Midway through my Freshman year in high school (1985), the school put together an evening based on The Gong Show.
Had I really taken a look at what The Gong Show was all about, my 14-year-old brain might not have come up with the fantastic idea to treat it like a talent show and sing. I took it way too seriously.
My voice had not yet fully changed and while I could sing, I certainly couldn't sing nearly as well as the man whose song I chose. The instrumental version on the flip side of the 45" single is what gave me the bright idea.
One girl said something to me after that night I will never forget: "Paul, I give you so much credit for staying up there through that whole song."
At the time, I truly had no clue that people felt embarrassed for me. For whatever reason, I never felt any embarrassment, but many others certainly did. Years later, people still tell me they have never forgotten that night.
The comment about "credit" went completely over my head. I took it as a compliment. Although today, I am realistic enough to know it was a backhanded compliment. She was commending my guts; not my voice. I'm sure she and most everyone else thought I sucked as a singer.
In my mind, though, I was him. I had a voice like him. I could hit those notes. My memory of that night is that I held my own. I remember people laughing; but it didn't phase me. Heck, my photo wound up in the local newspaper, and all I see in the photo is a happy face. Light.
The judges for "The Gong Show" (including the school voice teacher), were clearly in a bind. While they threatened to use the "gong" on me -- and the audience wanted them to -- they didn't.
Maybe they thought to "gong" me would just add to the humiliation I presume they thought I was feeling. Maybe they were protecting me by not making it worse.
But no. They let me stay up there from start to finish. They let my early-teen-Peter-Brady-voice-changin'-and-a-crackin' self sing the full five minutes of "Careless Whisper," by George Michael.
George Michael may very well be the first male singer I ever gravitated towards. I always loved female singers - but male singers? Not so much.
Oh yes, did I want to BE George. In so many ways.
I wanted his voice. I wanted to pull off the outfit he wore in the "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" video. In 1987, I wanted to look rough and tumble smokin' hot in a leather jacket and a tight pair of jeans. I wanted his HAIR! I tried growing my hair out at one point so I could get close to a feathered coif like his, but all I wound up with was a mullet.
There was something else about George though; something that came through in various songs. He might not have officially come out until 1998, but even at age 14, 15, 16, I knew George was gay.
That drew me to him even more.
Take a song like "Nothing Looks the Same In the Light" from the first Wham! album. Even my young and inexperienced self knew George was not singing about a girl.
As I moved on to my formative years as a gay man, I learned all about the traps of one night stands and falling for men where everything changes once "the lights come on" (euphemistically and literally). I especially learned it from older men who couldn't possibly explain to me their interest in me had no shelf life beyond sexual gratification.
I feel like I "lived" the song 'Nothing Looks the Same In the Light' over and over again. It works on a few levels; with the song's rhythm and arrangement and George's breathy vocal inherently erotic and sexual, yet the lyrics encapsulating that concurrent, haunting feeling of confusion.
As time went on, and George's public moments surrounding his sexuality ultimately exposed him, I felt even more of a kinship with him. I understood what was going on when he went into that bathroom in Beverly Hills. I knew he was entrapped by that situation, and I knew it wasn't fair.
Before I was 21 and able to get into gay bars, I was introduced to certain public places that were my only outlet to meet other gay men. These places weren't a public bathroom, as in George's case, but the scenario and essence of that situation is equal. I was very fortunate never to be the victim of entrapment.
Bringing this up doesn't diminish the respect I had for George. I just felt like I understood him beyond the music, and that informed how I would relate to his music. I think that experience and his ability to turn it into art ("Outside" and its accompanying music video) ultimately freed him.
In many respects, I paid attention to him as a bit of a mirror. I noted what it must have been like for him to age, particularly as a gay man, while being a pop singer.
Even with songs like "Too Funky" or "Fastlove" - both released before he was "officially out" - there was no question he was making statements about the more lustful aspects of gay life. While I know everyone -gay or straight- heard those songs and related in their own way, I knew what perspective he was writing from.
Despite the fact that George's 80's ballads ("Like A Baby," "Last Christmas," "A Different Corner" and "Blue") tend to stir me the most, I had a rough time with the ballad-heavy album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Not because of its quality. It was more that so much of it cut too close to the bone for me at the time.
Music, for me, is very sensory. I can hear a piece of music and it instantly transports me right back to the period of time when I first heard it. I can even "smell" what was in the air as part of the remembrance. It's a bit eerie and haunting and sometimes prevents me from returning to certain albums.
Most of those 1990 songs remind me of the nights at those public places I referred to earlier - particularly "Cowboys and Angels." I was 20, still reeling from my first heartbreak months earlier and the Listen Without Prejudice songs became a soundtrack to loneliness.
It took me years to be able to listen to that album without "re-feeling" that rough period of time. I certainly didn't return to that record as much as I did Faith. Today, I find it much easier to listen to.
However, that album did bring me two songs that are among my all-time favorites from any artist. "Waiting For That Day" and "Waiting (Reprise)" both floored me in 1990 and still do. Back then, everyone else around me seemed to flip for "Praying for Time" or "Heal the Pain." To me, "Waiting For That Day" was THE song.
After that album, I tended to pay attention to George only when he would do something a little "brighter." The Older album seemed like more of "dour, sourpuss" George and didn't grab me at the time. I found an appreciation for it way after the fact, as one does when you get...ahem...older.
In 2004, George finally knocked me out again, album wise.
Patience, while it may not have the "hit factor," is every bit the equal of the classic Faith. I find Patience more interesting and important, for one big reason: it's the first time George Michael is singing from a complete place of freedom as a gay man. All things considered, that renders the album a staggering moment for a pop icon of his stature.
This time, there are no doubts that when he is singing about love, he is singing about love with a man; specifically his partner at the time, Kenny. From the start of the album and the track "Amazing," he sings about a concept most gay men in couples discuss at some point - the idea of an "open" relationship. "Darling, kiss as many as you want / my love's still available and I know you're insatiable."
I fell into an unrequited love situation about six or seven years ago, and George's "American Angel" was the song I 'attached' to the man I fell for. I was able to do that in part because George was singing from a clear place of love for a man who supported him and tenderly held him during the night.
I never met that man in person (our connection was only virtual) but the feeling in that song is what I wanted from him. Such a gorgeous piece of music.
When he sings (on the dance track 'Flawless'), "I think you know that you're more than just some fucked up piece of ass" - it's like he's imploring every young gay boy out there to know their worth beyond being someone's plaything. I appreciated him putting that message out there.
Although "Please Send Me Someone To Love (Anselmo's Song)" is about wanting love again after having lost someone to a death, that George was able to take that circumstance and turn it into a bright, hopeful piece of ear candy further proved he was a tremendous pop songwriter. "John and Elvis Are Dead" is another example of that skill; a fascinating song with a unique concept.
My encouragement to all who are interested in knowing, honoring and remembering George Michael a bit beyond the Wham! classics and Faith is to seek out Patience. I think it's a great album.
My memory will always carry nothing but love and admiration for George Michael. He literally made me want to sing.