AN APPRECIATION : Freddie Mercury: Confident Energy
For anyone who ever saw Freddie Mercury in concert, it is disheartening now to look at the Queen photo that was released early this year in connection with the British group’s comeback album, “Innuendo.”
An especially flamboyant performer, Mercury moved with the energy and confidence of a frisky young stallion in the ‘70s and ‘80s as he acted out such aggressive hits as “We Are the Champions.” Yet Mercury appeared frail and gaunt in the 1991 photo. (See F9.)
By the time of the photo--and the accompanying announcement that Queen wasn’t going to tour in support of its new album--there were already the rumors that always seem to be triggered when an entertainer becomes suddenly and inexplicably ill: AIDS.
Only this time, sadly, the rumors were true--as Mercury confirmed in London, just hours before his death Sunday at age 45. So the web of AIDS draws tighter.
As the lead singer of Queen, Mercury epitomized many of the traits of the one of the most popular bands of the ‘70s--and one of the most critically scorned of the ‘80s. He was bold, ambitious, calculating, arrogant but also greatly talented.
Vowing from the beginning to be No. 1, Queen was initially a refreshing alternative in the early ‘70s to the faceless bands that dominated the rock scene. While the music was never especially soulful, it combined a variety of influences--from blues and metal to a touch of vaudeville--with authority and flair. But Queen was at its most commanding on stage, where Mercury--plus guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor--combined traces of early David Bowie grandeur with massive staging.
It was this ambition and bravado that eventually made Queen a target in the late ‘70s for the punk revolution that called for bands that were more down-to-earth, more emotionally urgent and more socially relevant. In a classic “us versus them” struggle, Queen almost overnight became “them.”
The quartet tried to rally back. The group’s last Top 10 album, 1980’s “The Game,” relied on some of the rock-roots elements favored by the punk movement, and the band’s tour that year--which included four sold-out nights at the Forum--was a step back from glitter and grandiosity.
But Queen’s new music never really mattered. There were more albums and tours, but Queen remains known for its ‘70s work. This year’s comeback album didn’t break the Top 20 in this country; reviews were generally lukewarm.
But, ironically, there were signs in recent months that the pendulum was starting to swing back in the group’s direction. Metallica’s version of Queen’s old “Stone Cold Crazy” won a Grammy, and Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose cited the group as one of his personal favorites.
In the coming months, the pendulum may even swing further back to a point to where Queen’s contribution can be measured more objectively. We’ll also most certainly learn about Mercury’s own final months--and his struggle with the disease.
Meanwhile, fans of the band may turn to Queen’s last album in search of any clues or hidden messages in his words or vocals. One possible message may be in the album’s final song, where Mercury--who was the true vaudevillian in the band--employs a show-biz axiom to summarize his own determination and drive:
Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
By my smile still stays on . . .
I’ll face it with a grin
I’m never giving in ...
The show must go on.