MR. GAVIN’S OPUS
James Gavin on “George Michael: A Life” and the Complicated Process of Writing a Blockbuster
NOTE: This piece originally appeared in an abridged form in The Washington Times on July 12, 2022
George Michael: A Life (Abrams, June 28, 2002)
“If you can’t find your empathy with your subject you shouldn’t be writing the book…”
That line spoken to me by James Gavin — whose new deep-dive biography of the late George Michael just hit the shelves and is garnering crazy accolades — particularly stood out amidst the 18-plus transcribed pages of great lines that emanated from what was supposed to be just a quick little Q&A between us. And believe me, at the rate we were going it could have ended up double that. I suppose the reason it stood out so is that it doesn’t take more than a few minutes in conversation with Gavin to quickly get that he truly gets the late music icon on an empath’s level, and most certainly should have set out to write this book.
In this fifth book of his, Gavin grabs our hand and leads us clear-eyed through the waters of all things George Michael. These waters as we learn run murky, deep and often quite turbulent — much more so than perhaps even the most devoted fan would ever imagine. Its 528 pages (70 devoted to notes, which underscores the complicated nature of the story and Gavin’s commitment to getting it right) fly by in what is a tribute to an easy and authoritative style that leads us to hang on words and resist putting it down.
Michael’s life here is chronicled almost entirely through a lens of sexuality and the related lifelong confusion and shame that traces directly to his upbringing in a deeply conservative Greek home. Some may find this focus a bit excessive, as many did with Ryan Murphy’s limited docuseries on Andy Warhol earlier this year (which I wrote about here), but they would be wrong. Because as with Warhol, whose internal struggles track quite similarly with Michael’s, it truly did permeate everything. Every moment of every day. This cannot be denied and in fact once grasped and accepted, one’s entire level of understanding — and yes, empathy — shifts.
Overall, the most important observation I think I could make is this: as dark and difficult as the tale can get in parts, particularly as we get into the years that would be his last, it leaves us not in distress but with a clarity that comes from having a much broader understanding of and appreciation for one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of our time or any other, hands down. George Michael: A Life enlightens and answers. And with it, James Gavin has done the legacy of George Michael and in fact the business of proper biographical writing an immeasurable service.
Pleasure to talk with you, James. The book is remarkable and it’s been living in my head since I finished it in a way that few others have. Let’s start with my standard, where are you now and what are you doing?
I am at this moment in my studio apartment on the upper west side of New York City. It’s the calm before the storm because on Monday, I leave for eight days in London. This is the moment that I’ve been waiting for for five years and I’m in it. Strange and unreal.
I think subconsciously the reason that I’m attracted to any of these subjects, first of all, my antennae vibrate in the presence of damage, loss, and melancholy, and they vibrate from miles away. What attracted me so deeply to George is that I realized around the time of Older that this guy was hurting a lot, that he was lost and that clues to that existed within that album and really in all the music he made thereafter. I saw this enormous confusion. What was I going after in telling this story? An honest account of a beautiful talent who was in trouble and who couldn’t stand the pain of never liking what he saw in the mirror. How all the factors that drove him to for a while there become the biggest pop star in the world also drove him to tear it all down.
Well that’s exactly how the book left me feeling. So much we could get into there alone but I have to be disciplined here! Committing to document the life of a beloved figure is serious business, obviously, for a writer. So tell me, once you choose a subject where do you begin? Do you reach out immediately to family and others to seek blessings and cooperation, or do you just kind of have at it and let the chips fall?
The former. And it’s always intimidating to let the family or the heirs know that you, this stranger, is now going to write a book about their loved one because you will instantly be mistrusted, at least most of the time. There are exceptions, like when I did the Lena Horne book, her daughter was gorgeous to me. She met with me and gave me context that I would never have gotten without her. In the case of George’s people, I sent a letter that reached the hands of David Austin, whom you read about in the book. And I got a response that was not scary, nor rude, but it was firm. And he said the estate never cooperates with any projects that are not its own. So I went on my way. The first year or so of this book was really hard because people weren’t responding to me or else they were saying no, for I suppose the aforementioned reason of mistrust, but also because George’s death was so recent that I think some were still raw from it, and not particularly inclined to talk.
In addition to being a great read, I have to say it’s physically elegant for lack of a better way to put it. It’s atypically sized. Sleek. Distinguished. When I pulled it from the box, I felt a lot of thought had gone into how the book presents. Is it just me or was that a thing?
No, you’re spot on. I wanted so very much for it to be perceived as a serious biography. And I wanted people to be able to judge it by its cover. I wanted a cover look that told the story that was waiting inside the book. The title was mine. Of course as one does, I tried to come up with a terribly clever title, maybe based on some arcane line from a song or a song title. And I finally decided that George Michael: A Life was enough. I wanted to place it in the class of literary biographies with titles like that because George deserves that. The title was enough.
A song lyric there would have been catastrophically wrong for this book.
Thank you. Thank you for that. I couldn’t find one in any case. The name George Michael was enough.
How long was this book in the works?
I got the idea on Christmas Day of 2016, honestly. I signed to do it with Abrams on May the first of 2017. And it was published on June the 28th of 2022. I must tell you that Abrams saved us. Nobody else said yes.
All the majors, all the top drawer majors turned it down. They either turned it down or in a couple of cases like St. Martin’s said, “Can he do the book in six months?” And the answer to that was of course, no.
Not that kind of book.
All of this, I guess, tells you something about how George Michael was perceived, despite his death. I think that he was perceived as a kind of faded 80s pop star who had fallen into disgrace. And he wasn’t perceived as eternally cool the way Bowie and Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen and Prince, all of whom died about approximately the same time were. That perception was wrong. I was right and they were wrong.
I wanted to get a little deeper into your process. I mean, nearly 70 pages of notes, five years in the making. How does it work? As a writer — sort of — I read this book, and I’m thinking how the hell does he do this?
You start off pretty blindly because you don’t know what story needs to be told. So much is blurry and inaccessible at the beginning. And my instinct is to want to know all of it right away so that I am the pilot steering a very clear path, and it doesn’t work that way. You have to flounder around a lot just gathering, grabbing up everything that you can find and slopping it into a big pile that you will later weed through and try to make sense of. So my process is I do an interview. I transcribe it by hand, which is incredibly tedious. I listen to it. I transcribe it in real time. And then I take all the material and I do a rough table of contents, chapter breakdown, and I take all the little bleeding chunks, and I put them into the appropriate Word document, each of which represents a chapter that will all completely change later on, but it’s just a way to start organizing the material in a very sloppy way. And given the volume of material that I obsessively collect, this is a very big job, and I could have gathered twice as much if I’d had the time. And I can even say that given the opportunity, thankfully I wasn’t, there’s probably not a sentence in this book that I wouldn’t rewrite if I could. Because there’s always a better way to say it. There’s always a more pleasing rhythm of a sentence.
Sounds brutal, honestly.
It’s a great way to live! It’s what I set out to do when I was in college. And all these years later, I’m still able to do it. But seriously, in the end, I just wanted to tell the most truthful, accurate, and honest, but also empathetic story about him that I could tell. And that word empathy is crucial to writing one of these books, crucial. And if you cannot find your empathy with your subject then you shouldn’t be writing the book. That’s my opinion.
Excellent policy for a biographer…I love that statement.
And that can be hard if you’re writing a book about somebody who’s truly scarless. Still you have to find some common ground with that person to, again, answer that all-important question of why.
Right. So the early buzz on the book has been focused almost entirely on the sex and drugs parts, which is unsurprising, kind of par for the course, but how does that make you feel?
It was painful for me to see depictions of my book as being a trash heap because it was everything that I had fought against. Yet, one, there was absolutely no way for me to control it; And two, that publicity traveled to the world and spread the word about my book in a way that more than helped. I cannot list the number of things that happened because of those articles in the Daily Mail and the New York Post. It made a lot of people apparently want to read the book. But I did lose sleep over the Daily Mail article and I know that it was read by George’s people and that they were really upset about it. I don’t blame them for that, but we’ll see. As the actual reviews appear, maybe that perception will change. I hope so.
I hope so too. Your portrayal of his childhood friend and other half of Wham! Andrew Ridgeley is quite, er, honest? Everything about his role and his story seems kind of like a series of happy accidents. Did you talk with him? Any early reaction from him?
No to both questions. He hates giving interviews. When he was forced to give interviews because of the publication of his memoir, he seemed very uncomfortable, very tense and very unrevealing also. I think that Wham was a lark for him. He wasn’t doing the heavy lifting, but on the other hand, if it weren’t for Andrew, there would’ve been no Wham and no George, because Andrew’s style sense and his attitude at that time were templates for George, who was a pimply nerd. But there’s no way I was going to approach Andrew because I knew that I would never get him. And I think probably that he’s given us all the insight that he has to give. By the way, people who know him really like him. I interviewed close friends of his and they dug Andrew, but again it was a lark for him. It started as a lark and it became huge. And it ended fairly quickly. And Andrew has been made fun of a lot and was insulted a lot. And everybody has feelings, so I’m sure that he was somewhat wounded by that when people made him out to be a laughingstock, which I don’t think he deserved because he did his job completely.
There’s a lot of clearheaded truth in what you just said. I hope he sees it.
Okay. So one very key thing that one comes away with is how underrated George Michael has been and underappreciated for his legit songwriting skills. You quote George Martin and Elton John on different occasions describing his songwriting on par with Paul McCartney’s. Yet he was no great musician by any stretch. He wasn’t a Prince for example. Riff on this a little bit for me, this piece of the legacy.
One of the interesting aspects of his childhood is the fact that he was such a voracious student of pop music of the past, especially Motown and R&B, though his focus was always pop. It was not rock and roll. George didn’t like rock that much. He liked pop because he understood that it cast the widest net, that it is designed in ingenious ways that appeal — that transcend age and language barriers. He wanted nothing less than for everybody to love him. And George listened to Supremes records and Smokey Robinson records, and he analyzed them and picked them apart in his brain. And he figured out the mechanics of writing songs like that. And he took them all in.
All in his head.
Yeah. He was like a sponge. He assimilated all the techniques of those great writers and Paul McCartney, of course, being one of them, because of all the similarities in their composing styles. Paul is of course a deeper physical musician than George was, but George had the knack for writing catchy tunes that were sometimes deceptively simple. George’s compositions morph in very interesting ways. A lot of those hit songs are quite long. They’re longer than pop singles are. And they keep changing form while never losing the catchy pop quality they had. And so it’s the reason why I think the mere mention of George’s name brings a smile — because it’s associated with music that makes people feel good.
Right. Well, I think there’s no question that the book will adjust a lot of under-thinking about that and a lot of other things.
That’s good news. Thank you.
So what’s next for you? Anything in the works or are you just catching your breath?
I’m not catching my breath at all. I’m out of breath because this book has just been released. And all the excitement is kind of just gearing up right now. I want to ride that out to the fullest. I have my journalism that I do all the time to keep me busy, but there are times in life when I think it’s best not to plan too far ahead and to see what happens because things are coming my way because of this book. There have been numerous film rights inquiries, for example. That’s a pie in the sky at best.
In researching the book, was there any one thing you came across that most surprised you?
I was surprised and saddened by the depths of George’s self hatred, really.
He set out to destroy himself as methodically as he had set out to create himself, yet I’m happy that ultimately he is not perceived as a tragic figure and that the happy aspects of George Michael and the good feelings that George Michael engendered have won out. They don’t always, you know.
Not at all. Let’s close with this one: Do you have a favorite George Michael song?