Queen's Tragic Rhapsody

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In September 1991, Freddie Mercury had recorded as much as he was ever going to, and he retired to his Kensington home. He remained wary with his parents, wrote Peter Freestone in Freddie Mercury: An Intimate Memoir, "as he wanted to protect them from things they would neither understand or would not accept." Years later, his mother, Jer, said, "He didn't want to hurt us, but we knew it all along."

Mercury turned away most visitors; he didn't want to be seen as his body degenerated. He stopped taking medications, and had bouts of blindness. He nevertheless insisted on denying any reports that he had AIDS until the evening of November 23rd, 1991, when he issued a statement admitting his condition: "Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV-positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease." Those attending to him said he seemed more restful after that. Early the next evening, Freestone and Hutton were preparing to change the singer's bedclothing when Hutton saw he was no longer breathing. "He's gone," Hutton told Freestone. Freddie Mercury was 45 years old. Freestone called Taylor, who was on his way to visit Mercury, and told him, "Don't bother coming."

Mercury's funeral took place a few days later, in a Zoroastrian ceremony. Aretha Franklin sang, and soprano Montserrat Caballé performed a Verdi aria. (Caballé worked with Mercury on a semi-operatic album, Barcelona.) Mercury's body was cremated, and Mary Austin – the only person Mercury said he truly trusted, and to whom he left his home – placed his ashes in a location she has never disclosed.

The following April, the surviving members of Queen played a tribute to their late singer at Wembley Stadium, and used the event to launch the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which continues to raise money for various AIDS organizations. After the show, the group disbanded for 13 years. Deacon retired altogether, except for the sessions that completed 1995's Made in Heaven, the quartet's final studio album, which included the recordings Mercury had worked on in his last year. They were all songs about the splendor of love and impermanence.

"I have never got over his death," Taylor later said. "None of us have. I think that we all thought that we could come to terms with it quite quickly, but we underestimated the impact his death had on our lives. I still find it difficult to talk about. For those of us left, it is as though Queen was another lifetime entirely."

People had trouble with how Mercury lived and with how he died. There were homophobes who saw his deterioration as a punishment for his sexuality and promiscuity. Others, who had done work combating AIDS, faulted him for not acknowledging his condition until the end. Those judgments will always follow Mercury, but if his music is any key at all, there was an almost prayerful quality about his failings. In song after song he sang about mortality, solitary desolation and hopefulness, but he also implored some unattainable sanctuary – nowhere so openly as in "Save Me," from The Game: "I have no heart, I'm cold inside/I have no real intent. . . ./Save me/I can't face this life alone." But Mercury often felt he had to stay alone, as he had done in his childhood. "It can be a very lonely life," he said, "but I choose it." (In the early 1970s, when Austin suggested they have a child together, Mercury allegedly responded, "I'd rather have a cat.") Instead of domestic refuge, Mercury sought ecstasy and restlessness for most of his life, and obviously that choice incurred a cost. One of his best songs, "Don't Stop Me Now," set out his ethos with a starkness that was also blissful: "I'm a rocket ship on my way to Mars/On a collision course/I'm a satellite out of control/I'm a sex machine ready to reload."

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, poet William Blake famously proclaimed, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." It's a maxim often taken to mean that a life of intemperance – pursuing desires without self-restraint – eventually brings one to realize the futility of those indulgences, and to recognize more meaningful purposes. But it could also mean that without taking risks you never discover what's possible, what might illuminate you the most. In The Miracle, Mercury faced his excesses without sparing himself, and uncovered his answer: "Was it all worth it all these years? . . ./It didn't matter if we won – if we lost. . . ./Living, breathing rock & roll/Was it all worth it?/Yes, it was a worthwhile experience/It was worth it." He knew he had little time left when he sang those words. There was no room to bear false witness. "My mistakes," he once said, "are down to me."

The best song Mercury sang in his last years, "These Are the Days of Our Lives," was written for him by Taylor. It is a song about accepting everything you have made of your life and looking toward your departure with a steadfast grace. The song's video contains Mercury's final moments in front of a camera. He is unmistakably a man almost dead – he is painfully emaciated, and those present at the filming said that even the touch of his clothes on his skin caused him agony. But he is fully present in those moments, even luminous. He looks skyward, his arms spread, then fixes his view on the lens as he says everything he has left to say: "Those were the days of our lives – yeah/The bad things in life were so few/Those days are all gone now, but one thing's still true/When I look and I find/I still love you. . . . I still love you."

In those moments, he is as justified as he will ever be: He has found his hard-learned wisdom in maybe the only way he could. It is Freddie Mercury's dying that saved him.

Additional reporting by Alan Light

This story is from the July 3rd-17th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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