Melbourne, June 1992
In 1992, a friend who was moving overseas bequeathed me a stack of CDs. I accepted them to be polite because in the time I’d known him, I’d learnt that his taste was different to mine. I set them aside thinking that among them there’d be little to interest me. Besides, I wasn’t ready to be introduced to new music. I was barely holding my life together. Earlier that year, over six short weeks, my marriage had ended, my beloved Nonna died and my nine-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Everything I had to deal with was suddenly foreign and frighteningly hard. I needed as much familiarity in my life as possible. That included what I listened to on the many nights I tried to work out how I’d get through the next day of hospital visits, legal negotiations and sheer exhaustion.
The CDs languished for months until one day, in a cleaning frenzy through which I’d crazily imagined I’d regain some control of my circumstances, I knocked the stack off the shelf. They fanned across the floor like a deck of cards, inviting me to pick one. The artists and titles of most reinforced my decision to avoid listening to them. I gathered them and replaced them in their spot, leaving until last the one with the black-and-white cover image of a sea of people in bathing suits. No title. I flipped it over. George Michael: Listen Without Prejudice.
While I’d followed some music from Michael’s solo career, I primarily knew him as part of Wham!, the energetic pop duo that heralded the 1980s and made us want to dance. Their upbeat songs had been a perfect backdrop for joyful events in my life. In the first five years of that decade, I’d married, my sons were born and life was blissfully routine. By mid-80s, Michael and Andrew Ridgley went their separate ways and in a few short years, not only would I part with my husband but also with all I took for granted.
I slid the CD into the player and let George Michael’s clear and perfect voice fill the room. I’d forgotten how amazing it was and how he had the ability to surprise with its range. I immersed myself in the familiar uniqueness of his sound and the diversity of his style: the jazzy Cowboys and Angels, the grief in Mother’s Pride, the questioning challenge of Praying for Time.
But it was the only song he didn’t write on that album, his cover of Stevie Wonder’s quasi-classical They Won’t Go When I Go, which drew my tears. The almost dirge-like tone and the sense of loneliness it evoked seemed fitting for what I’d felt for months. While I can’t claim to understand the lyricist’s intent, to me there was a spiritual element to it. Were certain lines references to heaven or hell? Perhaps. But because I felt I was living in the latter, everything about the song resonated. The references to escaping from pain, tears and hurt couldn’t have been any closer to the truth of my life at that moment. I listened as the lyrics swept me along, thankful for the song’s elements of hope.
There are times when music and words transport you away from where you are and at others, they hone in on exactly where you find yourself. I found myself deep in multiple forms of loss. Unfathomable losses—the end of my marriage, the death of my loved one and the possibility that my child might lose his life. And small losses—simple things that were part of my every day.
Suddenly all the things I’d complained about before fate took over, seemed trivial and self-indulgent. I became acutely aware of the additional grief of being unable to go back and live it all differently. All of this was brought into recognition through a superb voice, backed by a solitary piano and a chorus that combined to create a lament to loneliness, a feeling of separation, a sense of travelling unaccompanied. Thanks to that realisation, I can bear the memory of sitting alone sobbing because I’d felt that someone finally had understood.
The death of a musician always drives us to their back-catalogue. On hearing the news, like millions of others, I spent the day listening to his albums again and They Won’t Go When I Go in particular. His voice was potent as always. His message, wrapped around the last few lines of the song’s lyrics, now chillingly prophetic.
No one can keep me
From my destiny, yeah
They won’t go when I go
Destiny. Fate. The mystery of it all. While it is true that in death we travel alone, wherever it is George Michael has gone, he’s taken a part of me with him.
© Lucia Nardo.