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View from the Left: Bringing a little piece of George Michael into 2017 with me

Musicians say you shouldn’t cover someone else’s song unless you can bring something unique to it—unless you can make it your own in a sense. By that standard, in recent weeks I’ve heard more than a few covers of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that really were a travesty. I’m no Mariah devotee, but hey, you gotta respect the chords.

In contrast to those flimsy reproductions, I was reminded this week of George Michael’s ‘90s-era duet with Elton John covering his 1974 hit, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which has personal resonance for me. Sometime in the mid-’70s, my mother took my brother and me to the record store and let us both pick out an LP. I was around five and chose Elton John’s Greatest Hits, with the iconic picture of the singer sitting in front of a black baby grand in a white suit, fedora to match and prodigious rose colored glasses that seemed to swallow his face whole as they drew you into his mysterious world. My early album pick on little more than gut instinct was perhaps an early signal that I was queer, but it would take another couple decades before I actually had that revelation.

What I did know was that I loved that album for reasons I couldn’t explain. As a kid, I bounced around to the upbeat tempos of “Crocodile Rock” and “Bennie and the Jets.” But as I took to writing poetry in my teenage years, I regarded “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Your Song” as sheer songwriting genius, at least in so far as the lyrics went (which I believe were written by John’s collaborator, Bernie Taupin.) Unfortunately, I don’t have a lick of musical ability. But I knew those lyrics by heart and would occasionally simply transcribe them into my journals as a way of expressing the sometimes piercing pain of my adolescence without having to find the words myself.

By the time the live duet of George Michael and Elton John singing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” hit No. 1 on the pop charts in Feb. of 1992, I was a senior in college and I still wasn’t out—not even to myself. Technically, neither was George Michael, but his lyrics told a different story as he proclaimed his “Freedom” on his 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice, which I played on repeat. But his rendition of my early Elton John favorite was a heart stopper. He brought his full being into those  lyrics and transformed them.

Don’t let the sun go down on me…

Although I search myself, it’s always someone else I see…

I’d just allow a fragment of your life, to wander free…

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