I first learned of George Michael when I was 18 years old. I was a waitress in a bar & grill called The West End on Broadway between 113th and 114th streets (in Manhattan).
The main portion of this joint featured some of the worst Pizza I’ve ever had in my life, bartenders who if they could get away with it, would pour half a shot into a mixed drink, Monday night pitchers of the worst beer on tap for $5.95 and students from Columbia University who took every chance they had at pinching my ass as I waded through the crowd with three pitchers in one hand and a tray of drinks in the other. I’d yell “Watch your back!” and people would part like, if you’ll forgive the comparison, Jesus and the Dead Sea.
On the way back to the bar I would punch every guy in the face who pinched my ass. The one and only time I got punched back, the 6 foot three, 250-pound bouncer picked the Columbia University football player up by his shirt collar and escorted him out of the bar. The next time I saw him he apologized.
Yeah, I was a babe back then.
I would show up to work every day at 3:30 to set up what we affectionately called the “back room.” The back room had 23 wooden tables with names, dates and phone numbers. They even told stories of who was dating whom, who left whom and who wanted to date whom.
Setting up consisted of ensuring each table had ketchup, mustard, salt & pepper and sugar; restocking anything I was too tired to restock before I went home the night before and harassing the dishwasher to make sure he had enough beer mugs and highball glasses to take us through a few hours of madness once the eager-to-get-laid 18, 19 and 20-year-olds were on the scene.
As I did all of this, I had complete control over the jukebox. Back then I listened to Madonna, Culture Club, and I am a bit embarrassed to admit it, Wham! Hey, it was the 80s!
In truth, all I ever wanted to do was “graduate” to working in the Jazz room. Performers like Tito Puente, George Duke, Ron Carter, Mongo Santamaria and many others performed there regularly. I even got to see Sheila E perform with her father, Pete Escovedo once.
But seeing as how I wasn't willing to sleep with the owner to achieve this goal, I was forever relegated to serving drunk and obnoxious frat boys, most of them privileged and spoiled brats.
So what was I doing working as a barmaid in a bar full of bratty, entitled and drunken frat boys I couldn’t stand being around? Working my way through college, of course.
Oh it wasn’t all bad. Many of the kids I grew up with hung out there and I did manage to meet a really nice guy who would be my boyfriend for three years. He didn’t pinch my ass. And I did make enough to pay my living expenses while I was in school because I lived on my own.
That time in my life always reminds me of the opening line of A Tale of two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
As I matured and left the West End and got a real job, broke up with that boyfriend and was living on my own, I grew out of Culture Club Wham! and Madonna. By this point it’s 1991 and I am sharing an apartment with two other women.
In my building on the third floor was a guy named Tony James. We became friends instantly. We hung out a lot in his apartment. We were crazy about each other, but it’s not what you think … we were friends, good friends. We talked a lot about life, our individual struggles, breakups and how much music influenced our lives and always seemed to describe what we were going through or had gone through.
I was a wanna be writer. I was in the latest of many reincarnations of myself. And Tony was a drummer, a guitar player and a writer. He also happened to be the drummer in my cousin’s band called Maggie's Dream. They had a nice run for a few years and were signed to Atlantic Records. I would like to think I knew who Tony really was, not who girls screaming madly at him as they performed thought he was.
(Side note: Tony James landed on his feet quite nicely after Maggie's Dream disbanded. He starred in The Disney Channel's "Out of the Box" for years. And he's recorded a couple of albums as well.)
One day Tony and I were hanging out and he picked out a CD. “Are you hip to George Michael?”
"Yeah, you mean half of Wham! and the man who wants your sex?” I asked.
”He's got a new album out. I think you'll like it.” Tony responded.
I rolled my eyes. “Tony, You can’t be serious. You are a very talented musician and writer, why on earth are you still listening to teeny bopper stuff?” I asked him.
“No! Not Wham! Not the George Michael who wants your sex! Indulge me okay please?” Tony responded. “Shhhh! Just listen … without prejudice.”
I did as instructed. After the entire album was over, my jaw left open, Tony handed me the CD cover. George Michael did look pretty different from his Wham! Days. Gone was the androgynous look and the overdone hair, which was replaced by a mature looking, serious about his music, man. I looked at the lyrics and said, “huh. Dude can definitely write some lyrics.” I said out loud.
This album couldn’t have been a further departure from his Wham! Days. But that was the point wasn’t it?
Once I was introduced to Listen Without Prejudice, it opened a whole new world to me. George Michael, it turns out, is, I'm sorry was, an incredibly talented musician and writer. He is someone whose music I still listen to on a regular basis. As with so many important people in the entertainment industry (Prince, David Bowie et al) we lost another good one in 2016.
I don't think I ever really thanked Tony James for introducing me to George Michael. I need to take care of that.
Thank you for your contributions, George Michael. May you rest in Power!