Monday, 16 January 2012

OUT OF INDIA

Freddie Mercury, a Parsee born in Zanzibar, was educated at St. Peter's School in Panchgani ('Five Hills'), Western India.  This tranquil old town with its lush strawbery fields, quaint old bungalows and ancient Parsee dwellings was founded during the Raj, as a sanatorium and rest resort. Looking out across coastal plains, dense forest and the River Krishna, it is a popular destination for tourists, who make the five-hour journey from Mumbai to walk, ride and unwind away from the heat and dust of the Indian plains.  Freddie Mercury loved it there - and found, years later, in the Swiss lakeside resort of Montreux, a similarly peaceful mountain haven which reminded him so much of his school days.

Ahead of publication of Freddie Mercury The Definitive Biography in India, I have just given  this interview there about Freddie's 'Indian roots'.

Q:  As a rock journalist who covered and followed Mercury for years, what went through your mind as you settled down to pen the opening lines of this biography?

A: I have always believed in leaving the writing of the opening chapter until last. It should serve, ideally, as an overview, as well as a prelude to what's to come. This time was no exception: I wrote the LIVE AID chapter first, then took Freddie's story right back to the beginning, to Zanzibar – and followed it from there. I had planned a summary of Queen's career and Freddie's life and times for the introduction – but then I heard from Roger Tavener. He had been the showbiz reporter on the Daily Express when I was covering mainly rock and pop for the Daily Mail. In the Eighties, we were 'bitter rivals', chasing the same stories and each other across the world. One evening in May 1986, we found ourselves in a bar with Freddie. The surreal night with him that ensued was something that we agreed not to write about at the time. We didn't analyse it, we simply decided not to compromise his privacy. Had our editors found out that we had thrown away that exclusive, we would have been fired for it – but we took a chance, and let it go. That felt right. Many years later, Roger Tavener (who has been living in Australia)  came across his old notebooks, and got in touch with me, having heard through mutual friends that I was researching/writing this book. Some pennies dropped. Our collective memories of that unforgettable evening distilled into appropriate introduction to Freddie's story. It was a gift. So I decided to begin with that experience of him. I must say that I felt sad and deeply nostalgic for those 'good old days' as I sat writing it. That gush of memories made me miss Freddie very much.

Q:  Did you find yourself feeling challenged at any point, that you perhaps hadn't done complete justice to a modern legend and his art?

A:  I hope that I have done Freddie justice, and that I left few stones unturned. He was a remarkable, complex, complicated and in many ways unique individual. I have done my best to understand and explain him – as much as anyone can. Do any of us really know ourselves? I have written extensively about the 'two Freddies', but I think in fact that there were many more of him than that. He was all kinds of Freddies, to all kinds of people. I honestly believe that I got as close as I could to most of them, thanks to the generosity of those who had known and worked with him, many of whom agreed to be interviewed. I couldn't have done it without them.

Q: Which segment of Freddie's life was the most difficult to chronicle, and why?

A:  Perhaps the hardest part of Freddie's life to chronicle was the concluding chapter of his life. I didn't see him again after the final Queen gig in 1986, so I had no first-hand experience. I had to rely on what other people who had been with him at the end could tell me – notably Jim Hutton, Freddie's last live-in partner, and Peter Freestone, Freddie's personal assistant. Both were immensely open and honest – at times painfully so. I tried my best to read between all the lines, and imagine what they must have gone through as Freddie slipped away.

Q:  Mercury chose to keep his Indian roots under wraps once he moved to London.  While researching this portion of the biography, what was the mood like as you interacted with friends, family and acquaintances, especially since most were aware of his choice?

A: When Freddie moved to London and immersed himself in the music and art scenes, during the late 60s, it was not common for rock stars to have exotic/ethnic roots. He had changed his first name from Farrokh to Freddie while at school in Panchgani, India – primarily because it was less of a mouthful, and because St. Peter's was the very model of an English public school. In London, he was Freddie Bulsara at college, and on occasions, when he auditioned for bands, 'Fred Bull'. I believe that it was not so much a case of him hiding his Indian roots as of him being inclined to close chapters as he went through life. As he left each stage, that was it, done – and on to the next. Freddie's father had a British passport, and Freddie had expressed enormous enthusiasm for a move to London when the Zanzibar revolution came. This was the perfect opportunity to reinvent himself in a thrusting, progressive part of the world which could not be more different from Zanzibar and India, where he had been born, brought up and educated. Freddie was always mindful of his family's religion and culture. He adored his parents and sister Kashmira, and did his utmost not to offend them. Certain ways in which he chose to live were not acceptable to the Parsee way of life. He retained his connections to India, however: his aunt Sheroo in what was then Bombay was very dear to him. The Taj Mahal remained his favourite monument on earth.

Q: How different would rock music have sounded, had Mercury and Queen been around today?

A: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was Freddie's magnum opus. I believe it was his expression of the need to allow himself to live a homosexual lifestyle. It was him giving himself permission to leave the 'old' Freddie behind. He was killing him off ( 'Mamma, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger, now he's dead, etc) although that original Freddie still haunted him ('I see a little silhouetto of a man …' etc). He could then move on to become the new Freddie. The lyrics were obscure, however, and he never explained them. Like any poet, he dismissed requests for explanations: 'if you see it, darling, then it's there'.
'Somebody To Love' was much simpler, and more direct: In this song, he expressed loudly and clearly the universal desire to find just one person in life to love, who will love us in return; a true soulmate, if there exists such a thing. The closest he came to achieving that was with his first love, Mary Austin. The relationship they shared endured for the rest of his life – on a non-physical level, at least. But he could not have Mary AND his gay lovers. This was his dilemma. The particular ideal that he longed for, then, did not and could not exist. Or did it? I believe he came pretty close to it with the German actress Barbara Valentin. She was his lover in every sense, and very different from Mary Austin. Barbara was prepared to share Freddie with gay lovers – and indeed, did so. But such a scenario is madness, and cannot continue for long. For the sake of sanity, Freddie walked away from it. It didn't stop him wanting it.
Freddie's death crystallised a moment in time for Queen and their music. With Freddie gone, their songs were preserved in perpetuity. Because of their quality, these songs have never aged. They sound as fresh and as ground-breaking today as they did when they were recorded and first released. Would Queen have gone on to record more and more music, had he lived? That's hard to say. The Rolling Stones have produced very little in recent years. When they tour, they churn out their greatest hits for the fans who flock to see them and relive their own past. By the early 80s, Freddie had come to hate touring. He loathed life on the road. He adored performing, however. His primary concern, during his final couple of years, was to leave the rest of the band with enough recorded vocals for them to go on playing and creating Queen songs. Would Queen's unique and varied sound have continued to evolve, as well as influence subsequent generations of bands? Most definitely. I don't think that rock music would have sounded 'different', as such. There would simply have been more Queen for us to enjoy.

Q:  Was there another side to the enigmatic musician you discovered while writing this biography?

A:  Another side to Freddie? As I said earlier, there were many. Perhaps the most surprising thing about him was that he was not in any way a rock diva. When he was not out there on stage, commanding the attention of perhaps 80,000 fans at a time, holding them in the palm of his hand, he dropped all the flamboyant behaviour and was simply a nice, modest guy. There was nothing 'tantrums and tiaras' about him. He did not draw attention to himself. He did not regard himself as a celebrity, but as a musician. He did not seek out the company of other artists, he let them come to him. He touched base with very few – Elton John was perhaps his closest 'famous' friend - and now, Elton is set to write about their friendship in his own new book about the AIDS epidemic.
Freddie's music spoke for itself. He never saw the need to blow trumpets. I loved him for this.


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