In 1979, Rod Stewart wasn’t on my musical radar. I was into Dylan, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, old ‘Blues’ and anything angry or melancholy.
I was 16 and in a state of perpetual, irritated bewilderment.
One afternoon, bored and looking for something different to listen to, I went scoffing through my parent’s LP collection. I noticed a vivid pink record called Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits, and put it on.
I thought Maggie May was pretty good, but didn’t think much of the rest.
Then an electric piano version of Walk On The Wild Side started and I was about to dismiss it as a pop copy, when I caught the words:
In these days of changing ways
and so-called liberated days
a story comes to mind of a friend of mine;
Georgie boy was gay I guess
nothin’ more or nothin’ less
the kindest guy I ever knew.
The song had my attention, partly because it sounded genuine and partly because I kept getting called gay or ‘a poof’ at my new school.
I was not only new, but very thin, pale, with a pretty face and a suspiciously strong interest in ‘art’. Fortunately, I was quickly able to escape the homophobic bullies because I was good at sports, football in particular, but at first I was definitely a target.
Others were not so fortunate.
I witnessed plenty of violence towards a couple of other ‘arty poofs’ at my new school, and definitely didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. It made me feel sick, angry and upset.
My childhood had been spent around artists, poets, performers and other extravagant people – many of whom were most definitely and outwardly gay – and I felt no fear of difference.
So, the Killing Of Georgie, really affected me – as much as Masters Of War or Strange Fruit had. It tapped into my developing sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Violence borne out of fear, ignorance and prejudice was plain ‘wrong’.
I thought it was a really great song, and was impressed that Rod Stewart had written it himself. I had him dismissed as the embarrassing guy from ‘Top Of The Pops’, prancing about singing, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.
Clearly, he had another side – and one I respected.
A victim of these gay days it seems.
Six years later, back in England, I was stunned by something I saw on the TV.
A dark, ominous sky. A volcano erupts. Fiery, Hellish, cascading rocks part to reveal a tombstone being chiselled.
“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” dooms John Hurt, “it is a deadly disease and there is no known cure.”
The word chiselled into the tombstone is: AIDS.
“Don’t die of ignorance,” runs the slogan, which is kind of ironic, given that it was generally suggested to affect only gay men.
At the time, I worked in a warehouse in Portishead, outside Bristol. A few days after those AIDS TV adverts were broadcast, one of the guys from work came in, badly beaten up. He had been coming out of a bar in Clifton with his boyfriend, and they were both attacked, because they were gay.
Several of his work colleagues refused to sit or eat with him after those adverts and he left his job shortly afterwards.
I remember the then-Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton, referring to people “swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making”.
This was also the time that my Brother ‘came out’.
He was bullied at school, ridiculed, beaten up, invited to parties and refused entry – because he was gay.
In 1986, he tried to take his own life as a result of the endless brutality. It was only because the paramedic acted so quickly that he survived.
Soon after, his house was broken into, trashed, and ‘AIDS SCUM’ painted on the wall outside in red paint. The Police took no action and no investigation was ever carried out.
Glad To Be Gay
Rod Stewart wrote the Killing Of Georgie in 1976, about the murder of a friend of his in 1974. The date was changed purely for rhyming purposes.
It didn’t come particularly easily to him:
“I deliberate over the lyrics, I really do. I’ll come up with one line in a day, and then it might be a couple of days before I come up with the rhyming line. It’s never been easy for me.”
but he retains a good deal of pride about having written it:
“…there are songs like ‘The Killing of Georgie’ that I’m very proud of, you know, written in ’76, it was a topic that not many people had dealt with.”
The song has a beauty and power that seems to come from truth. Stewart has said very little about it:
“That was a true story about a gay friend of The Faces. He was especially close to me and Mac. But he was knifed or shot, I can’t remember which. That was a song I wrote totally on my own over the chord of open E.“
At the time of the record’s release, Rod Stewart was the UK’s most super-hetero lothario ever. He was a major, major star and I think it was an admirable move to put it out.
The motivation to write the song may come from the fact that Stewart was ‘discovered’ and promoted by the famously gay Long John Baldry:
“It’s probably because I was surrounded by gay people at that stage. I had a gay PR man, a gay manager. Everyone around me was gay. I don’t know whether that prompted me into it or not. I think it was a brave step, but it wasn’t a risk. You can’t write a song like that unless you’ve experienced it. But it was a subject that no one had approached before. And I think it still stands up today.“
I think he is quite right to be proud of the song. It has some beautiful lines that have stayed with me all my life:
His mother’s tears fell in vain
the afternoon George tried to explain
that he needed love like all the rest.
Pa said there must be a mistake
how can my son not be straight
after all I’ve said and done for him.
He said “Never wait or hesitate
Get in kid, before it’s too late
You may never get another chance
‘Cos youth’s a mask but it don’t last
live it long and live it fast”
Georgie was a friend of mine.
The Killing Of Georgie is one of a few comets that soar through my musical universe – songs that cemented and encouraged a youthful, hopeful sense of acceptance and tolerance.
I struggle to retain it on a daily basis, but feel it’s worth the effort.
It wasn’t just the subject that made the song shine for me, either – it was that Rod Stewart wrote it. It was unexpected. And that fills me with a great optimism for my species.
It reminds me that great empathy and humanity can reside in anyone, and that any judgements or prejudices I may hold are completely and utterly ridiculous.