Watching the Grammys on Sunday, I noticed that something was not quite right. I was just beginning to talk to the television, to ask it questions: "Um, hello, what key are we in exactly?" when something unexpected happened.
The artist stopped singing, dropped an expletive or two, then said, "I'm sorry for swearing, and I'm sorry for starting it again. Can we please start it again?"
If you saw the Grammys on Sunday you might have noticed this moment, when the pop mega-star Adele (who scooped up quite a few awards during the evening) started singing her George Michael tribute in the wrong key, then stopped the show so she could start the song again.
Despite my initial dismissiveness, I found something deeply moving in this instance of larger-than-life human frailty. First there was the real person at the center of it, nervous, grieving and wanting to do her best for someone she admired. And there was the live audience, cheering in sympathy and support, seeming to say, "We've all been there." And the person no longer with us, George Michael, the British pop 80's icon who died in December at age 53.
We all want to do our best, but it might not be so easy when the whole world is watching.
In fact, that just might sum up the life of George Michael, a musician for whom I had real admiration. Strip away the outdated 80s synth and style, and here was a man with a rich and versatile vocal instrument, using all the will he had to express himself through it. He was an imperfect human like the rest of us, except all his foibles were tabloid headlines.
I spoke to someone last week who had worked with George Michael when he was quite young: Anne Dudley, who also wrote the music for Joshua Bell's latest project, The Man with the Violin. Preparing to speak to her about Bell, I couldn't help noticing that Dudley, a master arranger and multi-talented musician who has worked with many pop musicians, had performed as a session musician for one of Michael's greatest hits, "Careless Whisper."
"I played keyboards on 'Careless Whisper' and I arranged the brass lines, the horns, for a couple of the early Wham tracks, for Young Guns and Bad Boys," she said. I had to ask: how about that saxophone solo for Careless Whisper?
"No I didn't write that," she said. "That came from George, note-for-note. He was a completely untrained musician when I met him; he was 18 or 19. He'd never studied music at all, but I've never met anybody like that, with such a great ear, and such a great idea of what he wanted."
"I was there on the evening when the saxophone player came in, and George was being a bit naughty, actually," she said. "He booked three different players because he didn't know who he wanted. I think one had already tried it and gone, and the next one arrived, and the third one arrived rather early, to find the second one still playing. I think the third one got the hump and left! But the guy who did it did a fantastic job. George was so clear in his directions, he knew exactly what he wanted. And if you analyze that song, it's the same four chords, over and over. Anybody can play it. And yet it's a song that's full of emotion, it lifts up beautifully for the chorus and it's just so wonderful the way the melody floats over the chords."
"He knew what he didn't know, and he was desperately eager to learn," she said. "He learned really, really quickly, too. Within a year or two he could play guitar, keyboards, and produce himself. He was extraordinarily talented, but also so polite and respectful. I was so sad when he passed away so young."
As classical musicians, we tend to revere technical perfection. So did Adele; it's why she stopped. So did George Michael; it's why he hired three saxophonists instead of one. But we shouldn't forget that art is also messy, and artists are imperfect. Sometimes we have to stop and swear and make people angry and mess it all up, because that's the fragile mess we stand on when we give the world our very best.Tweet
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