Autumn 1991. Although their front man's life was rumoured to be hanging by a thread, EMI kept pumping out Queen product. Greatest Hits II, Greatest Flix II, and a brave, heart-rending single called Keep Yourself Alive. The show must go on, and long live the Queen. Then, on 24 November, Freddie died.
There had been signs. Gordon Atkinson, Freddie's doctor, had come and gone throughout the week. Terry Giddings, his chauffeur, pitched up every day, although Freddie wasn't going anywhere. Mary Austin, a former girlfriend-turned-personal assistant, was heavily pregnant, but came anyway. His mother and father, his sister and brother in law. Brian May and his wife-to-be. Roger Taylor and his ex-to-be. Everybody came. On the evening of his death, Queen manager Jim Beach spent several hours at Freddie's bedside, preparing the statement to shock a world which already knew.
'He'll never die so we'll never miss him', shrugged Brian May to me, five years after we lost him.
I got what he meant. While I wouldn't call it denial, Brian being too scientific and measured a man to submit to that unreliable state of emotional self-defence, it was obvious that he was still missing him. His metaphorical statement alluded to Freddie's enduring spirit, his undiminished musical legacy and the simple fact that he was always larger than life. If age had failed to wither Freddie Mercury, death stood no chance. The soundtrack of his life was deafening, and he was well on his way to becoming the James Dean of rock. Maybe the Marilyn Monroe, the Judy Garland...perhaps all three. His demise had not been the end, but a beginning. A portal to that least tangible dimension of fame, where the few become legends.
As a rock and pop journalist with no more than a walk-on part in his drama, I first met Freddie in the early 80s. I watched them snatch Live Aid from their rivals, witnessed their global reinvention, and clung to their carpet for the ride. While next year's Hollywood blockbuster starring Borat actor Sacha Baron Cohen reportedly peers through a two-year height-of-fame window towards Freddie's inevitable AIDS-induced demise, my biography revisits his extraordinary life in its entirety.
What was he really like? I wonder if even Freddie knew. The vodka-swilling, Scrabble-obsessed individual I observed at close range over the years seemed a knot of contradictions. How refreshing to encounter a rock star unafraid to be fallible; who was not maintaining some exaggerated, fantasy Wizard-of-Oz image, concealing mortal self behind smokescreens, or who was always playing a part - as most of them do. I asked him about privacy once, and his response was unequivocal. He agreed that it's the first thing that celebrities sacrifice; the last thing they realise they want back.
In May 1986, I found myself in Switzerland covering a TV festival and in the same pub as Freddie one night: the White Horse on Montreux's main street. Freddie was there with a couple of young friends, and was asking around for cigarettes. We got chatting.
"I've created a monster", he admitted.
"The monster is me. I can't blame anyone else. I've worked for this since I was a kid. I would have killed for this...it's what I wanted..success, fame, money, sex, drugs - whatever you want. I can have it. But now I'm beginning to see that as much as I created it, I want to escape from it. I'm starting to worry that I can't control it, as much as it controls me.'
It went by in a blink. This, Queen's 40th anniversary year, has seen Brian and Roger as active as ever. Their early-years exhibition, Stormtroopers in Stilettos, opened to huge acclaim in London and toured the globe. All 15 studio albums have been remastered, expanded, repackaged and relaunched by Island Records through Universal. Competitions have been run to inspire young film makers to create videos for vintage Queen tracks. They have launched the Queen Extravaganza, in a quest to find talented vocalists and musicians to join Queen's 2012 American live tour ahead of Hollywood's release of the Freddie blockbuster. The Queen stage musical We Will Rock You, which has been a smash hit in 27 countries and has dominated the London theatre scene for almost ten years, looks set to make its debut as a Mamma Mia-style feature film.
Queen have overtaken The Beatles to become the official UK album chart leaders. They have sold more than 300 million albums worldwide. We Are the Champions remains their most played song of all time, familiar to sports fans everywhere. They are bigger today than they were during Freddie's lifetime. No fat lady on the horizon. Not any time soon.
Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography is available on Amazon
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