September 5, 1946– Farrokh Bulsara:
“I always knew I was a star and now, the rest of the world seems to agree with me.”
The Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert For Aids Awareness held at Wembley Stadium and broadcast on April 20th, 1992, featured performances by David Bowie, George Michael, Elizabeth Taylor, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Metallica, Elton John, and Annie Lennox. It was watched by more than a billion people worldwide, about 25 percent of the population of the planet at the time, including me.
Most music fans and critics agree that Queen’s gig at Live Aid in 1985 was the best live performance in Rock ‘n’ Roll history. Queen spent more weeks on the UK charts than any other band, including The Beatles and Rolling Stones.
I think Freddie Mercury’s voice is probably the finest instrument ever to sing Rock Music; it is truly operatic and astonishing in its range and power. Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are The Champions are two of the greatest Rock compositions of all time. Queen has sold more than 500 million albums. They are campy, theatrical and electrifying.
Mercury could be tender and reaching, aching and pained, upbeat and confident. The voluminous discography of his time with Queen’s 20-year career (1971-1991) features songs with elements of each: You’re My Best Friend, Spread Your Wings, Under Pressure, Who Wants To Live Forever?, Another One Bites The Dust, Bicycle Race, I’m Going Slightly Mad.
Growing up, Mercury liked singing Blues, but his influences were much broader: Frédéric Chopin, Noël Coward, Wolfgang and His Amazing Amadeus Mozarts, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, Robert Plant, Aretha Franklin, they all had an impact, plus the over-the-top emotionalism of his two favorite stars, Jimi Hendrix and Liza Minnelli loomed large in his own style.
It was Mercury who insisted on the name “Queen” when the band first formed. Mercury:
“It’s ever so regal. It was a strong name, very universal and very immediate. It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations, but that was just one facet of it.”
More important, the band’s lead singer also got a new name. He was no longer Fred Bulsara. He became Freddie Mercury, a reference to the Roman messenger of the Gods. Queen guitarist Brian May:
“I think changing his name was part of him assuming this different skin. I think it helped him to be this person that he wanted to be. The Bulsara person was still there, but for the public he was going to be this different character, this god.”
Although nearly everything about Queen was gay, including the band’s name, Mercury never admitted to being gay and he hid his HIV status. He really was The Great Pretender. He even denied his ethnicity. Mercury’s parents were Parsi Zoroastrian, Persians who immigrated from Iran to India in order to escape persecution by Muslims.
Mercury was a curious man, with a brash and brazen personality long before he accepted that he was gay. He had a girlfriend, Mary Austin, when he was a youth. He continued to call her the great love of his life, even after he was in a longtime relationship with another man. He left his estate and his ashes to her. When Mercury told her he was bisexual, Austin replied: “No Freddie, you”re gay”.
You have to remember, Mercury became famous in the 1970s and 1980s, two decades when Britain and the USA were not welcoming to gay people, and with the new plague emboldening the religious right-wing crazies.
After he was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, Mercury hid the results from nearly everyone and went into seclusion. When asked by the press, he denied that he was sick. In November 1991, Mercury finally issued a statement admitting his condition:
“Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV-positive and I have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”
Mercury was just 45 years old when he was taken by the plague. At his funeral, Aretha Franklin sang, and soprano Montserrat Caballé performed a Verdi aria. He was cremated and the location of his ashes has never been disclosed.
California’s future governor, Gavin Newsom, was just a bit unhappy when that orange tiny-handed vulgarian’s campaign used the classic We Are The Champions at the GOP’s fun-filled convention in Cleveland in 2016 July:
“His music was played at a convention where the most anti-LGBT policy platform was adopted. His music, which he famously labored over, which was intricate and complex, was played at a convention where Mike Pence, a man who has spent his political career actively looking for opportunities to pass laws that would give others the legal framework to discriminate against LGBT people, sat comfortably in a VIP box. I’m not sure what Freddie Mercury would think of his music being played at the RNC convention, but I do know that if he weren’t a famous rock star, he would have probably been greeted by a wall, a really high wall, because he represented everything that Pence and Donald Trump are scared of.”Gavin Newsom
The 11-minute operatic Bohemian Rhapsody has been covered by artists as diverse as Elton John, Axl Rose, and Panic! At The Disco, and it is on most “Greatest Songs Of All Time” lists. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2004. Other Mercury songs have been covered by Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, My Chemical Romance, Linda Ronstadt, Elaine Page, Michael Bublé, Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins, Chris Isaak, Jay Z, Dwight Yoakam, Stone Temple Pilots, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Lil’ Wayne, and Shirley Bassey.
I was prepared not to like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) the biopic about Mercury and the formation of Queen, starring Rami Malek as Mercury, but enjoy it I did, especially Malek, whose inhabiting of Mercury goes beyond the famously prominent teeth. He taps into Mercury’s ferocious energy, particularly in the concert sequences, all of which give you the electric sense of what it might have been like to be there in person.
The reluctance of the filmmakers to deal directly with Mercury’s queerness is such a disappointment because his sexuality is so connected to the art of Queen that they cannot be separated out. Refusing to acknowledge his gayness as an artistic force and instead suggest that this is where Mercury who went astray is a deep disservice to Mercury and to potential Queen fans. Mercury loved Elvis, opera, music hall, costumes, Victorian England, and lots of sex. Gay expression equals liberation, and there is sexual exhilaration in Mercury’s once-in-a-century voice.
When Malek was contracted to play Mercury, he didn’t really know Queen. Malek worked with a movement coach and had to learn to talk and sing with prosthetic teeth. After the filming wrapped this spring, Malek said that he became a “Queen super-fan”:
“I see Freddie as the best performer of all time. I never ceased to be astonished by this man.”
Mercury would have turned 74 years old today. If he had survived, and it wasn’t the age of Covid, I believe he would still be touring, recording and still wowing his fans. If that seems improbable, just ask Rolling Stones, Cher, Robert Plant, Bette Midler, Paul McCartney, Debbie Harry, or my husband about putting out when you’re over 70.
Theatrical, brilliant, excessive and doomed; I miss him to this very day.