“George Michael: A Life” by James Gavin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


The definitive biography of George Michael, offering an expansive look at the troubled life of the legendary singer, songwriter, and pop superstar.

Goodreads


If you’ve been following us for a while, you’re probably aware that I love biographies. And a juicy celebrity biography is always welcome! But I have to be honest – this one is a bit of a slog. The finished hardcover is expected to be over 500 pages!

I grew up in the 80s, and don’t remember a time when George Michael wasn’t famous. So it did surprise me to learn that he was only 19 when Wham! signed their first record contract. But I do feel like that explains some of his later woes – the drug use, the hiding his sexuality (while singing songs like “I Want Your Sex”). He was in the public eye before he had really figured out who he was.

George Michael is his stage name; he was born in England as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, to a working class Greek immigrant father and a British mother. His dad was always kind of a tough guy, which is one reason Michael hid his sexuality – he didn’t think his family would approve. He eventually did come out to one of his sisters, and his mom, before his public outing in the late 90s.

This sets up the ongoing dichotomy about him, which plays out many times over throughout this book: he wants public adoration and praise, but wants to keep everything about his own life “private.”

Michael had risen to the highest levels of fame and fortune very quickly and very early. Wham! had some big hits in the mid to late 80s, right at the time when music videos were becoming a mandatory part of getting a song up the pop charts. This meant that the band members’ images, clothes, hair, etc. were every bit as important as the songs themselves.

By all accounts (in this book, at least), George Michael could write and sing well, though. When he was young, at least, he had quite a wide vocal range. Some of his bandmates lament that he was so hung up on image, from the start. They also talk of him being a perfectionist and a control freak, however, who would tweak every aspect of a recording until he was totally happy with it. His work habits made him, at times, difficult to work with.

His solo career took off right after Wham! ended, but that star burned out quickly. This was another surprise to me… I guess I hadn’t realized that he was barely making new music past the mid 90s.

The biggest public scandal, which occurred in L.A. in 1998, is discussed around half way through this tome. The entire rest of his life was riddled with arrests and scandals, drugs and rehab, having his drivers license and US visa taken away, and so on. He did some recording, mostly at home. He did a few more tours, but eventually couldn’t leave Europe. He would often contribute songs to soundtracks or charity albums. He was largely considered a “has-been” by his forties.

On the other hand, he gave a lot away. He was constantly giving his “inner circle” lavish gifts, but he also gave a lot to charity. Some of his favorite causes were anti-war ones, LGBT ones, and ones that helped children. He also gave music away, often for use in albums or concerts helping these causes, and sometimes for soundtracks. He also liked to reach out and encourage up-and-coming young singers who were gay. He envied that they could be “out” from the beginning of their careers.*

Another fun tidbit: his appearance in a sketch in the 2011 Red Nose Day special was the inspiration for James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke!

This story was long, and its hero wasn’t always easy to empathize with. But that’s no fault of the author, James Gavin, who obviously amassed a ton of material and research here.

This book comes out today, June 28th. I was able to read an advance copy through NetGalley and the publisher, Abrams Books.

*According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, their site has resources for you. If you are in Nashville, please see the Oasis Center for local support.


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“On Time – A Princely Life In Funk” by Morris Day with David Ritz – Review

BY: ANGIE HADDOCK


“Brilliant composer, smooth soul singer, killer drummer, and charismatic band leader, Morris Day, has been a force in American music for the past four decades. In On Time, the renowned funkster looks back on a life of turbulence and triumph.”

Goodreads


A few weeks ago, I tackled Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones.” So it seemed only logical to follow that with Morris Day’s memoir, which was published the same month (October 2019). If you don’t know Morris, please take a break and go watch Purple Rain. (Or even Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for that matter!)

This is another memoir that is written in a unique style. In this one, the story is (thankfully) told in chronological order. There are three “voices” in the book, though – Morris, Prince, and MD (who is Morris’ onstage persona). Obviously, they were all written by Morris, but he uses these voices to kind of argue with himself on certain points where there are conflicts or confusion.

Morris was born in Springfield, Illinois, but moved to Minneapolis when he was still young. His parents were divorced, and he had several step-dads and half-siblings. His older sister was the rock to him, and continued to help him out of trouble well into their adulthoods.

Morris started out as a drummer. He met Prince in high school, and became the drummer for the Purple One’s band. There were several other funk outfits going at the time, and he admired certain players and singers in some of them. He was constantly in search of a good groove.

When Prince created his first signed band, The Revolution, he did not invite Morris to be the drummer. But, he did offer Morris a completely different gig, if Morris wanted to go on tour with them – videographer. Of course, Morris said yes, despite not having any experience. In the early eighties, this meant lugging around a heavy camera. He stuck with this gig for three years, just to be close to Prince’s creative genius.

Eventually his loyalty paid off, and Prince wanted to make a Morris album. Morris had never been a lead singer, but Prince convinced him he could do it. They produced the whole album themselves, and then Prince revealed that he envisioned Morris with a band, not as a solo artist. So Morris dipped into his Minneapolis funk favorites to come up with band members for The Time (even though none of them actually played on that first album).

This story sets an important precedent for many of the stories that follow, and I’ll quote Morris directly:

“Naturally, that made me crazy, but being driven crazy is the price you paid for being around Prince.”

Most people know Morris Day from his performance in the movie Purple Rain. His character has the same name, Morris Day, but was a little more bombastic than the real Morris at that time. This came out of figuring out how to make Morris the foil for Prince in the movie, and the idea that – since Prince would obviously be the sexy one – Morris could be the funny one.

This is where we see the birth of MD, the more exaggerated version of Morris. The character from the movie became his onstage persona, and often blended into his real life. Over decades, Morris fought with drugs, alcohol, and women. He did get married, and had a family. He did have some successful albums, both with the band and as a solo artist. He feels he had an ongoing struggle between MD, who wanted all the fabulousness of being a celebrity, and Morris, who wanted a family and to just play good music.

But his other lifelong struggle was with Prince. He wanted to get out of Prince’s shadow at some points, but also knew that Prince was a genius. Prince would invite him to play at some shows, then change his mind at the last minute (when the band had already traveled to the city of the show). A later incarnation of The Time actually had to record under a different name, because Prince claimed he owned the name – even though they were still touring as The Time at the time.

Morris eventually gets clean. He also gets divorced, and remarried. He sees Prince one last time – for the first time in a decade – a few months before his death. He still considers him a brother, albeit a hard one to deal with sometimes.

This is a fun and easy read, especially if you like music. The hardcover edition comes in at just over 200 pages, and the conversational tone is easy to digest.


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“The Beautiful Ones” by Prince with Dan Piepenbring – Review

BY: Angie Haddock


From Prince himself comes the brilliant coming-of-age-and-into-superstardom story of one of the greatest artists of all time—featuring never-before-seen photos, original scrapbooks and lyric sheets, and the exquisite memoir he began writing before his tragic death.

Goodreads


To say that this book was a multi-sensory experience may seem odd, or even cheesy – but I knew I was in for a new experience just from picking it up. The pages are ultra-thick, the page numbers aren’t in the usual place, the typeset was large and unique. From the moment you feel this book, you know you’re in for an adventure.

This one is not a straight-forward memoir. The beginning is the 50-page odyssey of the book’s invention, explaining that Prince had the idea to write a memoir (or several), but died before it came to fruition. He had already picked a co-author (Dan), and signed the book deal. So, upon his death, the people involved in the deal were among those allowed to look through his extensive trove of notes and pictures and other momentos left behind at Paisley Park.

They decided to use some of the stuff they found that interested them in the following way: After the intro, there is what Prince had written so far of his proposed memoir. This is mostly about his parents, growing up in Minneapolis, and other things about his early years. They include scans of the actual, handwritten pages – but fear not, it’s typed out afterward, for easier reading. But, they did type it as close as they could to the way Prince wrote, including using an emoji (for lack of a better description) of an eye for the word “I.”

After that is a photo album, with annotations, from his earliest years getting a recording contract. He and some bandmates went out to California to record, and he took pictures of random things like their hotel room. It’s cute to think of this huge personality as having once been a young kid viewing a new place for the first time, in awe of its different terrain and style.

There are mountains of other pictures and notes, often paired with quotes from interviews, that show the artist coming into his own and doing things his way. Then we have another handwritten tome, a synopsis of what he first envisioned the movie Purple Rain to be about. Following that are a few more pictures, notes, and fun finds.

I want to leave you with some fun/funky quotes from the mind of Prince himself:

“…the bass & drums on this record would make Stephen Hawking dance. No disrespect – it’s just that funky.”

“Try to create. I want to tell people to create. Just start by creating your day. Then create your life.”

“If there’s something out there that U want – Go 4 it! Nothing comes to sleepers but dreams.”

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