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By James Garbett, Gale Ambassador at the University of Exeter
I’m a third year English student at the University of Exeter. I’m a huge fan of all things film, theatre and journalism, whilst also continuing to examine the changing forms of masculinity within Gender Studies. When not attempting to play drums, you can find me interviewing various individuals of the music and film world and working for the student newspaper, radio and television station.
When Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, passed away tragically in November 1991, many newspapers mourned the passing of one of the greatest musical legends of all time. Much has already been written of the lavish and decadent parties that Mr Mercury had in his too-short lifetime, however utilising the vast wealth of archives in Gale Primary Sources, such as The Times, Archive of Sexuality & Gender and others, a new perspective can be found regarding the incredible showman and his relationship with the press.
Of course, not everyone will know the extent of the parties that Mercury hosted. An issue of The Times told of the story where, “to celebrate his 41st birthday, he flew 80 of his friends to Ibiza, took over one of the island’s most exclusive hotels and held an incredibly lavish party with flamenco dancers, fireworks flashing his name and a 20-foot-long birthday cake carried by six Spaniards dressed in white and gold”. Another article from The Sunday Times describes an event where Mercury, “indignant at finding limousines do not exist in Rio, independently rented the largest sedan he could find”. One can also find a great deal of amusement in a short article in the Australian magazine OutRage, found in Archives of Sexuality & Gender, which reports that Mercury asked no other than Prince Andrew of Windsor to go to Heaven – a well-known London gay disco. Apparently, His Royal Highness was quite eager to go until his bodyguard strongly advised against it!
These articles remain only a handful of the extravagant tales of Mercury in the press and, whilst it may be amusing to read about the extravagant lifestyle of the superstar, we should perhaps consider how much the papers interfered with his life. As a piece from 1988 in Capital Gay reports, after The Sun printed the controversial “Poofs of Pop” article, “a spokesperson for Mercury stated that ‘Freddie will ignore this typically tacky piece. He has NEVER been impressed by a single thing the Sun has written about him’”. An issue of The Times also noted that Mercury’s “renowned bisexual proclivities made him the target of sustained speculation when the Aids epidemic began to take its toll”.
The Gale archives also reveal the more intriguing and private moments of Mercury’s life. An article from The Daily Mail, for example, reveals that backstage before one of Queen’s shows, Mercury played Scrabble with his road crew and, “whilst a man of few words when dealing with the media…he managed to beat all comers at the game”. “Freddie’s quite the home-body really,” said one of Queen’s entourage when interviewed by OutRage, “He doesn’t even emerge from his hotel room till 1.30pm – and then he heads straight for the clubs of Oxford St”. It seems there’s a Mercury to be found in these sources that one may not be familiar with – one of a more introverted nature, something unexpected from a man of such outward theatricality.
But these articles still immortalise Mercury as one of the defining figures of his age. As The Financial Times writes in an article in 1986, “Mercury is a bit of an introvert. Until he gets on stage. Then he struts and postures like an émigré Russian ballet dancer force fed on something universally illegal”. A Daily Mail article similarly observed: “Mercury homed in on the vast, often inhospitable stage of the Wembley arena like a well-trained pigeon come to rest”. There’s no doubt that performance was something that came very naturally to Mercury.
Mercury’s final statement, days before his death in 1991 was echoed by almost every paper, including The Sunday Times: “I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease…” But a bittersweet smile stretches upon the face when reading a relatively unknown quote from Mercury, found in the Times Digital Archive: “I don’t expect to make old bones. What’s more I really don’t care. I certainly don’t have any aspiration to live to 70. It would be boring.”
Blog post cover image citation: “Freddie Mercury.” Times, 26 Nov. 1991, p. 16. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8Q4pU9