Friday, 23 November 2012

THE GREAT PRETENDER


 
'I've had upheavals and I've had immense problems, but I've had a wonderful time and I have no regrets. Oh dear, I sound like Edith Piaf!'

Freddie Mercury


Freddie died relatively young. A lot of very talented people die young. Maybe it's because they reach their creative peak, and they 'commit suicide' in some way. Because they can't handle fame any more. Although some take their own lives directly, such as Marilyn Monroe with an overdose, most don't do that. Instead, they sabotage their existence in some way. James Dean drove a sports car so fast that it was inevitable that he would one day crash it and kill himself. Elvis was only 42 when he died, but he was wrung out, he had nothing left, and he knew it. Maybe Freddie's death-wish was excessive sex, which, in the climate we were in, was always going to lead to AIDS. It's a way of relinquishing responsibility for a life which has become too much for you.

Phil Swern, producer, BBC Radio 2


'Certain people in this industry are not meant to grow old. Freddie was one of them. I could never see Freddie at 70. Nor Michael Jackson. In any case, Freddie wouldn't have liked the way albums are recorded today. He lived his life to the full. He died young, but he crammed in an amazing amount. More than most people could in 5 lifetimes'.

Rick Wakeman

Having at last achieved an elusive BPI (British Phonographic Industry) Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music, and mindful that time was running out for Freddie, Queen cooked the calendar to make 1990 their 20th anniversary. They hosted a celebration for 400 friends at London's Groucho Club, a private members' establishment. The venue was chosen for its name, in homage to early Queen albums named after Marx Brothers movies. Liza Minnelli, George Michael, Patsy Kensit, Michael Winner and Rod Stewart turned up. he celebration cake was in the style of a Monopoly board, with Queen hits pasted into the squares. 
As bloodthirsty picture editors foamed at the mouth over gaunt, give-away snaps of Freddie as he arrived at and left the party, the death-rumours continued to be denied.

There were a lot of people at that party, but curiously, not many people were talking to the band.
It was almost as if they were afraid to approach them. I found myself standing near the bar with Freddie, chatting for about 20 minutes. I couldn't quite believe that I was talking with this icon like we were old pals. He was very pale and quiet. I suddenly realised that I was shaking and nervous. Why? The aura. He had it. Who else? Frank Sinatra: I was invited backstage at the Royal Albert Hall with Tony Blackburn once. Before I even set eyes on Sinatra, and even though my back was to the door, I knew the second he walked into the room. You felt it like a nuclear wave. Very few people have it. Not Paul McCartney. Not Mick Jagger. They're too accessible. Barbra Streisand does: she's ethereal, of another world. I met her at Wembley, and I've never forgotten it. You can't put your finger on whatever it is that these musicians have. Not even movie stars have it. That nuclear wave brings you out in a sweat. It still does now, when I think of it.Whatever it is, I believe that you are born with it. You never lose it. You can't work on it. You can't buy it. It is magical. You can't cut through it – so an ordinary mortal cannot have a successful relationship with a person like that. It's the primary reason why they have such disastrous love lives. Look at Liz Taylor, Madonna, Liza Minnelli. It's a tragedy on so many levels. You win the adoration of millions, but you cannot get or retain the love of just one person.

'Freddie and I chatted a bit about Queen's long career', said Phil Swern. 
'We even discussed the structure of his songs. He grew quite animated when he started talking about his music. It's what defined him, there's no question. I'd written a few songs in my time, which had achieved chart success. Songwriters are always fascinated by how other songwriters do it. So I had to ask the inevitable: where did he get his inspiration from?

''The lines just come to me', he smiled.
'It was very hard talking to him', Phil added, 'because I knew that he was dying. It hadn't been announced at that point, but I knew. Jim Beach told me. And I remember thinking that, if you have this aura, it crushes you in the end. It suffocates you. It is a huge cross to bear, and it's probably the price you pay for genius. Within that aura, you're only human like everyone else'.

Their final party over, the band returned to Mountain Studios.
'Innuendo was very much made on borrowed time, as Freddie really wasn't very well', Roger would reveal after Freddie's death.

During the last year of his life, hounded by the press, he would return to Montreux as often as his health would permit, finally allowing the peaceful place to become his refuge.
                                                                   * 

'Innuendo's' title track was released as a single in January 1991. It gave the band their first UK Number One for a decade. The February album, their fourteenth and final studio effort to be released during Freddie's lifetime, hit Number One in the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, and became the first Queen album since 'The Works' in 1984 to go gold on release in America. In the video for the single 'I'm Going Slightly Mad' made by the Torpedo Twins in London, a painfully gaunt, heavily made-up Freddie aped a crazed Lord Byron. 'Headlong', their thirty ninth single, emerged in May. On a relentless mission now, against all clocks, Queen returned to Mountain Studios to begin work on 'Made In Heaven'. The album would not be released 4 years after Freddie's passing. Despite his dwindling strength, Freddie drove himself harder ever, and vodka'd his way through long and arduous studio sessions.

'I think maybe there was a part of him that thought the miracle would come', said Brian.

'I think we all did'.

'Those were very sad days, but Freddie didn't get depressed', said his assistant, Peter Freestone.
'He was resigned to the fact that he was going to die. He accepted it … Anyway, can you imagine an old Freddie Mercury?'
                                                                    *

On 5 September, Freddie's forty fifth birthday, his partner Jim Hutton gave Freddie one last gift, a set of Irish crystal champagne glasses intended for their flat in Montreux. They were never to make it. The end was nigh-er than they knew. Soon afterwards, Freddie informed his household of his decision to stop taking his medication.

'He stopped everything except painkillers', says Peter Freestone.
'For weeks, 24 hours a day, the press had camped on his doorstep. He was a prisoner in his own home. He was going to decide when to die'.

He'd had enough. Not only was Freddie losing his sight, but the will to live was ebbing away.
He would meet death on his own terms.

'I think his only regret at the end was that there was so much more music inside him', said Peter.


'The Show Must Go On', Queen's brave, heart-rending single, backed by 'Keep Yourself Alive', was released in October. The band, their management, their publicists and entourage, all sworn to secrecy, continued to contradict rumours and to to their nearest and dearest, while EMI continued to pump out product – Greatest Hits II, Greatest Flix II. With Freddie's life hanging by a thread, the band appeared more prolific than ever.

Peter Freestone and Joe Fanelli nursed Freddie through the final days.

'There was nobody else', shrugs Peter.
'Freddie had now begun to cut people off. He just didn't want to see certain people again. His parents, for example … he didn't want them seeing him as he now was … that was the reason he turned his back on so many during the final year. A few really close friends were wonderful to him: Dave Clark, Elton, Tony King.
'It's amazing how quickly you learn things you never expected to have to do. Freddie had a Hickman line inserted into his chest, for example, through which we were able to give him his drugs. One comfort is that one of us was with him all the time – Jim, Joe, myself – even through the night, during those last weeks. Freddie was never once left alone'.
On 23 November, with Jim Beach at his bedside, Freddie approved his last-ever statement, admitting to his fans and to the world that he had AIDS.

24 hours later, the Great Pretender was dead.