Freddie Mercury: “I’ll Keep on Singing Till the End”
In 1990, when Queen was holed up in their studio in Montreux, Switzerland, laying down tracks for what was to be their “Innuendo” album, guitarist Brian May put together some lyrics for a song the band was working on. “I’ll face it with a grin,” the lyrics concluded, “I’m never giving in, On with the show, I’ll top the bill, I’ll overkill, I have to find the will to carry on, On with the…, On with the show, The show must go on.” May was wary about approaching Freddie Mercury with these words. “I did ask him at one point if he was okay about it,” May told Rock Power Magazine. “And he said, ‘Yeah, totally okay about it. I will give it my all.’ And he did.” Mercury, at that time, was extremely ill. The AIDS virus he had contracted was full blown, wrenching much of the stamina he used to easily muster in the studio and on the stage. A year later he would lose his battle with the terrible disease. But ever the consummate professional, he sang the words to “The Show Must Go On” with every ounce of heartfelt commitment he put into all of his work. Listening to the track, one would never guess this singer was anywhere near his final curtain call.
Nobody knows for sure when Freddie Mercury learned he had become HIV positive. Some reports put it as five years before his death. Others at seven years. But one thing is for sure, Freddie did not wish to alarm his fans, friends and family. We were all kept pretty much in the dark until the end. He, instead, clearly wanted us to remember him as the jolly troubadour, the venerable showman whose music and skill brought pleasure to millions throughout the world.
From an early age, it seemed as if Mercury was destined to please others. When a man photographed Freddie smiling at the age of one year’s old, the picture wound up winning the grateful shutterbug first prize in a baby snapshot contest. This first sign of outward showmanship occurred on the island of Zanzibar, off the African coastline near Tanzania. It was here that Freddie was born to Indian parents, Parsees to be exact, in September 1946. His birth name was Farok Bulsara (not Farookh or Faroukh, corrects his brother-in-law Roger, as many archivists have gone on to misspell) and his last name was in recognition of his family’s hometown in India known as Bulsar. His father was a cashier for the British government, a job which took him many places throughout the Indian Ocean region.
Farok attended boarding school from the ages of 8 to 16 in Panchgani, India, near Bombay, and rarely saw his family, except on summer holiday back in Zanzibar. It was while at school that he came to be known by a more English-sounding familiar name, Freddie. When Zanzibar garnered independent rule from the British in 1964, revolution broke out, and the Bulsaras, with Freddie now graduated, moved to the working class suburb of Feltham, England, directly in the flight path of Heathrow Airport. Heading to Ealing College to study art design, Freddie hankered for the music world that was bubbling up everywhere in mid-60s London. Having been a member of a band back at boarding school, Freddie soon got another one going called Ibex. He often crossed paths with another local band, Smile, that had guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor as part of its members. Freddie and Roger opened a fashion and art stall in the Kensington Market in London. After a brief spell in another group called Wreckage, Freddie got together with May and Taylor to form a new band. In the midst of auditioning several bass players, they were introduced to John Deacon at a disco one night, and asking him to join, the group Queen was poised to conquer the world.
Roger Taylor had liked the name ‘Rich Kids.’ Brian had tossed in a few suggestions, like ‘Grand Dance’ and ‘Build Your Own Boat,’ but the band went with Freddie’s main pitch, ‘Queen,’ seeing the royalty connotations and Freddie’s flamboyance as two subjects to play off of. By this time, Freddie had changed his last name to Mercury. He later told his brother-in-law, Roger, that he chose the moniker because it was his rising planet (in astrology). Roger related to the Sunday Times magazine that, “when he told me, I said, ‘it’s a bloody good job it wasn’t Uranus.’ Freddie never forgave me for that.”
Having been raised in the Zoroastrian faith, Mercury liked to play on the dream-like imagery and spiritual truths inherent in the religion with his lyrics for Queen. Standard sentiments of strength, confidence, and love, the bedrock of his faith, were constant themes he explored in his songwriting. Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the Persian prophet Spitaman Zarathustra, who lived and preached around 1500 B.C. He spoke of an all-knowing, supreme God, Ahura Mazda, who created man as the central figure in the cosmic struggle against the wicked spirit Anghra Mazda.
While Mercury had hawked his secondhand clothes in the Kensington stall, he had met a 19-year old girl named Mary Austin, who managed an upscale boutique called Biba nearby. “It took Freddie nearly six months to finally ask me out!,” she told authors Jacky Gunn and Jim Jenkins in their book “Queen: As It Began.” “I thought he fancied my best friend, so I used to avoid him. One night we were at one of his gigs, and after it had finished he came looking for me. I left him at the bar with my friend to go to the loo, but I actually sneaked out. He was furious!” But soon thereafter, the two hooked up and became extremely close. They moved into an apartment together which they shared with another couple in the Kensington district.
By 1971, the band was performing at local colleges and clubs, while most of its members still attended school. John Deacon eventually got a degree in science, Brian May picked up one in electronics, and Roger Taylor received one for biology. After being invited to showcase and record their music at a local studio, EMI Records signed the band in late 1972. Freddie and Mary moved into an apartment of their own, a place where the group photographs for their first album were snapped. “Queen” and “Queen II” were released in under two years’ time, and when their third album, “Sheer Heart Attack,” was released in 1974, the group snared a top 20 hit in the U.S. with the single “Killer Queen.”
But it was with their next album, “A Night At the Opera,” which contained the long, operatic sweep of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that sent Queen into the stratosphere. As a single, it shot to number one in Britain, Japan, and many other markets, selling over 150,000 copies in the first 2 weeks of its release. From that point on, Queen was bigger than life. Mercury hit his stride on the stage, vamping it up in furs, leathers, and dresses, commanding the attention of huge audiences in tandem with the band’s ever-increasing stock of pyrotechnics, dry ice and lighting. Hit after hit poured from their amps throughout the mid-to-late ‘70s: “You’re My Best Friend,” “Somebody To Love,” “Tie Your Mother Down,” “We Are The Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and their first U.S. number one single at the turn of 1980, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
By pulling out of an interview on Britain’s “Today” show in 1976, they allowed an unknown band called the Sex Pistols to fill in for them, thus launching those punkers’ rise to instant stardom through that one appearance. Freddie’s costumes onstage changed by the late ‘70s. Gone were the tight dresses and the black nail polish. He started to wear leather gear or uniforms. In 1978, Queen’s Madison Square Garden show in New York featured a gaggle of semi-nude girls riding bicycles around the stage during “Fat Bottomed Girls.” The next year, at the same venue, Mercury strode onto the stage 2 hours’ late, donning an NYPD beat cop’s outfit, and proceeded to pour champagne over the heads of patrons in the front rows. His outrageousness only fueled their adulation. Some of his outrageousness was fueled by drugs. Queen were no strangers to having a wild time behind the scenes, but perhaps the biggest display of excess in their career occurred when they threw a huge party in New Orleans to launch the release of their 1978 album “Jazz.”
Flying in over 80 journalists from around the globe on October 31st, the band entered the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel at the stroke of midnight surrounded in a parade of strippers, transvestites, grossly-overweight women, snake charmers, and hermaphrodites. The baffled reporters soon relished sights like that of a woman who smoked cigarettes with her genitalia. They lined up in a backroom as one woman on her knees hummed more than just Queen songs. Mercury was his unfazed self, telling Circus magazine, “I’m going backstage for a rest. Maybe get a b*** job. Hell, it’s Halloween, right?” Roger Taylor related the magnitude of the New Orleans event to RIP magazine. “There were 125 strippers. For 10 years afterwards, the cabbies asked, ‘When are you going to have another party?’ You don’t quite see parties like that anymore.”
Even though his career had skyrocketed beyond his wildest dreams and he was adored by fans the world over, Freddie had remained devoted to Mary and lived with her for much of the early part of his rise to fame. But by the late ‘70s, the two didn’t seem to connect intimately. One day, as Mary related to the Daily Mail in 1999, Freddie confessed to her. “He said, ‘I think I’m bisexual.’ I told him, ‘I think you’re gay.’ And nothing else was said. We just hugged. I thought, ‘He’s been very brave.’ Being a bit naïve it had taken me a while to realize the truth. Afterwards, he felt good about having told me. He said, ‘I realized I had a choice. The choice was not to tell you, but I think you are entitled to your own life.” Mary reflected on the aftermath of his confession. “I used to think originally that I’d lost him to being gay. But then if he had been totally heterosexual, I think I would eventually have lost him to another woman, particularly when the fame came along. Women followed him even though they suspected he was gay.”
Freddie still loved Mary as his best friend. He got her a place near his Kensington apartment and gave her the job of company secretary to his music and publishing businesses which he ran from his home. While she had a few boyfriends over the 1980s, and even had two children by one of them, painter Piers Cameron, Mary remained totally devoted to Mercury. Freddie also was a devoted son to his parents. He made sure to take time out of most weeks when he was not on the road, to go visit them at their Feltham home.
After the number one success of the band’s 1980 album “The Game” and its follow-up single after “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” Queen’s output of hits in the 1980s never cracked the U.S. top ten again. Their music was still snapped up by millions though on their home turf of Britain. The band suffered a setback in popularity when they chose to play 8 gigs at the South African resort of Sun City in 1984. The United Nations put them on a blacklist since they were in violation of breaking its anti-apartheid cultural boycott on the African nation. Brian May told Guitar World magazine, “When we went to South Africa, we made sure our audience were integrated. And then we stipulated that we would have to have freedom of speech. So we were able to do interviews with the South African papers and say what we felt about apartheid, and have our views printed. We got hell when we came back, but I would argue that you achieve more by going places, than by staying away.”
All was forgiven when Queen was the standout performance the next year at Bob Geldof’s landmark Live Aid event. Geldof said, “It was the perfect stage for Freddie. He could ponce about in front of the whole world.” The date was July 13, 1985. In October of that year, two individuals passed away from an illness that the world was just beginning to learn about. Actor Rock Hudson, once a top screen star of the 1960s, was tragically cut down by the new-buzzword disease, AIDS. His passing was cause for hysteria. The world press launched an all-out campaign to uncover everything they could about Hudson’s secret gay past and scads of misinformation on how the disease could be contracted spread carelessly around the airwaves. Ten days after Hudson died, another death went practically unnoticed. Guitarist Ricky Wilson of the Athens, Georgia band, The B-52s, quietly slipped away, and his passing was not revealed as being AIDS-related until much later.
Since Freddie and Mary had moved into separate quarters, Freddie had a series of boyfriends over the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. By 1984, he had met Jim Hutton, a hairdresser, at a nightclub, and the two became constant companions over the rest of the decade. In 1980, Freddie had purchased an 8-bedroom Victorian mansion set in a quarter acre in the Kensington area. He paid over a half million pounds cash for it. He poured many more pounds into remodeling it. But he was quite comfortable living in his apartment, so the mansion remained empty for six years.
On August 9, 1986, Queen performed before the largest paying audience in their career, close to 200,000 people, at the Knebworth Festival in England. It was the group’s 658th concert. It was also their last. Freddie Mercury probably knew by this time that he was HIV-positive. Shortly after the event, he finally moved into his mansion and proceeded to live his life, in his own words, ‘like a nun,’ for the rest of the 1980s. He hired Hutton as a ‘gardener’ so it wouldn’t appear to other close friends jealous of the lover that he was being spoiled by Mercury.
From this point on, Freddie chose his public appearances sporadically. His very close friend, singer-drummer Dave Clark, originally of the Dave Clark Five, wrote all the music and songs for a musical stage play called “Time” which featured pop singer Cliff Richard. On April 14, 1988, Freddie appeared in the musical for a special charity performance. The proceeds from the show were all donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust for research into AIDS. On October 8, 1988, he hit the stage at an open-air festival in Barcelona, Spain with opera diva Montserrat Caballe to sing their collaborative tune “Barcelona,” which would later be used as the official anthem to the 1992 Olympics. Queen’s album “The Miracle” was released on May 22, 1989. By the start of 1990, with his strength diminishing day by day, Freddie still wanted to record more songs. He still wanted to create. The band went into their Switzerland studio to begin working on tunes that would eventually be released on the January 1991 album, “Innuendo.”
On February 18, 1990, when Freddie appeared at the annual British Phonographic Industry Awards ceremony, at which Queen were honored with an outstanding contribution to British music award, rumors of ill health were printed in the press the following days. His make-up under the hot TV lights was not enough to distract from the fact that he looked pallid and gaunt. Freddie did his best to dispel rumors of any kind of sickness.
Brian May told Rock Power magazine, “We didn’t know actually what was wrong for a very long time. We never talked about it and it was a sort of unwritten law that we didn’t, because Freddie didn’t want to. He just told us that he didn’t feel up to doing tours, and that’s as far as it went. Gradually, I suppose in the last year and a bit, it became obvious what the problem was, or at least fairly obvious – we still didn’t know for sure. He’s a very private person, Freddie.” Mercury had told his secret to Mary Austin long before any of his friends or family ever knew. She looked after him from that point on, tending to his every need. “I would sit every day next to the bed for 6 hours, whether he was awake or not,” she told the Daily Mail. “He would suddenly wake up and smile and say, ‘Oh, it’s you, old faithful.”
Hutton had been there too, but judging from the tone of his subsequent book, “Mercury and Me,” the decline of Mercury was seen more as an imposition on Hutton. He described in harrowing, yet exploitative, detail the daily horrors Mercury suffered from the disease, such as incidents where he lost control of his bladder and his inability to swallow some foods. Hutton, himself, reportedly contracted the AIDS virus.
Freddie pushed to get into the studio in Montreux one last time. In 1991, he and his bandmates took several weeks out to record more songs. Producer David Richards told Rolling Stone magazine, “I knew that he was very ill, amazingly his voice became better and better though. ‘My voice is still here,’ he used to say, ‘So I’ll keep on singing till the end.’ I personally didn’t know that he had AIDS; I speculated he had cancer. I think everyone pushed aside the fact that it was really that serious. Everyone still had that glimpse of hope that at the end maybe a miracle would happen…It was a difficult situation for all of us, but especially for Freddie, but he really wanted this project to be finished, even though he knew that the album would be released after his death.”
Brian May told Rock Power magazine that, a few months before his passing, Mercury did “sit down and talk to us about it, and from that point on it was openly talked about among us. But we still didn’t mention a word to anyone, not even our families, which is very difficult. When your friends look you in the eye and say, ‘What’s wrong?,’ and you say, ‘Nothing,’ it’s very hard. So it was a big strain; it did something awful to our brains for awhile.”
Freddie got so sick that he struggled to do a half-hour’s worth of singing over a week’s time. Then it became a half-hour’s work over a couple weeks. Brian told RIP magazine, “Then, at the very end, he couldn’t move. You feel so helpless watching someone so fit and strong and healthy and creative be destroyed by that horrible thing…He never succumbed in spirit. He was always up. He always had his sense of humor, which I find incredible. He was the first to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want you guys to sit around. This may be happening to me, but you have your lives to lead.” When Brian played Mercury one of his upcoming solo singles, “Driven By You,” he felt guilty putting out such an upbeat tune while Freddie was fading away. “He said, ‘Why should you do anything else?’ And he said, ‘If I pop off while it’s happening, it’ll give you an extra bit of publicity.’ That is Fred,” Brian related, laughing softly.
As autumn 1991 blew across England, Mercury was on his last legs. The tawdry rag, the Sun newspaper, owned by tasteless tycoon Rupert Murdoch, published a photograph a paparazzi member had taken of an ailing Freddie through a telephoto lens into Mercury’s mansion bedroom. Drummer Roger Taylor, a few years later, was so incensed by this incident, that he included a heated diatribe song against the morally-questionable billionaire in a solo song he released called, “Dear Mr. Murdoch.” “I thought it was a gross intrusion on my friend’s privacy,” Taylor told West End magazine. “I felt outraged that his house was surrounded by these vultures when he was basically trying to die in peace.”
Freddie’s demise was especially excruciating to his closest friend, Mary Austin. “He was always very protective of me,” she told the Daily Mail. “If something happened, he’d say, ‘Oh darling, don’t worry, we’ll get over that.’ He was uplifting. At other times, when he was aware he had AIDS and only had a limited time to live, there’d be the odd serious conversation when he’d say to me, ‘Let’s go and sit, we don’t know how long we have.’
Mercury’s final moments grew nearer. Mary continued, “The quality of his life had changed so dramatically, and he was in more and more pain everyday. He was losing his sight. His body became weaker as he suffered mild fits. It was so devastating to see him deteriorating in this way. One day he decided enough was enough and stopped all the medical supplements that were keeping him going. He just turned off. The overwhelming thing for me was that he was just so incredibly brave. He looked death in the face and said, ‘Fine, I’ll accept it now – I’ll go.”
Before he left us, Mercury did something that no other public persona had done before. He announced to the world that he had AIDS. Before 1991, no celebrity wished the public to know of their misfortune, choosing instead to be silent to the very end. To Freddie though, this would mean there was shame attached to his passing. He did not see it that way. He wanted people to know that this disease was not something to be hushed up. It should be discussed openly, for it affects not just individuals who are oriented in homosexual lifestyle, but everyone. His announcement of his illness on November 23, 1991, exemplified the dignity and character of a man whose final gesture was of caring, one of shedding light on that which was unmentionable.
The next day, November 24th, around 7:00 in the evening, Freddie Mercury passed away. His friends, including Dave Clark, were by his side. Mary said, “It was peaceful and he died with a smile on his face.” His Queen bandmates issued the following statement: “We have lost the greatest and most beloved member of our family. We feel overwhelming grief that he has gone, sadness that he should be cut down at the height of his creativity, but above all, great pride in the courageous way he lived and died. It has been a privilege for us to have shared such magical times. As soon as we are able we would like to celebrate his life in the style to which he was accustomed.”
A single red rose rested atop his coffin as it was driven to the crematorium. A Zoroastrian service was held to send him on his way. In December 1991, “Bohemian Rhapsody” once again entered the U.K. charts and shot to number one. It was the only time in British music history that any single has gone to number one twice.
As for Queen’s celebration of Mercury’s life, they, indeed, took to the stage on April 20, 1992, in a ‘Concert For Life,’ a tribute to Freddie and a fundraising effort for AIDS awareness, before a crowd of 70,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. Broadcast to 70 countries around the globe and with the musical talents of David Bowie, Elton John, George Michael, Guns N’ Roses, and many more, the event helped to launch the Phoenix Trust, an AIDS foundation set up in Switzerland, and to which Mary became a trustee. Queen released some of the final tracks, which Freddie had summoned strength to perform on, on a 1995 CD entitled “Made In Heaven.”
Freddie’s will left almost 50% of his wealth to Mary Austin. She moved into his Kensington mansion. His parents and sister received 25% each. He left Jim Hutton 500,000 pounds and bought him a plot of land in his native Ireland on which to build a home. As for his remains, Freddie entrusted his ashes to Mary. Only she knows where they are hidden. Freddie made her promise she would not reveal their whereabouts. “I had to do it alone as he asked and keep it a secret,” she told the Daily Mail. “That was something that didn’t encourage his family to like me anymore or any less than they did.”
Brian May wrote a piece about Freddie for the band’s fan club magazine a month after Mercury’s passing, just before Christmas. “Freddie never wanted sympathy, he wanted exactly what the fans gave him – belief, support and the endorsement of that strangely winding road to excellence that we, Queen, have tried to follow. You gave him support in being the outstandingly free spirit that he was, and is. Freddie, his music, his dazzling creative energy – those are for ever.” The show must go on.
© 2000 Ned Truslow