Thursday, November 24, 2016

Memento mori: "What will I be doing in twenty years' time? I'll be dead, darling! Are you crazy?"

Farrokh Bulsara (1946-1991)
Songwriter, performer

There are things you lose you do not get back. You cannot have them, ever again, except in the smudging carbon copy of memory. There are things that seem irreconcilable that you must find a way to reconcile with. The simple passage of days dulls the sharpness of pain, but it never wears it out: what gets washed away in time gets washed away, and then you are left with a hard cold nub of something, an unlosable souvenir. A little china dachshund from the White Mountains. A shadow puppet from Bali. Look--an ivory shoe horn from a four-star hotel in Zurich. And here, like a stone I carry everywhere, is a bit of someone's heart I have saved from a journey I once made.
-Peter Cameron, The Weekend (1993)

He was born in the last days of the British raj, in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, was one of the most famous performers in the world for two decades, died at 45, and, were he here today, would only be seventy years old.

Time is like geology: it heaves up and exposes; it buries; it erodes. It destroys and creates. It plays cruel tricks of memory, gratifies us in recollection, and prompts our mourning. Freddie Mercury rode the wave, arising from nowhere- an art student, a used clothing dealer, a Heathrow Airport worker- to write dozens of immediately recognizable, classic songs in almost every genre- then announced he was fatally ill, and died the next day.

No one knows where his ashes lie: his onetime girlfriend scattered them somewhere after creating an elaborate ruse to throw fans off the trail. Yet still they look, a quarter century on, for that place of remembrance where they can leave something, or take something away: as Peter Cameron wrote, of similar circumstances in the same times, “a bit of someone’s heart I saved from a journey I once made.”

The Who’s Roger Daltrey called Freddie Mercury "the best virtuoso rock 'n' roll singer of all time. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line and, God, that's an art. And he was brilliant at it."

David Bowie said, "Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest... he took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand” (Mercury, admiring Bowie in a powder-blue suit at a Live Aid concert, returned the compliment: “If I didn't know you any better I'd have to eat you.”).

And the Spanish opera star, Montserrat Caballe’- with whom he made an album, Barcelona, that perplexed the hell out of critics but generated his last monster hit when its title song was made the theme for the 1992 Summer Olympics- considered him every bit an equal:

His technique was astonishing. No problem of tempo, he sang with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good and he was able to glide effortlessly from a register to another. He also had a great musicality. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right coloring or expressive nuance for each word.
In conversation- which took some coaxing, for he was a shy man, who almost never gave interviews (and, when he did, much of what he said was made up on the spot)- Mercury spoke in a resonant baritone. Singing, his central voice lay in the tenor range. But he could hit a bass low F, then soar four octaves to a top high F: on a good day, to an F5. Through some 700 concerts, Queen packed out the biggest venues in the world for two decades (their last big gig together, in 1986, was for 160,000, but Freddie Mercury could project to the back rows and make everyone in the audience feel a connection with him). After playing to 500,000 in two nights in Brazil, he joked,

We came to South America originally because we were invited down. They wanted four wholesome lads to play some nice music. Now I'd like to buy up the entire continent and install myself as President.

“Years ago", he said, "I thought up the name Queen...It's just a name, but it's very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid...It's a strong name, very universal and immediate. It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations. I was certainly aware of the gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.” He designed their logo, too.

He seemed willing to try anything at least once. He danced with the Royal Ballet, and snuck the Princess of Wales into a gay nightclub in drag. He recorded songs with Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson, and gave private parties homophobic tabloids like The Daily Mirror still described as “sordid” thirty years later. He left the bulk of his estate to his first girlfriend, Mary Austin, but died wearing a wedding ring given him by his male partner, Jim Hutton.

Freddie Mercury loved cats, and let half a dozen roam his London home. “I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter,” He said of the place. “I like to be surrounded by splendid things.”
He amassed one of the world’s great collections of Japanese woodblock prints, and was so devoted a philatelist that a museum acquired his stamp collection after he died. The Royal Mail issued a postage stamp in his honor in 1999. His and John Lennon’s collections were displayed at a postal exhibition in London in September.

Like Oscar Wilde’s generation a century earlier, Freddie Mercury grew up with one foot in a society that criminalize being gay until he was 21, and the other in a world where anything seemed accepted. He dealt with that conflict by hiding in plain sight (as early as 1974, he teased, “I am as gay as a daffodil”): one of the most flamboyant performers of the age (“I dress to kill, but tastefully”), parrying reporters’ questions while sitting out the early years of the plague that struck the 1980s. Seeking love, he settled for affection and affected indifference: “The most important thing, darling, is to live a fabulous life. As long as it's fabulous, I don't care how long it is,” he declared. “I don't think I'll make old bones and I don't care. I've lived a full life. I really have done it all and if I'm dead tomorrow I don't care a damn.”

But another time, he confessed, “Oh God, I pray I'll never get AIDS. So many friends have it. Some have died, others won't last much longer. I'm terrified that I'll be next. Immediately after each time I have sex I think, 'Suppose that was the one? Suppose the virus is now in my body? I jump in the shower and scrub myself clean, although I know it's useless and anyway it's too late.”

Rumors about his health began dogging him in 1986; his denials, increasingly infrequent appearances, and video performances, only underscored his decline. His last year was a death-stalking by the British press. He never came out to his parents, and got loads of heavy weather from AIDs activists over his silence.

When he died, Queen formed the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which has distributed nearly twenty million dollars to HIV/AIDS care projects in 57 nations. His mother, who survived him by 25 years, died November 13 at the age of 94.

His music speaks for itself.

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