Queen's Tragic Rhapsody

Theatrical, brilliant, excessive and doomed — there had never been another band like Queen or a frontman like Freddie Mercury

July 7, 2014 9:15 AM ET
Freddie Mercury  Queen
Freddie Mercury of Queen.
Neal Preston

It was an utterly unexpected rebirth. from the moment Freddie Mercury and the other members of Queen – guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon – took the stage at London's Wembley Stadium, on July 13th, 1985, at the historic Live Aid concert, the group captured the day. Mercury began by sitting at the piano, playing Queen's most famous song, the strange and gorgeous "Bohemian Rhapsody," with the band storming in behind him in majestic stride, and an audience of 72,000 singing the lyrics from a seemingly deep-rooted memory, as if this was what they had waited for all day. Things built from there. Mercury grabbed his sawed-off microphone stand as the band swayed into the rapturous "Radio Ga Ga," and the crowd responded with a collective gesture, slapping hands overhead and pumping fists as the singer pushed them on with his sonorous roar. Some people found the sight of that multitude acting in spontaneous accord, like a human tide, scary: that much power, all at the beckon of one band and one voice.

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That it was Queen accomplishing this came as a wonder to nearly everybody. They seemed to have run their course. After their epic 1975 album A Night at the Opera, they had piled up hit after hit in a stylistically diverse range: from baroque pop to hard rock, disco, rockabilly and funk. Then, by the mid-1980s, their fates had shifted – in part because many fans had trouble accepting Mercury's perceived homosexuality. After a mind-stopping error of judgment in 1984, when Queen elected to play a series of shows in apartheid South Africa, the band appeared to be pariahs even in its native England. But then, after the Live Aid performance – which exemplified everything extraordinary about Queen, their scope, their virtuosity, their command of a stage – all anybody wanted was more. Years later, May would say, "That was entirely down to Freddie. The rest of us played OK, but Freddie was out there and took it to another level."

Today, nearly 23 years after Freddie Mercury died of bronchopneumonia related to AIDS, Queen's legacy – as one of rock's biggest and most controversial bands – is still inseparable from him, whatever the success May and Taylor might achieve in the next few months on tour with Adam Lambert. When Taylor and May have talked about the Mercury years (Deacon refuses to talk about the experience at all), it's sometimes as if they're still mystified by how wonderful and horrible it all was. "We were very close as a group," Taylor said days after Mercury's death. "But even we didn't know a lot of things about Freddie." Years later, May said, "It fucked us up in the way only an out-of-world experience can do. Queen were the biggest thing in the world. . . . You're adored – surrounded by people who love you, yet utterly lonely. . . . The excess leaked from the music into life."

Queen begins and ends with Freddie Mercury. He embodied the band's identity, its triumphs and failings, and he was the psyche whose loss it couldn't survive. But in the beginning, there was no Freddie Mercury.

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He was Farrokh Bulsara, born on September 5th, 1946, in the British protectorate of Zanzibar, off the east coast of Africa to a Parsee family that practiced Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions. Farrokh's father, Bomi, was a high-court cashier for the British government, which meant that he, his wife, Jer, and Farrokh – and later Farrokh's sister, Kashmira – lived in cultural privilege, compared to much of the island's population. In 1954, when Farrokh was eight, the Bulsaras sent him to St. Peter's Church of England School, in Panchgani, India. Located 150 miles from Bombay (now Mumbai), St. Peter's had been regarded for years as the best boys boarding school in that part of the world. Farrokh arrived as a terribly shy boy, self-conscious about the prominent upper teeth that immediately earned him the nickname "Bucky." (He would remain sensitive about his teeth the rest of his life, covering his mouth with his hand whenever he smiled. At the same time, he realized that the pronounced overbite – caused by four extra teeth at the back of his mouth – may have been his greatest blessing, giving his voice its distinctive resonant embouchure.)

Many remembered Farrokh seeming lonesome at St. Peter's. "I learnt to look after myself," he said years later, "and I grew up quickly." When some schoolteachers began calling him Freddie as an affectionate term, he seized the name instantly. He also cultivated his own tastes. Freddie's family had steeped him in opera, but he was also developing a love for Western pop sounds – especially the boisterous piano-based rock & roll of Little Richard and the virtuosic R&B of Fats Domino. After Freddie's aunt Sheroo noted that he could hear a tune once, then sit down at the piano and play it, his parents paid for a private music tuition. In 1958, he formed a band, the Hectics, with some other St. Peter's students. In Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography, a student at a neighboring girls school, Gita Choksi, said that when he was onstage, Freddie was no longer a shy boy: "He was quite the flamboyant performer," she said, "and he was absolutely in his element onstage."

Some students at St. Peter's believed Farrokh had a crush on Gita, but she said she was never aware of it. Others thought it was already plain Farrokh was gay, though there is little evidence of him being sexually active. Janet Smith, now a teacher at the girls school, remembered him as "an extremely thin, intense boy, who had this habit of calling one 'darling,' which I must say seemed a little fey. It simply wasn't something boys did in those days . . . . It was accepted that Freddie was homosexual when he was here. Normally it would have been 'Oh, God, you know, it's just ghastly.' But with Freddie somehow it wasn't. It was OK."

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In 1963, Freddie returned to Zanzibar and his family. British colonial rule ended that same year; then, in 1964, the island erupted in revolution and slaughters, and the Bulsaras fled to Feltham, Middlesex, in England, near London. The weather was rough and the income not as good, and Freddie began changing in ways they didn't get. "I was quite rebellious, and my parents hated it," he told Rolling Stone in 1981. "I grew out of living at home at an early age. But I just wanted the best. I wanted to be my own boss."

Whatever he had left behind in Zanzibar and Bombay, Freddie Bulsara would never claim it as a past that he was willing to talk about. He was just in time for the era of Swinging London, the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Life was opening up for him, and he intended to revel in every moment of its future.

Like Bulsara, the two other men who initiated Queen, Brian May and Roger Taylor, were attending London colleges in the late 1960s. May was tall, lean, soft-spoken, erudite and developing into a visionary guitarist. What most informed his sensibilities, he later said, was the range of harmony-steeped music he had been hearing since the 1950s: the vocal blends of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the layered strings of popular Italian concertmaster Mantovani and then, in the 1960s, the innovative methods of the Beatles. In late 1963, May and his father built him an electric guitar with mahogany parts taken from a fireplace. (Known as the Red Special, it is the guitar that May still plays.) May and a friend, bassist Tim Staffell, were playing in a cover band called 1984 when both started college careers in the mid-Sixties. May attended Imperial College, studying math, physics and astronomy; in 1968, he and Staffell started a new band, Smile, which would be closer to the fierce improvisational spirit then gaining ground in British rock being made by Cream and others. They posted a note on an Imperial College bulletin board, seeking a drummer who could play like Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell. Taylor, who was preparing for a dentistry career but hated studying, answered the ad. Taylor was pretty-faced, a bit rowdy, and could play what Smile was looking for, though he was closer to the spacious style of the Who's Keith Moon, and, like Moon, he had an instinctive sense of tonality. "I remember being flabbergasted when Roger set his kit up at Imperial College," May told Mojo in 1999. "Just the sound of him tuning his drums was better than I'd heard from anyone before." Smile's trio were now in place.

Staffell also shared musical interests with Freddie Bulsara, who by then was attending Ealing College of Art, where both were students. By this point, Bulsara was less reserved. He had long hair, was exotically handsome, even dangerous-looking, and had a sinuous way of moving. Staffell took Bulsara to meet Taylor and May in early 1969. Bulsara struck them as a little peculiar – he painted his fingernails black, he could be effeminate – but he was endearing. He could also be imperious. "At that stage," said May, "he's just kind of an enthusiast. He says, 'This is really good – it's great how . . . you're aware of building up atmospheres and bringing them down. But you're not dressing right, you're not addressing the audience properly. There's always opportunity to connect.'"

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