I Guess God Just Called His Number

In his 2004 Patience album, George Michael lyrically posed the question ‘If Jesus Christ is alive and well, how come John and Elvis are dead?’. I should imagine that a lot of it is down to genetics. Presley’s father was a manual labourer with a congenital heart condition, whereas Jesus’ father, famously, is God. There are also lifestyle choices to consider: Elvis and John Lennon had significant issues with drugs, and for many years ate badly, drank heavily, and generally made poor lifestyle choices. Jesus, by contrast, enjoyed a seasonal and organic diet, drank in moderation and despite holding down two jobs – carpenter and son of God – was able to do so while fitting in exercise and plenty of fresh air.

I discussed this with my old dear as we pondered the recent death of her cat, who had been ailing for some time. Towards the end of his life, my old dear, who is not a trained veterinary professional, described him as ‘looking a bit vague, like he was trying to remember his national insurance number, but couldn’t’. It would be heavy handed to have him humanely destroyed for this alone, but he had been poorly for some time; the decision was made, and thus Tuppence was ushered among the countless cushions of Cat Heaven. Coincidentally, two other cats on my old dear’s street have been put down this year, prompting me to remark that ‘it’s like 2016 again’ – a year which, as you may recall, was regarded quaintly at the time as a bit of a nightmare due to a mysterious curse that saw several elderly celebrities die after decades of massive and prolonged drug use for no apparent reason whatsoever. My old dear agreed that yes it is, it really is, despite not knowing what I was talking about. Among the fallen of 2016 was, of course, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, known to the world as George Michael out of Wham!.

Wham! came to my attention one distant childhood afternoon at West Ham, when Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go was played over the tannoy prior to a game against Arsenal. The opening jitterbug refrain coincided with the exact moment a group of Arsenal fans invaded the Chicken Run, an area of Upton Park which had, to say the least of it, little to do with the animated film of the same name. Arsenal, who could put out good numbers back then, were giving a decent account of themselves, and I watched on with interest. As the song continued, I found the reference to the sun shining brighter than Doris Day an interesting contrast to the unfolding melee, which consisted of people in golfing jumpers, as was the terrace fashion of the time, beating the absolute shit out of each other. The line come on baby, let’s not fight also tickled me because, by this point, everyone was fighting. The stewards and programme vendors had waded in, and even the disabled did their bit by hurling coins into the fray from the wheelchair section opposite. It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen, a view shared by the many kids from my school who were there, and was pretty much all everyone talked about for days, especially as Everton were visiting the following week, and they were blade merchants. I’m sure eight year olds in all those down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness, working class Labour boroughs have exactly the same sensibilities now.

Anyway. We have always been a family club at West Ham, and supporters of every generation, on every terrace, joined in the chorus of South Bank! Do your job! which all but drowned out the final bars of Wham!’s iconic breakout hit. The South Bank ICF* did indeed do their job, even though this meant working on a Saturday, for which they presumably got paid time and a half. In a blur of Pringle jumpers and Adidas Gazelles, Arsenal were pushed out of the Chicken Run, onto the concourse behind the ground, back up the Barking Road, and in many cases into the casualty department of the Royal London Hospital. I didn’t become a huge fan of Wham! afterwards or anything – I was already developing a Beatles obsession which remains undimmed to this day – but the episode stuck in my mind, and George Michael, assisted by Andrew Ridgeley (allowed into the band for having the most Eighties name ever) seemed like a right larf. I liked them enough to decide that Everything She Wants was my favourite of their songs and, years later, I blazed a trail by becoming the only male heterosexual to buy and enjoy George Michael’s Faith album. As a result, I was obliged to defend myself against adolescent accusations of being a bender, even though there was no need to because I had fingered a girl by then, largely, come to think of it, by virtue of owning the album in the first place.

Let us now pause to contrast George Michael with David Bowie, another victim of the 2016 curse. Bowie was more commercially successful and culturally recognisable than George Michael, and great and fantastic and everything, but I could never love him. That said, fandom is irrational, and not some kind of pissing contest – although maybe that’s what George thought was happening when he was arrested for lewd behaviour in the public toilets in Beverly Hills that time. Bowie was cool and full of heroin chic; George Michael usually had hair like someone’s old mum and got accidentally drunk on cough mixture. I could never not love him, with his dad-at-the-disco stage moves, holding out microphones for the crowd to sing into, which they usually didn’t. You wouldn’t catch David Bowie cruising for lorry drivers on Hampstead Heath or stabbing the cat with an undercover cop and, although these are experiences for which I have never yearned, it is somehow brilliant that George got busted for both. George Michael crashed his car into the Hampstead branch of Snappy Snaps while confused; I once rode my bike into the back of an Audi while wondering what Russ Abbot was up to these days, and I feel these are experiences we could have swapped with little surprise to our respective peer groups. There was an easy kinship to be had with the chubby bloke from Finchley Road that the Spider From Mars was too busy banging on about Berlin and outer space to adequately provide.

Few of us can look forward to a genuinely dignified end, death being perhaps the greatest leveller, whether you are an absent-minded domestic pet or an international style icon. Well, except for David Bowie, of course, who knocked out a farewell album and final photo shoot in Soho before dematerialising like Doctor Who and coming back as a Lamborghini. Not so George Michael. His demise was superbly anti-brilliant, falling into a coma following a bout of pneumonia and emerging talking like someone who has spent their entire life in a remote Cornish village, due to Foreign Accent Syndrome, which baffles the world of medicine and could only happen to George. Sadly, it cleared up before a tour could be organised, robbing us all of the astonishing experience of Father Figure and Freedom being rendered in the manner of the Worzels, and he died some months later on Christmas Day, his last weeks spent playing Scrabble while his body deteriorated into a steroid-bloated mess. Only after his death did the extraordinary extent of his benevolence emerge, notably with the anonymous bankrolling of IVF treatment for a contestant on Deal Or No Deal who failed to win enough money to pay for it herself. Being honest, I am uncomfortable with the wealthy and famous deciding which random peasant to elevate with their Godlike power in this manner – could you not just have donated to research or a suitable charity or something? – but let’s not end on a sour note, especially when discussing such a beautiful man. Bloated and Cornish his body may have been at the end, but his soul was in fine fettle, and that’s the main thing.

*’Inter City Firm’, notorious West Ham hooligans.


Main: Back of the old South Bank, Upton Park.

Top inset: George Michael in the late Eighties. There was widespread disbelief when he came out as a gay man.

Middle inset: Yes, giggle if you want, but do it from thirty five years away because these malnourished children, who I think are Portsmouth’s extremely handy 657 Crew, will batter you without a second thought. Incidentally, ‘657 Crew’, like ‘Inter City Firm’, is also a reference to public transport – the 06:57 was traditionally the train they would catch from Portsmouth when going up North. I’d like to hear Ringo Starr narrating these exploits in the manner of his work on Thomas the Tank Engine.

Lower inset: The point at which George’s car collided with the Hampstead branch of Snappy Snaps. Someone’s written Wham! on it.

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