Singer-songwriter George Michael died Dec. 25, 2016, according to his publicist. He was 53. In a 1990 article, he talked about his effort to downplay his celebrity status.
What does George Michael have to complain about?
Here’s an Englishman who came out of nowhere in 1984 to-- wham! --break into the U.S. Top 10 with a catchy, flyweight song, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” making him a pop star at 21.
Three years later, Michael made the almost unprecedented leap from pretty-boy teen dream to respected adult pop artist. His first solo album, “Faith,” sold more than 14 million copies and won the Grammy for best album of the year. This time it wasn’t just teenyboppers speaking.
So, what’s the problem?
Michael says his pop dreams proved to be a personal nightmare, leaving him on the verge of an emotional breakdown during the early weeks of the 1988 “Faith” tour.
Back now with his second solo effort, “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” Michael is taking potentially revolutionary steps in hopes of reducing the strain of his celebrity status.
“It’s quite simple, really,” the singer said, sitting on the beachfront patio of his manager’s Marina del Rey apartment. “I decided that the thing I really enjoy . . . the thing I really needed was my songwriting. I didn’t need the celebrity.”
That sounds fine in theory, but complaints about pressures at the top are commonplace in pop music. Artists frequently argue that videos trivialize a song, and that touring for months at a time works against the creative process, not to mention maintaining a normal lifestyle.
Doing something about these complaints, however, is rare because promotional videos and touring are considered essential elements in building multimillion-unit album sales. They are part of the price of fame.
Videos, in fact, may be a more important sales tool these days than live shows. This is the age of the video star: Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul . . . and George Michael.
Despite a lightweight image left over from his days as a member of the duo Wham!, Michael has proved a sharp pop strategist who understood in the early ‘80s that good videos had become a key to success. His sexy image in the Wham! and “Faith” videos most certainly contributed to his appeal.
The question that Michael’s decision poses over the coming months: Can a record maker compete on the charts in the ‘90s without videos and tours? If someone of Michael’s commercial stature and video presence succeeds, other artists may also step away from the video grind. This could lead to a break in video’s stranglehold on the pop marketplace, where the trend is toward signing artists for their video potential rather than their musical abilities.
But even Columbia Records is hedging its bet. It has released, with Michael’s permission, a video of the album’s first single, “Praying for Time,” that consists simply of the song’s socially conscious lyrics printed against a black backdrop--no images of Michael himself.
Another question raised by Michael’s pledge: his credibility.
To a cynical pop world that has heard everyone from Frank Sinatra to David Bowie threaten to say goodby to the microphone, the latest vows of George Michael may seem like little more than a calculated publicity move. After all, he’s obviously still doing interviews.
Michael anticipated the question.
“I’m sure a lot of people are going to believe all this is just some sort of gimmick . . . just another way to stir interest,” Michael said in what was the first of three U.S. newspaper interviews he had agreed to do--with the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and USA Today--in connection with the release of the album on Tuesday.
“ ‘But I’m also sure that most people find it hard to believe that stardom can make you miserable. After all, everybody wants to be a star. I certainly did, and I worked hard to get it. But I was miserable, and I don’t want to feel that way again.”
Yes, Michael, a man known in the ‘80s for a tan so perfect that some speculated he somehow dyed his skin, had a shiny sunburn on his nose and forehead as he sat down for the interview.
Michael smiled when asked about the skin-dye rumors.
“I used to just sit out in the sun all the time because I loved it, so I always did have a tan,” he said, brushing self-consciously at his bright, glowing nose. “But now I get bored doing that. I start getting restless . . . and, besides, I’m starting to burn. That’s something that never used to happen.”
The singer, who had picked up the burn while riding a bike around the neighborhood that morning, was dressed casually in a white T-shirt and shorts topped off by a Lakers cap. He nibbled at some vegetables and other snacks on a table in front of him.
Michael, who has what he describes as a “vacation/investment” house in Santa Barbara but lives chiefly in London, seemed unusually at ease for someone who says he doesn’t enjoy interviews.
He didn’t act overly friendly or overly dramatic. More than anything, he seemed to be taking care of a final chore before going on vacation--and that’s what he may consider his break from video work and media exposure to be.
The sunburn added a welcome human touch to a persona that has often come across as a touch calculated.
But why the final round of goodby interviews? Why not just drop out of sight?
“I think it was important, not really for the people who have always doubted me, because they’ll still doubt me,” he said. “I did it for the people who have supported me. I think they are owed some sort of explanation.
“But it won’t really be goodby to my way of thinking because they’ll still have the most important part of me, which is the music. The rest--the whole video image--was just a creation . . . something I wanted in the beginning because of all the childish fantasies about (craving) love and attention.
“The truth is, it all got much bigger than I ever imagined--and much harder to control. Ultimately, I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of visibility and power. Once I became more confident as a writer, I realized I didn’t need all that other bolstering.”
A rrogant is a word that was often applied to the handsome young singer during his early days as the leader of Wham!, the English duo whose hits, besides “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” included “Everything She Wants” and “I’m Your Man.”
And it’s easy to understand why, when you see such quotes as this one from a 1988 interview with the English pop magazine Q:
“People have always thought my career has been incredibly calculated and premeditated but it runs along pretty well parallel lines with most people’s careers. It’s just that the decisions I have made personally have been much more . . . correct.”
Photos of leaders, stars and other notable figures who died in 2016.
Wong’s masterly touch brought a poetic quality to Disney’s “Bambi” that has helped it endure as a classic of animation. The pioneering Chinese American artist influenced later generations of animators. Full obituary(Peter Brenner / Handout)
After bursting onto the scene opposite Gene Kelly in the classic 1952 musical "Singin’ in the Rain,” Reynolds became America’s Sweetheart and a potent box office star for years. Her passing came only one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died at the age of 60. Reynolds was 84. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
Actress and writer Carrie Fisher rose to global fame as the trailblazing intergalactic heroine Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” franchise. She later established herself as an author and screenwriter with an acerbic comic flair. She was 60. Full obituary.(20th Century Fox)
Rubin’s uncovering of evidence of the existence of dark matter revealed that “there’s much more out there than we would expect based on our common-sense experience,” said James Bullock, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine. Full obituary(The Carnegie Institution )
George Michael, the English singer-songwriter who shot to stardom in the 1980s as half of the pop duo Wham!, went on to become one of the era’s biggest pop solo artists with hits such as “Faith” and “I Want Your Sex.” He was 53. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
The athlete known widely by the nickname “Miruts the Shifter” (No. 191) won two gold medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics at age 40 and won bronze medals earlier at the 1972 Munich Games. The Ethiopian running legend inspired world-class athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie. He was 72. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The first woman to become a Lutheran pastor in Orange County, Wolfe-Devol reached out to the LGBT community and helped clear the way for the 2009 vote by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that permitted gay and lesbian clergy to openly marry and continue to serve in the church. She was 61. Full obituary(Courtesy of the Devol family)
She was the last surviving sibling of three sisters who were as famous for their lavish lifestyles and many marriages as for their show-business careers. Gabor’s film credits include “Touch of Evil” and “Queen of Outer Space.” She was 99. Full obituary(EPA)
The helicopter gunner in the Vietnam War helped end the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. He was 67. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The thoracic surgeon came up with an anti-choking technique in 1974. So simple it could be performed by children, the eponymous maneuver made Heimlich a household name. He was 96. Full obituary(Al Behrman / Associated Press)
Glenn became an American hero as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth. He also served for 24 years as a U.S. senator from Ohio. Thirty-six years after his first flight, he became the oldest man to go into space. He was 95. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Greg Lake, left, pictured with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer of the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer, helped pioneer the expansive genre of progressive rock in the late 1960s and ‘70s. He was 69. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The hugely popular south Indian actress later turned to politics and became the highest elected official in the state of Tamil Nadu. She was 68. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Lee overcame discrimination to become the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal and the first diver to win back-to-back gold medals in two different Olympics — in London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952. He was 96. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The former Cuban leader thrust his Caribbean nation onto the world stage by provoking Cold War confrontation and defying U.S. policy through 11 administrations. He was 90. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Best known for her portrayal of Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson
portrayed an idealized mother figure for an entire generation. Her character was the center of the show, cheerfully mothering her brood in an era when divorce was becoming more common. She was 82. Full obituary
Dubbed “Dr. Wonderful” by the media, the Texas surgeon performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States and the world’s first implantation of a wholly artificial heart. He also founded the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. He was 96. Full obituary(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
The prominent Los Angeles attorney went from defending his father, a powerful mob boss, to representing celebrities, corrupt businessmen, drug kingpins and the so-called Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss. He was 70. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
The award-winning journalist wrote for the Washington Post and the New York Times before becoming an anchor of public television news programs “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week.” Her career also included moderating the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. She was 61. Full obituary(Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)
Instantly recognizable for his long white mane and a rich, hearty voice, Russell sang, wrote and produced some of rock ‘n’ roll’s top records. His hits included “Delta Lady,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “A Song for You” and “Superstar.” He was 74. Full obituary(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The singer-songwriter’s literary sensibility and elegant dissections of desire made him one of popular music’s most influential and admired figures for four decades. Cohen is best known for his songs such as “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire.” He was 82. Full obituary(Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images)
Reno was the first woman to serve as United States attorney general. Her unusually long tenure began with a disastrous assault on cultists in Texas and ended after the dramatic raid that returned Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father. She was 78. Full obituary(Dennis Cook / Associated Press)
The 1960s radical was in the vanguard of the movement to stop the Vietnam War and became one of the nation’s best-known champions of liberal causes. He was 76. Full obituary(George Brich / Associated Press)
Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest in 1975. In 1992, she also became the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” reaching the highest peaks of the seven continents. She was 77. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
With more than 70 years on the throne, Bhumibol was the world’s longest-reigning monarch at the time of his death. A descendant of a 700-year-old dynasty, Bhumibol was the great-grandson of King Mongkut, who was depicted in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The King and I.” He was 88. Full obituary(AFP)
Nixon was the creative force behind the popular soap operas “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.” She was a pioneer in bringing serious social issues, like racism, AIDS and prostitution, to daytime television. She was 93. Full obituary(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)
The former Israeli president was one of the founding fathers of Israel. The Nobel peace prize laureate was an early advocate of the idea that Israel’s survival depended on territorial compromise with the Palestinians. He was 93. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The horror filmmaker known as the “godfather of gore” directed such films as “Blood Feast” and “Two Thousand Maniacs.” He pioneered the horror genre in the 1960s known as the “splatter film,” which focused on gore and gruesomeness. He was 87. Full obituary(HGB Entertainment Ltd.)
A seven-time professional major tournament champion, Palmer revolutionized sports marketing as it is known today, and his success contributed to increased incomes for athletes across the sporting spectrum. He was 87. Full obituary(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Known as the Vatican’s exorcist, Amorth, a Roman Catholic priest, helped promote the ritual of banishing the devil from people or places. He was 91. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The American playwright was known for works such as “The Zoo Story,” “The Sandbox,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance.” He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama three times. He was 88. Full obituary(Jennifer S. Altman / For the Times)
The Canadian novelist blended magical realism and baseball in his 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” which became the blueprint for the 1989 Oscar-nominated movie “Field of Dreams.” He was 81. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The longtime Los Angeles liberal lion was a friend of kings, presidents, moguls and Hollywood stars who used his wealth and connections to advance a wide range of causes and candidates. He was 96. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The ska pioneer and Jamaican music legend recorded thousands of records, including such hits as “Al Capone” and “Judge Dread.” He helped ignite the ska movement in England, and later helped carry it into the rock-steady era in the mid-1960s. He was 78. Full obituary(Larry Ellis / Getty Images)
Known as “the first lady of anti-feminism," Schlafly was a political activist who galvanized grass-roots conservatives to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and, in ensuing decades, effectively push the Republican Party to the right. She was 92. Full obituary(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)
O’Brian helped tame the Wild West as the star of TV’s “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and was the founder of a long-running youth leadership development organization. “Wyatt Earp” became a top 10-rated series and made O’Brian a household name. He was 91. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Jerry Heller, the early manager of N.W.A, was an important and colorful personality in the emerging West Coast rap scene in the 1980s. Heller was 75. Full obituary(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Two-time Oscar nominee Gene Wilder brought a unique blend of manic energy and world-weary melancholy to films as varied as 1971’s children’s movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and the 1980 comedy “Stir Crazy.” He was 83. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The beloved top-selling Mexican singer wooed crowds on both sides of the border with ballads of love and heartbreak for more than four decades. He was 66. Full obituary(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Known as the “queen of knitwear,” Sonia Rykiel became a fixture of Paris’ fashion scene, starting in 1968. French President Francois Hollande praised her as “a pioneer” who “offered women freedom of movement.” She was 86. Full obituary(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
The conservative political commentator hosted the long-running weekly public television show “The McLaughlin Group” that helped alter the shape of political discourse since its debut in 1982. He was 89. Full obituary(Kevin Wolf / Associated Press)
Best-known for his post-bop recordings for Blue Note Records in the 1960s and 1970s, the inventive jazz vibraphonist played with a litany of jazz greats as both bandleader and sideman during a career spanning more than 50 years. He was 75. Full obituary(Scott Chernis / Associated Press)
The British actor, who was 3-foot-8, gave life to the “Star Wars” droid R2-D2, one of the most beloved characters in the space-opera franchise and among the most iconic robots in pop culture history. He was 81. Full obituary(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)
For many in L.A., Folsom was the face of the Parent Teacher Student Assn., better known as the PTSA or PTA. He served as the official and unofficial watchdog over the Los Angeles Unified School District and wrote about his experiences in his blog. He was 69. Full obituary(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Fountain combined the Swing Era sensibility of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman with the down-home, freewheeling style characteristic of traditional New Orleans jazz to become a national star in the 1950s as a featured soloist on the “The Lawrence Welk Show.” He was 86. Full obituary(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Born Youree Harris, Cleo became a cultural icon as the spokeswoman for Psychic Readers Network, where she starred in infomercials as a Jamaican psychic, replete with accent, who used tarot card readings to advise individuals using the pay-per-call service on their futures. She was 53. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Lowery was a pioneer in efforts to help people suffering from poverty, addiction and mental illness move out of tents and cardboard boxes on Los Angeles’ sidewalks and into supportive housing. She was 70. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Nixon, a Hollywood voice double, can be heard in place of the leading actresses in such classic movie musicals as “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady.” She was 86. Full obituary(Rob Kim / AFP/Getty Images)
The department store heir’s widow was a socialite and philanthropist who hobnobbed with the world’s elite, epitomized high fashion and was best friends with former first lady Nancy Reagan. She was 93. Full obituary(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
The writer and director is best known for his TV hits "Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” and the box-office successes “Pretty Woman” and “Runaway Bride.” He was 81. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The author and teacher was long established as a leading literary figure of Southern California. Her works include “Golden Days,” “There Will Never Be Another You” and her memoir “Dreaming, Hard Luck and Good Times in America.” She was 82. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
The Nazi concentration camp survivor won the Nobel in 1986 for his message “of peace, atonement and human dignity.” “Night,” his account of his year in death camps, is regarded as one of the most powerful achievements in Holocaust literature. He was 87. Full obituary(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
One of the greatest basketball coaches of any gender or generation, Summitt spent 38 years as coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team before dementia forced her early retirement. She was 64. Full obituary(Wade Payne / Associated Press)
The iconic New York Times fashion photographer darted around New York on a humble bicycle to cover the style of high society grand dames and downtown punks with equal verve. He was 87. Full obituary(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Aguirre was best known for his portrayal of the towering “Profesor Jirafales,” the likable and often disrespected giraffe teacher on the 1970s-era hit show “El Chavo del Ocho.” The screwball comedy helped usher in an era of edgier comedy in Mexico and elsewhere. Aguirre was 82. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Known as “Mr. Hockey” for his enduring skills and fierce competitiveness, Howe was a member of hockey’s Hall of Fame and a longtime ambassador for the game. He was 88. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The Academy Award-winning British playwright is best known for his stage dramas “Amadeus” and “Equus,” which were both turned into acclaimed movies. “Amadeus” won eight Oscars, including one for Shaffer for adapted screenplay and one for best picture. He was 90. Full obituary(Mike Lawn / Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
The three-time heavyweight boxing champion’s brilliance in the ring and bravado outside it made his face one of the most recognizable in the world. He was 74. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
Crouch, the co-founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network, was one of the most recognizable and enduring figures in Orange Country’s televangelism pantheon. She enjoyed vast, loyal support from viewers of “Praise the Lord,” the show in which she appeared with her husband, Paul. She was 78. Full obituary( Mark Boster / The LA Times)
Like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman became part of a group of journalists who set the tone for storytelling on television. He was on “60 Minutes” for 46 years, holding the longest tenure on prime-time television of anyone in history. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The first African American chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Williams steadied the agency in the tumultuous wake of the 1992 riots but was distrusted as an outsider by many officers and politicians. He was 72. Full obituary(Nick Ut / Associated Press)
A KPCC stalwart since 2000, Julian was a brisk, unflappable and earnest on-air presence familiar to masses of weekday public-radio listeners on their morning commutes. Outside work, he was a playwright and actor, active in local theater. He was 57. Full obituary(Bill Youngblood / KPCC)
The trailblazing performer sold more than 100 million records over his career, fusing rock, pop, funk and R&B. He was 57. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Best known for her role as Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Roberts won four Emmys for her work on that show and one for her work on “St. Elsewhere.” She was 90. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Known as “the godfather of Rodeo Drive,” Hayman was a serial entrepreneur whose eye for trends, nose for fragrances and hospitality-driven approach to retail helped shape the luxury landscape of Beverly Hills. He was 90. Full obituary(Associated Press)
The country music legend sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and penned a stream of No. 1 hits. He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee,” which seemed to mock San Francisco’s anti-war hippies. He was 79. Full obituary(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The acclaimed Native American historian was the last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow Tribe. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was 102. Full obituary(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister brokered an end to the painful 40-year division of his homeland in 1990, but only after persevering for decades through the most tragic and destructive phases of Germany’s 20th century history. He was 89. Full obituary(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
The Iraqi-born British architect was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. She made her mark with buildings such as the London Aquatics Centre, the MAXXI museum for contemporary art in Rome and the innovative Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain. She was 65. Full obituary(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)
The former television talk show host became the first openly gay man to serve on the Los Angeles City Council. He advocated for the homeless, gays and lesbians and other liberal causes. He was 70. Full obituary(Christina House / For The Times)
Duke won an Oscar at age 16 for her portrayal of Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” the youngest person at the time to receive the honor. She was also known for her bouncy 1960s TV sitcom, “The Patty Duke Show.” She was 69. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Garry Shandling’s comedic career spanned decades, but he is best known for his role as Larry Sanders, the host of a fictional talk show. His sitcom pushed the boundaries of TV, influencing shows such as “The Office” and “Modern Family.” He was 66. Full obituary.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ken Howard was president of SAG-AFTRA and an actor known for his role on TV’s ‘The White Shadow.’ He championed the merger of Hollywood’s two largest actors unions, which had a history of sparring. He was 71. Full obituary(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Phife Dawg, right, formed the trailblazing hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest in the late 1980s in New York with his childhood friend Q-Tip, left. He was 45. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The former first lady’s devotion to her husband made her a formidable behind-the-scenes player in his administrations and one of the most influential presidential wives in modern times. She was 94. Full obituary(American Vantage Media )
Martin, second from right, with Paul McCartney, left, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in 1963, produced nearly all the Beatles’ recordings, advising them on songwriting and arranging and capturing the vitality of their early performances in the studio. He was 90. Full obituary(Michael Ochs Archives )
The longtime Los Angeles radio disc jockey, whose real name was Art Ferguson, hosted the morning radio show for popular and influential station KHJ-AM in the late 1960s and went on to be a key player in the launch of latter-day powerhouses KROQ-AM and KIIS-FM. He was 71. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The veteran actor built his early career playing heavies and won an Academy Award in 1968 for his supporting role as the tough Southern prison-camp convict who grew to hero-worship Paul Newman’s defiant title character in “Cool Hand Luke.” He was 91. Full obituary(Warner Bros. / Getty Images)
A prolific entrepreneur, Mann over the course of seven decades founded 17 companies in fields ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to medical devices. He was 90. Full obituary(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
The Egyptian diplomat helped negotiate his country’s landmark peace deal with Israel but then clashed with the United States when he served a single term as U.N. secretary-general. He was 93. Full obituary(Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press)
The novelist’s 1960 masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” brought her a Pulitzer Prize and a venerated place in American literature. She was 89. Full obituary(Donald Uhrbrock / PBS)
Supreme Court Justice Scalia was a fiery conservative who used a sharp intellect, barbed wit and a zeal for verbal combat to fight against the tide of modern liberalism. He was 79. Full obituary(Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)
Pro-BMX biker Dave Mirra was one of the most decorated athletes in X Games history. He held the record for the most medals in history with 24. He was 41. Full obituary(Ed Reinke / Associated Press)
Maurice White, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire, was the source for a wealth of euphoric hits in the 1970s and early ‘80s, including ‘Shining Star,’ ‘September,’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland.’ He was 74. Full obituary(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)
Once a finalist for California poet laureate, Alarcón was known for his bilingual poetry about immigrants, love and the indigenous languages and traditions of Mexico, and also for bilingual books of children’s verse. He was 61. Full obituary(Nancy Aidé Gonzalez )
A founding member of the Eagles, Frey was credited with being the chief architect of the vocal and instrumental blend that defined the group. The group’s hits included “Best of My Love” and “Hotel California.” He was 67. Full obituary
(Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns)
In a career that encompassed everything from big-budget Hollywood movies to classical theater, Rickman made bad behavior fascinating to watch from “Die Hard” to the “Harry Potter” movies. He was 69. Full obituary
The barrier-breaking British rock musician and actor produced an astonishing range of work, from cosmic folk (“Space Oddity”) and glam rock (“Ziggy Stardust”) to blue-eyed soul (“Young Americans”) and electronic experiments with Brian Eno (“Heroes”). He was 69. Full obituary
The composer and former principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic was known for pushing music lovers and the music establishment to let go of the past and embrace new sounds, structures and textures. He was 90. Full obituary(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)
The Academy Award winner was revered as one of the most influential cinematographers in film history for his work on classics including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter.” He was 85. Full obituary(Tamas Kovacs / EPA)
Gordon helped revolutionize surfing with the creation of the foam surfboard. His polyurethane boards were lighter and easier to ride, making surfing accessible -- which helped popularize the sport globally. He was in his 70s. Full obituary(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press)
The attorney and almond farmer was known for his battle to stop the $68-billion California bullet train project from slicing up his almond orchards -- part of a deeply emotional land war that has drawn in hundreds of farming families from Merced to Bakersfield. He was 92. Full obituary
Resisting the legacy of her famous father, crooner Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole was a singer in her own right. Known for her jazz and gospel-inflected voice, she sold more than 30 million albums and earned nine Grammy Awards over her four-decade career. She was 65. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
For a while, everything the pop sensation did was indeed correct--and blatantly calculated, a trait that makes some observers suspicious now about Michael’s true intentions. Two other tags applied to Michael more recently seemed more appropriate: articulate and down-to-earth .
The way he tells it, George Michael was born to be a pop star. It’s as if nothing else really mattered during his childhood. Even the name was part of the pop creation.
Michael didn’t shy away from questions about his childhood in various London suburbs, but almost every answer involved music. “I wanted to be a pop star since I was about 7 years old,” he said flatly.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in London on June 25, 1963, Michael is the son of a Greek father and an English mother. One of three children, Michael, whose father operated a restaurant, described his upbringing as middle-class and his childhood as “stable, happy.”
Young Georgios did well in high school, where he was especially fond of English and art. But his passion was music. He loved listening to records, especially Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Queen. He didn’t just listen to them--he dissected them. He was fascinated by song construction and how arrangements were pieced together.
But Georgios didn’t think about pursuing music until he met Andrew Ridgeley, a schoolmate who shared his love for music and his hunger for fame.
They formed their first band, a ska-influenced outfit called the Executive, in the summer of 1979. The group played a few dates and recorded a two-song demo that they sent to record companies, but it was rejected.
Undaunted, the pair continued to write songs together while working at various odd jobs. Excited by the energy of the British dance-club scene, they recorded another demo tape. This time the tape--featuring such original tunes as “Careless Whisper” and “Wham! Rap"--led to a record deal in 1982.
Unusually headstrong, George Michael--as Panayiotou began calling himself around this time--rejected attempts to turn the duo, called Wham!, into a traditional rock band that would follow the normal club circuit in England.
In “Bare,” an autobiography recently published in England, Michael explained his thinking at the time. “We were very aware of how the music business was changing, how you could suddenly reach more people with a video on MTV than with a 90-date tour of the States. We knew it was the future . . . that for the first time you didn’t have to be a band.”
About those days, Michael recalled during the Marina del Rey interview, “I was shocked at how little most people seemed to know in the record business and how willing they were to listen to anyone who seemed to have a firm idea about what was needed.”
Michael most certainly had a firm idea--and it worked. He made it from high school to the top of the British charts in less than a year.
America was next.
It was a time of flamboyance in pop . . . the start of the video age. Such rivals as Duran Duran and Culture Club were equally flamboyant, but Michael and Wham! outdistanced them all in England, coming up with slick and generally disposable pop that also had an undeniable edge of craft.
There were doubts about Wham! at every step in its U.S. assault. At first, record company sharpies in this country said that the group’s teen appeal wouldn’t translate well here. They were wrong.
“Wake Me Up . . .” and “Careless Whisper” both went to No. 1. Other insiders raised their eyebrows in 1985 when Wham! tried to sell out stadiums. Wrong again.
However, Michael, who emerged as the heartthrob and creative center of the group, knew he had to get away from the teen-ish Wham! image and sound if he were to have a long career. So, the inevitable breakup.
“I think one of the things that people loved about Wham! was the sense of friendship we projected, and that friendship was genuine,” Michael said. “Andrew brought a lightness, a fun to the whole thing.
“But he knew that Wham! was a finite thing and that it was just a question of when. We agreed very early that we wouldn’t let it burn out . . . that when it got to a certain height, we’d stop it, and we did.”
Several small moves helped establish Michael’s solo credibility, including a well-received appearance on a Motown TV special, where he sang with his childhood idols Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Another was a hit duet, “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” with Aretha Franklin.
Yet “Faith” was his biggest test.
The album was designed to both hold on to the legion of Wham! fans, yet exhibit a new maturity of songwriting that would attract an older following. It succeeded remarkably well.
Videos for songs like the sensual, aggressive “I Want Your Sex” and the catchy, rockabilly-tinged “Faith” were MTV smashes, while such numbers as the dark, disillusioned “Hand to Mouth” suggested a deeper dimension.
If the album’s success was liberating, the “Faith” tour proved a horror show--and led to Michael’s dramatic decision to step out of the normal pop guidelines.
The singer’s mood darkened slightly as he recounted the “madness” of the early days of the 1988 “Faith” tour.
“Actually, I can remember the exact moment that I decided I must change my life,” he said.
Naively, Michael had thought he would be able to leave the frenzy behind when he stepped out of Wham!
“We (opened) the ‘Faith’ tour in Japan, which was fine because they are reasonably quiet, and they listened to the music. But then we went to Australia, and the roof came off the first place we came to. The screaming . I thought, ‘God, it is happening all over again . . . I’m not going to have a chance to really sing,’ ” Michael recalled, reliving his displeasure at the clamor and the huge sites. “And I realized I had to do it for 10 months.”
“It was devastating,” he said of the “Faith” tour experience. “I was hugely temperamental, and I had a major problem with my throat, which didn’t help at all because people thought that was just part of my being temperamental, and it wasn’t. . . .
“It was a combination of things, including being on the road for that long. I’m someone who really needs a center. I was very close to what I could call a breakdown until I finally took a month off, because of (throat) surgery, and sorted it out. I made the decisions that I’m acting on.”
Why does the video star now hate videos?
Two reasons. Chiefly, they violate Michael’s sensibilities as a songwriter, but he also has grown uncomfortable in front of a camera. (He refused to have his photo taken for this article.)
“Videos force you to think of (songs) in a certain way rather than being free to interpret them however you like,” he said. “Some songs are very good video songs . . . ‘I Want Your Sex’ and ‘Faith’ . . . but very little in this album is right for video.
“When you are trying to express things with metaphors and much more subtlety, that’s when you are doing yourself a disservice by making a video. I don’t want to say I won’t do another video ever, but I won’t do one for the foreseeable future. If my life goes the way I want it to, I would like to never step in front of a camera again.”
On that issue, Michael added, “I don’t know. It’s strange. At some point in your career, the situation between yourself and the camera reverses. For a certain number of years, you court it and you need it, but ultimately, it needs you more and it’s a bit like a relationship. The minute that happens, it turns you off . . . and it does feel like it is taking something from you. I don’t know how to explain it any more than that. It is like taking something you don’t want to give.”
Beyond the question of videos and interviews, photo sessions and tours, the real challenge facing George Michael at the start of the ‘90s is the depth of his artistry.
Even with his fame and the “Faith” Grammy, there is still an anonymous quality to Michael’s music up through “Faith.” Much like Billy Joel, he has a sense of craft as a writer, but he has yet to establish an original or arresting vision that gives his music a distinctive, significant edge.
Though he was an early bloomer as a pop star, he is getting something of a late start as a serious writer. By 27, Bob Dylan had already written “Highway 61 Revisited,” the Beatles had released “Rubber Soul,” Bruce Springsteen had recorded “Born to Run” and U2 had delivered “The Joshua Tree.”
Michael appears to recognize that challenge. He said he hopes staying off the road will give him more time to work on his writing, and that he has begun to explore writers of such extraordinary vision as Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the Beatles. He also was planning to do an album of dance tunes for early next year, but now may continue to write in the more serious vein of “Listen Without Prejudice.” He does exhibit more personal revelation in key songs on the new album (see adjoining review).
One encouraging sign of independence is that Michael isn’t going along with the flattering comparisons of his new single, “Praying for Time,” with John Lennon’s idealistic “Imagine.”
In pointing out that the socially conscious song has attracted the most radio airplay of any single since 1985’s “We Are the World,” USA Today described its tone as similar to that of “Imagine.”
“It’s not like ‘Imagine’ at all,” Michael said. “It’s much more negative. I’d like to say things are bound to get better, but I don’t really believe it. The song is my own way of trying to justify people’s actions and their selfishness, I suppose.”
Sample lyrics from “Praying for Time”:
And it’s hard to love, there’s so much hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above
Say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time.
Michael leaned back in his chair and shrugged.
The world, he said, seems like a “place where things are running out of time. Everything is getting more violent. You need more protection all the time and it has gotten so bad that people’s general attitude is, ‘What the hell? I think I am going to hold on to what I’ve got.’ The key line for me is the one about it’s hard to love, but there’s so much to hate.
“The only real copout in the whole thing is the line about praying for time. Maybe I’d think that if I had children . . . I’d want to reach for straws. But I don’t think that will make the slightest difference. I’m very much fatalistic.”
Besides making more music, Michael hopes to use the extra time to grow on a personal level. Relationships, he said, have been a problem for him.
“Well, they really haven’t been difficult in the last few years, because I just haven’t had one,” he said. “I have been pretty disastrous with relationships, and I have kind of decided I was going to give myself a rest from them for a while.”
While Michael’s goals about concentrating on music and personal growth rather than show-biz marketing sounds good, Michael is bound to feel anxious if album sales slip substantially.
There’s not a great danger in releasing the first single from an album without a video because the momentum from the last album will cause large numbers of fans to buy it.
But the real test of an album’s commercial strength normally comes three to six months after its release--when videos for a second or third single are released to keep public interest high.
Tommy Mottola, president of CBS Records, is thrilled about the strong initial radio response to “Praying for Time,” the album’s first single. But he’s also clearly a bit anxious about the singer-songwriter’s decision not to do promotional videos.
“I think you’ll have a lot of disappointed fans because there is no video, but when they get to understand his point of view and hear the record, I don’t think there will be any problem,” he said, trying to put the most optimistic slant on the situation in a phone interview from his office in New York.
“He explained that he wants to do more work, more songs, more albums rather than have his time diffused with touring and doing videos and things that really rub him the wrong way. And if doing those things are going to cause that kind of a reaction in an artist, then what’s the point of doing them?”
Bob Merlis, vice president of publicity for rival Warner Bros. Records, called Michael’s move a “noble experiment,” but said he thinks the importance of video is so firmly established in the pop world that it is difficult to imagine anything dislodging it.
“I can’t see a flood of artists following Michael’s lead even if his album matches the sales of ‘Faith,’ ” Merlis said. “Besides, Michael is a special case. He’s already a multi-platinum artist who has a following. It’d be different if he were starting out. More than a test of the importance of video, I think the move may be a test of loyalty of Michael’s audience.”
Isn’t Michael worried about sales?
“I’m sure everyone (at CBS) is terrified that all this is going to sabatoge the album,” the singer said. “But I honestly feel I am in a very privileged position because I have the luxury of knowing that simply because of the size of the last album, this album will be heard . . . regardless of whether I make videos or not.
“I also have enough faith in the songs to believe that if people hear the album, enough will like it. I don’t necessarily believe it will sell 14 million copies. I’d be very surprised if it does, but I do believe it is a much better album, and I think that in itself will compensate for part of the lack of presence.”
Reflecting on the gamble involved in his experiment, Michael added:
“I can’t lose because I know what the alternative is. I’m not stupid enough to think that I can deal with another 10 or 15 years of major exposure. I think that is the ultimate tragedy of fame. . . . People who are simply out of control, who are lost. I’ve seen so many of them, and I don’t want to be another cliche.”