FREDDIE MERCURY & QUEEN: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE IMPRESSIONS - More than a decade after his death from AIDS, rock legend Freddy Mercury's legacy lives on.
by Robert Urban, Urban Productions, NYC
This story appeared originally at www.afterelton.com; reprinted by permission of the author.
On October 8th, 1988, rock superstar and Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury appeared at the huge open air La Nit festival in Barcelona, singing three duets with international opera diva Monserat Caballe. This was the last time he performed onstage. He was terribly ill with AIDS, but he didn't want people to know about it. Although infirm, he told no one. He continued to compose, record and even took part in making videos.
From 1988 through 1991, there were media rumors that Freddie Mercury had AIDS, but these were denied until, on November 23rd, 1991, he released the following statement:
"Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease."
Freddie Mercury died the day after releasing this statement.
On April 20, 1992, as a tribute to Mercury, the surviving members of Queen threw a massive concert before a crowd of 72,000 at London's Wembley Stadium. Billed as the "Freddy Mercury Aids Benefit", the event sold out in two hours and attracted the largest-ever worldwide viewing audience when televised live. Proceeds went to The Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS benefit group.
The line-up featured some of the biggest acts in music. Some of the many artists who sang a Queen song included: Metallica, Extreme, Def Leppard, Guns n' Roses. Elton John, Roger Daltry, Robert Plant, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Axl Rose, Seal, Lisa Stansfield and Liza Minelli. The ex-members of Queen, Roger Taylor, John Deacon, and Brian May also performed. Elizabeth Taylor gave a speech. A live satellite link to California showed a performance by U2, and a satellite link to South Africa showed a performance by Mango Groove.
The concert fueled speculation that Queen might be looking for an ad-hoc Mercury replacement for future touring and recording. With the surviving members of Queen onstage as backup band, it was hard to resist the temptation to judge the different singers on their ability to cover Queen’s material. I found myself thinking of the show as not just a Mercury tribute, but also as Queen’s own secret celebrity cattle-call audition.
Many who watched the benefit noted that by far the most eligible Freddie Mercury replacement candidate was George Michael, who sang the Queen classics "These Are the Days of Our Lives" and "Somebody to Love." Michael’s smooth, yet powerful pop tenor voice, especially in the middle and low range, is comparable in timbre to Mercury’s. Both singers share a similar legato vocal approach and falsetto-like high note technique. It was evident at the concert that both George Michael and Queen felt right at home onstage with each other.
In 1993 George Michael released Five-Live, his own five-song EP Freddie Mercury tribute. All proceeds from the record also went to the Phoenix Trust. Michael was a close friend of Mercury’s, and was at his bedside the day Mercury passed away.
It’s been 13 years since that now-legendary Freddie Mercury tribute concert. The remaining Queen band members never did replace Mercury, nor did they even attempt to tour without him.
This is about to change. Queen guitarist Brian May recently announced from his own website, “For a while I used to say, 'OK, I don't want to be a part of Queen anymore, I want to be myself.’ And I think that I had to do that as part of my growth; and as part of my grieving about Mercury. Now, I think we've all grown up; and we realize, 'OK, Queen is with us forever.'”
Queen’s plan is to reform and tour in 2005 with Bad Company and Free lead singer Paul Rodgers. It’s a move that’s sure to piss off a lot of die-hard Freddie Mercury fans. It is unknown how well Rogers can pull-off the many war-horse hits that Mercury made famous and that the new Queen will surely have to offer to anxious audiences. Roger is a fine blues-rock vocalist in his own right, but nowhere near the virtuosic, 3.5 octave range wonder that was Freddie Mercury. Nor does Rogers possess Mercury’s stage flair or sheer star attractiveness. (Even foppish Darkness vocalist Justin Hawkins, who Queen recently collaborated with for their 2004 30th Anniversary show, seemed a more logical choice.)
Judging from the intense devotion still felt for Mercury from fans everywhere, and acknowledging the special gay/straight chemistry that made Queen so glorious in it’s heyday, surviving Queen members would do well to seriously consider a gay singer for their Freddie Mercury replacement. For this band, any reunion faithful to its original, winning sound and style needs to combine grand ostentation, delicate taste and operatic/classical airs with the power and crunch of pure, head-banging, raw rock power.
It’s significant to note the many “gay” artistic sensibilities Mercury imparted to his band, that helped produce such a commercially and artistically successful collaboration (starting with his idea for their fabulous name).
It was Mercury’s eccentric, flashy genius that created an operatic production as grand as Queen’s mega-hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” and made this kind of “classicized” pop music accessible to mainstream audiences. Mercury’s cinematic vision also pioneered the song’s 1975 video, widely hailed as the first true pop “video” promo that helped to launch the MTV age. His glitzy theatrical instincts were responsible for making Queen one of the first supergroups to incorporate massive lighting, huge sets and other special stage effects into their live shows.
It's also disappointing that George Michael wasn't chosen to tour with the new Queen. He has a lot of qualities in common with the late Freddy Mercury. Considering the spotty, up-and-down course George Michael’s career has been taking since the 90s, I am surprised he didn’t lobby more for the role (although he recently said in an interview that he's tired of touring in general). It could have revived his career with mainstream rock fans and treated a whole new generation of audiences to a more genuinely Queen-like (pardon the double-entendre) live-in-concert experience.
Freddie Mercury occupied a unique niche in rock. While in many respects he was overtly queer his whole career, (“I am as gay as a daffodil, dear” being one of his most famous quotes), his sexual orientation seemed to pass over the heads of scrutinizing audiences and pundits (both gay and straight) for decades. It’s difficult even now to write much about him: when he died, he did not leave an autobiography. There are not many serious, informative interviews with him on record. He didn’t like talking to the press.
The above “daffodil” quote aside, Mercury often referred to himself as “bisexual”, and even left his estate to long time girlfriend Mary Astor. “To me we are married. She (Mary) is my common law wife,” he has been quoted as saying.
Mercury even wove his sexual mystique into his art, recording a cover of Buck Ram’s classic “The Great Pretender” (and appearing in drag in the song’s video):
Oh oh, yes I'm the great pretender
Just laughing and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I'm not you see
I'm wearing my heart like a clown
Too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal
Mercury did not ally himself to political “outness,” or to public GLBT causes. While the general gay audience could always somehow easily identify with the likes of Elton John, George Michael, David Bowie, Boy George, (even when those stars themselves would not acknowledge being gay), many queers were not that familiar with Mercury, since he was more part of the era’s hetero-dominated heavy rock scene.
John Marshall of Gay Times wrote in January 1992: "He was a 'scene-queen', not afraid to publicly express his gayness but unwilling to analyze or justify his lifestyle....It was as if Freddie Mercury was saying to the world, 'I am what I am. So what?' And that in itself was a statement".
It is interesting to note that, all throughout Queen’s 35-year history, Mercury’s flaming behavior never caused the band to seriously incur the wrath of the often homophobic young-white-straight-male rock fans--even after Mercury died of AIDS.
As noted in Mercury's obituary by Adam Sweeting in The Guardian, "It was a measure of the band's professionalism that, in spite of Mercury's flamboyant performances and cross-dressing, they managed to avoid the media witch-hunts which beset others. Mercury dressed as a ballet dancer and a storm trooper and persuaded the whole group to wear drag in the video for 1984's 'I Want To Break Free,' but their reputation emerged enhanced. This was because, behind the togs and the mascara, Mercury possessed unusual musical talent."
In researching this article, I studied dozens of Freddie Mercury internet fan sites and discussion forums, and read through hundreds of anonymous posts. I encountered much pain, conflict, denial and struggle still out there amongst straight Queen fans still trying to come to terms with the realization that their hard rock icon was gay. But perhaps as a tribute to Mercury’s ability to overcome negative gay stereotypes, I also came across numerous supportive, moving sentiments, like the following:
“I am the straightest guy there is and I will always love my man Freddie. One day maybe people won't be so narrow minded about what somebody does sexually and whom with. I have a tattoo on my back with Freddie's name and under it 1946 - 1991. Do you know how many fights I have gotten into because somebody wanted to make the joke "why do you have a queer's name on your back?" Just wanted to share that. I will always stand up for FREDDIE!!! He was the greatest singer to ever grace a stage.”
There is also much argument (often heated) among gays on Mercury’s “outness,” or lack of. But again, numerous posts reveal Mercury’s continued appeal as this young gay fan’s post reveals: “I am the vice president of the GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance, at my school and for Gay Awareness Month we are reading short biographies during assembly every morning. I chose Freddy Mercury.”
And perhaps most touching of all is the 1997 release Queen Rocks, a compilation of the best rock songs of the band. The CD includes the Brian May song "No-One But You (Only The Good Die Young)" written in honor of Freddie Mercury. The lyrics deal with how much his band mates miss him, and opines on what Mercury would do now if he were one of them.
Such an elegiac testimonial helps put to rest the mistaken notion that three non-gay guys would never want to be in a band (for 25 years, no less!) with a gay guy. This is particularly helpful in today’s world where more and more new gay/straight collaborations are occurring in rock.
I remember seeing Queen live in Hartford, CT, around 1977. After the concert, I somehow got myself backstage, and was hoping to catch a close-up glimpse of the band. Near the dressing rooms stood drummer Roger Taylor, guitarist Brian May and bassist John Deacon, surrounded by a crowd of autograph hounds.
Then, beyond them, I spied frontman Freddie Mercury, at his own dressing room door, greeting fans, royal receiving-line style. He was holding a huge bouquet of long-stemmed roses. To each of the young men who presented themselves to him, Mercury handed a single rosebud. I could hear his words as he lovingly handed out the flowers to his boy fans, “Here’s one for you dearie….”, “one for you sweetie…”, “thank you for coming, handsome…” “Oh, aren’t you adorable…”
It is this personable, gay image of Mercury that comes to mind whenever I think of him. Even way back then, he was just who he was, onstage or off.
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