The Mercurial Freddie

Foreword

I wrote this almost exactly a year ago, and it went the way of all my posts for that period.  That said, this week saw the announcement that the Royal Mail would be launching a series of stamps to mark the 50th anniversary of Queen.  It seemed fitting that this is the post I should “reconstitute” and tidy up as part of that ongoing process of revising and “logging” them here.

I am an unashamed fan.  Their music is intertwined in the soundtrack of my life, going back to 1976 when I began to be enamoured with pop.  Their music is fascinating on a range of levels, from the music iteslf, to the lyrics.  Bohemian Rhapsody is open to so much interpretation and in the days when lyrics were included with the record (yes, we had the record), one could learn the the correct ones off by heart.  I remember looking up “Bismillah”, “Scaramouche” and “Beelzebub”.  I hear that song, and others, and the words just come out of my mouth.  Involuntarily.

One of very few regrets

Freddie Mercury always seemed a larger than life character and that he was.  In October 1984, the year I turned 21, Queen came to South Africa to play at Sun City and I didn’t go.  I regret little in my life, but not having made more of an effort to take the trip, is one of them.  That said, perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing – Freddie had issues with his voice and a couple of concerts were cancelled; with my luck, that would have been “my” night.  It was the most controversial part of that world tour because the Equity ban precluded British artists from performing in South Africa.  Because of Apartheid.  However, Sun City was located in the then “independent” state of Bophutatswana and which was “Apartheid-free”.

When I heard about Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury biopic, I was nervous about seeing it.  Who could be Freddie?  Nobody, I thought.  Then the reviews emerged – mixed.  And then Rami Malek, contrary to critics’ expectations, won the Oscar.  My interest was piqued and after hearing from contemporaries that they loved it, I wanted to see it.  Living where we do, and not getting to the big city the cinema very often, I was delighted when our local thespian laid his hands on a newly released copy of the Blu Ray and showed it at his theatre.

With reservations and with great anticipation, I went to see the film.  It is not the best film ever made – by a long shot.  Malek is wooden and tries too hard to be Freddie.  The actors playing Roger Taylor (and I loved his solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking) and John Deacon were similarly wooden.  “Brian May” was probably the most comfortable in his character.  Despite all this –

I loved every minute.

I said so in a Facebook post which unleashed denigrating comments from two university contempories which, I think, reflects the extent to which Freddie Mercury was misunderstood.  This is the comment that most got me, and on which I have been reflecting ever since:

[the film]…made out that Freddy was a (sic) AIDS sufferer supporter…which is complete bullshit. If you read the auto biography Freddy was promiscuous almost beyond belief…he literally had a queue of young men outside his hotel room door who came in one-by-one to provide Freddy with an ‘all night service’. And then when he got Aids, (how surprising), he hid it as long as he possibly could and did nothing to remove its stigma or do anything for other sufferers. Freddy was a million miles away from being the saint they paint him as in the movie.

My response then:

It was honest without being as brutal as it could have been. Call me old and soft, but I appreciated that.

I went to see the film a second time and enjoyed it as much.  It also made me reflect even more on the extent to which Freddie has been villified in some quarters.  Largely unfairly, I believe:

Some context:

Growing up in South Africa meant that I grew up in a very conservative environment, in a country governed by Calvanistic Christian government:  Apartheid meant that races could not mix.  People of different races could not live next door to each other;  mixed marriages (sex across the “colour bar”) were (was) prohibited.  By law.  There was a peice of legislation:  The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.  Similarly, sexual relations between people of the same sex was illegal.  Doors were broken down, people hauled out of beds and imprisoned.  Members of the armed forces suspected of being gay, were subjected to “corrective treatment”.  That is the society in which I grew up, as did the person who made that comment.  Homosexuality was also illegal in the UK when Freddie was a young adult; only in 1967 was it decriminalised for males over the age of 21.

Stigma

This means that we, like Freddie and his contemporaries, grew up in a homophobic world before AIDS and HIV:  it reared its head as a public health issue (and with terror tactics) in what would have been our last year or two of university.  It was highly stigmatised:  it was a gay disease;  it was also a disease of promiscuity.  It was, and for some still is, the equivalent of Biblical leprosy.  Notwithstanding the fact that there is now enough reliable information in the public domain which gives a lie to all of that.

Agony

During 1989, and when it was gay men who were most concerned about becoming infected, I had the mixed blessing of having a gay friend who discovered that his new partner, with whom he had hoped to have a permanent relationship, was HIV positive.  The partner had not disclosed and they’d been having unprotected sex.  My friend  and I went to see the film Longtime Companion, a classic about a community of friends confronting the ravages of AIDS. My friend had broken up with his earstwhile partner but was waiting for the outcome of the first of several tests necessary to find out his status.  It was still in the window period and then there would be the wait for a further six months.  The results are not important.  What is important is that my friend is one of the least promiscuous people I have ever known.  He knew, and would talk about Fire Island and the gay lifestyle;  he had lived in, and returned to Florida.  I have forgotten none of his agony, anger nor relief.

That agony can only be second to the agony of someone grappling with coming out and which includes having to acknowledge to themselves and to a still hostile society, their sexual preference and its implications.  I have had the privilege of walking alongside two dear friends as they have taken this step.  It’s neither a choice, and nor does coming out make life easier.  It just makes life different and choices different.  Nor, in 2020, does it mean that the world is accepting and not homophobic.

Farrokh Bubara

Freddie Mercury, I believe, was very much a product, and a victim of, his time.  Although he died at 45, we should remember that this year, he’d have turned 74.  He was nearly 20 years my senior.  Effectively a different generation.  That bears thinking about, as does his early and young life.

You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny

Although he was born in Zanzibar, his father was employed by the British Colonial Service (as, incidentally, was mine) which sent him there from his native India (the family were Parsis from the Gujarati region, and were Zoarastrians).  The young Freddie was sent back to India to an English “public school-like” boarding establishment.  What parent, today, relishes sending their children to boarding school?  Less so now that the conduct of certain school masters and initiation practices  are increasingly being publicly acknowledged as “established” phenomena.  A few years later, in 1964 and when Freddie was just 18, the Zanzibar revolution, led by Muslims, forced the family to flee.  Nowhere else to go, they ended up in London where he clearly didn’t fit in. To add insult to injury, it was assumed he was from Pakistan, a country run by Muslims, the very people that hounded the family from Zanzibar – with nothing. Source

This would have been tough for any adolescent, especially for someone sensitive, with enormous talent and unconventional looks; I can only imagine how he felt about himself.  I have an inkling:  I had my own journey having to have my teeth “fixed”.  My mother constantly told me that I couldn’t have the most fashionable hair-do of the moment because of “your ears and your teeth.  Then there were all the other “you’re-ugly-and-your-mother-dresses-you-funny” experiences of my childhood and adolescence in boarding school,

About his being gay, one of Freddie’s biographers says:

The world has changed so much. He was a arecording artist in the ’70s and ’80s, two decades when the level of homophobia is difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully comprehend. In particular, Britain and the USA were scary places for gay people, and the onset of AIDS gave license to the religious fulminators and right-wing zealots.

Living up to his rock star status

Hiding his HIV status and developing a larger than life persona that sheltered the deeper, sensitive, private human being must have been Freddie’s survival strategy.  The debauchery, which was touched upon in the film was a combination of what was expected of a rock star, the machinations of another lost soul who had found his meal ticket (or so he thought), as well as Freddie’s own proclivities and insecurities.

Freddie was no saint, that much is clear.  Perhaps his feet of clay did not feature in the film as much as his detractors might have liked.

With hindsight, two songs strike me as particularly poignant.  Was this, for most of his life, Freddie’s quest?

This one, hated by an old boyfriend of mine, is as relevant today as it was in 1984.

Lastly, this happens to be one of my absolute favourite Queen songs, not often played, which is my only reason for including it.

Post Script:

June is Pride month…
Until next time, be well
Fiona
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa

Photo: Selma

 

Post Script

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