him. Michael Jackson had been famous for as long as I had been on the planet.
Indeed, I was just three months old when the Jackson 5 unleashed the Motown song that catapulted them into the pop stratosphere, 1969‘s kitch classic I Want You Back. Here’s the always dazzling Diana Ross introducing them to the world…
And yet in the two decades prior to his death all I could remember was the megalomanic monster that was the subject of an avalanche of disgusting headlines, many of them self-inflicted:
Forcing media outlets to refer to himself as the King of Pop if they wanted access or the right to play his videos.
The sham marriages to Elvis Presley’s daughter and that butch baby machine to divert attention away from pedophilia allegations.
The dangerous dangling of one of his ‘surrogate’ babies over a hotel balcony in Berlin.
The steadfast refusal to publicly associate himself with anyone gay.
Hmmm, I wonder why.
An altogether more grounded personality, George and I had known each other since he started messaging me online out of the blue five years earlier, on a wet April evening in 2004. After badgering him, he eventually agreed that I should interview him for a Gay Times cover story in 2007. Two years earlier, our first face to face meeting proved rather different. Thank heavens I kept a diary.
It’s Monday 13th June, 2005, and Yog calls my mobile: “You’ve always sounded like fun. Bring your videos with you if you like.” (I’d recently starred in a couple of saucy suit films for Menatplay.) I arrive dead on 8pm as agreed and he comes to the gate dressed in khaki shorts and a baggy black T-shirt, one of his beloved Golden Labradors tracking his every move. He’s warm and chirpy, and in pretty good nick. Good start.
He leads me (not by the hand) to a kitchen diner that looks out onto one of the biggest gardens I’ve ever seen but, before I’ve even had a chance to sit down, George gets a phone call. It’s his sister, Melanie: “Put Sky News on. They’re about to announce the Michael Jackson verdict!” So we sit, glued to the flat screen TV on the wall, waiting for the court’s judgment on the latest round of child abuse allegations.
We’re so engrossed in the drama that Yog realises he’s completely forgotten to offer me anything. “Do you drink? I think I’ve got a bottle of wine somewhere.” It’s obvious alcohol is no longer his regular drug of choice. This becomes ever more apparent as he spends a good ten minutes looking for a bottle opener. At one point I turn round and catch George Michael with his head inside the washing machine. “Oh, I thought the cleaner may have put the corkscrew in there. I think she’s hiding it from me.”
He then sits at the dining table with two packets of Silk Cut and a stash of hash and rolls a couple of joints. We watch the Not Guilty verdicts come in. After the first one George is incredulous. “No, fucking way!” he cries. Then the next: “I don’t fucking believe it. This is a travesty. Just how many people have been paid off?” It goes on and on, and I can see George’s rage building up. He’s as red-faced as Jacko was white. He clearly believes the court have reached the wrong verdict, so I ask him if he’s ever met MJ.
“Oh yeah, we were even going to work together. But his bizarre behaviour put the kibosh on that. It was 1988 – around the Bad and Faith periods – and it’s funny, looking back, but at the time we were the biggest male pop stars in the world, rivals I suppose. And our label Sony had this grand idea of a duet – the two Michaels – it could’ve been the biggest thing ever!
But I’d heard that Prince had turned him down. I also knew that he was sitting on stuff he’d done with Freddie Mercury – apparently they fell out because Freddie would get coked up and kept urging him to come out of the closet!”
“Was Freddie trying it on with him? Who knows? But it wouldn’t surprise me, knowing Freddie! Anyway, a meeting was arranged at the Jackson family compound in Encino. Michael had just bought Neverland but we’d heard that no adults were allowed there, except staff. We drove all the way to the house in the steaming heat of California. It took ages to get there in the steaming heat of California; a really long drive in a stuffy car from LA and I’m really hot and sweaty.
When we arrive, we’re shown into the porch by the front door and told that Michael will be down to see us shortly. I was standing there for 20 minutes. Then Michael arrives, in full make-up with shades on, inside the house. He’s accompanied by his manager Frank DiLeo, and I have my manager with me, so there’s the four of us standing in the hallway, and Frank does all the talking.”
“Not once does Michael ever shake our hands, take his shades off or speak directly to us. I try to engage him in conversation but he just turns his head and looks at the floor. All questions to him have to go through his manager, even when you’re standing right in front of him. Unbelievable rudeness!
As the managers try to work out the logistics of who would write the song and all that, the only time Michael volunteers to speak is a whisper in Frank’s ear:
‘Michael wants to know how much do you think we could sell of this record?’”
“It would have been absolutely massive, ands my manager made it clear it would be, but it was almost like Michael wanted some kind of guarantee: ‘I will only agree to work with you if it’s going to sell at least x million.’
But by this point I’d lost interest. We’d been talking for over an hour and not once were were offered a drink or even a chair. I came away thinking this guy is a complete and utter nutter. And that was the last time there was ever any talk of the two of us working together. But no amount of record sales was worth that kind of behaviour.”
George switches off the telly and starts to calm down. I’m struck by how extremely grounded and well-mannered he is: “My mother always taught me to treat people with respect and common decency.” We bond over music and he regales me with stories of some of his contemporaries: “Stevie Wonder I adore, but because he’s blind he has no concept of time. I once waited for him an entire day at the studio.”
The Dame: “I knew I was never gonna be Bowie, with a level of coolness that was way above everyone. I always thought I was gonna be Elton without the piano.”
As with Jacko, the only time Yog is less than polite about someone is when he feels he’s been treated badly by them. “I invited Mick Hucknall to share my stage and as soon as the show is over he slags me off to the papers. What an absolute cunt!”
A couple of years later George let me interview him for a Gay Times cover feature to tie in with his big televised concert shebang for the opening of the new Wembley Stadium. I took along the Deputy Ed, Richard Smith, for company but officially on the record he declined to talk further about MJ: “I don’t want to kick someone when they’re down,” came his carefully crafted reply.
As we turned over the tape Yog asked Richard, “Did Steve tell you that he turned up at one of my concerts last year wearing a T-shirt that said ‘I wanked off George Michael’? I should have written on the back of it, “You most certainly did not!”
Richard died at 49; Michael lasted until 50, the age I’ll be tomorrow, though last month I almost didn’t make it. Prince died at 57, and just nine months later George shuffled off at 53. In his youth Yog had spoken of having a premonition of not living a long life. Without wanting to sound like a drama queen, some people just weren’t designed to reach their sixties. In fact, some of us are genetically predisposed to it.
Live each day as if it’s your last. Baby, can’t you read the signs?
© Steve Pafford 2019
I Want Your Sex: Remembering George Michael is here
Paedophilia and megalomania: can we separate the art from the artist? is here