Friday, November 18, 2011

Freddie Mercury Tribute

In Remembrance : Freddie Mercury

By

Kevin Scott Bolinger

Freddie on stage at Wembly Stadium.

    Hello all, and welcome to this very special look at one of the greatest rock and roll front men to ever hit the stage, the late Freddie Mercury. This month, on November 24th, it will have been twenty years since his voice was silenced forever. Many know him as simply the lead singer of the rock band Queen, but he was more, oh so much more than that. I hope to show you the man behind all the myths and legends. So join me as I celebrate the life of Freddie Mercury, the King of Queen.

    The man who we come to be known as Freddie mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, on what was once known as the island of Zanzibar, now a part of Tanzania, on September 5th, 1946. His father worked for the British government as a cashier, yet the family came from Persian decent. A few years after his birth, he was joined by his baby sister Kashmira.

     At the age of seven, little Farrokh began taking piano lessons, his natural talent quickly being honed. The following year, he was sent to live with his grandmother and aunt near Bombay, India, where he was to attend St. Peter’s school, a British style boarding school. It was at this school that he began to prefer being called Freddie. By the age of twelve, he had formed a band at the school, called The Hectics. His friends would say that young Freddie could hear a song on the radio, and then turn around and play it back on the piano.
A young Freddie, at boarding school.

    When the Zanzibar Revolution began, in 1964, Freddie, now age 17, and his family, fled to England. After studying art at Isleworth Polytechnic, he went to Ealing Art College to further hone his skills.  After graduation, he began to work in a local marketplace, at a used clothing stall, with a fellow graduate, Roger Taylor. Freddie soon joined a group by the name of Ibex , but this quickly fell through. He then joined a group named Sour Milk Sea, but that too fell flat. Meanwhile, his co-worker, Roger, was a drummer in a mildly successful band named Smile.

     The group Smile, which consisted of Taylor, Guitarist Brian May, who, along with his father, had hand built a very unique guitar, dubbed the “Red Special,” still used to this day, and lead singer Tim Staffell, who was also a friend of Freddie‘s, had become fairly popular with the college crowd. Staffell was offered a chance to sing with an established group, and Smile soon fell apart. The year was 1970, and magic was about to happen. Freddie, who had now legally changed his surname to Mercury, had sat in on a lot of the practice sessions for Smile. As the band was falling apart, he stepped up, and agreed to become their new singer, on the condition that the name of the band be changed. Thus was born the legendary moniker of Queen.
Freddie in the early 70's.

    The trio decided early on that they would need to become a quartet. All of 1970 was spent not only playing the local circuit, but also auditioning for bass guitarists. It was not till 1971 that the band found it’s fourth member, a young, quiet bassist named John Deacon. With the addition of Deacon, the group went to the studio to record a four song demo album. Unfortunately, none of the record agencies were interested.  It was around this time that Freddie got involved in a quirky little project. A two song album known as “I Can Hear Music” was created, with Freddie recording two songs under the name of Larry Lurex. If you have never heard the two tracks Freddie recorded, “I Can Hear Music” and “Goin’ Back,” I highly recommend finding them online and giving them a listen.

     During the early days of the band, Brian introduced Freddie to the one woman who would remain a constant in his life, Mary Austin. At first there was true love between them, but in the mid 70’s, Freddie’s emerging homosexuality  would tear the couple apart. However, despite that, the two remained the best of friends, with Freddie becoming godfather to one of Mary’s children, and upon his death, the bulk of his fortune was left to Mary. On the album A Night at the Opera the song “Love of My Life”  was written by Mercury to express his sorrow at the ending of his relationship with Mary.
Freddie and Mary, in the 80's

    Freddie, being an art major, decided to put his talents to use designing a logo for the band. What would become known as the Mercury Phoenix crest started off as a simple idea of combining the zodiac signs of each of the band’s members, along with a regal Q and other accoutrements of royalty. The crest would soon be seen gracing the cover of the group’s debut album.

    With the band now formed, and a demo produced, Queen was handed an opportunity to use a studio during the evening, during the normal off time. The result of this limited studio time would be their debut album, simply titled Queen. Because of his work on the Larry Lurex project, Freddie was able to get help in getting the album produced. Though not a major hit, it was received well by critics, and the song “Keep Yourself Alive” managed to garner some air play.
Queen's emblem, created by Mercury

    By the time the band was ready to release their second album, the also simply titled Queen II, popularity was beginning to find them. The band Mott the Hoople had chosen the young group to be their opening act, something that oddly, many years later, would be reversed, with Mott opening for Queen. However, partway through the tour, Brian May was diagnosed with Hepatitis, and the band had to return to England. They used the time wisely, producing their third album, Sheer Heart Attack. From this record came their first real hit, the Mercury penned “Killer Queen.” As 1975 dawned, Queen  was about to be launched into super stardom, thanks to a quirky tune that only a genius like Freddie could have wrote.

Album cover picture for Queen II.



    In early 1975, the boys hit the studio again, this time to begin work on what would become what many consider to be their greatest album ever. A Night at the Opera was a bold experiment, It showcased how well the four had gelled as a group, with each member contributing at least one song to the record. However, the standout would be a little project that Freddie had come up with, one the others knew little about. As the story goes, Freddie would get the guys together, have them record certain lines at certain pitches, but would not clue them in to what it was all for. The result of all this, the song that is considered the very best that Queen has ever produced.
John Deacon, the quiet bassist.

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be released in November of 1975, and despite it’s length at over five minutes, it got nearly continuous airplay. Over night, the band was a well known commodity. The song would go on to win many award, and to this day still shows up on lists of best songs. In 2002, it was voted  UK’s Favorite hit Song of All time.  Not bad for a quirky little tune that even to this day no one knows the meaning behind. As Brian May once said, not too long ago “The only one who knows the true meaning for the song is Freddie, and he is no longer here to enlighten us.”
Brian May with his "Red Special guitar

    The band was a success. A Night at the Opera was not only a huge album for them, it also marked a turning point in their financial future. Despite high sales of the previous three records, and huge ticket sales to their concerts, Queen was broke. After Sheer Heart Attack it was decided to get rid of their current management, and the boy took their financial future into their own hands. The break was not clean, however, and a lot of bad blood remained. The opening track to A Night at the Opera reflects this. “Death on Two Legs” was a song Freddie wrote as a parting shot to their old management. From here on out, Queen had everything in their own hands. It was to be a very successful venture.

Roger Taylor, drummer extraordinaire.

    Even at this early stage in their career, the press seemed to latch onto rumors about Freddie and his homosexuality. On stage, he was very flamboyant, usually wearing skin tight clothing, prancing around like a cat.  It made for good entertainment, but the press saw it as something else. Freddie would never let it bother him, he was determined to live his life the way he saw fit, consequences be damned.

    As the 1970’s continued their march towards the 80’s , Queen found success wherever they went, though they were still not well known in the United States. The mid to late 70’s was the era where punk rock was starting to become well known. At the forefront of this was a group known as the Sex Pistols, lead by the very outspoken Sid vicious. While Queen was in the studio recording their 1977 album News of the World, an album famous for the hit songs “We Will Rock You” and We Are the Champions,” the band came face to face with the Pistols and their leader. In the past, Freddie had been quoted as saying he wanted to bring opera to the masses, referring of course to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and Sid Vicious decided to use that quote to try to get under Freddie’s skin. Sid approached Freddie and the others and said in a condescending tone “Oy, Fred, still tryin’ at bring opera to da masses?” Freddie, without missing a beat, simply smiled and said “Oh now, Mr. Ferocious, you know I am trying my best.” And walked back to the studio laughing.
Freddie in the late 70's

     The run in with the Sex Pistols did lead to the group experimenting with one punk sounding track on the album. “Sheer Heart Attack” a song named after their third album has a grinding, punk sound, very heavy. It is not a bad attempt at punk, and Queen was always know to constantly experiment in different sounds, but this one comes up a little flat.

     As the decade was coming to a close, Freddie began to change his image. The tight spandex clothes were being phased out for more leather. His hair, once a flowing mane, was not short. By the time 1980 rolled along, Freddie was sporting a look that would personify the typical gay man of the era. A nicely trimmed mustache, and a very short haircut. He also began to wear tank tops. Contrary to popular belief, Freddie did still date women. In the early 80’s he was known to be in a steady relationship with Austrian actress Barbara Valentin.
Freddie with Darth Vader

    In his private life, Freddie was quite shy and soft spoken. He tried to keep a lot to himself, despite the presses best efforts. However, he was also know to throw outrageous parties. Some of his birthday celebrations in the early 80’s are legendary. It was said they would go on for days!

    Rumors began to fly that Queen was breaking up. Though false, the band did decide to take some time away from each other. Freddie went off to make of one his few solo albums, Mr. Bad Guy. It met with limited success, but nothing like the sales of a Queen album. The band had recently gotten a bad reputation, due to a concert they had played in South Africa. A UN embargo on performances in Sun City had been in effect for a while. The group ignored that and played anyway. It became a bit of a logistical nightmare, which ended with a public apology by the band. The early 80’s were off to a rocky start.

    The early and mid 80’s also saw the band dabble in Hollywood movies. In 1980, they did the musical score and soundtrack for the film Flash Gordon. Later, in 1986, many of the songs from the album  A Kind of Magic, were written specifically for the film Highlander. However, all this paled to an event that would get the group back on the good graces of the public. In 1985, a concert would be held. Queen would participate, and the result would be what many consider the greatest event in the band’s history.
Live Aid, 1985

     In early 1985,  Bob Geldof was putting together the very first Live Aid concert. The event would take place at Wembly Stadium, on July 13th, 1985. Though many groups would take to the stage that day, all anyone ever remember is the twenty minute set by Queen. The band had the audience wrapped around it’s finger. During the singing of “Radio Ga Ga” , Freddie was able to get everyone in attendance to clap in unison. The result is simply breathtaking to behold.

    On stage, Freddie loved to bask in the adoration of the audience, yet he could separate himself from it in his private life. He had learned early on to keep what happens behind closed door secret from the nagging news hounds.  He was a born performer on stage, and he loved every minute of it. That joy, many years later, would be envied by another rock performer who’s life also ended far too soon. In Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, he spoke of the envy he had of Freddie and his love for his fans. 
Freddie with one of his beloved cats, mid 80's.

    The Live Aid concert had re-invigorated the band and they had yet again become a group focused on a single goal. This newfound camaraderie was shown on the A Kind of Magic album, when the first track, “One Vision” was credited to the group as a whole. The Magic album would be the last time an individual would be credited with a single song. With most of the songs from this album being featured in the film Highlander, it quickly topped the charts.

    The tour that came after the album’s release would be a grand spectacle indeed. Queen would sell out stadiums everywhere, even becoming one of the first bands to play behind the Iron Curtain. The highlight of the tour were a pair of concerts held at Wembly Stadium. The band had never been higher. The tour ended with fans clamoring for more. Sadly, The Magic Tour would be the last time the four members of Queen would grace the stage together.
Freddie, at the end of one of the Wembly Magic Tour shows.

     In 1985, Freddie began a long term relationship with a man named Jim Hutton. Jim knew of Freddie’s promiscuous lifestyle, and he accepted it. However, that lifestyle would finally catch up to the singer. A new and deadly disease had reared it’s head. AIDS was hitting the gay community hard, and Doctors had no clue on how to handle it. The disease did not care how famous you were, it struck all equally.

    Sometime near Easter, 1987, according to Jim Hutton, Freddie was diagnosed with the disease. At first, he kept the knowledge to himself, as he did with most things. Soon, however, he did let the other members of Queen, his family, and even his beloved Mary, know of what he was facing. All would later say that Freddie sat them down, told them that he was facing the disease, and that they were to never discuss it again. All he wanted to do was make music until he no longer could. His friends aimed to see that his wishes were followed through with.

    Freddie had always been a fan of Opera, and in 1987, he got to meet one of his favorite singers, Montserrat Caballe, an Opera diva. The two hit it off, and as a result, they decided to record an album together. The album, Barcelona was well received by critics, a wonderful mix of Opera and rock. Freddie’s voice worked so well with Montserrat that some say that the album is probably the greatest recording in the singers’ life. The two remained close friends for the remaining years Freddie had left to him.
Freddie and Montserrat.

    After taking a few years off, to let Freddie deal with his disease, Queen headed back into the studio to record their next album, The Miracle. The press was already starting to spread rumors about Freddie’s health. He had kept himself out of the public's eye for a while now, and the few glimpses they did get of him showed that he was rapidly losing weight. His face was beginning to show signs of lesions, so to help hide them, Freddie got rid of the mustache, and went for a more five-o-clock shadow look. The album hit and was a success, yet fans were wondering why no tour had been announced.

Freddie, 1989.

    The group recorded a few videos for the album and instead of taking a break, headed into the studio again to record the last Queen album that would be released while Freddie was alive, Innuendo. If you look at this album in hindsight, you can almost see where Freddie and the rest are saying goodbye, even the title track has a line in it that goes. “Through the sorrow, all through our splendor, please don’t take offense at my innuendo.” As I said, in hindsight, it is almost as if Freddie is apologizing for the nature of the entire album. It is as if he knew this would be his last album. The final track, written by Brian May for Freddie, is one of my all time favorite songs, and that is out of every band, not just Queen. “The Show Must Go On” speaks to me in ways I sometimes cannot fathom. It is a truly moving piece, and if you have never heard it before, please, go to youtube or wherever and search for it!

    In 1990, Freddie made his last public appearance, at an awards ceremony, where the band was being given a lifetime achievement award. Despite the accolades, all the press could focus on was Freddie’s gaunt and thin appearance. As the months passed, and Freddie began to decline, the recording sessions got shorter and shorter.

    The group decided to film a few videos to support the release of Innuendo. The first, for the title track, was nothing but claymation and special effects, leading to a backlash from the press about how Freddie was too sick to appear in front of the camera. Then, in the next video for “I’m Going Slightly Mad” the press complained that Freddie was under way too much makeup, hiding his illness. The man just could not win. Then came what would end up being the very last video of Freddie’s life, the very moving and emotional song, “These Are The Days of Our Lives.” Filmed in color, it was later decided to turn it to black and white in post production, simply because the color version made Freddie look very skeletal. I have seen the color version, I do agree that the black and white was the best thing they could have done, sadly.
Freddie, from the shoot for "These Are the Days of Our Lives."

    Time was quickly coming to an end for Freddie. He recorded as much new materiel as he could, but soon his body began to give out. By the time his 45th birthday approached, he was going blind, and needed help getting out of bed to use the toilet. His birthday that year was a very small occasion, only a few close friends, surrounding him while he lay in bed. Two months later, on November 22nd, 1991, Freddie got a hold of his publicist, and had him prepare a statement:

“Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors, and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease. My privacy has always been very special to me and I am famous for my lack of interviews. Please understand this policy will continue.”

The statement was released to the press on the morning of November 23rd, 1991. It was one of the top stories around the world that day. Sadly, it would be overshadowed two days later, when the morning papers would print yet another statement from the Mercury camp.

    November 24th dawned like any other day. Freddie, who could barely speak, was fed, changed and given his medication. A few friends, sensing the end was near, came to say their goodbyes. As the day wore on, Freddie grew weaker and weaker, even soiling himself at one point, simply because he was too worn out to be brought to the bathroom. As the evening came, Jim Hutton sat beside him, holding his hand. Dave Clark, the singer, was also in attendance. As the sun was setting, Freddie drew his last breath. The little boy from Zanzibar, who had grown to become one of the greatest singers of all time, was gone.

    The news of his passing hit hard. Long time friend, Elton John, did a small radio tribute to his memory. From all around the world, fans came to his home in England, and soon a makeshift memorial had taken shape, hundreds of flowers, signs, and stuffed animal.  On November 27th, his funeral was held in the Zoroastrian faith of his parents. Elton John as well as the surviving members of Queen served as his pall bearers. Freddie’s body was cremated, in the custom of his family’s religion, and his ashes were scattered at sea.
The funeral for

    For the three remaining members of Queen, now was not the time for mourning. They had plans and final promises to fulfill. The result of these plans was the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert For AIDS Awareness, held at Wembly Stadium, on Easter Monday, April 20th, 1992. Many famous groups and artist from the era ended up on the stage, performing not only their own hits, but classic Queen  tunes as well. Most notable there was Metallica, Extreme, Seal, Annie Lennox, Elton John, George Michael, Axel Rose, Liza Minnelli, and even Elizabeth Taylor. The concert was broadcast live around the world, and was a huge success, raising a lot of money and awareness for AIDS research.
Freddie Mercury tribute Concert, 1992.

    Freddie had a vast fortune, and his will decided who got what. The house and most of his estate went to the love of his life, Mary, and her husband and children. Jim Hutton got a sizable sum as well. The rest was divided as needed. Though some would try to make false claims, only those stipulated in his will ever saw a dime.

    Tributes for the singer can be found around the world, even to this day, twenty years after his passing. In Montreux, Switzerland, there is a huge statue of the singer overlooking Lake Geneva. Another statue was erected in 2002 , above London’s West End Dominion Theater. A film about his life is currently in the works, said to be starring Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of Freddie. The film will not deal with the later years of his life, but will end with the greatest day the band ever had together, Live Aid, 1985. Even this year, on what would have been Freddie’s 65th birthday, tributes came in from all over the world, many from current music stars who list Freddie as one of their greatest influences. As an added tribute, on September 5th, 2011, Google created a special animated doodle on its main search page. When clicked, an animated version of Queen’s  “Don’t Stop Me Now” played.
Statue overlooking Lake Geneva.

    Queen itself seems to survive somewhat after the loss of Freddie. The final album to feature Freddie’s voice, Made in Heaven, was released in 1995. Most of the music on it was re-recorded versions of songs from some of the solo works of Freddie, Brian, and Roger. The fourth track on the album, “Mother Love” was the last thing Freddie had ever recorded. The final part of the song was sung by Brian May, sadly because Freddie had never been able to finish the song himself.

    After the release of this final album, the band seemed doomed. John Deacon, who was beginning to feel his age, decided to retire from the music industry. He was even absent when, in 2001, Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Roger and Brian decided to continue without him. They enlisted the help of Paul Rodgers, formally of Bad Company, and the trio went on tour as Queen + Paul Rodgers, lasting five years. They did record  a single new album together, The Cosmos Rocks, but it was not well received. 

     Queen entered my life at a fairly early age. I began to appreciate music near the end of the 1970’s. One of my first memories of Queen is the song “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” from 1979, followed shortly after by “Another One Bites the Dust.”  I was also a huge fan of the film Flash Gordon when I first saw it, at around the age of nine. However, I did not know who the group was, or where they were from, I just enjoyed the songs. It was not until 1984, and the release of “Radio Ga Ga” that I really began to learn about them, but even that was in a limited fashion. My next exposure came from the film Highlander , a favorite of mine, even to this day. In 1989, I heard the song “Scandal” on the radio, yet never realized it was Queen till around 1991.
Promo shot from The Miracle, 1989.

    Sadly, I must say it was Freddie’s death that got me focused on the band. I soon found myself buying almost an album a week. Very quickly I had amassed a huge collection of their music, and with one exception, the album Hot Space, I loved them all. As I said, my all time favorite song is “The Show Must go On”, yet coming in at number two for me is the Mercury penned “Somebody to Love” from 1976. The music of Queen always seems to fill me with emotion. A few times, I have been accused of being obsessed with the band, but this is not true. I do not own everything Queen, I do not seek out rarities. In fact, I have no memorabilia from the band at all. I have exactly what I want from them, their music.

    Most years, on November 24th, I tend to sit quietly, for at least a portion of the day, to reflect upon the passing of Freddie. This year, I decided, since it has been twenty years since he left this Earth, that I would do something special. I share here my thoughts and feeling on the legendary singer, celebrating the life he lived, the music he helped create, and the legacy he left behind. There will never be another singer like Freddie, he was unique in the annals of rock and roll history. I recently was able to get the DVD of the VH1 Classic Albums series look at A Night at the Opera. It was actually a far more emotional look than you would think. Brian May is really the only member of the band to appear in it, and he is at a mixing board for most of it, breaking down the tracks to give insight into the creation of the album. At one point, he plays a clip from “Love of My Life” featuring just Freddie’s voice. Brian begins talking, then just suddenly stops, and a brief sadness overtakes him. You can see in his eyes, as he hears the voice of his departed friend, the loss he still feels, a loss shared by thousands around the world.

    I really do not have much more to add, the sight of Brian in that VH1 special pretty much summed up how I still feel about this band and their ever flamboyant front man. I will leave you now with a quote from my all time favorite song…

  “My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies. Fairytales of yesterday, will grow but never die. I can fly, my friends. The Show must go on!”

Indeed…

    R.I.P. Freddie Mercury
September 5th 1946 - November 24th 1991


Rest in Peace.

3 comments:

  1. this is a very good Freddie Mercury Tribute. i really enjoyed reading about him.

    thanks

    from John (Johndoe4880)

    ReplyDelete
  2. we all still remember you freddie

    thanx

    husen nugraha from Indonesia

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have always loved music from Queen as I was growing up, Freddie Mercury had a beautiful voice.

    Thank you for this Tribute. I don't like reading but, I read the entire page.

    -Kat

    ReplyDelete