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Music

The defiant final days of Freddie Mercury

@TomTaylorFO

During the recording of Queen’s fourteenth and final album, Innuendo, Freddie Mercury was three years on from his AIDS diagnosis. The singer was as virile as ever, at least on the surface. Defiant to remain as upbeat as possible, he strove to exhibit that same joie de vivre that had made him so beloved throughout his life. This sanguine approach to hardship is something that soars on the album, as it did for everyone around him. 

Looking back on his final years, Brian May recalled, “When we did discover that Freddie had this terrible AIDS virus in his body, there was still a disbelief in us. We thought, ‘Nah, it can’t happen to our mate, it can’t happen to Freddie, there is going to be some way out of this, he’s going to be cured.’ And right up until the last minute we knew, but we didn’t know, we sort of refused to know.” This, in part, was no doubt due to grief, but also because the trailblazing frontman refused to succumb to the illness and faced mortality with the same fortitude that he approached all walks of life. 

The illness, however, would naturally come to the fore, but even in the face of its most debilitating ways, Freddie Mercury used his creativity as a crutch to overcome it. The tale of the fitting anthem ‘The Show Must Go On’ forms the perfect tableau of this. As May recalls, by this stage in the recording process, the virus and effects of the radiation treatment used to fight it had weakened Freddie to the point of being seriously ill and almost bed-ridden. 

Contained within the song’s anthemic declaration of the inviolable legacy of music, is a lyric that the frontman’s partner, Jim Hutton, recalls as “the most autobiographical line: ‘My make-up may be flaking but my smile still stays on.’ That was true. No matter how ill Freddie felt, he never grumbled to anyone or sought sympathy of any kind. It was his battle, no one else’s, and he always wore a brave face against the ever-increasing odds against him.” The story of how the song came to fruition is testimony to that. 

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May had expressed concerns that he thought Mercury was too ill to perform and that the recording session should be scrapped. However, Mercury picked himself up off the floor and as May recalls: “I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this is going to be possible to sing.’ And he went, ‘I’ll fucking do it, darling’—vodka down—and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.” Knowing he was probably only capable of a single take, the jocular frontman poured all of his might and a serving of vodka into a performance that seems all-encompassing of the life he lived and the eternally upbeat way he lived it.

Innuendo was released to great acclaim and hidden within it was a farewell from someone who gave so much to the world. His final parting impression, however, would come a mere 24 hours before he died, when he boldly made a press release declaring that he was indeed suffering from AIDS. At a time when the illness was still shrouded in conservative ignorance, he faced the vitriol of the press even in his final hours to make a bold statement that sought to raise awareness. “The time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease,” he said.

24 hours after this acknowledgement, on November 24th, 1991, Freddie Mercury passed away surrounded by close friends at a bedside vigil. His lifetime friend, and former girlfriend, Mary Austin received the bulk of his fortune and is the only person who knows where his ashes remain. In the following days, fans poured out onto the streets surrounding his home and adorned it with flowers, notes and candles.

Of all the rock ‘n’ roll performers, Freddie Mercury’s legacy is now one that has been mythologised in a truly singular sense—not in an enigmatic way, but in the regard that he somehow remained just about the most humanised superhero to ever perform. The fans gathered in the streets felt like they knew him and for a man with enough bravura to bring down walls and a voice that threatened to knock Sputnik out of orbit, that sense of a personal connection is testimony to the truly personable soul behind it all.