"I thought of you when I read of George Michael's passing today."
Yesterday afternoon, I was playing Mexican train with my family when I received that text message from my friend , Ken Latsch. I had not yet heard the news.
The year was 1989. January, to be exact.
1988 had been a roller coaster year for me. I ran for a seat in the Oregon legislature, and lost by a handful of votes. Because I had spent most of the year running for the position, my law partnership had also broken up.
So, there I was in a new year at loose ends. That is when the call came. "How would you like to come to London for a law job?"
It was James Culbertson. I had met him and his then-girlfriend, now his wife, Janet, at Oxford in the mid-70s while I was working on my master's degree. They were undergraduates.
He had subsequently surfed the Thatcher financial recovery to success in the City. He told me they had a friend who was in the process of trying to dissolve a contract and needed some legal help. That was all I knew when I flew to London in May.
I met them in the private dining room of a Cypriot restaurant in Finchley. They told me to be certain I arrived on time because their friend would be there 15 minutes later, and we needed to be seated when he arrived. That gave us time to reminisce.
Exactly 15 minutes later, their friend arrived. It turned out to be George Michael.
I had no idea who he was. My taste in music has never run to the popular. But I was not there as a music critic. As it turned out, I was being auditioned for a role in a pending law suit.
He told me he was in the process of assembling a legal team to free him from his contract with Sony. Having wriggled out of an adhesion contract with Columbia records in his Wham! days, he was optimistic that Sony would yield, as well.
The initial plan was to file two lawsuits. One in London. One in Los Angeles. He did not need trial attorneys. That was already arranged. He needed someone to coordinate the litigation to have maximum impact on Sony. He was fully aware that Sony would not be the easy target Columbia was.
Even though he was only in his mid-20s, he impressed me with what he knew about contract law (including the obstacles such a law suit would face). He was self-assured, almost to the point of arrogant, but his rock star personality was never far from the table. He was one of those guys everyone wants to invite to a dinner party.
When he offered me the position, I said I would think about it.
The Culbertsons did their best to seduce me into accepting the job. I have always had a weak spot for the entertainment industry. They knew that from attending plays with me at Oxford.
So, they whisked me off to visit their world. That included a stop backstage at the Richard Ross show where they introduced me to Jason Donovan in the green room, and where we all made our first acquaintance with a rising young Conservative politician -- William Hague. And then we were off to a cast party in Mayfair where Janet introduced me to Alan Rickman. But you already know that story (my dinner with alan).*
It was heady stuff for a country boy from Powers, Oregon. But something about the project bothered me. In the end, I decided to accept a job with another firm, instead.
A couple of years later, when he was performing in Tacoma, the Culbertsons flew over and invited me to share front row seats with him. It was the only time I ever saw him at work in his chosen field.
He was a gifted song writer of ballads that were a bit sappy, but always had a core of reserved intellectuality. And he could deliver them with the talent of a natural star. Even though there was always something mysterious he withheld from his public. Like every good actor.
His name, for instance. Almost everyone knows his given name was not George Michael. It was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou. That was too much of a mouthful for English audiences. So like all of those Lindas in Mumbai customer call centers, he anglicized it.
I never did ask him why he didn't use the direct translation of the very English-sounding George Cyril because the answer was obvious. Girls would not be attracted to a guy with no money who sounded as if he designed crickets bats.**
My English doctor friend, Robert Wells, contacted me this morning to ask if I had seen the news. We reminisced a bit about roads not taken and "what might have been."
But I have never regretted not taking the job. I knew my limitations. Our egos were equally over-inflated and could not peacefully co-exist in the same room. At some point, the adventure would have ended in different set of regrets.
Even so, I was a bit sad to hear of his death at such an early age. I suspect he still had more ballads to share with the world.
What we do have are his songs that have enriched some people's lives. And I have memories of George Michael and the Culbertsons, all who are now dead. Plus the ongoing friendships of Ken Latsch and Robert Wells, who aren't.
And that is plenty for me to be content.
* -- I am fully aware that paragraph sounds far too much like something from Quentin Crisp. When accused of being a name-dropper, he responded: "Funny. The Queen said the same thing when I was lunching with her."
** -- Yes. Yes. I know. And I knew it at the time of the interview. But there was a girl stage in his dating life.