Part II: On Freddie
Though my enthusiasm for Michael Jackson comes through pretty clearly, those who know me well know of my even greater affinity for the late, great Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen. There are quite a lot of similarities between the two. For starters, both had unsurpassed vocal instruments with incredible ranges, and even outside of that, both had the interpretive skill to put across songs with incredible power and conviction (I keep a running list in my head of what I call ‘Phonebook Singers’, i.e. singers who could sing the phone book and move you to tears, and those two are at the top of the list). Both were larger than life (Freddie was as flamboyant as Michael was eccentric). Both were consummate showmen with uncompromisingly intense stage personas, and though both had rather colorful personal lives, they were both nevertheless private and soft-spoken, even shy off-stage. Both were possessed of an eerie premonition they would die before their time, and unfortunately, both turned out to be right. I’m sure there are lots more similarities, but I’ll leave the ‘same number of letters in their names’ stuff to the celebrobsessives.
Based on things I've read, the two knew each other and had a good deal of mutual respect. In fact, it was apparently only conflicting schedules that prevented Freddie from appearing on a duet with Michael on 'Thriller', a fact Freddie commented on more than once with rueful regret. One of the songs, a track called 'State of Shock' was eventually recorded by Michael with Mick Jagger, and it's a pretty good tune (which can be found on The Jacksons' 'Victory' album). Demo tracks of the Mercury-Jackson version and two or three other tracks they recorded together can be found online, though being demos, the quality isn't particularly good. Perhaps in the years to come, someone on Michael's team will slide them off the shelf and remix them into something remarkable.
My affinity for Freddie Mercury came about in a very different way than that of Michael Jackson. I knew who he was during Queen's heyday in the late seventies and early Eighties, but I didn't own any Queen records, and had little if any interest in doing so. Though Queen's popularity marched on quite strongly all over the world, America pretty much lost interest in them as the Eighties continued. Outside of a burst of popularity after pretty much stealing Live Aid with a showstopping medley of their best-known songs, by 1990, outside of the enduring classic rock radio standards of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'We Will Rock You/We are the Champions', 'Another One Bites the Dust', 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love', and a couple of others, the band had largely faded from the scene.
Somewhere around Spring of 1991, however, I clicked my radio to WBAB, and heard Roger Luce saying, "This is the new single from Queen, and it - is - great!". And he was right. The single was 'I Can't Live With You', and while I can't deny the opening line, 'I can't live with you, but I can't live without you' twanged a rather sharp personal chord for me at the time, the fact remained the single was quintessential Queen, with playfully sardonic lyrics, excellent harmonies, Freddie's powerhouse vocals, and Brian May's muscular guitar work. It really got my attention, and the album, 'Innuendo' (which was to be the last Queen record released during Freddie's lifetime) was the first CD I ever purchased. To this day, I consider it among the most well-produced and diverse albums I've ever heard (Perhaps I'll add it to my growing list of recordings to recommend, as I did Eric Hutchinson's 'Sounds Like This').
Anyway, the artistry of Queen was unmistakable. I listened to 'Innuendo' constantly, all the while becoming more and more fascinated and intrigued by the flashy, passionate, and ferociously talented, but strangely enigmatic Mr. Mercury. I started reading about him, and learned certain details of the band's history: How the reel-to-reel recording of Bohemian Rhapsody had been overdubbed so many times, you could actually see through the tape, how their video for the song was one of the first and most influential music videos ever made, how they'd brought the house down at Live Aid, how they'd taken on the challenge of recording soundtracks for 'Flash Gordon' and 'Highlander', how they'd been all but blacklisted for deciding to play a concert for the people of South Africa, which was still overrun by Apartheid. At that time, the internet was still something of a novelty, and the integrity and accessibility of information was sometimes questionable (some things never change). I learned that it had been two years since the band's previous release, 'The Miracle' (also an excellent recording), and I assumed they would hit the streets with some appearances in support of 'Innuendo', make some buzz, maybe even come to the states for a Tonight Show appearance or something. But there was nothing.
Then, in late November of 1991, I understood why: Freddie Mercury had succumbed to complications from the AIDS virus. He had been battling it the previous few years, but had become substantively debilitated over the course of the two years leading up to the release of 'Innuendo'. I later learned the band had relocated to Switzerland to record 'Innuendo', and despite Freddie's spectacular performance on it, he had been so weak, he could often only record a few bars at a time.
I found myself profoundly taken by the courage he exhibited during this final year or so of his life, forcing himself to record not only the 'Innuendo' tracks, but tracks for the posthumous release, 'Made in Heaven' (yet another excellent recording). What must it have been like, singing into a microphone, committing his voice to tape, knowing he would not live to hear the notes reach the light of day?
I began purchasing some of the band's back-catalog, and they didn't disappoint. The music of Queen is well-produced, theatrical, passionate, intelligent, amusing, and inspiring. All four members of the band are excellent musicians and song-writers (they're the only band in which all members wrote a top 10 hit while together, a feat not even the Beatles matched), and though Freddie's bombastic stage persona inevitably put him way out front, the contributions of Brian May, who is one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, Roger Taylor (drums), and John Deacon (bass) cannot be underestimated.
I tend to like the later stuff better than the earlier, more hard rock stuff, but even there, I found plenty of incredible songs. Further, Freddie stepped out on his own with two solo CD's. The first was 'Mr. Bad Guy', which was eventually remixed with other assorted solo tracks into 'The Great Pretender' (containing his scintillating cover of that old standard, one of the best covers of any song I've ever heard). The second was a distinctive and innovative release called 'Barcelona', recorded with world-renowned Spanish opera star Montserrat Caballe, which successfully mixed opera and pop sensibilities into something remarkable, and served as a precursor to artists like Sarah Brightman and Josh Groban, who have made careers out of doing largely the same thing.
Even back then, I was aware of the fascinating similarities between Freddie and Michael, and after Michael's death, as a sort of personal tribute, I mixed a Mercury-Jackson CD, a virtual sing-off with alternating tracks. I tried to focus on representative songs rather than greatest hits type stuff (I only ended up with one Thriller track, and only a couple of Queen tracks that anyone would know), and though when you mix a CD, you have a pretty good sense of what it's going to sound like, there's nothing like hearing the whole thing beginning to end. The result was remarkable. Hearing these two titans spend close on an hour and a half trying to vocally outdo each other over the course of sixteen tracks, and to do so with a sort of thematic arc to the whole thing, turned out to be damn near close to thrilling.
(On a brief digression into my thoughts on creativity, I realize those last two lines could be interpreted that I'm a little full of myself, but I'm really not. In any creative endeavor, even just mixing a CD, the creator can take a certain degree of responsibility for their creation, but I really believe any artist or creator is a sort of channel for something beyond themselves.)
Having listened to the mix several times over the course of the last year, I found it impossible to resist a more direct comparison of the two artists, and though it's a nearly neck and neck call, the simple truth is Freddie Mercury is a better singer than Michael Jackson. He puts across songs with a little more bite and conviction, and I think his instrument is a little more versatile than Michael's.
Though both men took their craft very seriously, I think Freddie took himself a lot less seriously than Michael. He was willing to be silly and self-deprecating, something Michael rarely did, and many of Queen's lyrics often have a level of sophistication and humor that Michael never reached (though granted, with track names like 'Fat-Bottomed Girls' and 'I'm in Love with my Car', Queen proved quite enthusiastic in aiming a little lower at times :) ).
Sitting here at this moment, I realized Freddie was the same age as I am now when he died, and surely had a lot more to do both creatively and personally. In fact, I would go so far as to say he would have been one of the grand statesmen of Rock & Roll, and would have really come into his own as a solo artist as well as continuing to create great music with Queen. I think he had a acute awareness of the power of collaboration, and I think his willingness (as well as that of the other members of Queen) to do some solo stuff and then come back to together to record as a band is to be highly commended; it's an exceedingly rare thing these days. Most artists get too full of themselves and break away because they want more of the spotlight.
Though he was lesser known here in America, and not as overtly influential as Michael Jackson, the fact remains the loss of Freddie Mercury was a huge one to the world of music. His talent, creativity, charm, style, intelligence, humor, and charisma have few equals and no superiors, and though it has been nearly twenty years since he died, he remains sorely missed.
Thanks for reading.