If Freddie Mercury wasn't the greatest rock frontman of all time (and that's certainly up for raging debate), the Queen singer was definitely the most complex. He was emotionally drawn to women, sexually drawn to men. He was shy with the press and the public — until he went on stage, when he became an incandescent god.
Someday there will be a better biography of the icon than Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury. Music journalist Lesley-Ann Jones writes like a fan; she's an excitable, slangy tabloid writer whose gift isn't insight but rather access, to Mercury and dozens of musicians, friends and admirers. She giddily opens the book at 1985's Live Aid, Mercury's sterling moment as a showman. But she's so excited to "be there," her account is scattershot, almost to the point of leaving out what Queen actually played.
And yet if Jones skips over significant chunks of Queen's masterful 1970s songbook (Mercury's own Bohemian Rhapsody is the only track that's dissected, but she poses more questions about its origin than she answers), she manages to paint a portrait of the singer that ultimately will sate fans of all intensities. You won't find out how guitarist Brian May, the astrophysicist turned axman, got that laser-beam tone for We Will Rock You; you will discover that Mercury had "girl names" for male friends, gay and straight.
The bombastic showman's short life — and thus the book's inherent undercurrent, every page leading to the inevitable — was tragic. Of boredom, a wicked catalyst for so much of his wild-life excess, he reasoned: "It is the biggest disease in the world." This ominous statement came a decade before he succumbed, on Nov. 24, 1991, to bronchopneumonia brought on by AIDS. The enigma born Farrokh Bulsara, a Parsi from Zanzibar, was just 45 when he died.
But oh, how he lived. All rock frontmen must indulge in self-reinvention and related bloat, and Mercury, who idolized Jimi Hendrix and Liza Minnelli in equal measure, did it on a King Kong scale. He owned the '70s with such jaunty poperatic classics as Killer Queen and We Are the Champions. He pushed the boundaries on style; his love of ballet shoes was almost as controversial as his trademark mustache, which he grew to help shadow his infamous overbite, a result of having extra teeth.
And yet, he also became someone else out of self-preservation. If Jones fails to analyze Queen's ascension in the rock canon — in her defense, this isn't a book about the British group, and that includes Mercury's otherworldly vocals — she delves deep into the parallels of Queen's finding its confidence as Mercury found his.
He was a shy, scared 8-year-old when his parents sent him away to boarding school in Panchgani, India. Farrokh felt abandoned; his middle-class parents, on the other hand, wanted him to get a better education than what was available in turbulent Zanzibar.
Regardless, Jones reasons that the incident set Mercury (he said he chose the name to honor the Roman god of thieves) on a lifelong path of constantly looking for an emotional home and yet rarely allowing himself to get too attached to anyone.
Queen's backstage bashes were infamous. "One of Queen's things: We're very good at giving parties," Mercury said about a debauched night. "It was full of naughty women, and everybody jumped in. I'm not going to tell you names, but it was very well-cast, and there were props and goodness knows what flying all over the place. It was wonderful."
And yet what he didn't reveal to the press is that he spent the rest of the night with one of his myriad male conquests. He loved women, he lusted after men, and he kept everyone guessing as to what he'd prefer next. "Let them think what they want," he said. "If I actually said no or yes, that would be boring. Nobody would ask me anymore. I'd rather they just kept on asking."
One of his most loving and lasting relationships was with Mary "Old Faithful" Austin, a former girlfriend of May's who formed a bond with Mercury, staying with him until the end. "All my lovers asked me why they couldn't replace Mary, but it's simply impossible," Mercury said. "To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, and that's enough for me. I couldn't fall in love with a man the same way I did with Mary."
Such was the group's rapid rise to fame (soon after Mercury joined May and Co. they scored a record deal) that Queen suffered the usual infighting and exhaustion, but never to the degree of, say, the Rolling Stones or the Who. They were a healthy band with a dangerous lead singer. Queen's Greatest Hits has spent almost 500 consecutive weeks on the U.K. charts and is the bestselling album of all time in the U.K. Had Mercury not played so fast and loose with his fame, there's no telling what else the band, then still relatively young and experimenting with sonics as few others were, would have accomplished.
Jones reports at the book's close that there are plans in Hollywood for Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen to portray Mercury on the silver screen. The casting makes sense, not just in terms of appearance, but because Cohen is another intensely private man with an outrageous public persona. A celluloid tribute to the singer could work. But filmmakers, take special note: You'd better make it larger than life.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @seandalypoplife.