Lesley-Ann Jones: Ally

Ruby's Rap

by Ruby Comer

Photo by Dave Hogan
Photo by Dave Hogan

Another one bites the dust! We’ve lost so many ultra-talented people recently—Prince, Muhammed Ali, Patty Duke (Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls!), Natalie Cole, Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin (my god, a freak accident at such a young age) and Holy Lordie, even David Bowie. Yawza!

Speaking of “Another One Bites The Dust,” the song was written by the late great Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist for the rock band Queen, who died of AIDS-related causes in November 1991. (The rest of the band consisted of Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon.) Diagnosed in 1987, the public only found out of his illness two days before he died. He was forty-five years-old. Even if you were born after 1990, trust me, you’ve heard Queen songs!

I was such a Freddie freak! His commanding voice and macho, outrageous flair captivated me. He was magnetic. He…had…“it!” Directly after his death, one of Queen’s biggest hits, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” was rereleased as a Christmas single in the U.K., landing at number one on the charts, and raising more than a million pounds for the Terrence Higgins Trust AIDS charity. When it was rereleased in the U.S., profits benefited the Magic Johnson Foundation, which dispersed funds to other AIDS charities.

In 1992, Brain May and Roger Taylor, and their manager, Jim Beach, established The

Illustration by Davidd Batalon
Illustration by Davidd Batalon

Mercury Phoenix Trust in honor of Freddie, which still raises money today for AIDS.

Several years after his death, a striking statue was erected of Freddie in this lakefront town of Montreux, Switzerland (created by artist Irena Sedlecká). He kept a home here, a place where he felt at peace. Queen often recorded here, too, alongside Lake Geneva, overlooking the majestic Alps. Soon after it was dedicated, Ms. Ruby was in Geneva visiting the UNAIDS headquarters, a worldwide organization. One day, I rented a car and drove an hour to Montreux to visit “my” Freddie. With tears on my cheeks, I laid roses next to his feet.

Freddie would have been seventy years-old this year, but his spirit lives! The dynamic performer is kept alive in various forms. Queen still performs, even though original member John Deacon retired. Over the past several years, Adam la-jonesLambert has stepped in as lead vocalist for the group. In 2002, We Will Rock You, a musical fantasy of Queen songs, premiered in London’s West End where it played to packed houses until 2014. The show continues performing around the globe. In March of this year, it opened in São Paulo, Brazil. Yours truly has seen it five times. At the end of the show, the audience can’t resist standing to sing along with the electric cast. It’s an ethereal, emotional sensation!

Recently, I read the mesmerizing definitive biography, Mercury, by rock journalist Lesley-Ann Jones, who met Freddie in 1984 when she interviewed him. As she says in her book, Freddie had the “wow factor.” Lesley-Ann became friends with him, which afforded her a glimpse into his world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

While putting the finishing touches on her new book, Hero, a biography of David Bowie, whom she met when she was eleven, I Skype the writer in her London home. (Hero is being released this month.) I call Lesley-Ann and am greeted by a perky pretty smiley face.

A statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux, where the Queen frontman often recorded. Photo by Beth Geiger
A statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux, where the Queen frontman often recorded. Photo by Beth Geiger

Ruby Comer: I’m so new to all this technology. Lesley-Ann, bear with me. [I fiddle with a couple of keyboard buttons and position myself so she can see me better.] Okay that does it. Nice…to… meet…you! I totally ate up your book, finishing it within a few days. I couldn’t put it down! [She nods with gratitude.] What calls to mind when I say “AIDS”?
Lesley-Ann Jones: That it’s not a word! [She expresses this emphatically, with a raise of an eyebrow.] I’m the most irritating pedant in the world, as my children will tell you. [She has three.] I’m also passionate about acronyms, and it’s always worth spelling this one out: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It annoys the hell out of me whenever I read “Aids” in print, lower-case.

Photo © Mick Rock, 1974, 2016. All rights reserved
Photo © Mick Rock, 1974, 2016. All rights reserved

You tell it damn straight!
Any of my kids’ teenage friends could tell you off the top of their heads that people with AIDS have a heightened susceptibility to deadly infections, cancer, and certain neurological disdorders. They could also tell you that HIV—human immunodeficiency virus—causes AIDS, but that HIV and AIDS are not the same thing.

You’ve “learned” your kids well.
My point being that education makes the difference. Many people of my generation have less than the vaguest grasp of the facts. [I bob my head in agreement.] I sat in a marketing meeting in a major London publishing house recently, and gasped audibly when a publicist said, “but people aren’t dying of AIDS anymore, right?”

Oy! My God! Merciful heavens.
[She lifts her sparkling browns upward, annoyed, and continues.] Our priority must be to make education and the medicines available in every second and third-world country. We still have a long way to go to find a cure.

Alas, we do. When did you last see Freddie, Lesley-Ann?
February 1990 at the BRIT Awards in London. Queen received the Outstanding Contribution to British Music Award. They filed up on stage to accept it, and the whole room was in shock. Freddie looked terrible. He was dressed in pale blue, had his hair closely cropped, and the illness was there for all to see. It was heartbreaking. Brian [May] did all the talking, and Freddie said nothing until right at the end. He stepped forward to the microphone, and muttered, “Thank you…Good night.” They were his final words spoken in public. He was saying goodbye to the music industry that had given him a magnificent career.

Photo © Mick Rock, 1974, 2016. All rights reserved
Photo © Mick Rock, 1974, 2016. All rights reserved

Oh, my…hits me right here [pointing toward my broken heart]. How did you learn that Freddie was infected?
By osmosis. The rumors about his health began in about September 1986, after Queen played their last-ever concert as the original band at Knebworth Park that August. The Murdoch press led the charge, of course. The Sun was all over it. They paid a paparazzo, Jason Fraser, a big chunk of money to stalk him relentlessly. Fraser got photos of Freddie emerging from a specialist’s consulting rooms in the Harley Street area, where the London private doctors see patients, and the rumor mill cranked into action. It never stopped. It was as if they weren’t going to be satisfied until they had his head on a plate. Freddie was being held up as the prime example of “what happens to you when you pursue a promiscuous and degrading lifestyle.”

How utterly sad….
It was heartless, disgracefully judgmental, and it made a lot of people angry with the press. The phone of Roxy Meade, Queen’s PR, was ringing off the hook. She was instructed by Jim Beach, their manager, to deny everything, and that’s precisely what she did, as did the other members of Queen. Everyone lied and said that Freddie was fine. They lied because he wanted them to. They respected and honored the wishes of their friend. So he was dying: “ain’t nobody’s bizniz but my own.” But certain factions of the press still refused to back off. They camped around the clock outside his house, Garden Lodge, in Kensington. They were waiting for him to die. Freddie became a prisoner in his own home. He couldn’t have gone out, even if he’d wanted or been able to. I was a journalist too, but I felt ashamed of my profession. [Lesley-Ann briefly glances away.]

It’s been suggested that he could have made a contribution to AIDS awareness by speaking earlier about his situation and his fight against the disease. Mercury kept his condition private to protect those closest to him.

Jones with Sir Tim Rice and Brian May of Queen. Photo © L. Jones
Jones with Sir Tim Rice and Brian May of Queen. Photo courtesy L. Jones

Are you still in contact with any of Queen’s band members?
Brian May is a cherished friend. I published a novel recently: Imagine: Where Were You The Night John Lennon Died? (Mulcahy Books). Brian read it ahead of publication, and wrote me a quote for the cover, which is splashed right across the front in big letters: “Real, Surreal and Uniquely Chilling!” It’s the kind of publicity a novelist can only dream of. It’s set in the music business and features composites of every rock industry character I’ve ever known, loved and loathed.

I’m intrigued already. Loved John Lennon! You mention in Mercury that at one time there was going to be a Freddie biopic, backed by TriBeca Films and starring Sacha Baron Cohen?
Sacha’s out and has been quite scornful of the whole thing in the press recently. Brian said not long ago that he wants Ben Whishaw—the new Q in James Bond—to play Freddie.

Jones with Peter Freestone, Mercury's former personal assistant. Photo © Lesley-Ann Jones
Jones with Peter Freestone, Mercury’s former personal assistant. Photo © Lesley-Ann Jones

[I interrupt Lesley-Ann and applaud loudly.] What an actor. Love him! Ben could certainly portray Freddie and do him justice.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan is off the case. He couldn’t agree on a script with Roger and Brian, who appear to want a film about Queen and how they went on to even greater world dominance after Freddie’s death; while Peter saw the film focusing on Freddie. Director Stephen Frears was involved at one point. [She pauses.] I wonder whether this movie will ever happen now? It has been dragging on for so long.

What one thing stands out for you about Freddie?
That out on stage he was Hercules—a fierce, gigantic warrior. He could hold 300,000 people in the palm of his hand. But when he walked away from the stage at the conclusion of a performance, it was as if he dropped the stardom the way we take off an overcoat. He shrank back down to this little, modest guy. When he was not performing, he did nothing to draw attention to himself. “Freddie Mercury of Queen” was entirely an act.

Rock on over to www.lesleyannjones.com for more!

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].