By Sean O'Hagan
Though born in Zanzibar, Freddie Mercury, né Farrokh Bulsara was emphatically Indian: he was educated at St. Peter's boarding school near Bombay for ten years, and did not arrive in England until he was 17. Though he played down his ethnic origins, he should be remembered, and celebrated, as, among other things Britain's first and biggest Indian pop star. (The Parsees, intriguingly, still see themselves as Persian rather than Indian, though they fled Persia over 1000 years ago. Freddie's family, too, though born British-Indian, consider themselves a part of the Parsee race, a distinction that highlights subtle but often deeply felt difference between citizenship and roots.) It was in India that the seeds of Freddie's showmanship were sown. In the early photographs included here, you can see him making an impression as a sportsman - Best All Rounder and medal winner, and as a performer - acting in a school play, at St. Peter's Boarding School, India, looking hammy but holding centre stage. Slightly older, he poses, dead centre, in a line up of the all-Indian combo, The Hectics, his first group, in which he played piano and sang tentative vocals on Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley songs. Older still, he lounges on a summer seat in the school grounds in 1962, looking like some self-styled Gatsby-type hero, in shades, crisp white shirt, pressed pants and matching shoes. It is the following photograph, taken six years and a whole continent later, that is the most intriguing, though. Beneath a dandyish velvet hat, the hair has grown and is no longer brushed back. In jeans, t-shirt and bare feet, he nestles a Fender Stratocaster guitar in a distinctly Jimi Hendrix-style pose. He looks very different, altered, on his way to somewhere else, somewhere far from St. Peter's Boarding School and the Hectics; far, too, from this spartanly furnished living room in Feltham, not far from Heathrow, Britain's gateway to the world. The Bulsara family moved to England in 1964, fleeing the revolution that brought independence from British rule. As an adolescent pitched from one culture into another, Freddie seems, revealingly, to have had little trouble adapting to his new life. He went to Ealing College of Art in 1966, following in the footsteps of Pete Townshend of The Who and Ron Wood, guitarist with the Faces and later The Rolling Stones, and graduating with a Diploma in Graphic Art & Design in 1969. In those three years, while Freddie studied art, the pop world shifted off its axis, and, from a rented flat in trendy Kensington, Freddie Bulsara dipped tentatively into London's burgeoning psychedelic counter culture. He shopped in Biba, swinging London's hippest emporium, and at Kensington Market, dressing in silks and velvets in homage to his hero, Jimi Hendrix. He later manned a stall there, alongside his new friend, Roger Taylor, selling Edwardian silk scarves, fur coats, exotic fabrics, alongside the graduate art work of Freddie and his more interesting fellow students from Ealing Art College. "We even sold Freddie's thesis", Taylor told Mojo magazine, "which was all based on Hendrix. There were some beautiful things - there was a Planetscape and he'd written the lyrics of Third Stone from the Sun..." Freddie, who alongside Taylor, was now also a fully fledged member of Queen, confessed to having seen Hendrix "play live on nine consecutive nights - one show after the other." One imagines, given all that was to follow, that it was the image of Hendrix as much as the man's explosive music that held him rapt.
By Sean O'Hagan
If truth be told, the four members of Queen - Freddie, drummer, Roger Taylor, guitarist, Brian May and bass player, John Deacon - weren't certain what they wanted to be, and seemed to be touching all the bases from pomp to proto-punk in an effort to find out what they did best, where they fitted in. Later, of course, they would find out that, like all great pop bands, they did not fit in at all. That dawning realisation must have occurred around the time of the next single, Killer Queen, which I would humbly suggest, was the first fully fledged Queen record proper: that is, a single that possessed a definite and, with hindsight, immediately identifiable signature. Killer Queen, a mini magnum opus, if such a thing can be said to exist, was more even sculpted and sleek than its predecessors, and less frenetic. It was also much more ambitious. Freddie claims to have written the lyrics "in a night", but, perhaps because of the song's quite complex lyrical and musical structure, the latter fitting the former like a glove, it sounds painstakingly crafted. The first thing that grabbed my attention were the lyrics, the tone of which is best summed up by the opening quartet: She keeps Möet et Chandon In her pretty cabinet 'Let them eat cake' she says Just like Marie Antoinette... Not, then, the regular subject of a rock and roll record, though both Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry were, in their very different ways, indulging in what might be called posh-rock lyricism at roughly the same time. I has always assumed that Killer Queen was about a high class transvestite - the monarch of the title being a drag rather than a regal queen. Instead, it was, as Freddie would later admit, somewhat reluctantly, "about a high class call girl", adding, no doubt self-mockingly. "I'm trying to say that classy people can be whores as well". Once the lyrical sophistication had sunk in, there was Freddie's high-camp, mock-operatic delivery - part Gilbert & Sullivan, part male diva - to absorb; intimations of what was to come. Then, in and around the words, were woven the multi-tracked vocal harmonies, and Brian May's harmonic guitar stylings, which would, from this moment on, remain a constant, defining feature of all Queen's subsequent great records. With Killer Queen, the group had arrived at a sound that was all their own. A sound that was not quite prog-rock, though it possessed identifiable traces of that inflated genre, not least the last vestiges of Freddie's Tolkein obsession; and not quite glam-rock, though it dallied near the same subject matter and dressed itself up in the same sequins and spangles. Back then, Freddie mostly wore satin and silk, his finger nails varnished blood red or jet black. He looked exotic, even slightly menacing at times, stalking the stage like he had to territorially claim it, make it his own.
By Sean O’Hagan
Freddie Mercury was officially diagnosed HIV positive in 1987, one year before the Barcelona album. His final years were spent in London and Montreux, among a close circle of friends that included his personal assistants, Peter Freestone and Joe Fanelli, his manager Jim Beach, and the second great love of his life, Jim Hutton. "He took on board and excepted the inevitability," Mary Austin remembers, "I saw a man become incredibly brave". He told each of his immediate circle in turn, and the band, all of whom had expected the worst for some time, instructing each of them not to speak of the matter again. "He accepted," says Peter ‘Phoebe’ Freestone, "that he was one of the unlucky ones. He had no regrets. Well, maybe one - that he had so much music left in him". To this end, he recorded with Queen for as long as he could. When the other band members officially found about his illness they, "clustered around him like a protective shell", as Brian May memorably put it. Queen made a further two critically acclaimed albums, The Miracle in 1989, and Innuendo in 1991, the singer, to the end, insisting on what were now physically exacting standards of quality control. In his second last video appearance, dolled up like a deranged Lord Byron, Freddie sang I’m Going Slightly Mad. The man had style, and attitude to burn. In the last Queen video, These Are The Days of Our Lives, he looks fragile, ethereal, as if he could be borne away on the wind at any moment. Gone are the extravagant gestures, the constant movement, replaced by a fragile, still dignity. His last words on film were, "I still love you", whispered intimately to his adoring public. A diva until the end. One of the last characteristically extravagant things Freddie Mercury did was buy an apartment in Montreux, near Queen’s recording studio, and decorate it in grand style, knowing that he would never live there. A final act of defiance against encroaching mortality. Likewise, his insistence that he should dine out to the end, often spending days in bed so that he could have the energy to entertain his friends at an exclusive restaurant. Pure style, pure class. Amid the picture post card serenity of Montreux, which he once would have found boring in the extreme, he seemed to find a sense of peace and solitude, the very things he had spent much of his life running from. He spent days looking out on the lake, lost in private reveries. He wrote two final sad songs, A Winter’s Tale - the title said it all - and, with Brian May, the elliptically biographical Mother Love, a song about returning to the womb. A song about safety, comfort, spiritual, emotional and physical solace. Back in London, he began to paint and draw for the first time since leaving Ealing College of Art. Propped up on his in bed, he drew his cats, painted abstract watercolours. Queen’s fortieth single was released in October 1991, entitled The Show Must Go On. Pure bravado, pure Freddie, pure Queen. The b-side was Keep Yourself Alive. On 23 November, a statement, approved by Freddie, was issued to the press, confirming what many had suspected, that Freddie Mercury had Aids. He died the following day. A statement was issued at midnight: "Freddie Mercury died peacefully this evening at his home in Kensington, London", it stated, simply, "His death was a result of bronchial pneumonia, brought on by Aids". At his cremation, the music was a recording of You’ve Got A Friend sung by Aretha Franklin. As the oak coffin disappeared into the flames, the recorded voice of Montserrat Caballé sang D’Amor sull’ali rosee, the aria from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Freddie Mercury’s all time favourite piece of music. Even in death, he had a talent to surprise. Made In Heaven, a Queen album that employed digital technology to bring all four members of Queen together again, even in Freddie’s absence, was a fitting epitaph, though, ironically, it was, in tone and content, the least Queenly album the group ever released - stately and reflective, heartfelt and tender. Finally, the many masks that had hidden the true face of Freddie Mercury, seemed to have slipped during the writing and recording of these last valedictory songs. "My make-up may be fading but my smile stays on", he sang gamely, but there was an honesty, a vulnerability on display here that was touching, and touchingly unfamiliar. On 20 April, 1992, the other three members of Queen hosted a Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium, featuring an array of guest vocalists singing what amounted to Queen's greatest hits live. George Michael, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Liza Minnelli, Axl Rose and, of course, his great friend Elton John, were among the stellar line-up, with Elizabeth Taylor, tireless Aids campaigner and celluloid diva incarnate, making a speech in Freddie's honour. His absence though, was felt keenly on that Wembley stage, as artist after artist gave full vent to those anthems and love songs and epics; every performance, ironically, calling to mind the master. Where Queen's back catalogue of hits is concerned, nobody, but nobody, does it better that Freddie Mercury. The Mercury Phoenix Trust was also established that year, and continues to raise money for Aids related causes. In 1991, Bohemian Rhapsody was re-released, and once again, went straight to Number One, raising over a million pounds for the Terence Higgins' Trust. No one knows where Freddie Mercury’s ashes are scattered, bar those that were closest to him. There is no monument to Freddie Mercury in Britain, save his musical back catalogue. On his birthday, and on the anniversary of his death, fans congregate at Garden Lodge, where Mary Austin now lives, surrounded by Freddie’s cultured legacy - the fine art, the artifacts, the Empire furniture, all the expensive and aesthetically pleasing fragments he shored up against his final departing. Every year, Mary reads them a short statement, a prayer of remembrance. I am reminded, even in the nature of his death, and the mourning that still attends it, not of a mere pop star, but of Valentino, of Callas. Freddie, I’m sure, would approve of the comparisons. He would surely approve, too, of the eight foot tall statue of him in full-on performance mode, that looks out from a plinth on the Montreux shore line across Lake Geneva. Sculpted by Irena Sedlecka, a Czech monumentalist best known for the heroic reliefs that decorate the entrance to the Lenin museum. Fist raised, biceps taut, Freddie stands in stadium rock pose, facing the sunset across the lake, his back to the curious and the faithful who flock to the site. "If I had known he would have his back to the people", Irena remarked afterwards, "I would have spent more time on his bum".
By Sean O’Hagan
Like Madonna or Elton John or, even Maria Callas, Freddie Mercury ultimately became, through the sheer size and ubiquity of his celebrity, one of those stars whose fame ultimately transcends their work. That is, he entered the popular pantheon, a celebrity who was no longer primarily famous for what he did - write, record and perform songs - but, simply, for who he was - Freddie Mercury, mega-star. That, of course, has always, to an extent, been the self-serving, self perpetuating nature of fame: you eventually are famous simply for being famous. These days, though, we live in an age where celebrity has colonised the public consciousness like never before, where the minutiae of famous, and increasingly, semi-famous lives, relayed in detail through a voracious media, exercises our imagination to an at times unsettling degree. The endless passing parade of second and third division faux stars whose dull gaze, repeated ad infinitum from the pages of the tabloids and lifestyle mags, reflects our own jaded interest, and has debased the value, the currency of celebrity. We have become, in the process, almost inured to the appeal of the real star, the true star. Almost. Freddie Mercury, I contend, was a true star. Sometimes we didn’t see it, particularly us critics who increasingly look for meaning beyond the obvious, but it was there all along, staring us in the face. Freddie Mercury had star quality, charisma, presence - call it what you will - in spades. For a start, he had an intuitive understanding of the contract between the celebrity and his adoring public that was old-style, almost vintage Hollywood, in its application. He was, for instance, both offstage and on, more Liza Minnelli than Mick Jagger. He was showbiz and he was rock and roll, but, ultimately, he was a lot more showbiz than rock and roll. (I’m talking old school showbiz here - Garland, Astaire, even Valentino, to whom Freddie, only half-jokingly, often compared himself - "I’m a true romantic, just like Rudolph Valentino".) He had an old school professionalism, and, from day one, a precocious grasp of the contract that even rock and roll demanded: "These days, music and talent is not enough. You have to be able to do more than write a good song. You have to deliver it, and package it... You must learn to push yourself, and learn how to deal with the business side right from the start...Go out there and grab it, utilise it, and make it work for you...You have to feed it to the masses...It’s called Hard Sell". Had he been around during the first golden age of Hollywood, or the dawning of the rock and roll era, or had he blossomed during the psychedelic sixties, you get the feeling Freddie Mercury would have applied himself to the task in hand with ambition, wit and style, would have made it big. That’s simply the way he was; he thought, acted, lived BIG. He knew, too, how to maintain a sense of mystery, and a sense of privacy. He knew how much to give his fans, and how much to hold back for himself and his intimate circle. He was an inveterate party thrower, and a present giver, showering his true friends and intimates with well chosen, often extravagant, gifts at every opportunity. He lived life to the full in the manner of a true diva. With hindsight, then, it is possible to place Freddie Mercury in a lineage, or a tradition, that is even more outside pop and rock and roll than we might like to think. His penchant for mock opera - Bohemian Rhapsody, of course, and a dozen or so other songs which, though not as outré, betray a certain impatience with the constrictions of mere rock and roll - is one clue to the myriad forces that shaped him. Likewise, his late flowering love of real opera and ballet, both of which betray a mind in thrall to aestheticism and exotica, to older, more colourful, and - this is perhaps revealing - more demanding entertainments than the rock performance. You can also, without delving too deep, detect traces of Music Hall and old style Variety in some of Freddie Mercury’s lyrics, and in his delivery of them, particularly during his more camp moments, both live and on record. In his costumes and stage presence, his myriad personas, and, most of all, in that strutting, preening, posturing commitment to all things over-the-top, he recalls, too, the older magic of nights at the circus, the carnival, and, of course, the opera. (Remember that tight fitting body suited decorated with huge false eyes? Pure circus surrealism.) Which is to say that there was always, right from the start, when he was tarted up in satin, chiffon and black nail varnish, something exotic, something other-worldly about Freddie Mercury. Those Zandra Rhodes costumes, for God’s sake. I mean, what other rock group, save maybe the Stones in the early seventies, or the misunderstood, much under-rated New York Dolls, would have gone to such lengths to look so willfully effeminate so early in their career. (Interestingly, Freddie’s image became less other-worldy, less outré, as he accepted and embraced his sexuality, his costumes pared down to almost caricatured expressions of gayness - the moustached macho man, the leather clone, the drag queen, the body narcissist in tight black hot-pants and Flash t-shirt. But, always, the self-deprecating humour: the leather clone outfit was spot-on save for the ballet slippers and socks. It was as if he had to poke fun at himself, at his own sartorial outrageousness before someone else did. What, I ask you, would Freud have made of that?) On the occasion of the Freddie Mercury Photographic Exhibition, the posthumous celebration of his life which opened at the Albert Hall in London (Since then it has toured the world visiting many cities including Bombay, Cologne, Montreux, Timisoara and Paris) - no half measures even in death - Waldemar Januszczak, wrote "Transplanting levels of fantasy that belong in 1001 Arabian Nights - that was Freddie’s achievement". For a self-styled simple entertainer, that was no mean feat. He was, ultimately, I believe, then, a weaver of spells, a creator of personas, masks, mythologies, a fantasist. "A lot of my songs are fantasy. Really, they are just little fairy stories. I can dream up all sorts of things because that’s the world I live in". He was, we can see with hindsight, someone who literally willed his fantasies, onstage and off, to come through - and, perhaps more crucially, to come true. To this end, his life was lived in the glare of the spotlight and the flash gun, but neither stole his soul, nor, as the events of his final years proved, compromised his dignity. He remained a showman, an illusionist, and a chameleon right to the end; both a diva who played to the gallery right up to his final curtain call, and an intensely private individual who, even in death, did it his way. As elusive and mercurial as his adopted name, Freddie Mercury was a one-off, and the pop world is a less glamourous, less outrageous place without him. Of one thing we can be certain: we will not see his like again.
This Flash part of this page is taken from the official Queen Web Site.