Last year, the brilliant Mikal Gilmore wrote a tender, heartfelt piece about Queen that encapsulated what kind of band they were and carefully unravelled the nightmare that saw their end. The subhead was the best summation you could imagine: theatrical, brilliant, excessive and doomed. Of course, they were a million other things too, and there was not only no other band like them, but their leader was… well, what adjectives are left to describe him? I thought of that article this week, in the lead-up to seeing (half of) them live on Sunday January 18th with Adam Lambert, who is going to do a fine job, because he gets it; his American Idol audition was Bohemian Rhapsody.
So why I am writing this? I’m not even certain I want to write anything down for permanence, opening up those old wounds, let alone have anyone read it. I have so many memories and thoughts swirling around my head, some of which are profoundly strange, so I feel uncertain about whether anyone should read this, even if it is a personal catharsis. This band are the most personal to me, more than any other, and their emotional effect is indescribable, more so than Bowie. Perhaps it’s because he’s still here, even if I don’t get to gaze upon that beautiful face in real life anymore. Perhaps it’s because I went through a trauma with them in a way I never have with anyone else. I have never loved a band like I love Queen – that first, teenage, love, right? It never goes away and it is never surpassed. The Beatles and Stones and Zeppelin and The Doors and Dylan and all the rest are the bands of my parents, first. Queen never were. They were mine. My dad doesn’t get it at all. He finds them ludicrous, overblown, preposterous and irritating – he is right on all counts. I learned, recently, that it’s Brian May’s playing that lies at the crux of his allergy, which is a bit of a problem because his sound is Queen as much as the voice. He couldn’t exactly explain what his problem with Brian is, something about wringing the notes out, the very timbre of the sound of his playing is like Marmite to dad, which is funny in a way because he loves old fashioned guitar playing and in July will make me sit through 2 hours of Santana’s scrunchy-faced, over-wrought, endless soloing.
I think (hope) he recognises that Queen have written some great pop/rock songs, but he’s formed in his head a pre-conceived notion that will not change, despite being based only on the ‘famous’ singles they’ve released. If I told him I’d discovered this awesome prog band from the 70s he’d never heard of, and sent him a copy of Queen II with a fake name, he would love it if he thought it was by someone else, for its sheer musicality and inventiveness. The core of their appeal, I think, is that there’s something for everyone. They were wonderfully hit and miss, and god knows there is some real dreck in their catalogue, entire albums with only 2 or 3 good songs. But when they hit it, boy did they hit it. Only Bowie has attempted as many genres, which is probably why he fancied them as a perfect fit for Under Pressure, which let’s face it is a pretty strange record. You know it well, but if you actually listen intently it’s most oddly structured, has no chorus and faintly disturbing and doomy subject matter. They’ve done it all – big pomp rock (what is more ridiculous than We Are The Champions?), massive stadium pop tunes (Radio Ga Ga), vaudeville (Old Fashioned Lover Boy), prog, classical and operatic madness (all in one song, you know which), gorgeous love songs (You’re My Best Friend), novelty records (Bicycle Race), Elvis-pastiche-rockabilly (Crazy Little Thing Called Love), fairly heavy metal (Sheer Heart Attack, Stone Cold Crazy and lots more), even pop funk, Moroder-style, on the not-as-bad-as-you-think Hot Space album (Dancer).
Freddie used to say that they were the most preposterous band that ever lived. I think what sets them apart is sense of humour; a bit like Jethro Tull, and unlike other prog luminaries (yer Genesis, ELP), they knew they were outlandish and it was all rather done with a wink (just give a glance to the video for I Want To Break Free). You may be surprised to hear me say they were prog but for much of the 70s, certainly their first five records, they absolutely were. Every member was a songwriter and had an ear for a great pop song, each contributing plenty to the canon. I forget exactly when I fell for them, but I think it was around the time of The Miracle’s release in mid-1989. I was just starting to get into heavier rock and I Want It All was a big record for me, as was the follow-up single Breakthru (its video is still tremendously fun). I had a friend at the time who loved them and I’m certain she was partly responsible for introducing me to their music. I couldn’t take my eyes off the singer and I fell in love with the brilliant musicians around him instantly – I marvelled at the guitarist’s mastery, ideas and ability to control a song so completely, and of course, I had the biggest crush on the drummer… what a pretty boy he was back in the day. The bassist always seemed out of place, like he’d rather have been a provincial Home Counties chartered surveyor, though he certainly knew his way around the instrument and penned some brilliant songs as well. When he retired from music in 1993 and retreated completely from any kind of contact, except financial, with Roger and Brian, absolutely nobody was surprised.
When they went one man down, on November 24th 1991, they all agreed the band was over – but it just wouldn’t die. After all, what else can touring musicians do? They don’t know how to, nor do they wish to, do anything else. Remember also that they had missed out on the last five years of the band’s touring lifespan and hadn’t played a gig since 1986, at Knebworth. Oh for a DVD of that gig… but having had two shows already filmed in entirety on that tour (Budapest and Wembley) they chose not to film it so it’s lost to the mists of time forever. They wanted to play live again, which is understandable, so in 2005 recruited the very macho, heterosexual, bluesy ex-Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers to front. I thought it was a huge, nay gargantuan, mistake. You don’t have to be gay to sing for Queen (and indeed Freddie himself liked a bit of both in his younger days) but it helps. You have to acknowledge the thoroughly bonkers, camp, heavy and commercial songs and persona that came before you. Doing it straight, no pun intended, was not the right approach. A leaden, lumpen, and worse than anything else, boring set of live shows, and a badly received album, set the band back. I also felt that the We Will Rock You musical, though lucrative and hugely successful, was damaging to the legacy, not least because it’s such a piece of shit. The songs are what they are, and nicely delivered and staged, but my god, you can barely believe the guy who wrote it once did The Young Ones and Blackadder. I suppose, however, it’s kept the band in people’s minds; they are bigger now, it seems, and more sewn into culture than they were during the 18 years (yes, only 18) they were making records.
Another example of poor legacy management, and one which I don’t think much of either, has been to haul out the last demos of songs and work them round, like The Doors did with An American Prayer. Not a lot of quality control going on though when the poor fucker doing the singing is just getting out as many notes as he can until he drops. Last July I did get to stand on the very spot in Montreux he sang his last in (the famous Smoke On The Water casino, now turned into a small but wonderful Queen museum), which was almost unbearably moving. However, I have little desire to listen to bits of songs magically discovered from some old demo (the truly awful There Must Be More To Life Than This, a duet with Michael Jackson, proves beyond doubt that these things should be left on the cutting room floor); let the albums rest as they are. Innuendo was a fine enough swan song, equal parts overdone, heartbreakingly sad, funny, majestic and filler. It was, in fact, when Innuendo, the title track, came out (entering the charts at number 1, which is common now but was almost unheard of in 1991) that I became so devoted. It is an absurd epic, an ambitious and intense six minutes of ageless prog opera (it even includes a flamenco section rendered by Brian and Steve Howe from Yes, it’s that arrogant!) and to this day it makes me walk a little taller when I hear it on the iPod. I bought the album, on cassette, the day it came out. It was shortly after its release when the black clouds started to gather and trouble began to loom, with accompanying whispers and rumours and worries. In early 1991, I was watching the video for Headlong on TOTP when mum came in and told me, for she was as blunt as the day is long, how ill Freddie looked, how gaunt. I was a pretty naïve 14-year-old, quite sheltered, and I said: don’t be daft, he’s fine! What did I know? Absolutely nothing it turned out. I marvel now, and shake my head, just thinking about it because you can see so very crystal clearly exactly the progression of AIDS just from watching the band’s video clips. How could I have not seen it?
He was unlucky enough to have gotten it at a time before the treatments and medications changed the lives of so many millions of people, who are now living long lives with the disease. If he’d contracted HIV even just a few years later he’d probably still be here. It’d be him marrying his handsome Irish partner Jim Hutton, a shy, quiet barber (also now gone, to cancer 5 years ago; if you have the stomach for it, here’s his account of the last days, grab a tissue) instead of Elton and David. It’s possible to make an estimate for when it all began as being somewhere in early 1987, just after he had left Munich (he’d spent several years living there, the city being famous for some of the most bacchanalian gay nightlife in all of Europe) for London. You can see it all, laid bare in the videos he made: the early drugs like AZT could cause bloating, which you can see in 1987 (The Great Pretender), 1988 (the fantastically ridiculous Barcelona) and up to May 1989 (I Want It All). He even grew a bit of a beard to hide the weight gain, which nobody, I don’t suppose, thought was a sign of anything. By Breakthru he is still obviously in very good health but slowly the weight is starting to go. He gets slimmer, slowly, as each video goes by: The Invisible Man, Scandal and The Miracle, by which time he’s certainly looking slender, but still not ill, as such. But, by February 1990, when he made his final public appearance at the Brits, where the band were to receive an honorary award, the truth was naked for all to see. Clean-shaven, dressed in powder blue silk, he looks frail and sick, a completely different human from the master of Live Aid, 4½ years before. And it would get a lot worse.
There had been no video for Innuendo (released in January 1991) and the rumours, among those who knew what they were looking for, began to mount. So the band must have thought, fuck it, let’s just make videos and let history record the truth. The video for Headlong, filmed in late 1990 but released as the third single, concealed nothing but he was still energetic, at least. Then, the monochrome I’m Going Slightly Mad, filmed in February 1991, with Freddie in wig and make-up, also hid nothing (though he was certainly very mobile and expressive). The Show Must Go On, the next single, released in October, had no clip to sell it; Brian’s lyrics are among the most defiantly moving I’ve ever heard, while the vocals were recorded in one take, incredibly. The final video, These Are The Days Of Our Lives (written by Roger, vocalising impending loss and death in the most tender way), was filmed on May 30th, though it was released in December. Finally, there it all was, out there in public – no denying it now. It shows the truth: a man in the last months of his life who can barely stand; it had to be filmed in black and white because the colour rushes were just beyond words, almost impossible to watch. I still find it painful to watch the original video, and when writing this I got in and found the link as fast as I could, choosing not to watch it, because it tends to leave me in tears.
For me, it was a very confusing time, because on some level I think I knew something was wrong (or maybe I really was in complete denial), but I had no knowledge of AIDS; in the very early 90s, most people didn’t know what was really going on, and teenagers certainly had less information and education on these things than most. We had no idea of the entire generations of men being taken in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The tens of thousands in London and San Francisco and New York and countless other cities wasting away in front of their families and friends. The hundreds of funerals friends of mine went to, one after the other, every week. Freddie Mercury was simply one of the 39 million people who have died since the epidemic began. It wasn’t like governments cared: Reagan famously didn’t even say the word AIDS until 1985, by which time thousands were dead. Only gays though, who didn’t vote for him anyway, so it was hardly a surprise that his administration openly laughed at people even asking questions about it as thousands lay dying and in need of medical attention.
The tabloids have pretty much always been filled with craven, judgmental, misogynist, homophobic invective. But what they would find fit to report today is a cakewalk compared to how they treated Freddie Mercury as he had a few months of life left. Instead of going to die in Switzerland, a place he had a beautiful home in, right on the lake in Montreux, he wanted to spend his last days in England, his adopted country. I always saw him as this rather posh, endearingly reserved (very few filmed interviews exist, but in them you can see he was as shy as he could be outlandish), very English bloke, and didn’t know at first he was actually born on a small island (then called Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania) off the coast of Africa and grew up in India, educated in a boarding school (hence the posh accent), before his well-off Gujarati parents fled a revolutionary uprising (to glamourous Feltham, Middlesex) in the early 60s. Mind you, as Zanzibar was an England protectorate he was a British citizen from birth. There was nobody more English in spirit and persona than Freddie.
So, as he wanted to die here, the tabloid press embarked upon a sickening game of hide and seek, as they tried to catch him out, the lying queer, and out him as a sick man, punished by his own promiscuity. To what end? Sales, I suppose, and it became quite the game of cat and mouse as he left home briefly in the early autumn for doctors’ appointments and the like. The final photo caught him on Harley Street less than 2 months before he died – he didn’t leave his house after that. The vernacular they used to sneer and speculate about his health was deeply unpleasant and would never be employed now, even by a piece of shit rag like the Daily Mail. He had no right, it seemed, to live his remaining days in peace. The paparazzi camped outside his Kensington house, where the curtains had to remain drawn for fear of a last, profitable, photo. He had never sought sympathy, and never complained about his lot; he just got on with it. When he told the band, who immediately closed ranks around him, he had said, paraphrasing, “rumours about my health are true but I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to make music until I fucking drop”. That’s what he was like, very matter of fact, unrepentant, and without a shred of self-pity.
Some AIDS activists attacked him for remaining so silent about his illness (and for leaving everything to Mary Austin, his lifelong confidante and partner for six years in the late 60s/early 70s, rather than the man he lived with, who she cut out of all arrangements even as he nursed Freddie to his end; it was a different time, as we say a lot these days) but he didn’t owe anybody the grim details of his health status. The press hounded him to his grave anyway. The Daily Star, and this is the one I really remember, put out a cover a few weeks before his death. It said: “Why are you hiding, Freddie?” The private business of celebrities being in the ‘public interest’ is not a new phenomenon, but that was way over the line. The Sun’s “Tragic face of Freddie Mercury” cover was just another example of his treatment. The same paper, in 1987, had bought a tell-all interview from his assistant Paul Prenter (everyone in the band suspected him as a snake from day one, but Freddie was a trusting type and it broke his heart when Prenter betrayed him; he was paid £32,000 for his betrayal, I hope it was worth it) with the charming headline: “AIDS kills Freddie’s 2 lovers”. He was 45 when he died, which to me seemed ancient at the time. Now it seems like no age at all. To see this virile, masculine, vibrant, tough, resilient, brave, proud man, so full of life, taken down to a bony husk is, to this day, a painful thing to even think about, let alone express out loud, like I’m doing now.
If I sound appalled and ashamed of the tabloid press, I am. He deserved better but there were papers to be sold, and you can’t imagine the virulently homophobic fear-mongering that took place back in those days, with John Hurt’s words on that TV ad terrifying the life out of everybody. I remember the final turn of events like it was yesterday. I was supposed to go and see a Senser gig with my parents on the Saturday night, November 23rd 1991, and for some reason I had started to feel nervous about the news, probably because of the tabloids and their coverage. I was checking Teletext obsessively and up it popped, clear as day: I have AIDS, says Mercury. Even now, in my mind’s eye, I can see the words, in capital letters, on the TV. Frozen in time, in horror, forever.
The rest of the weekend was a blur. I didn’t want to go out, so I just kept reading it over and over. I spent Sunday in shock, watching videos, not knowing what was to come, and so soon. I wondered how long he had left, months maybe? On the Monday morning, November 25th, dad knocked on my bedroom door, came in and sat on the edge of my bed and told me he had died. I refused to go to school and spent the day crying, watching the morning shows and their tributes, my youthful innocence destroyed and turned to ash. Mum bought me the Sun’s commemorative issue. I hadn’t realised the gravity of their treatment of him yet, and I had to read everything. I went to school the day after and this bitch, Laura Edelson (she was quite the entitled cow; her dad was a millionaire businessman and director of Man United), backed me up against a wall by the lockers and laughed at me, remarking that I was stupid because I was upset about a stranger dying. Everyone at school knew I was two things: a City fan and a Queen fan. She didn’t understand how anyone could be upset about losing someone they’d never met. So much for empathy – I hope she’s a nicer person now than the bully she was then. I escaped and found a friend of mine, Louise, who was the only other Queen fan in the school, as far as I knew, and we had a cry together.
I was a fan club member by then, I’d joined at least a year before. Every week the club president, a lovely lady called Jacky Smith, who has been interviewed for Queen documentaries and wrote the band’s official biography, would leave an answerphone message for fans to listen to with the news of the week (oh, the pre-internet days!). I had called the number a few months before and she picked up; we ended up chatting every few weeks for a couple of months after that. I remember so clearly asking her if she thought I would ever see the band live. She said she was sure I would. And I can’t help think of that conversation now, as 24 years later I finally get to see them live, in whatever form. She took time out of her day to comfort a worried teenager, I now think, because she must have known that he didn’t have long left. Though not public knowledge, then, it was, I am certain now, obvious to ‘adults’ exactly what was wrong. I did get to see ¾ of the band live actually at the tribute concert in April 1992, having made a pilgrimage to the fan club offices to get my tickets the day before. That was a special day, one I’ll never forget. There was a great sense of closure, of saying goodbye, and that the whole world was watching and we, Queen fans, must do him proud and sing as loud as we could to make up for the inadequacies of most of the singers attempting to sing his songs. Nobody can ‘be’ him, as that gig proved. A few vodkas, a couple of cigarettes and some vocal exercises was as much as he ever did for a pre-gig regime. There were no half-measures, he was just ready. He was born to do it.
This all cuts so deep with me, reminding me of my own loss of innocence, of that first feeling of losing a stranger and it mattering, and it’s all about to come to a head this weekend. I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for this gig. I know exactly what it’s going to be like. I know exactly how I will feel. The tribute concert was an odd, overwhelming occasion, but it did not, for a second, feel like what a Queen show must have felt like – because it wasn’t trying to be one. It was something else. This show can’t really get close to how it would have been to see them for real, but it’s as much as I will ever get. How different the outcome of this band could have been, but this is how it is now. My only chance is here.