Saturday, November 19, 2005

Behind the Music: Me and Freddie Mercury, Part I

On November 24, 1991, just a few days before Thanksgiving, Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock group Queen, died of AIDS related complications at his home in Kensington, London. I heard this news from my mother who read it aloud to me from the local newspaper just as I was getting up to go to work on the morning of the 25th. I burst into tears.

There had been years of speculation in the press about Freddie’s condition, but to my mind, there hadn’t been much of a question about what Freddie had. Obviously, if not openly, gay for much of the band’s 25 year plus history, I (and probably just about everyone else) knew what was likely ailing Freddie when he began looking pale and fragile sometime during the late eighties. Those were dark days in terms of the medical technology, or rather lack thereof, that was utilized when treating the AIDS virus.

I can’t imagine that too many of Freddie’s fans were really confused about what was happening to him. Queen had released an album that year entitled “The Show Must Go On” on which the title track’s lyrics went like this:

guess I'm learning,
I must be warmer now
I'll soon be turning,
round the corner now
Outside the dawn is breaking
But inside in the dark
I'm aching to be free
The show must go on
The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on
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
The show must go on
I'll face it with a grin
I'm never giving in
On - with the show -

If that wasn’t enough of a clue, Freddie had also produced a solo recording covering “The Great Pretender” originally made famous in the 1950’s by The Platters:

Oh yes I’m the great pretender (ooh ooh)
Pretending I’m doing well (ooh ooh)
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell

Oh yes I’m the great pretender (ooh ooh)
Adrift in a world of my own (ooh ooh)
I play the game but to my real shame
You’ve left me to dream all alone
Too real is this feeling of make believe
Too real when I feel what my heart can’t conceal

Ooh ooh yes I’m the great pretender (ooh ooh)
Just laughing and gay like a clown (ooh ooh)
I seem to be what I’m not (you see)
I’m wearing my heart like a crown
Pretending that you’re still around

No, there was nothing official, but even the most casual of fans had the message. Freddie was dying, and he bade those of us who were paying attention a long, sometimes poignant, sometimes cheeky, musical farewell.

By the time Freddie was gone, I’d been a fan for fifteen years.

The first time I saw him is burned in my memory. It was 1977, back in the day when “high tech” meant trading your rotary phone for a push-button model or micro-waving your Swanson TV dinner in a machine roughly the size of Rhode Island. Changing the channel still meant getting off the couch and crossing the room. Milk showed up at your house courtesy of an actual milk MAN.

In those days, music videos were a once a week Event rather than an every day occurrence. If you wanted to see your favorite cutting edge band it meant participating in the ritual of staying up half the night to catch shows like “The Midnight Special” or “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert”. It was during one such late night vigil that I first laid eyes on the band that was to become a much-loved favorite. Queen had been around for a while by this time, certainly since 1972, but this was the first time I had laid eyes on the band and, more importantly, its charismatic lead singer.

The video began with the camera in a tight close-up on Freddie’s face and there was no mistaking the dark eye-liner around his eyes (“how daring”, I said to myself). I was instantly transfixed by the voice, the face and, secondarily, the outfit, which happened to be a see-thru ("!") black and white body suit with a plunging neckline. During the performance, I noticed Freddie carried the microphone still attached to the top half of the metal base (“how unusual” I said to myself by now somewhat breathlessly). I was to later learn this method of microphone carriage was a trademark. Freddie pranced and sang, gesturing wildly and widely to an enthusiastic crowd. I’d never seen anyone quite like him. He was insanely talented, he was flamboyant, he was handsome, he was androgynous.

He was utterly one-of-a-kind.

I was in love. In love with that special kind of fan love only a thirteen year old girl can muster. The kind of burning devotion that, if it could be harnessed collectively, would go a long way toward solving the energy crisis. I felt as though I were actually glowing by the time the song (“We are the Champions”) wound to a thrilling close.

(To be continued...)

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