Now 54, he has come to accept his position as a role model. "I don’t mean this in a pompous way, I just mean I have a responsibility and I suppose I finally realized when I say or do something it does have a certain gravitas," he says. "So I try to look at what I do a little bit more consciously."
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The life lessons learned in the last 35 years are a recurring theme in an enthralling conversation with the thoughtful and eloquent George, who opens up about sobriety, why today’s feuds lack the style and flair of those he had back in the day, making your own mistakes and what he wants out of relationships now.
I saw you recently at the Blondie party at the Roosevelt. Are there acts like that you admire for the way they’ve persevered?
You know that saying, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family”? Bands fall into that category as well. Initially you do choose each other, but it’s by some weird cosmic osmosis, whatever the process is and you don’t even necessarily have to have anything in common with the people you’re in a band with, even if you slept with them. Look at Debbie [Harry] and Chris [Stein], myself and Jon [Moss], Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Basically it should be note to self, don’t shit where you eat. Bands are kind of complex families, it’s like the Waltons on Prozac or something. It’s one of those weird things, but I just look at it as life. It’s amazing what we as human beings go through and put up with and put ourselves through. If I look at my own life and all the crises I’ve put myself through. A lot of those were kind of self-inflicted, self-designed and you think, “Why would you do that to yourself?” I know what the difference is between then and now. Now, as a kind of sane individual I can’t think of anything I’d want to do less. But I wasn’t a sane individual and I did put myself through those things.
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I do think age has a lot to do with that.
Age, experience, but I disagree to some extent because I don’t think you get older and wiser just because you get older. There are a lot of old fools out there. If you’re lucky you get older and wiser and I suppose the best that could happen is you reach a point where you understand you not only need boundaries with other people, you also need boundaries with yourself. So some of the things I would’ve done 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even within this band, if they come to my head I just don’t do them – things I might say, opinions I might have. You gotta give them space to be themselves. You’ve also got to give yourself space to be yourself as well. And a lot of the stuff we entangle ourselves in is a way or an attempt to avoid dealing with our own shit.
You look at the things young artists say in all these Twitter feuds…
I don’t really think of those as feuds. When you compare them to feuds we used to have back in the day, myself and various people, the list is endless.
Who was your best feud?
I had a pretty fierce one with [singer/TV presenter] Pete Burns, but I’ve kind of grown to love Pete Burns now. He’s such a great Brit eccentric -- I just have a lot of affection for him now and we kind of transcended our youthful differences. We were pretty scathing, but it was kind of funny as well. He gave as good as he got.
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That’s what I meant by best feud.
Even on Twitter, occasionally somebody will say something very scathing and abusive about me, but it will make me laugh and I’m happy to laugh at good humor and good wit. But generally what I do now is I just don’t even engage. I find, surprisingly, people are quite nice on social networks. You get the odd one that might make a comment, but generally I’m quite surprised how nice people are.
Did you get advice when you were younger?
People probably did give me wonderful advice when I was younger and I probably just thought, “Silly old fool, what do you know?” That’s why I try to avoid when people say, “Do you have any advice?” I don’t want to waste my time giving advice to people who don’t want it. Usually people make changes in their lives when they’re in a crisis or they hit rock bottom and usually it takes the individual to come and say, “I need your help.” That’s when you really need to offer people help, because once they ask you they’re making an admission there’s something wrong. Doing that through the media is titillating for journalists and it gives great headlines but I don’t know how much it actually helps anybody.
What I was getting at earlier is people usually get more comfortable as they get older.
If you’re lucky. In my case, I’ve become a lot more conscious about what I do to myself and what I do to other people. When I was 19 or 20 and I was doing my thing, I can’t sit here and say I had this strong political agenda, I was literally just being myself. I was doing my own thing and full of my own self-importance in a lot of ways, whereas now I guess I do think a bit more about the effect I’m going to have on the world. And I don’t mean this in a pompous way, I just mean I have a responsibility and I suppose I finally realized when I say or do something it does have a certain gravitas. So I try to look at what I do a little bit more consciously. I’m a practicing Buddhist, I chant every day and that definitely helps me to get things in perspective. I approach everything I do now with a lot more joy and satisfaction. I get excited about what I do now, whereas I think at the height of all the craziness I wouldn’t say I wasn’t grateful, I just didn’t have to be necessarily because everything just happened. One minute I was a club kid, the next minute I was famous all over the world.
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From what I’ve talked about with other artists though is once you go through those downs you do appreciate the success more because you realize it is not permanent.
Onstage obviously we’re Culture Club -- it’s me, George, Jon, Roy and Mikey, but the rest of the guys are my band. All the other guys are people I’ve worked with for either 25 years or some of them quite recent. And I’ve got some fucking amazing people on stage with me. I really do think about what I record in a very different way. And I was thinking last night about how much I haven’t done. It’s weird that’s come about at a time when records are so unvalued and don’t sell anything. And I think in a way all of that gives you this incredible freedom to kind of do what you want to do musically because there’s no one saying, “Well, if you do that you won’t sell any records.” You're not gonna sell any records anyway, so there’s kind of almost a liberating thing about that nowadays.
Is there a timeline for when people will hear new music?
There are a few songs we do in the set, it’s coming. Really at the moment I’m kind of building a platform for myself doing various things and I just want to release the album so it will get heard. I don’t want to just open up the tour and put it on the Internet for one night. So I’m doing this reality show (chronicling his move from London to Los Angeles), I have other things in the pipeline and it would be smarter for us to put the record out when I have a social presence rather than relying on a little bit of nostalgia and the goodwill of the press and sporadic radio play. I really love this record, I think it’s a really great Culture Club record, I think it’s one of the best records we’ve ever made, it just feels like us, but less uptight. One of my favorite songs in the show is a song called “Different Man” that I wrote about Sly Stone. People have never heard it and they’re fucking loving it. People are really responding to it, it’s got such a great groove to it.
What is the Sly Stone connection?
It’s a song about recovery, it’s a song about where some people don’t and some people do. There’s an amazing interview with him where he said, “There are many things I regret, but I can’t think of one right now.” That is such a ballsy statement and typical of Sly Stone. I could never say that now because there are many things I regret and I’m kind of glad I have regrets because it’s tied into what I said about having boundaries with myself. But having said that the world wouldn’t be what it is without people like Sly Stone. Sly Stone made such a huge contribution to the good feeling in the universe and I love him as a singer. The lyrics are quite strong, “He was living in a car on the side of the road…bleeding on the walk of fame where nobody knows his name.” And what we’re saying is you can be different, but you have to change. That’s the thing, it’s not a criticism, just an observation 'cause there but for the grace of God.
Does it feel that way to you?
Absolutely. One of the biggest revelations in my life was I have a choice, which may sound ridiculous to a sane human being. For me it was like, “I have a choice, what the fuck? I never knew that.” That was a big turning point for me. It can all be so different depending on the choices that you make. You wonder what Sly Stone would be doing now.
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It’s interesting you say you learned you had a choice. Obviously that wasn’t the case for everyone, as evidenced in the recent documentaries on Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
Some people don’t want to be here, it’s as simple as that. Addiction is about not being in your life, not being in your body and not being in the world. You get so far into it that you kind of confuse it and obviously if you’re lucky enough to get it back to a place where you go, “Life is beautiful, life is great, life is worth enjoying,” then, of course, your perspective comes completely different. And having done that myself I can look at my former self and go, “I don’t know who the fuck you were. I don’t know what you thought you were doing because you were having a fit time.” Now I’m having a great time. The other thing, for me, is I didn’t realize you could invest in happiness. I have discovered that the real joy comes from kind of small shit, mundane stuff. That’s the real pleasure, particularly if you have a life full of fireworks and extremities and sound effects, you find that simply going for a coffee with some friends or having a decent conversation or a nice meal can be so much more pleasurable than other stuff.
When you’re in the world I’m in sometimes you have to remember that when you see your friends you need to ask them what they’ve been doing and you need to grow up and learn your life isn’t necessarily more interesting than other people’s. Because you speak about yourself a lot you can start thinking that’s kind of normal and the sort of thing you should do everywhere and sometimes it’s good to have this little voice that goes, “Shut the fuck up.” (Looks at Chris Isaak poster) Such a great artist, I did a bootleg of “Wicked Game.”
That whole album San Francisco Days was phenomenal, that was his big break-up album and he really put himself out there. The liner notes were a letter he wrote to his ex.
Having done a lot of that myself I feel like now it’s quite nice and liberating not to do that. I talk about this on stage. There’s a new song called “Like I Used To,” and that’s all about I don’t do emotion like I used to. I don’t fall apart in that way, I don’t wantS anyone in my life who’s gonna make me feel like that, I really don’t. I want passion, I don’t even mind a bit of indifference, but I certainly don’t want fucking pain and jealousy. I would run a mile if I met someone like that now.