August 22nd, 2012 | Published in TCS Reviews
By Pete Roche
His was—and remains—one of the most powerful voices in rock. His flamboyance and sexually-charged stagecraft redefined the concept of “front man.” His songs helped Queen sell over 300 million records worldwide and play to record-setting audiences around the globe.
But Freddie Mercury spent the majority of his life torn by guilt, riddled with confusion, and vexed over his own identity. And while Queen’s “Great Pretender” lived the life of a superstar, enjoying the concomitant spoils of success—including drugs and promiscuity—he couldn’t openly come out as a gay man for fear of hurting his Zoroastrian-practicing parents.
Journalist Lesley-Ann Jones goes under the covers at Garden Lodge—metaphorically and literally—in a new book chronicling Mercury’s curtailed life and career leading one of rock’s most celebrated bands. Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury finds the Chrysalis Records publicist-turned-magazine columnist digging far and deep into the singer’s past, leaving few stones unturned. Relying on her vast network of friends in the industry, Jones received unparalleled access into the world of Queen and conducted dozens of exclusive interviews with those who knew Freddie best. She chats with those who lived with him and worked for him. Who loved him or critiqued him. Who acted as caretakers during his final weeks at home, staying at his bedside until his death (from AIDS-related bronchopneumonia) in November 1991.
Freddie’s actual birth name? Check (Farrokh Bulsara). The names of Freddie’s favorite cats? Check (Delilah and Goliath). The inspiration for Freddie’s moustache? Check (Glenn Hughes—the “Leatherman” biker from The Village People). Favorite dish? Check (caviar and mashed potatoes). Nothing’s too trivial for Jones, who baby steps through twenty-five detail-soaked chapters combing for traces of the gifted (but vexed) man behind the legend. Some riddles—such as the final disposition of Mercury’s ashes—remain teasingly (perhaps happily) unsolved, through no lack of diligence on the part of the author.
Jones even did some globe-hopping during her research, venturing to East Africa to visit Merury’s humble hometown of Zanzibar, where his Parsi family adhered to a strict conservatism that sent mixed messages about his burgeoning creativity and sexual orientation. She attributes Mercury’s feelings of loneliness and alienation to his time abroad in boarding school—first at St. Beater’s in Panchgani, then St. Mary’s inBombay. It was during these early years that Freddie studied piano, started going by his nickname, and lived in India with his aunt. Not long after, his first band—the Little Richard-inspired Hectics—was formed.
Jones takes some liberties hop-scotching through history. By way of exposition, the book begins with Queen’s July 1985 triumph at Live Aid (the massive musical charity event orchestrated by Bob Geldof), then backpedals to Freddie’s boyhood. But the major events in the singer’s life unfold in a relatively chronological order, and Jones is meticulous in her documentation of the background behind each of Queen’s seminal albums.
The most vivid portrayals of Mercury arrive courtesy quotes and anecdotes from the singer’s close-knit inner circle of confidantes. Freddie’s first real love, Mary Austin, is described as his maternal protector, an “Old Faithful” who remained loyal long after the singer decided he preferred male companionship. Peter “Phoebe” Freestone served as Freddie’s longtime chef, wardrobe coordinator, and secretary. German soft-porn actress Barbara Valentin provided the strong female influence Freddie’s more fragile “widow” Mary couldn’t, oftentimes holding her own against the entertainer’s tantrums. Irish barber Jim Hutton became Mercury’s devoted live-in companion soon after their fateful meeting in 1985.
There’s a plethora of secondary players: Scottish impresario John Reid signed Queen to Trident and became the group’s first manager. Henry“Jim” Beach replaced him in 1978 after renegotiating the band’s record deal. Journalist Paul Gambaccini became a close friend of Freddie’s, as did deejay Kenny “Ev” Everett—who took a risk giving “Bohemian Rhapsody” repeated spins on Radio-1. Director Bruce Gowers got his foot in the door after his successful film reinterpretation of Mick Rock’s famous Queen II cover photo for the “Bo Rap” clip, but Scott Millaney would become the band’s go-to guy for other videos. Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe worked with Freddie on his mid-1980s solo albums. Elton John was a close companion, but Michael Jackson allegedly stopped communicating with the Queen camp after watching Mercury use cocaine during studio sessions for “State of Shock” (which Jackson later recorded with Mick Jagger).
Then there are the one-night stands and dalliances, including Winnie Kirchberger—a burly, “unwashed truck driver” of a man—whom Freddie took to instantly. Former Russian trooper Nikolai Grishanovitch was introduced to Mercury by DJ “Ev,” but Jones dismisses conjecture that Freddie contracted HIV from either man (both died of AIDS-related illnesses).
Indeed, it’s easy for the uninitiated to become lost in the slew of names, but the stories shared by these countless insiders become indispensible in rounding out Mercury’s image and tracing his ascent from shy, buck-toothed schoolboy to competent (sometimes arrogant) arena rocker with a sweet tooth for opulence and decadence. Who else but the record executives and Queen road crew could give eyewitness reports on the band’s over-the-top backstage parties, where strippers danced, champagne and drugs flowed freely, and birthday cakes came shaped like Rolls-Royces or the Taj Mahal?
Jones paints Mercury as a pampered but giving celebrity who typically avoided cameras and reserved his energy for the stage. He enjoyed buying up and redecorating homes and helping friends maintain their own lavish lifestyles. He loved working with his band mates, forgoing his health to put in crucial hours of studio time on 1989’s The Miracle and 1991’s Innuendo, insisting that he leave behind as much tape as possible for Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon to sift through later.
And while it was Freddie who received the most adulation from fans and attention from critiques, he was quick to point out that Queen—despite its name—was a democracy wherein all members were equal. To that end, Jones dissects the Queen canon, concluding that all four members had a hand in writing the band’s biggest hits. She also chronicles the band’s most important gigs, from small-hall shows in London to the soccer stadiums inRioand Montreux. Her appendix includes a timeline starting with Mercury’s 1946 birth and culminating with Queen’s fortieth anniversary (and signing to Island Records) in 2011. The discography is likewise comprehensive, charting singles and albums with their respective release dates.
All told, Mercury is an enjoyable rock and roll retrospective that examines the life (and death) of a one-of-a-kind entertainer who used music to both mask and flaunt his sexuality and cope with his lingering abandonment issues with a finesse (and four-octave vocal range) that turned despair to triumph. Jones takes readers inside Freddie’s life, retracing his career, painstakingly assembling the firsthand accounts of those who had the privilege of maintaining an orbit around him into a streamlined biography that uncovers many truths about the man without tarnishing his legacy.