Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Death of a Rock Icon: Freddie Mercury Remembered

As November 24, the 27th anniversary of the death of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, receives worldwide attention, it's important to remember the legacy he left, that of his music and his amazing performances.

While other, perhaps more 'important' deaths were commemorated ( John F. Kennedy, Harvey Milk and George Moscone), as I've been immersed in the band's music and Mercury's life while finishing my Queen-infused novel, Now I'm Here, I've taken a specific focus on loss.

Many articles have been published and shared about Mercury's life, as told by those close to him. Peter “Phoebe” Freestone (Freddie Mercury’s personal assistant for over 10 years) talked about Freddie’s last words and final moments on his “Ask Phoebe” blog.

 "I remember Freddie’s last words to me," he wrote. "I was with him the whole of the night on Friday 22nd November. There was someone with Freddie 24 hours a day for the last week. I remember sitting on the bed holding his hand. Freddie would doze, wake up, doze, so I held his hand so that he knew someone was there. One of the times he was awake we had a short conversation… about how things were downstairs and if everything was clean and tidy. The very last thing he said to me was ‘thank you’. To this day I’m not sure if it was for the night I was sitting there with him, or for the 12 years we had been together. I suppose it is something I will never know."

In this Society of Rock article, the writer states, "On the 27th anniversary of his death, we’re not mourning his loss. You don’t mourn the loss of someone as beautiful and brilliant as Freddie Mercury was – you celebrate, and you celebrate in a way that honors their triumphs and lets them live again, if only for a moment."

Few articles document the experience of his partner for several years, Jim Hutton. In an excerpt from his memoir, Mercury and Me, the late Hutton (who died in 2010 of cancer) wrote of Mercury's last moments:

"I slipped my arm under Freddie’s neck, kissed him and then held him. His eyes were still open. I can remember very clearly the expression on his face, and when I go to sleep every night it’s still there in front of me. He looked radiant. One minute he was a boy with a gaunt, sad little face and the next he was a picture of ecstasy. Freddie’s whole face went back to everything it had been before. He looked finally and totally at peace. Seeing him like that made me feel happy in my sadness. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I knew that he was no longer in pain.” 

Such intimate moments are quoted in the many fans pages on both Facebook and Instagram. Among my favorite is Jimercury, an Instagram account that focuses on Hutton and Mercury's lives together from 1986 to 1991. The account also shares images and gifs of actor Aaron McKusker, who played Hutton in the film Bohemian Rhapsody.

Other fan pages of note include Queen, All Queen's People, and Awesome Queen. On Instagram, along with Jimercury, I follow FreddieMercuryTheRealQueen, LegendaryMercury, ReaddieFreddie, of course OfficialQueenMusic, and many others. Such fan pages focus on the music and life of Mercury, but in the past few days, they've commemorated Mercury's death with sweet quotes, video clips and images. 

Elsewhere, much has been written, pro and con, about the depiction of Freddie's private life, specifically his HIV diagnosis, how it anachronistically moves this event forward to heighten the dramatic impact of the 1985 Live Aid performance. You can read the collected reviews in my previous essay here.

Many Queen fans brush those problems aside, because their love for Mercury and the band overshadows any critiques. It's clear that this year Mercury's death is getting more notice because of the film. These remembrances highlight the years that were, to much criticism, omitted from the biopic. 

As a writer concerned with the depiction of character with AIDS, in a way, I can understand the story decision screenwriter Anthony McCarten made. And yet, through the 20 years from the beginning to completion of writing my Queen-inspired novel, Now I'm Here, I'm glad that I chose to depict a more full representation of characters who struggled with the disease in up to the early 1990s.

Freddie Mercury Nov 1990 photo: Simon Fowler
As my beginning work on the novel, I knew that Mercury's demise would become an important moment in the book. It took years to write the book, because the difficulty of honestly depicting tragedy takes time, and maturity. For years I put it aside to focus on other works. Some also brought AIDS into the story, but in a different way, and took up the front burner of my creativity. But still, the story of a Queen-inspired piano prodigy and a pumpkin farmer remained in the back of my mind. When would they have seen Queen perform? I chose to keep my own chronological history as a framework, to keep a clearer remembrance of years gone by.

Some people are easy to critique Mercury for not coming out as being gay (or bisexual; let's not keep arguing about that, please) and as having AIDS. They forget, or weren't alive, through those difficult days, when people, mostly gay men, were dying by the thousands each year. The stigma was rampant, the media persistently either ignoring or demonizing those afflicted.

The British tabloid press in particular hounded Mercury as he visibly deteriorated. Despite his own pain in those last years, he determined to work through it, more concerned with the legacy and productivity of the band than his own concerns. Band members Brian May and Roger Taylor sometimes discuss those last years in interviews, like this one on SmoothRadio.

"Fans were concerned about Freddie due to their lack of tour to support their 1989 album The Miracle, though Brian May later said that even they didn't know about how ill Freddie was for years.

"We didn’t know actually what was wrong for a very long time," said May. "We never talked about it and it was a sort of unwritten law that we didn’t, because Freddie didn’t want to.

It's perhaps difficult to understand his straight band members' lack of awareness, considering most people who are gay or who knew anyone gay were gripped by fear and concern. That's something we have to forgive, even if it's not easy.

"These Are the Days of Our Lives," the last music video filmed with Mercury, serves as a visual imprint clearly showing Mercury's ill health, but also his stalwart determination to keep working. I remember being shocked to see him in it, but also confronted with the similarity to so many friends with AIDS (then when I was living in New York City) whose gaunt faces foretold a similar fate.

Freddie Mercury with Elton John
I do believe it takes a personal perspective to grasp the importance of this time. Gay music icon Elton wrote that Mercury told him of his HIV diagnosis in 1987. In an excerpt posted from his book, Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS, shared on ThinkingHumanity, John wrote: 

“Freddie didn’t announce publicly that he had AIDS until the day before he died in 1991. Although he was flamboyant on-stage – an electric front man on par with Bowie and Jagger – he was an intensively private man offstage. But Freddie told me he had AIDS soon after he was diagnosed in 1987. I was devastated. I’d seen what the disease had done to so many of my other friends. I knew exactly what it was going to do to Freddie. As did he.

“He knew death, agonizing death, was coming. But Freddie was incredibly courageous. He kept up appearances, he kept performing with Queen, and he kept being the funny, outrageous and profoundly generous person he had always been.

“As Freddie deteriorated in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it was almost too much to bear. It broke my heart to see this absolute light unto the world ravaged by AIDS. By the end, his body was covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. He was almost blind. He was too weak to even stand …”

the last photo of Freddie Mercury, by Jim Hutton
“By all rights, Freddie should have spent those final days concerned only with his own comfort. But that wasn’t who he was. He truly lived for others.

“Freddie had passed on November 24, 1991, and weeks after the funeral, I was still grieving. On Christmas Day, I learned that Freddie had left me one final testament to his selflessness. I was moping about when a friend showed up at my door and handed me something wrapped in a pillowcase. I opened it up, and inside was a painting by one of my favourite artists, the British painter Henry Scott Tuke. And there was a note on the front from Freddie.

“Years before, Freddie and I had developed pet names for each other, our drag-queen alter egos. I was Sharon, and he was Melina. Freddie’s note read, “Dear Sharon, I thought you’d like this. Love, Melina. Happy Christmas …”

“I was overcome, forty-four years old at the time, crying like a child. Here was this beautiful man, dying from AIDS, and in his final days he had somehow managed to find me a lovely Christmas present. As sad as that moment was, it’s often the one I think about when I remember Freddie, because it captures the character of the man. In death, he reminded me of what made him so special in life.”

 If Bohemian Rhapsody, despite its flaws, helps share the story of Mercury's amazing life and premature demise, that's something. One can only imagine the many other songs that could have been made had Mercury survived.

This past weekend, Brian May shared his own sadness in commemorating Mercury's death by taking his grandchild to see the film. Hopefully, the legacy will live on in such future generations.

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