Queen’s Tragic Rhapsody



Freddie Mercury by Neal Preston
Freddie Mercury by Neal Preston

Queen feature in the Rolling Stone Magazine 3-17 July 2014 issue – in shops now.

QUEEN’S TRAGIC RHAPSODY Theatrical, brilliant, excessive and doomed — there had never been another band like Queen or a frontman like Freddie Mercury 3-17 July 2014 by Mikal Gilmore


It was an utterly unexpected rebirth. from the moment Freddie Mercury and the other members of Queen – guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon – took the stage at London’s Wembley Stadium, on July 13th, 1985, at the historic Live Aid concert, the group captured the day. Mercury began by sitting at the piano, playing Queen’s most famous song, the strange and gorgeous “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with the band storming in behind him in majestic stride, and an audience of 72,000 singing the lyrics from a seemingly deep-rooted memory, as if this was what they had waited for all day. Things built from there. Mercury grabbed his sawed-off microphone stand as the band swayed into the rapturous “Radio Ga Ga,” and the crowd responded with a collective gesture, slapping hands overhead and pumping fists as the singer pushed them on with his sonorous roar. Some people found the sight of that multitude acting in spontaneous accord, like a human tide, scary: that much power, all at the beckon of one band and one voice.

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That it was Queen accomplishing this came as a wonder to nearly everybody. They seemed to have run their course. After their epic 1975 album A Night at the Opera, they had piled up hit after hit in a stylistically diverse range: from baroque pop to hard rock, disco, rockabilly and funk. Then, by the mid-1980s, their fates had shifted – in part because many fans had trouble accepting Mercury’s perceived homosexuality. After a mind-stopping error of judgment in 1984, when Queen elected to play a series of shows in apartheid South Africa, the band appeared to be pariahs even in its native England. But then, after the Live Aid performance – which exemplified everything extraordinary about Queen, their scope, their virtuosity, their command of a stage – all anybody wanted was more. Years later, May would say, “That was entirely down to Freddie. The rest of us played OK, but Freddie was out there and took it to another level.”

Today, nearly 23 years after Freddie Mercury died of bronchopneumonia related to AIDS, Queen’s legacy – as one of rock’s biggest and most controversial bands – is still inseparable from him, whatever the success May and Taylor might achieve in the next few months on tour with Adam Lambert. When Taylor and May have talked about the Mercury years (Deacon refuses to talk about the experience at all), it’s sometimes as if they’re still mystified by how wonderful and horrible it all was. “We were very close as a group,” Taylor said days after Mercury’s death. “But even we didn’t know a lot of things about Freddie.” Years later, May said, “It fucked us up in the way only an out-of-world experience can do. Queen were the biggest thing in the world. . . . You’re adored – surrounded by people who love you, yet utterly lonely. . . . The excess leaked from the music into life.”

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Queen begins and ends with Freddie Mercury. He embodied the band’s identity, its triumphs and failings, and he was the psyche whose loss it couldn’t survive. But in the beginning, there was no Freddie Mercury. He was Farrokh Bulsara, born on September 9th, 1946, in the British protectorate of Zanzibar, off the east coast of Africa to a Parsee family that practiced Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. Farrokh’s father, Bomi, was a high-court cashier for the British government, which meant that he, his wife, Jer, and Farrokh – and later Farrokh’s sister, Kashmira – lived in cultural privilege, compared to much of the island’s population. In 1954, when Farrokh was eight, the Bulsaras sent him to St. Peter’s Church of England School, in Panchgani, India. Located 150 miles from Bombay (now Mumbai), St. Peter’s had been regarded for years as the best boys boarding school in that part of the world. Farrokh arrived as a terribly shy boy, self-conscious about the prominent upper teeth that immediately earned him the nickname “Bucky.” (He would remain sensitive about his teeth the rest of his life, covering his mouth with his hand whenever he smiled. At the same time, he realized that the pronounced overbite – caused by four extra teeth at the back of his mouth – may have been his greatest blessing, giving his voice its distinctive resonant embouchure.)

Many remembered Farrokh seeming lonesome at St. Peter’s. “I learnt to look after myself,” he said years later, “and I grew up quickly.” When some schoolteachers began calling him Freddie as an affectionate term, he seized the name instantly. He also cultivated his own tastes. Freddie’s family had steeped him in opera, but he was also developing a love for Western pop sounds – especially the boisterous piano-based rock & roll of Little Richard and the virtuosic R&B of Fats Domino. After Freddie’s aunt Sheroo noted that he could hear a tune once, then sit down at the piano and play it, his parents paid for a private music tuition. In 1958, he formed a band, the Hectics, with some other St. Peter’s students. In Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography, a student at a neighboring girls school, Gita Choksi, said that when he was onstage, Freddie was no longer a shy boy: “He was quite the flamboyant performer,” she said, “and he was absolutely in his element onstage.”

Some students at St. Peter’s believed Farrokh had a crush on Gita, but she said she was never aware of it. Others thought it was already plain Farrokh was gay, though there is little evidence of him being sexually active. Janet Smith, now a teacher at the girls school, remembered him as “an extremely thin, intense boy, who had this habit of calling one ‘darling,’ which I must say seemed a little fey. It simply wasn’t something boys did in those days . . . . It was accepted that Freddie was homosexual when he was here. Normally it would have been ‘Oh, God, you know, it’s just ghastly.’ But with Freddie somehow it wasn’t. It was OK.”

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