"DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME?" FROM "THE WEDDING SINGER" George, the…
- Posted on Mar 8th 2011 12:30PM by Mike Doherty
Getty Images for Etam
George recently spoke to Spinner about getting clean, surviving prison, resuming work and coming to terms with his past.
How do you feel about being constantly called an '80s star?
It used to get on my nerves, now I don't care anymore. That's part of what I did, and it was really powerful and important. It doesn't stop me doing what I do now. I've always tried new things -- some have worked; some haven't. It's the creative process that really excites me. The hard bit is selling it. I've never been good at working the room. [Laughs] I think it has to do with my upbringing and being British. We're not good at that, which is why we love Americans; they don't shy away from that. It seems to be in their blood. We're just cut from a different kind of cloth.
Really? During your first 1983 appearance on 'The Joan Rivers Show,' for instance, you were giving back what Rivers was giving you, and you seemed very comfortable in the spotlight.
Oh, I've never had a problem with that! [Laughs] Obviously, I was younger then, and I didn't really have an "off" button. I didn't really have many boundaries; they've come with age.
How did you get permission to sample President Obama on the 'Ordinary Alien' song 'Yes We Can'?
I haven't got permission! [Laughs] I guess it's in the public domain. I don't know; maybe he'll sue me. I hope not. It's a complimentary tribute. I was very moved by the whole Obama thing, and it coincided with me getting clean. I wanted to make the record like that old house record ['Can You Feel It?' by Fingers, Inc.] that had the Martin Luther King sample "I Have a Dream," which really got me into dance music in the late '80s. Obama's voice has that similar quality. Also, 'Yes We Can' translates to 'Yes I Can' for me. In the song, I say, "Please forgive these crimes against myself, and I'll forgive your lack of faith." I just got swept up by that whole optimism that was happening around that election campaign. I really related to it.
Does the old saw "hardship fuels creativity" apply to you?
I've had enough to draw on for the rest of my life! [Laughs] I don't need to cut my ear off anymore. There is a real positivity on this record. It's quite reflective, but it's getting easier for me to write happy songs. I never want to be too happy. I think bittersweet is my area. The early Culture Club stuff was on the surface very bubbly and chirpy, but the subtext was quite melancholic.
I understand 'Pentonville Blues' was written while you were in prison [in 2009]?
It started there. I kept notes, and I had a little book that I wrote stuff in, and actually the only time I got in trouble in prison was I wrote something on the wall, and I got told off! I was reading 'Catch-22' by Joseph Heller, and it inspired a lyric, and I didn't have any paper, so I wrote on the wall: "Some things are past understanding; you just need a place to land." And I got a red tick for that.
Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
I read all the books I thought I'd read, or all the books I said I'd read previously. Having a lot of time on my hands gave me the opportunity to read everything from Dickens to 'Catcher in the Rye,' Jean Genet, everything. That was a really good way to kill time. And, obviously, reading is really good for lyrics as well because it inspires you to be more experimental. Reading broadens your vocabulary. It helps your imagination. It really helps you to look at things in a different way.
It must have been a difficult period.
Yeah, it was like being back at school -- and at 48, that's quite daunting. You have two choices when you're in any situation: You either deal with it or you remove yourself from it. Unfortunately, when you're in prison, you can't remove yourself from the situation, so the only thing you have control over is how you feel. Luckily for me, when I went to prison I was already sober, so I went with a really strong head. That was very helpful to me.
Were you trying to get off drugs during the court case?
Yeah, I got clean March 2, 2008. It's my third clean birthday.
Congratulations! Was it a difficult process?
No, it wasn't, actually. It was more of an emotional process. With any kind of addiction, the only time it's going to stop is when you've had enough. A lot of extreme things happened to me, and that didn't stop me, so I think you just reach a point where you say, "I can't do this anymore." You see the effect it's having on people around you; nothing gets done. That's the worst thing for someone like me, for a creative person. You suddenly start to realize, "I've done nothing for five years." I felt like I was doing a lot, but I really was doing nothing -- a lot of procrastination, and you don't get that time back.
When you do get recovery, you start to revalue everything you do, and right now, I appreciate what I have much more than I ever have before. I did a gig last week with Mark Ronson, and Duran Duran were there, and Simon Le Bon said backstage, "We're so lucky to be still doing what we're doing." "You're right -- it's true. It's taken me 49 years to get there, but I'm able to say, 'My God, this is so fantastic!'" When you see younger artists making dramas of themselves, you think, "Oh, God!" But I don't know if I'd have listened back then. I don't think you can hear that stuff when you're 25. It's something that happens with experience, if you're lucky. I don't think you get wiser just because you get older; I think you have to make changes.
In the '80s you said there was no difference between who you were onstage and who you were as an actual person. Is that still the case?
At that point in my career, I was that person all the time. I was always in costume. As I've gotten older, I've become much more comfortable with me. Most of the time I'm not dressed up; I'm not in character. What I realize now is that there is a responsibility that comes with being that person. And although I know that person is me, people treat that person differently because he's got a hat on and makeup and silly clothes! I can walk around most of the time and no one bothers me. I might get recognized here and there, but once I'm in that gear, I have to take responsibility for that.
Does taking off the gear allow you to not have to deal with everything that happens when you're in character?
I think because my head is screwed on now, I approach it in a different way. I have my moments like anyone, but I generally don't get stressed out about things that I can't change. When I was younger, I didn't know how to be calm in situations that made me frantic. I've learnt what's important as I've got older. And the difference now is that I'm not opposed to things -- I used to be opposed to so much when I was younger. I had a problem with everything and everyone. I thought I had this responsibility to say everything that I felt, and as I've got older I've realized that some things are private.
Gay people can be quite spiky and critical. Sometimes I hear my friends and I think, "God! I used to be like that." And it's not that I've become less interesting; it's just that I just don't enjoy doing that stuff. I read things that I've said in the past and think, "What a vile thing to say!" Some of it's funny, but when everything you say is a bit nasty it just becomes kinda boring. I'm really over that.
Was it important back in the early '80s, as someone who couldn't fully come out as gay, to at least be able to say what was on your mind?
I'd already come out to my family when I was 15, so I'd already been out for a long time before I ever became famous. But the difference in coming out to your family and coming out to the universe is a big step. Things were different then. I still think there's work to be done. It seems like we're living in quite a right-wing climate, and a lot of those changes that we felt were happening in the early '80s in terms of people's attitudes seem to have kind of gone backwards. In some areas people are more tolerant, and in other areas they're less tolerant. People who have a problem with homosexuality [are] very vocal. There may be less of them, but they do a lot of damage.
Do any younger musicians ask you about issues of sexuality?
Well, people are much braver now. But then, maybe if we weren't around, they wouldn't have been. Maybe if Quentin Crisp wasn't around, and Bowie wasn't around, and all the people that came before me -- everything's part of a daisy chain.
How did you feel about having Diane Kruger play you in the video for 'Somebody to Love Me'?
I was very flattered; I'm glad they found someone attractive. [Laughs] I mean, God, she's a beautiful woman, so I was like, wow! And actually, she does have my nose.
Are there further collaborations planned with Mark Ronson?
I'd like to write with Mark. He has a great sense of musical history and he likes a lot of the same things that I like. We haven't decided who we're going to record with; we're talking to Phil Ramone. There's all sorts of ideas flying around at the moment. But I think the record has to be something elder statesman-like. I don't think we can compete with the current pop scene; it's so alien to me.
Hrm-hrm! Lady George! Ms. George.