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Not a Bohemian rhapsody

One scene from Live Aid — the 16-hour mega concert in 1985 to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims — sticks out in my wind. It’s Freddie Mercury in a white vest and tight jeans taking the stage with his band, Queen, and immediately whipping the 80,000-strong Wembley audience into frenzy.

books Updated: Nov 11, 2011 23:36 IST

One scene from Live Aid — the 16-hour mega concert in 1985 to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims — sticks out in my wind. It’s Freddie Mercury in a white vest and tight jeans taking the stage with his band, Queen, and immediately whipping the 80,000-strong Wembley audience into frenzy.

Swinging the microphone stand, Mercury belts out a medley of six of their greatest hits in 17 unforgettable minutes of glorious stadium rock. All we hear is Radio gaga/Radio blah blah/Radio what’s new/ Radio, someone still loves you, chants Mercury, in a thinly disguised swipe at pop radio, and the stadium reverberates with the sound of thousands of clapping hands.

Six years later, ravaged by Aids, Mercury, one of the greatest showmen in rock, would be dead. Queen would limp on as a desiccated nostalgia band.

Rock journalist Lesley-Ann Jones’s biography is cleverly timed, coming when Queen fans are celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary. It sets out to explore the life and times of the enigmatic Mercury, a terrific front-man who hid his identity, sexuality and his disease. But this hagiography does not offer much fresh material, a surprise considering that Jones toured with the band, and befriended a number of people who were close to Mercury. “He was the ultimate peacock, who seduced as all,” she writes in what sounds more like groupie-speak, than a discerning biographer.

There is, however, an interesting account of Mercury’s early life. Indian fans who have appropriated Mercury as one of their own — home-grown legend has it that Mercury was born or lived in Mumbai and even performed in Goa as a youngster — will be disappointed.

Mercury was born Farrokh Balsara in Zanzibar, the son of a Parsee court clerk and homemaker mother, who had possibly migrated from Bulsar in Gujarat. When he was eight, his parents sent him away to a public school in the Indian hill town of Panchgani. At school, the shy and toothy boy grew up fast, excelling at sports, singing in the school choir, and was even rumoured to have a girlfriend (Gita Choksi, the girl in question, coyly tells the author that they were “just friends”). He did spend short vacations with an odd relative in Bombay, but never spoke about it later in life. Falling grades led to his dropping out of school though Jones speculates this could have to do with his “confusion over his sexuality”. He returned to Zanzibar in 1963 and completed school there.

After a violent revolution rocked Zanzibar in the mid-1960s, the Balsaras packed their bags and moved to London. Living in London in the swinging 60s, Mercury went to art school, worked as a nude model, sang and then joined a few local groups that opened for Hendrix and Pink Floyd. Queen happened soon after, Balsara was dropped in favour of Mercury after the ancient Roman messenger of the Gods, and a showman was born. A growing love for classical music and opera — which was to find an echo in Queen’s heavily overdubbed orchestral sound — and a flair for outrageous clothes and a debauched lifestyle made Mercury an iconic performer.

Jones details his reckless love life and his string of girl and boyfriends, including a former Red army soldier and an Austrian soft-porn actress who worked with Fassbinder. There’s bits about the music, notably the making of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the near six-minute-long audacious blend of baroque, ballad and rock, which for many is the apotheosis of the band. There’s also a moving account of his fading away, as the disease ate into him. “I am just a trouper, dear,” Mercury said once. Give me a stage. But in a way you’ve created a monster, haven’t you. And you’re the one who has to live with it.”

(Soutik Biswas is the India Editor for BBC News Online)