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Sunday
Apr222018

Barbara Bush: RIP A First Lady/Mother of Grace, Love, Grit & Welcome

Barbara Bush is dead. It’s hard to believe. She was always sort of older, sort of elegant, sort of the perfect grandmother or mentor young people deserved. But she was in many ways so much more.  She is the kind of woman women strive to be, even when they don’t know it barraged by Madison Avenue insecurity and Hallmark tropes of “good mothers.”

Barbara Bush is the last of a certain kind. A true lady. She understood graciousness in the moment made everyone more, just as she recognized love was the truest lubricant for life.

In a world of big weddings and catfight – or quickie – divorces, she maintained a worldclass romance with George H.W. Bush that swept seven decades, two different Presidential waves, raising children, striking out to settle in Texas with her husband, enjoying grand- and great grandchildren,  and growing old. There was never a question of the love, nor the commitment to family; she did it the same way she drew breath, completely and without ever having to think about it.

Because a woman like Barbara Bush, you don’t need to think. You work from the heart, and the loving thing somehow seems to happen. It’s why when her husband was President and the news media would be raking him over the coals, everyone seemed to love the First Lady.  He joked she was “the most popular woman in the world,” and wasn’t jokingly juxtaposing.

She was exactly the mother/friend/aunt/teacher/grandma you’d  tell your problems. She would listen until you finished, nodding her head or making eye contact to make you feel less whatever was balling you up, then she’d think for a moment and offer some insight, some story about a similar experience, or perhaps just the affirmation, “I’m sure you’re going to figure this out” or “I know it’s going to be alright.”

You believed her, because you knew she knew things, done things. And had she. Not that she did showed out about it. But leaving her home in Rye, New York – and her college education at exclusive Smith College -- with a dashing pilot who became her life’s great partner to help him stake a claim in the Texas oil business would be a crazy notion for almost anyone in mid-20th century America. From her place in “society,” it was crazy. Yet that’s just what she did.

Mrs. Bush was strong, too. They didn’t call her “the Enforcer” for no reason. She raised three spirited boys, gave them security and a sense of chasing their own worlds to the edge of their dreams. When they got in trouble – as our second Bush President did – she stood with them, helped them pick up the pieces and hold their own families together.

Always without flinching. Usually in a Shetland wool cardigan, partially buttoned, hair just so. She was not glamorous like Jackie Kennedy, but she had that same sense of how one behaves: voice low, eyes direct, heart open to others (even if there were things you were never going to share).

They both loved literacy, the arts and encouraging others. They were both sphinxlike, and careful about what was revealed. Charm was once described to me as learning more about the other than you tell, making people smile and perhaps laugh while doing it, and always finding common ground in the process.

In a world of MILFs and hot wives, Barbara Bush was more and better. Solid. Genuine. Real. She was a matriarch, the kind of woman who is the cornerstone of big adventures, memories that matter and the steadying force for people chasing impossible things. Think about that: President. Twice. Not just her husband, but her son.

As much of a sacrifice as public life can be, she never shunned her duty, always showed up in her gown at state dinners, looking every bit the empress she actually was. But to see her extended hand, whether a dignitary, a veteran, or a child, there was never a sense of who she was. That same electric common touch that erased differences Princess Di had, only Barbara Bush was no young beauty with small children. No, she was a grown woman who’d seen life, progress, disappointment – and she wore it all with a stunning peacefulness.

 

In a world of faster, harder, more, First Lady Bush represented the swan as mother, then grandmother. Unruffled, welcoming, she was as adept with school children as families stricken, world leaders, the kind of good ole boys who were part of her life in Texas and the old family coziness that existed in places like the Bush family’s Kennebunkport, Maine stronghold.

 It’s a gift: that ability to meet people where they live, to understand how to entertain with comfort over flash, to create environments that’re inviting and understated, yet somehow stylish. Like Lilly Pulitzer, Barbara Bush understood the pleasures of family, friends, lots of children running through, dogs of all sizes and a home filled with laughter; more than titles, the privileges, it was about a sanctuary for the people she loved.

And like Lilly, love was a big part of it. Love, from that giving, unconditional place that seems rare in a world of Tinder, hooking up, friends with benefits, me-mine and the absence of loyalty in the pursuit of one’s place in the world. The smile with the crinkles at the edge of her eyes said everything about who she was, how she saw the world and what she left in her wake.

 I am lucky enough to have grown up in a matriarchal world where women like Barbara Bush existed. From my own grandmothers, who were so different except for their fierce love for the people in their lives; Helen Walker, who came in twice a week to help out and make sure I knew I was loved; Jeannie in the locker room who watched over me like a hawk, even picking the black suit for my mother’s funeral saying, with a note that said, “She’d prefer the Velvet”; Sue Whiting and Ann Upchurch of the Women’s Western Golf Association who marshaled so many young girls traveling without parents into college golf and life; my best friend Kathie’s mother who used to sneak cigarettes behind their store, and wink at me not to tell the girls; Joyce Reingold, who gave me my first job straight out of college and remained a friend throughout my journey through life; Marybelle Matousek, who insisted I play in women’s tournaments when I was a child, taking up for me when the notion of ability to win became a problem.

Grand dames without airs, they were a special breed. Long on poise, short on tolerance for pettiness, they ruled their worlds without so much as wrinkling their brow. Occassionally, arching one, but never losing their temper. Or if they did…

My father, a golf historian, was quite taken with Barbara Bush. Having the opportunity to interview the President – “Did you know his W is for Walker, as in the Walker Cup?” he would always ask – it was the former First Lady who truly tickled his fancy. “She reminds me so much of the ladies back home, and there is so much love coming from her. It’s just fantastic.”

I didn’t hear the news that Mrs. Bush had passed when it broke. I was in my last lecture class for the semester, teaching music criticism to college juniors and seniors waiting for the year to be over. A beautiful day, they were enthused about everything, including the machinations of what makes a great feature.

Encouraging them to get off the straight boilerplate of facts, to try to summarize those things and get to the essence of the subject quickly, I offered, “What things mean, how they fit in the world around them, that’s where the good stuff is. Show me who this artist is, why she matters…”

Then I got in the car, trees just succumbing to the pressures of buds wanting to open. It was sunny, and beautiful, and a perfect temperature. Like I always do, I called my best friend Kathie, and said, “What’s going on?”

Kathie Oh! started talking about Barbara Bush, telling all these stories, and I couldn’t figure out why. I knew she was sick, that she’d opted to not seek further treatment the day before. But, surely, she wasn’t gone this soon?

“No, she died,” Kathie said. “She’s gone.”

We both fell silent. “Another gone,” I finally said.

“Yeah, it’s like the end of an era. Those kind of women are dying out.”

We were both quiet again. Then Kathie picked up what she’d been saying before I’d asked. “You know the thing I loved best about her? We have a friend who knows them, and they’d had lunch with the President not long ago. Our friend asked about doing something, and George Bush said, ‘No, I have to be getting back. After all these years, you know how much Barbara still loves holding my hand.”

After all these years, she still loved holding his hand.

Simple stuff. Truly. Basic. Profound. In a world where Kardashians get Ferraris for giving birth, all Barbara Bush wanted was to hold the love of her life’s hand.

May we all be so blessed with that kind of love. Barbara Bush would’ve wanted that for all of us, I’m sure. And in the not so distant future, who knows? She will, no doubt, be holding her beloved’s hand all over again. Loves that endure beyond the ages must also transcend our mortal coil.

                                                www.HollyGleason.com

Monday
Oct022017

Lonely & Gone: Troy Gentry Finds The Sky Too Soon

Nobody loved -- or lived -- life more than than Troy Gentry. Half of 1999 CMA Duo of the Year Montgomery Gentry, he was wild-eyed and willing to try anything; the duo's hard-charging country was meant for Saturday nights after a grueling week of physical work. No fear, great fun, always immersed in the moment, the father, husband, friend, showman died in a helicopter crash at 50.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Oct022017

Las Vegas, Hear Me Crying

Las Vegas.

There are no words. I’m not even sure prayers, as I feel so raw and empty from all of it. Even growing up with pretty strong exposure to mental health care issues, I’m having a hard time even finding a frayed thread to hang onto.

Like Columbine…

like the slaughter in the Colorado movie theater…

like Sandy Hook…

like the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Cincinnati, Indiana…
like sleepy Chardon, Ohio…
like, like, like, like, like…
there is no explanation that begins to start explaining. No right words, no origination place to truly come to a start of “how.”


In a year that’s already been marked by much sadness, much indignation, much loss, much unthinkable tragedy, 22,000 people go to a country concert – and fifty are dead, two hundred injured. To have a fun night out? To throw your fist toward the sky, lean into a song and feel the freedom of what music does? 
There are no words.

How many times have I been clustered about a stage at Mandalay Bay? Or any number of places out in the wide open, out where people crowd together on an infield, an endzone? Watching the music, throwing myself over to what songs can do – heal, inspire incite dreams and serotonin. Music is a way to face the world, to be lifted up, to forget what pulls us under.

Now this? More than 50 dead. More than 400 injured. The numbers keep growing. Shot down from above, without a chance in the world. Not that a chance should even enter into it. Not like this, not there. Not for 22,000 people who came out on a Sunday night to have one last rush of songs and fun before their weekend closed.

There are no words.

 

Or reasons.

Stephen Paddock, 64, Semi-retired. Owned two small planes. Getting a divorce. Had a girlfriend. Sent his mother cookies. Liked burritos. It’s all out there, courtesy of the worldwide web. Google, and click, search, find. Piles and piles of facts.

 

So much to know: where he’s worked, what kinds of guns were in the room, how many. What property he’s owned. What was paid, what price it sold for. The fact he mad no military background, no political affiliation, no religious affiliation. “Just a guy hanging out,” his brother said.

Where are the words?

Eight or ten long range weapons. The thirty-second floor – a perfect overview of a bunch of people getting ready for the week or letting go of the weekend. “Night Train,”  “Hicktown,” “The Way I  Know,” “Amarillo Sky,” “Laughed Until We Cried,” “Gonna Know We Were Here,” “Tattoos on This Town,” “Big Green Tractor,” “She’s Country,” “Dirty Road Anthem,” all songs for working people for whom their life is enough. No violence, no disruption, no hate being sown.

 

And so. More than 50 lives are done. More than 500 injured, the new reports are saying.
There are no words.

In a world that loves recrimination, where Amendments and agendas tangle, pull, rub us raw, larger questions rise. The nation was built on the Second Amendment. NRA Country is part of how so many acts market their records, speak “to the base.”  Where do we draw the line?

 

I am haunted by a late night conversation with Eddie Montgomery, a man whose own life has been riddled with more tragedies than any one man should face, at the bar at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas over a decade ago. Him explaining to a city girl about country boys and guns:  “You respect them, Miss Holly. You know what they can do, and you treat them according to it. You keep’em up, or locked. You make sure your kids understand that they can kill, and they’re not toys. And when they’re old enough to hunt, you let them understand that, too.”

 

It echoed a conversation another ten years prior with Richard Young from the Kentucky Headhunters, an avid hunter who explained thinning herds keeps animals from starving to death during the winter. It seemed a less cruel way to avoid what might be inevitable. I didn’t know then.

 

Right now, I don’t know, either.

I can see the bumperstickers: When you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.
I think about all the people I know who hunt – from Mr. Morton with his ducks when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade to Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts. I know they’re not the problem, as it sets this morning.

And I know I do not know, beyond something has to change. Beyond turning away, beyond saying “it’s not my world,” beyond “this is an aberration.”


It’s funny, every time Country Radio Seminar would come around – and the vinyl NRA Country signs would go up along the big glass breezeway to the exhibit hall, my stomach would churn. I’d stand and stare and wonder, “What price marketing?” and “Do they understand how far this reaches, what all they’re really endorsing?”

It was never my place to say, and no one asked me. But standing here I wonder, as someone who evokes eye rolls and clenched teeth with all my annoying questions, where is the line? How honest do we want to be about the tremendous velocity of the world in which we live, our increasing numbness to other people’s states of heart and mind and the cruelty that passes for how we often treat each other?
I do not know. I do… not… know.
Except today in Las Vegas, 58 people, the number rises again, will not see another day… and the concentric rings of people who loved them, worked with them, shared families or children or laughs with them now have a hole torn in the fabric of their lives.
Except today in Las Vegas, 515+ people will have to begin recovering from profound injuries to their bodies. But also, their sense of safety in the world, their sense of how the live and work and breathe.

Except today in Vegas, 22,000 people will have varying amounts of trauma, of horrors, of things they can’t explain. Their sleep may be disrupted with cold sweats and flying awake, or nightmares they can’t pull themselves out of. Their life may be punctuated by shaking uncontrollably without knowing what triggered it, or losing their sense of place and time, or flashbacks from out of nowhere, but many of them will have landmines in their lives they don’t see coming,.

A few may be okay.  Just fine, absolutely perfect in spite of what they saw or heard. Grateful they got through it. Those are the blessed ones with no propensity for PTSD.  Or survivors’ guilt. God bless them.
And then there are the rest of us, who ride those highways, hang out backstage at those events. We know it’s not the norm. It doesn’t happen often, which is why I can’t turn away.  Because it did.

It’s more than our innocence. That was lost in Paris when the Bataclan was rushed, when that slaughter happened. It’s more than our whistling by the graveyard at this point, the club killing in Orlando showed that it can happen here.
Beyond unthinkable, it is. It just is.
Seeing the shooter, hearing his brother talk about him, my heart hurts. He looks like just another guy down the street: a nice older man who’d go to Spring Training games, maybe hold down a stool at the local bar talking life’n’sports with the other regulars, who’d take his grandkids to Chuck E Cheese – or in this case, out for burritos.

There are no words. Beyond – today -- telling someone you love much you care.

www.hollygleason.com

Friday
Mar102017

Ooooh, Child: Valerie Carter's Stone's Throw To Heaven


It was the cutest hat. Slouchy and short brimmed, close to the head like a cloche, but limper. There was a ribbon band, rumpled and all the way around the crown, with some antique-looking flowers – possibly pansies, possibly posies -- pinned just above the temple behind the eye that was cast in shadow.

It was ragamuffin chic, slightly waifish, slightly bohemian, definitely post-hippie. The mousey brown hair hung straight – and the eyes, knowing a bit too much, looked straight into me. Or possibly straight out, as the poster hung above the racks of 8-tracks, that were hung behind locked glass sliders in the suburban strip mall record store.

7 March 2017

 

Rickie Lee Jones may or may not have happened yet, but there was a sense that with Linda Ronstadt ascending – and Emmylou Harris also rising as the hippie princess of hillbilly music by way of Laurel Canyon – eclectic girls were about to be “in favor.” Bonnie Raitt, who’d captured my imagination with “Angel from Montgomery,” was her own continent, one draped in the blues, just as Joni Mitchell was an émigré from folk and Carole King had moved beyond the tundra of Tin Pan Ally,

 

Valerie Carter was cute as bug. Like an earthier, yet more worldly and sophisticated version of the groovy babysitters I idolized. She seemed beyond running off with the Children of God religious sect, or getting busted bringing a lid of grass back from Mexico, or even just having the misfortune of a bad acid trip at the Rapid Transit platform under the Terminal Tower. This was a sophisticated kind of squalor for sure.

 

I pinched that ten dollar bill from Christmas or the Honor Roll or whatever my grandmother had pressed it upon me, and looked up. I didn’t know what sepia was then, only thought it was an old black and white from long ago that somehow held the image of a modern girl who’d distilled flapper ennui, free love innocence and Willa Cather and John Steinbeck’s post-Dust Bowl starkly gaunt forbearance.

I’d had my heart set on something else, but the hat got me. As did her utterly guileless knowing. Whatever it was, I wanted in. I just hoped it didn’t suck.

***


Fender Rhodes, literally electric keyboards in cases the size of writing desks, have this velvety bell tone to them. A few descending chords, passing notes littered between, a rising brass section, and a voice caressing the words, “Oooh, child, things are gonna get easier…” I melted right into the dust and shellac’ed  hardwood floor of our airless attic.

How did this woman I’d never met, never heard of get it so completely. A family rife with strife, we were anything but a Norman Rockwell portrait – and I was anything but the classic bright shiny high achiever that I’d learned to show the world. Though I achieved and shone, what roiled beneath the surface – doubt, anxiety, concern for and about those around me – was a powerful churning.

 

And in one verse of a song made popular by The Five Stairsteps, I felt like things could get better. A weightless seemed to lift up from my carcass, drifting soft and without gravity. No imperative or directive, no empiric evidence given, just the caress of that voice promising that this, too, shall pass was the agency of my condition.

 

Valerie Carter had that gift: she could make you believe impossible things with a tone that was somewhere between ridiculously expensive satin and the lushest sink-into-it velvet. Her soprano, like the embodiment of afternoon or first morning sunlight, glistened in your ears, somehow moved beneath your neural centers like a glider on a balmy, still night.

Even more wondrous were all the phases Just A Stone’s Throw passed through. Aural pictures painted against economical playing – the almost Tom Waits’ free noir of the well-past closing time’s wash-out “Back to Blue Some More,” the churning gospel soul of the title track, the faltering reggae undertow of “Ringing Doorbells in the Rain,” the raw hillbilly yearn of “Face of Appalachia,” not to mention the Earth, Wind + Fire-backed blue-eyed funk of “City Lights.”

 

Rumor had it – cause once I knew, I started hoovering up any scrap of information I could find – she was Lowell George’s girl. Little Feat’s “Fat Man in the Bath Tub,” with a proclivity for overalls and a musical gumbo that could sweat the Crescent City’s grisgris with the fringe of country and the undulation of rhythm & blues understood hybrid vigor. Carter’s rare instrument, her tone but also her ability to turn emotions inside out, was suited to it all.

 

Before I was a music critic, I didn’t bother with the delineations, just the way the music made me feel. Stone’s Throw made me real in a hopeful way, my hunger for knowing, tasting, feeling many things more rational than merely the product lacking focus from my dyslexia. The songs dipped into so many veins and wells of emotions, it suited my not-quite-teenage hormonal swings like a second skin.

 

And that girl on the cover? That was the me I’d be in a perfect world… without a uniform, expectations, a limited budget, my mother harping, the ghosts behind my eyes. She was cool, and funky, and hip, and somehow just shabby enough to not be an uptight rich girl at Beachwood Place, the expensive mall with a real Saks Fifth Avenue in a suburb near our modest brick home.


She had cooler friends, too. Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat’s Lowell George and Billy Payne, James Taylor. Earth, Wind & Fire! Lots of names I knew from the back of the records, people I spent hours with – and felt like I had relationships with based on the songs they wrote or sang. They scraped at what my mundane existence was made of, and somehow made my heart flicker with a desire that seemed more.

Even the boy she loved – that damned “Cowboy Angel” – seemed like the kinda romantic foil I could understand. As a harmonica bled out and her voice opened up on the long syllables, the note struck wide and full, strong without overpowering, she was a real girl wanting an actual, if elusive, boy.

Frustrated by the prep school boys who just seemed dumb, caught up in things that just didn’t  seem important, this “Cowboy Angel” was the accessible answer to the guy Bonnie Raitt was pining for in “Angel To Montgomery.” What I didn’t understand in the moment: Carter’s angel was in close proximity, Raitt’s cowboy had grown mythic – and smaller than a horizon spec -- over time.

It’s all perspective, but you don’t know that when you’re young, on fire and waiting for your destiny to begin. Instead, you sigh into your pillow, listen to your records on eternal repeat and mainline all those emotions you can only access by listening to the words smeared across rock, pop, r&b and even new wave melodies.

 My ultimate genuflection to Valerie Carter came later that summer. On Running on Empty, Jackson Browne’s paean to roadlife – something as a competitive golfer I knew a little more about than the garden variety middle schooler – she co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart.” A secret handshake of a song, it spoke volumes to the states of self-inflicted human bondage that come with always being gone, never being around people you can truly trust and, especially, being shattered by those you do.

 

Rather than one more rootless rolling stone song, the high messiah of the way long gone countenance, this was a song of reckoning and the price paid – or even extracted – for the life, but also the damage already incurred. That’s what nobody tells you when you’re acting brave, sucking it up, shaking it off, pretending it’s for the best: all of that face saving for one’s dignity comes with a cost.

 

And you know that it’s Carter who tempers Browne and George. Only a woman would profess,
“Proud and alone, cold as a stone
I’m afraid to believe the things I feel
I can cry with the best, I can laugh with the rest
But I’m never sure when it’s real…”

 

That’s some powerful vertigo. But also exactly how it happens. You pave over your embarrassment, your hurt, your anger at the disbelief of what just happened -- and you stop trusting what you know, being able to honor those emotions that are right there.

 

With a piano part any serviceable seventh grader could play, Jackson Browne rues and confesses his personal treason. It’s the tale of leaving when he confesses he’s broken this woman’s heart, and in that first verse, it feels like what a thousand other guilt douching songs sound like.

But then it turns, the stakes add up. Maybe a man could’ve written what comes next, but quite possibly not. As the second verse bottoms out, the revelation dawns.

“Love won’t come near me, she don’t even hear me

She walks by my vacancy sign
Love needs a heart, trusting and blind
I wish that heart was mine…”

By the time Valerie Carter – opening Browne’s tour to good notices and obvious fertile creative winds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxBAYr9p4kI) – co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart,” plenty must have happened. The sylph urchin had been banged around a bit by life, or “the life,” and now was counting up her scrapes and bruises, weighing the risks and considering the damage. Not to mention the ultimate truth: once you know, you can’t not know.

 

And so, Valerie Carter put her heart in a song she didn’t sing. She carried on, like singers do, the music too potent a force to let go.  Once you make your way in or through songs, there rarely is another path to travel.

 

Wild Child, the next record, bore witness to it. A tight cropped head shot – echoing Diana Ross’ Diana­ – was sleek, slick, technically gorgeous, somehow clinically detached. This gamine was haute everything, Scavullo-esque in her high forehead and higher cheekbones, but her eyes had enough of the dilation, you had to wonder what other highs she might be sailing, what numbing strategies she’d devised.

 

I remember hearing Wild Child on the stereo at Record Theater, played – as all in-store play was – to entice the customers to lay down their hard-earned dollars. It was shapeless soft rock/jazz lite stuff, perfect for chilled Chablis and Virginia Slims’ uber thin cigarettes crowd. Perfect for the richer Mommies. Technically perfect, more than a little cold, the fire and raw passion that dripped from her notes was gone – much like the disco precision that was rising all around the suburbs, chasing a thrill and a high that was never truly there, even with your nose stuffed with cocaine.

 

I didn’t buy that record, didn’t hide my disappointment. Didn’t know what to say, or even why it mattered. I doubled down on Stone’s Throw, knowing sometimes one record that holds so much is worth more than a wheelbarrow of careers from the REO Speedwagons, Styxs, Rushs and Deep Purples.

 

And I got on with living, with trying to figure out why and how. Not just to survive, but what happens next, where shall the road take me when it’s finally time to take me away. Sometimes we make deals with ourselves to make the best of where we are. Sometimes we get vertigo or just lose our way. Sometimes our hearts break in ways we can’t even explain, don’t always know or understand -- and the world doesn’t care – so you soldier on.

 

Valerie Carter was a brave soldier in the realm of song and reason, romance and how it goes. She’d paid her money, took the ride, shimmered so brightly, she’d still turn up on records like Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, and remained James Taylor’s favorite female back-up vocalist.

Mostly, though, she disappeared. To Florida. To relative obscurity, occasionally circling back for the music, but mostly, staying out of harm’s way.

 

When the news hit that she’d passed from this world, Taylor’s socials carried in part this remembrance, “…Valerie was an old soul and as deep as a well. Her voice came from her life and her life was a steep, rocky road. I believe that we can hear it, whenever the music is that crucial, when the song is saving someone’s life….”

 

Saving someone’s life. Oooh, child. Never mind the latter day scrapes with law enforcement, with courts of law, with Taylor himself paying for your out-of-state in-patient treatment and coming to your drug court graduation. Forget all the disappointments and promises made along the way nobody bothered to fulfill.

We can’t know the things that go unspoken or unseen. We can only hope that free, she is a shaft of light as pretty as those high notes she’d twirl around on, sparkle like the naughty twinkle in her eye. Sometimes freedom isn’t until the next life – and sad as we all are, maybe that’s the truth to hang onto.

Monday
Dec262016

George Michael: I Want Your Sex... & Faith; Another Passes As Christmas Dawns

They were adorable. George Michael with the greatest hair since Farrah Fawcett Major’s backswept wave of honey gold, and cheek bones that crested as plateaus of desire on a face of pure Dionysus. Andrew Ridgeley, his by no means slouch of a wing man, more plausible for the average girls sighing and screaming, reduced to swampy panties and utter hysteria at the waft of the Brit duo known as Wham! UK.

Squeaky clean, perfectly PG. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was pure bubble gum with a whole milk chaser. “Careless Whisper,” the angsty whispered ballad, suggested betrayal, but how? Who could be so reckless with either of these boys with the gilded tans, the pearly white teeth, the seemingly perfect manners.

As MTV was establishing dominance, Wham! was a panacea that worked for everyone – the little girls who understood the rush of hormones, the women who breathed in the young buck musk and pined for that youthful erotica, the parents who felt they were safe quarry for their daughters and the concert promoters, who made the pair’s first – and ultimately only American tour – a stadium-sized proposition.

Heck, George Michael even dated that paragon of chastity Brooke Shields, a woman whose virtue – in spite of supermodel status and controversial films roles – rivaled iconic ‘50s good girl Sandra Dee. You don’t get much more wholesome, and yet…

For all the “good boy” patina of Wham!, there was an undercurrent of erogenous intent that was palpable. Too good looking, too breathless, too somehow unsettled; the bruised heart of “Careless Whisper” with the swelling sax and churning melody was a bit too fraught to be more boy band fodder.

Originally coming from the realm of rap, I remember talking with the guys from Whodini on the first Swatch Watch Fresh Fest about the UK darlings that merged pop and soul. The Thomas Dolby-produced “Magic’s Wand” trio knew all about the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” duo; they had toured together and talked collaboration. There was some real and some street on the cute boys from England, no matter how many day-glo t-shirts, perfect blow drys and shapeless linen blazers they sported. 

And then it was over. Rumbles and stray shards of gossip. Egos and credit-grabbing, conflicting notions of who, what and why; like so many ragingly successful acts before, the tension and outside influences won. Seemingly tragic, yet ultimately, the notion that perhaps the glorious looking Michael did have a musical bent a la Michael Jackson and Prince, something steeped in deep soul, filled with melody that wrapped around your ears and hung on.

When “Faith” dropped, the quick beats and the sweep you up vocal that brought a taut line between desire and fidelity, Michael was undeniable. If the new romantic wave that brought Duran Duran, ABC, Culture Club and the Thompson Twins in on a tide of videogenics and synthesizers – and the accompanying “Faith” clip absolutely beef-caked the dark haired songwriting – Faith was a testament to swooping soul, revved up rhythms and languishing desire stretched across ballads with candle wax poured for emphasis.

That slow burn permeated the steamy “Father Figure,” a noir sort of dance song as much “West Side Story” dramatics as it was breathy come on/fidelity pledge. Slightly anonymous, slightly driven by the rhythm of a beating heart, Michael played a cab driver in the accompanying video without ever prissying it up for the camera. Just a regular working stiff with a 5 o’clock shadow and hours to go until he sleeps; but oh when he gets there…

All of this to sift through the rubble of what was. The news that George Michael was dead crashed our Christmas dinner via friends dropping by for thick slices of bouche du Noel, one more pop culture depth charge with unintended consequences. Because with all the loss this year – Bowie, Prince, Leon Russell, Guy Clark amongst many – enough is enough, and at 53, George Michael is way too young.

George Michael, the beautiful amatory, had passed into ether. After a series of stumbles and falls from grace – the Beverly Hills’ men’s room arrest for soliciting sex, the confession to being gay on CNN, the several arrests for drug use, the notorious law suit with Sony US that may’ve stunted his career – it’s hard to remember the price of trying to follow one’s muse and integrity.

Instead we have that hunk who knew how to thread iconics, to balance the come on and the reassurance with his quarry. When Michael was still ambiguous about his own preferences, “I Want Your Sex” was lobbed on pop radio with a force that made it ubiquitous. The horn’n’guitar slashed middle chunk was Bootsy Collins/George Clinton light, as the lyric empowered the listener to give in to their hedonistic desires.

For a guy who once made desire an innocent commodity, he was no decriminalizing whatever got you through the night. Never afraid to be the beefcake, he raised the stakes for everyone listening out in radioland or watching on MTV: find your passion, feed your bliss, let your freak flag fly.

Like Madonna, George Michael was working the boundaries of what was acceptable. So damned good looking, he could get away with unthinkable things – girls in merry widows’n’garters shot strictly for their bottom – and make most people crave more. One had to wonder what all the seemingly polite songwriter craved, too, because that kind of hungry isn’t something conjured as a matter of exercise.

 Somewhere in the flyover, I smiled while I watched the deliciousness. The gorgeous on display, the throb that slowed down rhythms elicited, the blatant, almost voyeuristic way the camera moved across this body, that beautiful face. If hot girls had been flaunting their charm for years, Michael decriminalized a non-muscle-bound swagger that was confident, but looking for satiation.

Whether he was or wasn’t, who cared? He brought it – no matter who you were. Omnisexual in terms of his draw, everyone with sight would have to want him. Like Tom Ford, when he took over Gucci, Michael understood the sex-positive nature of lush, body scraping designs – second skins that melt and move with you.

 It seemed, in the late ‘80s, like another galaxy had exploded with the brooding Greek songwriter. If he understood major chords and bright melodies, how to make a beat pop, rush or lean in, swirl desire like ice in a drink, the world – not just America – was guzzling it down. Faith was inescapable; the title track giving way to “Father Figure,” “I Want Your Sex” becoming the raison d’etre for a world crawling from the first wave of AIDS sobriety to reclaim their joy.

 If “One More Try” suggested an elegiac Elton John ballad and “Kissing A Fool” felt like a torch ballad that was equal parts Dean Martin and  Sara Vaughan, the album was a carnival of beats and grooves that suggested the phases of a lycra bound aerobics class sweating to utter perfection. “Hand To Mouth” percolated, “Look at Your Hands” swagger with sweltering sax punctuations and “Monkey” took its staccato dance punch from bits of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” Bowie’s most brazen Let’s Dance pieces and a bit of Cameo funk whiplash.

 The foment and churn took all the excess of Studio 54 and distilled it into a post new wave gasp and release. Who didn’t wanna get laid? And suddenly this caramel colored beauty with the great butt – which he had no compunction about shaking for the camera – and great mind – these were smart songs about the greatest frontier since Eve handed Adam that apple – emerged unapologetic and wide-open celebrating not just coupling, but being coupled.

Whatever may happen later, in this moment, George Michael made sex almost safe, something you, me, everyone must have. The collective panting could be heard any time his videos were on MTV. Staid ladies would whisper, rent boys would wink and the pretty girls would throw their hands up as they howled along with the songs on the radio or in the club.

Then came the high concept, grainy black and white “Freedom! ‘90” video. Exhausted by being the beefcake bulls eye of the new decade, Michael tapped David Fincher to vamp on the celebrated British Vogue cover that featured the five definitive supermodels of the era: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington.

The result was even more libidinous and pulse quickening than Michael’s previous work. As the women mouthed lyrics to the verses, strutting, rolling in the sheets, soaking in a large enough for two bath, coming in and out of the frames, the implicit fantasy was overpowering – and the underlying convergence of sex*music*fashion was intoxicating, all were one, one was all. 

And if Michael was pushing away from being objectified, the man wasn’t eschewing sex, want or coital bliss in any way, shape or form. With a snake-hipped rhythm, as much Brazil as Nile Rodgers’ Chic, the song suggested the ultimate erotic thrust was freedom – to go, but also to stay.

At least, on the surface. But the man who tagged his “I Want Your Sex” video with a lipstick fuschia “Explore Monogamy” was always working three layers beneath the surface. If you plugged into the lyric or the iconography, “Freedom” suggested a man still looking for the climax, but unwilling to be the donkey to pin your fantasies to.

Between setting fire to the “Faith” leather jacket – hung deep in an almost empty closet – that cheekily proclaimed “Rocker’s Revenge,” or blowing up the “Faith” jukebox and signature guitar, Michael was serving notice. Listen closer – but why? with those glorious women and the rock steady dancefloor beat – you would hear the declaration of “clothes don’t make the man” in the chorus, the protestation of “living the fantasy/we won the race, got out of the place/ went home and got a brand new face/ for the boys at MTV” were clearer than anyone might have plugged into.

In the moment, many assumed the song addressed the dissolution of his musical partnership with Ridgley. But maybe it ran far deeper. The rest of Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 was very much a work focused on betrayals, the empty nature of fame, the bankruptcy of hooking up. Did we know that at the time? Or were we all so punchdrunk on the fizzy goodness of the endorphins this music gave us?

 Certainly there were other hits. “Cowboys & Angels” was a more sophistipop, humid and sweeping, something for Ibizia or the Riviera. “Soul Free” suggested Digable Planets, but with that sweeping pop still near the surface, the falsetto utter surrender to carnal pleasure. Even the big orchestral pop of Prejudice’s opening “Praying for Time” – ripe with social commentary to temper whatever follow -- suggested Michael needed more.

 Maybe we should’ve known there was trouble in paradise. Maybe in the growing media invasiveness, it was only a matter of time before the cage match of fame crashed into the increasing gotcha reality of the way we consume our heroes. Or maybe the quickening cycle of obsess and cast off was to blame.

Beyond that lung busting duet with Elton John on the elder’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” or the Aretha Franklin-teaming “I Knew You Were Waiting,” Michael’s star faded. Still huge in the Far East, still a dance floor king in South America and Europe, America was more intrigued by that bathroom bust – and barely registering the ongoing drug problems in the UK.

 Perhaps it was the battle with Sony. While malfeasance happens (and there are those who allege Michael was right), they are also the distribution system; ultimately the ones defining and driving the marketing when you’re on a global juggernaut. Turn them against you, watch your star grow cold and fall from the sky.

In some ways, being arrested for soliciting sex gave him the freedom he’d sung for. Out and free to live the life he wanted, Michael also reached towards the sun of music that was more evolved, more adult. If Older wasn’t a blockbuster, he sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” on “Fastlove, Pt. 1” and offered a velvety pulp fiction flare to the title track, boite-tempered trumpet bleating in the recesses, cocktail piano rising and brushes hitting the cymbals and high hat with a raindrop plop of perfection.

 Michael’s voice, which always conveyed a whiff of ache, somehow smoothed, strengthened. If the winsome young man had reluctance and a slight bruising, this was something settled and confident. The invitation, once fraught with urgency, was now seductive. But most of us – myself included – missed it. 

And that’s the shame of fame. When it’s at its apex, inescapable to the point of nausea, often no one recovers. Rare is the Madonna or Elton John, who navigate the turns and manage to maintain some form of intrigue. But they are both creature of design, image, dare I say marketing? And they’ve both had an uncanny knack for aligning with strong business people – Guy Oseary for Madge, David Geffen for Elton – at the critical juncture where their expiration date should have been passed.

 When fame burns out, there is the lifestyle that one has become used to. Can you afford it? Or must that fall away? And if you can negotiate the fiscal reality, what about the mocking of media, who delight in your foibles? the lack of the raving cheers that have met your various endeavors?

 Yes, there was James Corden’s original “Carpool Karaoke.” A riff to set-up his piece of “Comic Relief” that poked a sharp stick in the eye of the obvious, talking about the whole gay reality of which Michael was so much a face for. Beyond the all-out sing-along moments that would become a design key for Madonna, Michelle Obama, Gwen Stefani and so many others, there was that twinge of the unspoken – and the notion that perhaps it’s never truly okay in some rooms.


For George Michael, who actually served time for his last pot bust, he met every moment like a gentleman. Telling the British press there was a karmic reality to the short jail term, he never lost his dignity, always – in public – maintained that higher elevation.

 But what or who he was when he was alone remains – for most of us – a mystery. No doubt, he had great times, lived a life that made sense for who he was: a gay man of certain beauty, aging and facing a changing world, a world where his music is more nostalgia, but indelible in ways most never achieve.

 Having lost Prince, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, songwriter Andrew Dorff most recently, this is another unthinkable loss in a year of too much and too many.

 Fifty-three is so young. No doubt in the coming days, every miniscule detail of his last several months will be combed over, will be sorted and read like tea leaves. Was it drugs? A broken heart? A heart that malfunctioned? His own hand? Some other misadventure?

 The statement said he passed peacefully, no signs of trouble is all we have. No doubt there is more. But in this TMZ world in which we live, does it matter? He’s gone. Maybe that’s all we need to know. Maybe that, and the freedom that comes from turning the music up way too loud, screaming along at the top of our lungs, wiggling like a noodle or hotstepping like the catwalk is our natural domain is all that we need to remember this life that for a few years burned so bright and so hot.

 Today, Boxing Day as I finish writing, I think that I shall turn the music up, find the beats that move my bottom, bounce around and laugh. If there is a lesson from this wretched year, we never know when our time is coming. It’s a given, but somehow it is more urgent than ever – and I want to feel all the ecstasy I can.

 It doesn’t mean being stupid, overindulging or putting myself at risk. It means, as Aunt Mame proclaimed, “Life is a banquet, and most of poor-sons-of-bitches are starving to death,” and as Scarlett O’Hara declared, “I shall never go hungry again!”

Go find someone you love, call up a friend you’ve not spoken to, have the small indulgence, go for a run and feel the energy, strength and life pumping through your body, flirt wit that guy or that girl, your wife or your boyfriend just ‘cause. And absolutely, turn up the music and dance – George Michael’s music was absolutely like that, just like it developed into something more ruminative so you could take that rapture even deeper.