Book review: 'Freddie Mercury'

Sunday, 30 October 2011 - 10:00am IST Updated: Saturday, 29 October 2011 - 11:08pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Journalist Lesley-Ann Jones’ biography of Queen front man Freddie Mercury is mostly about his money, lifestyle and fame, and says very little about his evolution as a musician.

Freddie Mercury
374 pages

Freddie Mercury is the third rock bio I’ve read in 2011, and by far the weakest. Perhaps because Life by Keith Richards and Just Kids by Patti Smith were written by the legends themselves; and perhaps because Life and Just Kids rank among the best of their kind.

Keith Richards, the guitarist who conjured the Rolling Stones’ sound, had a complicated relationship with his lyricist/vocalist Mick Jagger, had a heroin addiction in the 1970s that led to rumours of total blood transfusions in Switzerland, and created the Stones’ 1972 double-album masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. He writes about all this and more; co-author James Fox ably transforms Richards’ Life into an engrossing read.

Patti Smith wrote her own book and it is sheer brilliance; perhaps because she does not focus on her own song-writing but instead on her relationship with another iconic American artist, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their relationship with New York City in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That she evolved from Rimbaud-inspired poetry to rock song-writing seems a side-story to Mapplethorpe’s evolving homosexuality and his discovery of sexualised photography as modern art. Both Life and Just Kids are intense reads. I wish I could say the same of Freddie Mercury.

Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Balsara, fronted rock supergroup Queen which shot to fame in the ‘70s with hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Will Rock You”, “We are the Champions”, “Under Pressure”, “I Want to Break Free”, etc. Queen was all over the radio when I was 12 and even if you didn’t think much of Queen, you couldn’t escape it. I then had no idea that Queen referenced Mercury’s campy gayness. Now with Queen’s videos on YouTube it’s all so obvious, as is the fact that Mercury was a brilliant live performer. It’s no wonder then, that after his 1991 death of AIDS-complications (like Mapplethorpe) there have been a slew of biographies as well as kiss-and-tell memoirs by former live-in lovers. Lesley-Ann Jones spent some off-the-record time with Mercury in her youth and has attempted one. (In closing she mentions that a Freddie Mercury biopic, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, is releasing in 2012; that won’t hurt her book’s sales.)

One: As a writer, Jones is no James Fox. The book takes a long time to get going, partly because of the diversion into his Parsi provenance, something he didn’t think important, and partly because Jones writes in a rambling and repetitive manner about how great Queen was, how magnificent, how superb, how intellectual, etc. Yawn. Jones has a good plot device: heralding Queen’s performance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert in London, the best in a line-up that included U2, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, etc, and then building the story up to that high-point. It is a fact that Queen had started to look like has-beens for a while before Live Aid, and that single energetic 18-minute performance resurrected them. This comeback structure has not failed countless books and films, but Jones just does not have the tempo, the rhythm or the melody to make it work. It just proves that in order to be a writer, you must first be a reader.

Two: Keith Richards revealed all; Patti Smith revealed deeper within herself; but Jones is unable to get under Freddie Mercury’s skin. True, he’s been dead 20 years and several of his friends have also died in the recent past. Jones’ cause isn’t helped by her uncertain-assertive tone: she mentions his promiscuous homosexual lifestyle, his post-concert parties where he would invite dozens of men to his room and take each on passively; and then says he was probably bisexual because of two heterosexual relationships he had. I think if Freddie had himself written (which he wouldn’t have, he had no attention span for books) he would not have worried about his sexual labeling; he would have spoken of his feelings at the time. Patti Smith, for instance, describes her and Mapplethorpe’s sexual drifting apart with great tenderness and an emotional logic; she has no time for sexual labelling. Jones further damages her cause with her occasional pop psychology, talking about Freddie’s insecurity since boarding school and his basic need for love, etc.

Three: There is little about the music itself. After reading Jones’s biography you learn of things like Freddie Mercury’s worship of Jimi Hendrix and of Opera; his being a workaholic; and how each Queen member was an intellectual (guitarist Brian May is an astrophysics PhD). You never get a sense of the evolution of Freddie’s musical tastes, knowledge or interests. It is more about his money, lifestyle and fame. Keith Richards’ book, on the other hand, speaks of how as teenagers he and Jagger built a friendship and then a musical partnership with a foundation of a deep knowledge of American blues, and of how, on various milestone songs/albums, he would search and come upon the sound he wanted. Richards talks about jamming with other musicians; Jones focuses on Mercury’s partying with other musicians. Perhaps only Mercury could have told us if that was all there was to Mercury.

In the end, I thought of a Blue-Ray of the band Green Day’s live performances that my son gifted me. Watching those songs told me far more than a poorly-written hagiography could. So my advice is: go out and get a DVD of Queen’s videos instead of reading Freddie Mercury.

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