South Yarra, 2018
Can’t recreate the past? Why of course you can. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Well maybe we should all be praying for time. George Michael
When I started going to nightclubs as a teenager in the late 1990s the recording artist Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, better known as George Michael, was (a) alive, and (b) releasing new songs. George was a veteran pop star even back then, a man who had gone through many incarnations. Wham! teen idol 1980s George with the luxurious caramel tipped mane. Sexy stubble-faced George of the Faith era. Then finally out and proud gay George who in 1998 got busted for a “lewd act” in a Beverly Hills toilet block only to turn the sorry incident into a satirical smash hit called Outside.
Two decades have passed. Dead at 53, George Michael has entered into the pantheon of great pop stars gone too soon. Recently I was invited by an old school friend to a George Michael tribute night at Chasers nightclub in Melbourne. I said Yes straight away – I was fascinated by the prospect of returning to one of the dingy pick up lairs where I first gyrated my way into young adulthood.
But what do you wear for something like this, the nightclubby version of a high school reunion? What would George have wanted? A Choose Life t-shirt? Maybe a supermodel worthy chrome helmet a la Too Funky, or a festive Last Christmas knit, or an open shirt and a crucifix dangling from one ear? After some private wardrobe turmoil my friend and I both ended up wearing an insipid, non-themed selection of sparkly tops with jeans. “You know what this means right?” I said, on noting the synchronicity. “We have both reached the age where a sparkly top means we are going out of an evening. That is incredibly sad.” My friend agreed.
So it was with a touch of sparkle that I found myself with old friends at Chasers. I remembered the club being much bigger and more glamorous looking. It seemed a bit divey in its current incarnation, all painted black and peeling inside like a Haunted Mansion ride at a crappy carnival. I half expected someone dressed as a George Michael zombie to jump out from the corner and grab me (no such luck). The lounges look beat up, with gaffer tape covering the rents in the vinyl. I was a bit circumspect about sitting on those lounges. I know what people do on those lounges now. Nightclubs used to smell like smoke back in my day. Now, without the ritualistic cleansing of smoke, they smell like human sweat and air freshener.
I wasn’t sure what kind of crowd to expect, other than to anticipate they would mostly be around my age and older. That prediction was correct, and on top of that the patrons on this particular night were about 93% women.
Imagine hundreds of women and a smattering of men wearing sparkly tops or Choose Life t-shirts, just out to have fun and dance. There was a DJ dressed up as stubbly sexy George, hovering like an air traffic controller over his iTunes list in lieu of actual decks to spin. The crowd was lapping the non-stop George hits right up. They clearly had negligible concern about whether George Michael is cool, or whether they personally were cool in enthusiastically consuming his music as a cultural artifact. The vibe of the room was high in happiness and low in sexual angst.
That said, the desire to distinguish oneself erotically was not completely extinguished in this crowd. There are still podiums in clubs, giving the everyday person with an exhibitionist streak the opportunity to play stripper for 10 minutes. Mid-lifers with pre-arthritic bodies and bung knees hoisted themselves with group assistance and ungainly movements onto the little platforms to grind to I Want Your Sex and Freedom ‘90. Some were drunker, and therefore better, podium dancers than others. The sober ones just shuffled, seeming to regret what a hubristic moment of enthusiasm had gotten them into.
At midnight hundreds of red George Michael balloons festooned from the ceiling dropped down from big nets, just like a George Michael NYE. A big hooray came up from the crowd as the balloons drifted onto their heads. Big screens displayed George in all of his video guises. It was bittersweet to register how many early career heteronormative George Michael video clips there are in existence. Seeing George romancing the ladies only on repeat was both absurd and regrettable. But the later clips saw him stepping away from that straight man narrative, particularly in Outside where he dresses up as a kitschy cop and takes the piss out of his own arrest and the notion of policing human sexuality. That was a consolation, to know George had a chance to be himself publically before the end, just like the middle age people who still love him.