What's the matter with George Michael?
By Craig McLean
Published: 12:01AM BST 05 Oct 2006
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His new tour may be a sell-out, but the singer is a lonely diva, haunted by grief and stage fright, reports Craig McLean
He is one of the most successful British recording artists ever – having sold more than 80 million records. He has a happy relationship with a long-term boyfriend and beautiful homes in London, Oxfordshire and Beverly Hills. To top that, the start of his first live tour in 15 years, is receiving rave reviews.
George Michael arrested by police after lorry crash
So what's up with George Michael? Why was he found slumped at the wheel of his car, for the second time this year, in the early hours of last Sunday morning.
We know that he is a committed cannabis enthusiast. The last time I saw him – for a lengthy dinner and interview in an Italian restaurant in Hampstead, he was clearly stoned. He happily told me he'd enjoyed a spliff 45 minutes before he'd driven to meet me. He was frank about what, he felt, were its benefits.
"There are very, very few areas of life where smoking weed is gonna help you with work," he said. "Writing is definitely one of them. If I'm really honest, if I wanted to write the best album of my career, I should go and do some acid. I should experiment with mind-expanding drugs. I would never do that. But in terms of relaxation and coming up with a good idea or two, a spliff helps."
He was charming, self-deprecating and honest. But full of fantastical conspiracy theories and paranoia about the media and the music industry – everyone was out to get George Michael. He was cross about everyone from George Bush to Cliff Richard. He was coherent yet he was loony. His eyes were boggling, and so were mine, although perhaps for different reasons.
The incident last Sunday, which meant he was blocking a north-London intersection, was the third time the 43-year-old singer had been in trouble with the law this year. In February, he was cautioned for cannabis possession; he'd been discovered slumped in his Range Rover near London's Hyde Park. "It's quite easy to fall asleep at Hyde Park lights," he explained later.
In April he was questioned after he pranged three parked cars near his Highgate home. This is not the kind of behaviour the public expect of multi-millionaire pop icons – he was never a grungy rock star. Nor are such bizarre falls-from-grace particularly helpful to the comeback that George Michael began on stage in front of 18,000 delirious fans in Barcelona last week.
The ''25 Live" tour marks a quarter of a century in music for Michael and a best-of album follows next month. It's taken Michael that long to overcome the trauma of being big in America in the late Eighties, and the memory of the 10-month long Faith tour, an experience that almost sent him mad and following which a kind of stage fright took hold.
Elton John, who was once a close friend, said publicly that Michael was "wasting his talent" by not singing live and that he had a "deep-rooted unhappiness". Michael stewed over the comments and the live dates are supposed to be a riposte to John's criticisms.
On his official website, Michael confesses: "I truly believed that tonight would never happen, that I would never sing these songs to you again. But then, I'm a fool, which you've probably worked out by now."
Who can be sure that his nerves are finally in check. The pressure for a string of Wembley dates in December – the tour's culmination – must be building up. His record company, Sony/BMG, was thrilled when tickets for the shows sold out almost immediately earlier this year. The triumph was overshadowed, however, by more unwelcome publicity.
In July, the News of the World snapped Michael on Hampstead Heath at 3am. He was in the company of a ratty-looking, 58-year-old unemployed man. They were fresh from cavorting in bushes. The paparazzi shots of a surprised and flushed Michael do not reflect well on a superstar to say the least and his explanation left many of his fans more bewildered than ever.
"I've no issue with cruising," he said. "You can't be in shame about the situation if the person isn't shamed. And I'm certainly not."
And now, more trouble. Not content with sabotaging the launch of his comeback tour by conking out, apparently stoned, in his own car, Michael will also have to make time in his concert schedule for an appearance in court next month. The charge: being unfit to drive. All of which begs the question: is George Michael unfit to look after himself?
When I met him for the rare interview two years ago, he talked to, and mostly at me, for four hours. He opened up about the deep loss he'd felt after the death in 1993 of his first serious boyfriend, Anselmo Feleppa. The Brazilian designer had succumbed to an Aids-related brain haemorrhage. There was worse to come.
Michael told me how, in 1996, he phoned his beloved mum, Lesley Panos, to tell her that he had, at last, found love again, with Texan businessman Kenny Goss – his partner to this day.
"And in the same conversation she had to tell me that she had cancer," he said, hurt brimming in his eyes. "So I didn't even get a day off." His mum died the following year.
At his cogent best Michael was erudite on the destructiveness of the cult of celebrity. He was gleefully off-message and blithely unconcerned with PR niceties. But an odd picture emerged: that of an isolated diva, stuck in his palatial north London eyrie, cannabis joint forever in hand, eyes glued to the telly.
He confessed that at his worst "somebody was rolling the stuff for me and I didn't realise I was smoking skunk".
He preferred to stay home, and hated the usual celebrity pit-stops. "Otherwise, you might as well invite the paparazzi to take your picture."
But rather than be liberated by this studious avoidance of the world of celebrity magazines, it seemed to imprison him. He was filling this lonely void with sex and drugs. He talked frankly about his prodigious hungers for both.
During the mixing of his album, Older, in the Nineties, he had been smoking "18, 19 joints a day". He laughed that he would sometimes have a spliff for breakfast.
He'd got it down to "probably about five or six [joints] a day. I'm hoping that in a couple of months it'll be just before I go to bed [that] I have one. That's the way it should be."
With little prompting he was equally forthright about his sexual appetites. He and Goss had an open relationship. There was nothing furtive about his lifestyle, nor the telling of it.
"The truth about two gay men is there's no fooling one another. You look into each other's eyes and you know exactly what the other one wants. Cause you're both men, right, and you're both programmed, just like every other man."
In the context of this year's sad parade of events, his nocturnal activities seem to be spiralling out of control. Those late-night drives round London, stoned and alone, are worrying. He has said in the past that there is a history of depression in the family.
Maybe it was the pressure of the looming tour, of putting himself back in the spotlight, that have pushed him to act so rashly, so stupidly. The grief over his catastrophic losses of loved ones is surely still there. Whatever it is, the proudly independent, combative George Michael I met two years ago now appears a lot frailer.
He told me at the time that he didn't take advice from anyone. Perhaps if he did, he would take heed that popping out for a twilight drive with a bootful of cannabis is not a great idea.