It’s the 20th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death. It’s time for RICHARD POPLAK to get angry at his parents all over again.
I recall the disappointment clearly, and it has not been forgiven. The year was 1984, my 10th on the planet, and my fourth as a rabid music fan. Queen, by a long shot my favourite band were due to appear in Sun City. I was determined to go. This depended, of course, on the largesse of my parents, who had never set foot in a Sol Kerzner establishment, and weren’t about to start with a Queen concert that was being held despite the consternation of the band’s fan base in the rest of the world.
Freddie Mercury—god of gods—was unmoved by the international artistic injunction to never play Sun City. My father, however, was equally unmoved by my entirely reasonable argument, that just so happened to be delivered inside of a tantrum.
“No fucking way,” he said.
As a 10 year old, whose notion of universal fairness was entirely inwardly focused, I couldn’t have cared less if PW Botha was gassing kittens—the controversy passed me by. I was staggered by the very notion that a god had deigned to come to the bottom of Africa to sing for us, and I wanted to be there. Seven years later Freddie Mercury succumbed to bronchopneumonia, which commonly claims those in the latter stages of Aids. That was it. A voice like no other—a voice that could traverse four octaves in the span of a single rock song—was snuffed out. And I never got to see him sing.
Watch Queen – I’m Going Slightly Mad:
We were barely warned. The statement arrived a day before his death and, as a lifelong reader of the music press, it was in many ways the first we’d heard of Freddie’s unadorned voice, given his almost pathological shyness: “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.”
Watch Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody:
That policy did continue, for another 24 hours, until Freddie passed away on 24 November 1991. His legacy, the Sun City blemish notwithstanding, is astounding. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar in 1946, Freddie was educated in India and England. He learned to play the piano early, and after a succession of failed school bands, he met Brian May and Roger Taylor, members of a band called Smile. Farrokh—now Freddie—was just 17, but he knew where he stood in the grand scheme of things. He changed the band’s name to Queen, which if not a direct reference to homosexuality, was certainly a nod at his sexual ambidextrousness. He also changed his surname, to Mercury, and was thus the frontman for a band that would go on to sell more than 300 million records worldwide.
That number is awe inspiring, and it ranks Queen as one of the top five bands of all time. That said, the band was never as easy to categorise as, say, contemporaries like The Who or Led Zeppelin. Their influences were too broad, they were theatrical rather than proggy, and never did anything remotely as annoying as Tommy, mostly because they had Freddie’s inbuilt showmanship and sense of humour to keep them on the straight and narrow.
Watch Queen – Somebody to Love:
I use the term “straight” in the context of Freddie Mercury, um, loosely. He was never quite a gay icon, but rather a transitional figure between the closeted years that prefigured the Aids era, and our own, more open time. Like Liberace and Elton John, Freddie was certainly bent, but never properly out. He dated women—most notably Mary Austin, the love of his life, to whom he left the bulk of his assets—but was in a long-term relationship with John Hutton when he died. He was true a Dionysian, or he came off as one. The truth seems to be a little more complicated. Painfully shy and terribly quiet in company, Freddie was a showman on stage only. He was never the loudest guy in the room, unless that room happened to be Wembley Stadium. He was a performer, and he lived his life to be extroverted on stage, and on stage alone. The idea of Freddie Mercury mumbling is almost unimaginable, but he was a mumbler supreme.
Twenty years after his death, Queen’s legacy has dimmed not at all. Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are the Champions must be two of the most played songs on radio and in stadiums the world over. Since Freddie passed away, the band has sold almost 20 million records in America alone. For Gen X hipsters, The Highlander, for which Queen contributed the soundtrack, remains a movie guilty pleasure sine quo non. (I beg the Hollywood hacks—leave this one 80s icon unrebooted.) The band is an inviolable part of Western culture, and as universal a brand as its possible to have in music.
Watch Queen – Who Wants to Live Forever:
There remains just that one blemish—a concert in apartheid-era South Africa before an audience of very happy white people. Can we forgive Freddie for such a transgression? I think we can. The man was a preternatural performer. Politics, racial, sexual or otherwise, were not his bag. Freddie gets a free pass for playing Sun City. Modern Talking and Olivia Newton John do not—but that’s because I think they are crap.
There you go—it helps to be a rock god. And so give a Queen record a spin today, and celebrate a man who made the world bop along to an absurdity, and a stroke of pop genius, as inimitable as Bohemian Rhapsody. DM
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