Queen's Tragic Rhapsody

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By playing in these nations, it appeared as if Queen were on the side of power. "I don't like to write message songs," Mercury said around that time. They were entertainers, he asserted – an apolitical band that didn't sanction the government of a country simply by playing for its citizens. But the backlash remained strong. At the end of 1984, when nobody from Queen was invited to participate in the Band Aid charity recording of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" – which had been organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money to alleviate famine in Ethiopia – Mercury was genuinely hurt. The group hit a collective depression around this time, and several accounts claim that it considered disbanding, or at least taking a long sabbatical. Mercury would later say, "I don't know what Queen stand for."

A few months later, though, Geldof extended an invitation for the band to play at the July 1985 Live Aid London concert (an American concert took place simultaneously in Philadelphia). Queen hesitated at first. They would be performing in daylight, which they didn't like to do, and they worried about sound quality. Also, there would be some significant competition playing that same occasion in London – Paul McCartney, U2, Elton John, Bowie, the Who, and Sting with Phil Collins – and Queen probably knew they would be seen as the odd fit of the event, given their political blunders in recent years. But Geldof prevailed, and 22 minutes after Queen had walked onstage at Wembley in the early evening of July 13th, during Live Aid's worldwide broadcast, they walked off as unexpected heroes. Elton John found the bandmates backstage in their trailer. "You bastards, you stole the show!" he told them. "It was the greatest day of our lives," said May.

The performance immediately revivified the band. In September, Queen began work in Munich on A Kind of Magic, and also made preparations for a 1986 summer tour. "I think we are probably the best live band in the world at the moment," said Taylor, "and we are going to prove it. . . . It'll make Ben-Hur look like the Muppets." The shows seemed to live up to the propaganda: This was Queen at their peak in every regard. But Mercury was also having dramatic and unpredictable swings in temperament. During an argument in Spain, he told Deacon, "I'm not going to be doing this forever. This is probably the last time." The band, said May, felt jolted.

At tour's end, ticket demand for the concerts was enormous, and Queen added a new final date at Knebworth Park on August 9th, 1986, playing for an audience of about 200,000. Then, that was it. At the show's end, Mercury left the concert site hurriedly. It was apparent something was on his mind. He would no longer want to be seen by the audiences that had loved him. Queen had played their last show.

In the early 1980s, AIDS began to take its steady toll in America – initially centered in New York, where roughly half the infections were first recorded. There were some who referred to the deadly illness as the "gay plague," but it soon became apparent that AIDS wasn't discriminating: It was caused by a virus – HIV – that debilitated the immune system, and it was transmitted by infected bodily fluids, including semen and blood. It was most widely spread by drug users who shared hypodermic needles and by people who had unprotected sex, particularly those with multiple partners. Freddie Mercury fell into this latter category. "I'm just an old slag who gets up every morning, scratches his head and wonders what he wants to fuck," he once said.

In the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s, Queen came to consider Munich their home away from home, later to their regret. The city had an active and diverse sex culture, and the place seemed to prove both a heaven and a hell for Mercury. May later said that the singer could hardly bear being in the studio sometimes – "He'd want to do his bit and get out" – preferring to spend evenings in Munich's discos and clubs. One evening he met actress Barbara Valentin, who had appeared in some of Rainer Fassbinder's films. Mercury entered into a passionate romance with Valentin, while carrying on intense, sometimes tempestuous affairs with various male lovers (including a rumored one with ballet star Rudolf Nureyev). He also used drugs and drank heavily in this period, and a few times experienced blackouts, unable to recall what he had done the night before. Valentin told Lesley-Ann Jones about finding Mercury on an apartment balcony naked, singing "We Are the Champions" to some construction workers below, then shouting, "Whoever has the biggest dick, come on up!"

There are varying accounts about how Mercury coped with the risk of contracting AIDS. Some thought it was why he was never anxious for Queen to tour America after 1982. But BBC DJ Paul Gambaccini recounted running into Mercury one night in 1984, at a London club called Heaven. Gambaccini asked Mercury if AIDS had changed his attitude about free-ranging sex. Mercury replied, "Darling, my attitude is 'fuck it.' I'm doing everything with everybody." Gambaccini said, "I had that literal sinking feeling. I'd seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.'" Mercury once said to journalist Rick Sky, "By nature, I'm very restless and highly strung . . . a person of real extremes, and often that's destructive to myself and others." At some point, Mercury clearly reconsidered. In late 1985, he had an AIDS test – the results were negative. He abandoned the Munich club scene, as well as his affair with Valentin, and settled into a mansion in Kensington; former girlfriend Mary Austin, who was now his secretary, had found it for him in 1980. "I lived for sex," he would later say. "I was extremely promiscuous, but AIDS changed my life."

In 1987, Mercury submitted to another AIDS test, but then seemed to shrink from learning the results. After trying to reach Mercury on several occasions with no reply, his doctor's office then contacted Austin and shared the urgency of the matter with her: Mercury was now diagnosed as HIV-positive. "I felt my heart fall," Austin said later. Mercury, though, didn't yet tell Queen. "We knew something was going on," May later said, "but it was not talked about." By this time Paul Prenter, Mercury's former personal manager, had already told a U.K. newspaper about the earlier blood test, and the press was starting to put the band under pressure to address the matter. But Mercury insisted that the rumors were false. Some friends conjectured that he had instead developed a liver problem from too much drinking, though in 1987 Valentin had noticed scars on his face and hands: possible signs of Kaposi's sarcoma.

When the band's 13th album, The Miracle, was finished in early 1989, the singer wanted to start another LP right away. He hoped to record as much work as he could, and he now realized he would have to tell his bandmates why. "He decided to just invite us all over to the house for a meeting," said Taylor. Mercury told his bandmates, "You probably realize what my problem is. Well, that's it and I don't want it to make a difference. I don't want it to be known. I don't want to talk about it. I just want to get on and work until I fucking well drop. I'd like you to support me in this." May later said that he, Taylor and Deacon were devastated: "We all went off and got quietly sick somewhere, and that was the only conversation directly we had about it."

The knowledge naturally affected the tenor of the new album, Innuendo. "That produced a coming-together," said Taylor, "a closing of the ranks." May said that, as writers, Queen knew they were facing their ultimate subject, but the band's customs made it hard to communicate about it. "We didn't speak to each other about lyrics," May told Mojo in 2004. "We were just too embarrassed to talk about the words." Even so, Innuendo addresses impending death as memorably and gracefully as any work could hope to, and does so without a moment of self-pity. "It was very conscious toward the end," May said. "Sometimes Freddie wasn't able to vocalize [what he wanted to say], and we in a sense – this is going to sound very strange, but I think Roger and I kind of vocalized for him, in writing some of the lyrics. Because he was almost beyond the point where he could put it into words. So songs like 'The Show Must Go On,' in my case, or 'Days of Our Lives,' in Roger's case, were things that we gave to Freddie as a way of him working through stuff with us. And that wasn't spoken. It was us trying to find the end before we got there." Added Taylor, "And we were determined to stick close to the end."

"There was a lot of joy, strangely enough," says May. "Freddie was in pain . . . but inside the studio there was a sort of blanket around, and he could be happy and enjoy what he liked doing best. . . . Sometimes it would only last a couple of hours a day because he would get very tired. But during that couple of hours, boy, would he give a lot. When he couldn't stand up, he used to prop himself up against a desk and down a vodka: 'I'll sing it till I fucking bleed.'"

After Innuendo, Mercury again wanted to keep on recording – and complete another album if possible. "Freddie said, 'Write me stuff. . . . Keep giving me words. I will sing," remembers May. (The results were released in 1995 on Made in Heaven.) "He carried on because that's what he enjoyed," Austin said. "And working helped him to have the courage to face his illness." Jim Hutton, Mercury's long-term lover who lived with him until the end, concurred: "If he didn't have the music, he wouldn't have lasted."

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