Maverick. Genius. Poet. Rebel with several causes. Freddie Mercury is the eternal enigma. His billion-odd fans are testament to his charisma. Biographer Lesley-Ann Jones reveals the several layers to the mercurial showman: Aapro Farrokh Bulsara
"Instead of becoming a fat, bloated, self-important old queen, he was cut off in his prime and is preserved at that age for eternity. It's not a bad way to go." - Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, psychiatrist to the rich and famous, on hearing of the legendary showman's demise in 1991.
A file picture of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Rock group, Queen,
taken on September 18, 1984 during a concert at the Palais Omnisports
de Paris Bercy. Pic/ AFP
For most of Freddie Mercury's adult life, he believed that he was on the planet to entertain and engage his audience. The stage was his altar and he reveled in every moment on it. During Rock band Queen's finest hour at the LIVE aid concert in Wembley in 1984, a star was born and his name was Freddie Mercury.
Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography, Lesley-Ann Jones, Hachette
India, Rs 595. Available at leading bookstores.
Rock journalist Lesley-Ann Jones' biography crisscrosses continents and complexities, while giving one a front-row view of the life of one of modern-day music's most enigmatic figures. Like his guru Jimi Hendrix, his short but eventful life met with a tragic end. Yet, while he was alive, he lit up the stage unlike any other. He was the true champion. In an email interview with Jones, The GUIDE attempts to unravel the man behind the showman.
As a Rock journalist having covered and followed Mercury for years, what went through your mind as you settled down to pen the opening lines of this biography?
I have always believed in leaving the writing of the opening chapter to the end. It should serve, ideally, as an overview, as well as a prelude to the rest that is to come. This time was no exception: I wrote the LIVE Aid chapter first, then took Freddie's story right back to the beginning, to Zanzibar --and followed it from there.
I had planned a summary of Queen's career and Freddie's life and times for the introduction, but then I heard from Roger Tavener. He had been the showbiz reporter on the Daily Express when I was covering mainly Rock and Pop for the Daily Mail. In the '80s, we were 'bitter rivals', chasing the same stories and each other across the world. One evening in May 1986, we found ourselves in a bar with Freddie.
The surreal night with him that ensued was something that we agreed not to write about at the time. We didn't analyse it, we simply decided not to compromise his privacy. Had our editors found out that we had thrown away that exclusive, we would have been fired for it, but we took a chance, and we let it go. That felt right.
Many years later, Roger Tavener (who has been living in Australia) found his old notebook, and got in touch with me, having heard through mutual friends that I was researching/ writing this book. Our collective memories of that unforgettable evening distilled into appropriate introduction to Freddie's story. It was a gift. So I decided to begin with that experience of him. I felt sad and deeply nostalgic for those 'good old days' as I sat writing it. That gush of memories made me miss Freddie very much.
At any point, did you feel that you perhaps hadn't done complete justice to a modern legend?
I hope that I have done Freddie justice, and that I left few stones unturned. He was a remarkable, complex, complicated and in many ways a unique individual. I have done my best to understand and explain him - as much as anyone can. Do any of us really know ourselves? I have written extensively about the 'two Freddies', but I think in fact that there were many more of him than that. He was all kinds of Freddies, to all kinds of people. I honestly believe that I got as close as I could to most of them, thanks to the generosity of those who had known and worked with him, many of whom agreed to be interviewed. I couldn't have done it without them.
Which chapter of Freddie's life was most difficult to chronicle? Why?
Perhaps the hardest part of Freddie's life to chronicle was the concluding chapter of his life. I didn't see him again after the final Queen gig in 1986, so I had no first-hand experience. I had to rely on what other people who had been with him at the end could tell me -- notably Jim Hutton, Freddie's last live-in partner and Peter Freestone, Freddie's personal assistant. Both were immensely open and honest -- at times, painfully so. I tried my best to read between all the lines, and imagine what they must have gone through as Freddie slipped away.
Mercury chose to keep his Indian roots under wraps once he moved to London. While researching the biography, what was the mood like as you interacted with friends, family and acquaintances, especially since most were aware of his choice?
When Freddie moved to London and immersed himself in the music and art scenes, during the late '60s, it was not common for Rock stars to have exotic/ ethnic roots. He had changed his first name from Farrokh to Freddie while at school in Panchgani, India -- primarily because it was less of a mouthful, and because St Peter's was the very model of an English public school. In London, he was Freddie Bulsara at college, and on occasion, when he auditioned for bands, 'Fred Bull'.
I believe that it was not so much a case of him hiding his Indian roots, as of him being inclined to close chapters as he went through life. As he left each stage, that was it, done -- and on to the next. Freddie's father had a British passport, and Freddie had expressed enormous enthusiasm for a move to London when the Zanzibar revolution came.
This was the perfect opportunity to reinvent him in a thrusting, progressive part of the world, which could not be more different from Zanzibar and India, where he had been born, brought up and educated. Freddie was always mindful of his family's religion and culture. He adored his parents and sister Kashmira, and did his utmost not to offend them. Certain ways in which he chose to live were not acceptable to the Parsi way of life. He retained his connections to India: his aunt Sheroo in what was then Bombay (now Mumbai) was very dear to him. The Taj Mahal remained his favourite monument on earth.
Which track, according to you, was a defining moment in Mercury's life? What inspired him to write it?
Bohemian Rhapsody was Freddie's magnum opus. I believe it was his expression of the need to allow him to live a homosexual lifestyle. It was he giving himself permission to leave the 'old' Freddie behind. He was killing him off ("Mamma, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger, now he's dead �") although that original Freddie still haunted him ("I see a little silhouetto of a man �"). He could then move on to become the new Freddie. The lyrics were obscure, however, and he never explained them. Like any poet, he dismissed requests for explanations: " �if you see it, darling, then it's there."
How different would Rock music have sounded had Mercury and Queen been around today?
Freddie's death crystallised a moment in time for Queen and their music. With Freddie gone, their songs were preserved in perpetuity. Because of their quality, these songs have never aged. They sound as fresh and as groundbreaking today as they did when they were recorded and first released. Would Queen have gone on to record more and more music, had he lived? That's hard to say. By the early '80s, Freddie had come to hate touring. He loathed life on the road. He adored performing, however. His primary concern, during his final couple of years, was to leave the rest of the band with enough recorded vocals for them to go on playing and creating Queen songs. Would Queen's unique and varied sound have continued to evolve, as well as influence subsequent generations of bands? Most definitely. I don't think that Rock music would have sounded 'different', as such. There would simply have been more Queen for us to enjoy.
Was there a side to Freddie that you discovered in the course of your writing his biography?
There were many. Perhaps most surprising was that he was not -- in any way -- a diva. When he was not on stage, commanding the attention of 80,000 fans, he dropped the flamboyant behaviour and was a nice, modest guy. He did not regard himself as a celebrity, but as a musician. He did not seek out the company of other artists; he let them come to him. He touched base with very few -- Elton John was perhaps his closest 'famous' friend. His music spoke for itself. He never saw the need to blow trumpets. I loved him for this.