George Michael’s song “Jesus to a Child” was the first single off of his 1996 album Older, and it was the first of his songs that came out after I had begun listening systematically to pop music. Even at the time, this song though well-constructed seemed different, not like his earlier hit singles like “Faith” or “Freedom ’90”. Little did I know at a time that this song, like the album it came from, was probably the most high-profile tribute to queer grief in pop music at the time, perhaps ever. This song is a moving lyrical tribute to his lover Anselmo Feleppa, another victim of the pandemic.
Kindness in your eyes
I guess you heard me cry
You smiled at me like Jesus to a child
I’m blessed I know
Heaven sent and heaven stole
You smiled at me like Jesus to a child
And what have I learned from all this pain
I thought I never feel the same about anyone or anything again
But now I know
Johann Hari’s 2011 Huffington Post interview with Michael captures the signal importance of Feleppa in Michael’s life, the hugely positive impact of the relationship and the devastating impact of his death just two years after they met.
In a concert in Brazil one night, he spotted “a really cute guy” in the crowd, and “he was so distracting I actually avoided that end of the stage.” But afterwards Anselmo Felleppa, the Brazillian dress-designer face-from-the-crowd, came to George’s dressing room – and changed his life. “It’s very hard to be proud of your sexuality when it hasn’t given you any joy,” he says, “but once you have found somebody you really love… it’s not so tough.” Anselmo “broke down my Victorian restraint, and really showed me how to live, how to relax, how to enjoy life.” It was his first slow, tender sexual relationship with a man, he explains: “I was shagging around but I had so little experience with men that my sex life was so ridiculously inadequate for me, right until I met Anselmo really.” But it was more than that: “He was the first person I had ever loved, and I discovered he loved me too.” Even now, there is a hint of quiet incredulity in his voice.
But then – six months into their relationship – Anselmo discovered his blood was infected with the HIV virus. The sour grief that gripped George gave him – he winces at the irony – one of the best performances of his career, when he played the Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert as Anselmo began to die. “Can you try to imagine being any lonelier than that?” he asks. “Try to imagine that you fought with own sexuality to the point that you’ve lost half of your twenties. And you’ve finally found a real love, and six months in it’s devastated. In 1991 it was really terrifying news. I thought I could have the disease too. I couldn’t go through it with my family because I didn’t know how to share it with them – they didn’t even know I was gay. I couldn’t tell my closest friends, because Anselmo didn’t want me to. So I’m standing on stage, paying tribute to one of my childhood idols who died of that disease… the isolation was just crazy.”
The day after Anselmo’s brain haemorrhaged away, a stricken, incoherent George finally told his parents he was gay. “They didn’t even know he existed. The thing that really killed my mum was the idea that I had gone through that without anybody,” he says. While George’s life had always been shot through with depression – “it runs in my family, I’m sure it’s genetic” – it was only now, in the early 1990s, that he descended into “a deep black hole” he thought he would never escape. He made the classic depressive’s mistake of trying to warm himself with cannabis and ecstasy. His mother’s sudden death from cancer floored him, and “it got to a point where I was smoking 25 joints a day”.
Jane Moore’s 2004 GQ interview goes into more detail, quoting Michael’s fears that Feleppa did not seek the best possible treatment for his infection because he feared the negative publicity. Feleppa died, far from Michael, when Michael was scarcely 30. I can barely imagine.
I swear I remember mentions of the press of Michael having something to do with Feleppa at the time of the release of “Jesus to a Child”, even mentioning how this was a tribute to the man without mentioning the significance of the man. The significance of the song, though, is clear: Michael was paying tribute to the man he loved, the man who aved him and the man whose loss prostrated him. Of all the early music groups active in the first half of the 1990s, only the Pet Shop Boys come close to this, in their faintly elegiac cover of “Go West” or their powerful “Being Boring”. Their approaches, though real and definitely meaningful, were more oblique than Michael’s.
What else can I do but congratulate him? Michael mattered.