Freddie Mercury is often forgotten to be included as one of the great who died young, for he was only 45 years old when he died of AIDS complications at his London home in 1991 – twenty years ago today. And like many of the other rock stars we lost too soon, Freddie was a victim of his own hedonistic lifestyle. He lived fast, died young and didn’t care a thing about it. Whether or not he knew it, he was writing his own cultural legacy – and it is one which pervades further than just his skills as a musician.
Freddie was one of the first celebrities to surrender to AIDS, and in the process, his death hit home for many people and accelerated the slow process of de-stigmatising and understanding the disease. This was done however, purely through the event of his passing, and not through any advocation on his behalf. It does sometimes sit uneasily with me that someone as flamboyant, carefree and superbly self-confident as Freddie neglected to admit to both his homosexuality and his AIDS status until the very day before he died. Perhaps it is unfairly assumed in today’s society that people in public positions who find themselves in such circumstances should become trailblazers for the cause. For Freddie, his business was nobody’s but his, and in 1991, being gay was still a career threatening prospect in itself, let alone having AIDS. It does occur to me that Freddie’s plight manages to have as big a significance in hindsight, as it could have had if he had been open about it at the time.
As much as I pride myself on being a huge Queen fan, familiar with the whole back catalogue of their work, to me Freddie Mercury will always mean Live Aid, and the groundbreaking performance he fronted on 13 July 1985 at Wembley Stadium, London. Despite Live Aid bringing together the greatest acts in the world of 1985 (quite a line up as it goes), no one rose to the challenge of igniting both the 72,000 strong stadium and the 2.5 billion television audience as Queen did. The energy of the band and their electrifying effect on the crowd provoked Bob Geldof into giving his famous “just give us the money” rant; it revived Queen as a stadium act, and the performance is voted time and time again by music critics and fans alike as the greatest gig in history.
To me, the performance is more than just quality entertainment. Throughout history, those who have viewed homosexuality with ignorance, fear, disgust or malice, have been directed towards the great things society and culture would never have had without it; the art of Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the wit of Oscar Wilde, not to mention a huge proportion of the last century’s music, television, comedy and fashion. I would argue to no end that Freddie’s performance at Live Aid – with its flamboyancy and showmanship- is one such example of the greatness of homosexuality. And yet, the dramatic irony in all this is that many people at the time – unfamiliar with gay subculture – would still have been surprised to learn he was gay. After all, he was strong and muscular, he wore leather jackets – he had a moustache for crying out loud! That was part of the beauty of the lost art of camp – as Freddie performed, he performed everything that he was, with all the ironies and juxtapositions that came with his sexuality. One moment he was dancing flirtatiously with a cameraman, slipping in some ballet as he went; the next he strutted across the stage and lead the crowd in song like a commander in battle.
He was, by all accounts, giving the greatest live performance in the history of pop music, to the largest recorded television audience, and it’s nearly certain that he was probably already infected with HIV. Not only was he gay, but he was a victim of the disease which allowed the bigots of contemporary society to reignite their fear and stigma of the already struggling gay community. Freddie may not have appeared to speak up for the cause, but it’s safe to say his voice did not go to waste. With hindsight, the feat Freddie performed that day, with all its silence politically, spoke volumes about how homosexuality always had and always would prevail through times and places where it was challenged, and all by the sheer force of courage, camp and artistic magnificence.
Freddie Mercury is one of the unique individuals whose legacy will live on for centuries to come. There is certainly no frontman who can ever take to the stage without falling under the mighty shadow of his raised arm, with his fist clenched triumphantly. Late 2012 will see the release of A Kind Of Magic, the Peter Morgan biopic on Mercury with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen cast to play the man himself; a little unorthodox perhaps, but it is obviously a challenge to which he has proven himself fit to rise. I look forward to the revival of interest in Freddie that it stirs up – not that it’s ever really settled down.
If by some sever misfortune of your upbringing, you have never seen Queen’s Live Aid performance, I beg you to do so now!