This week, Caroline Sullivan wrote an article called Freddie Mercury: The Great Enigma. I am at a loss to explain why it has appeared now – Mercury would have turned 66 more than three weeks ago (which would make it weirdly late), and the 21st anniversary of his death isn’t until November (which would make it weirdly early). Maybe it’s something to do with the forthcoming BBC documentary about Mercury, but if so it’s weirdly early again, given that’s not scheduled to be broadcast until next month. And if the repeatedly-announced-but-never-actually-started biopic starring Sacha Baron Cohen was the cause of writing the article – as a couple of stray sentences suggest it may have been – then that’s even weirder, since it’s at least two years away (as it has been ever since ‘two years away’ meant 2011). Mind you, it’s not just the timing of the article that mystifies me; I’m equally unable to explain why it was written at all, given that it has nothing new to say, and makes a number of fairly embarrassing mistakes.
What kind of mistakes? Well, there’s the bit where Sullivan describes Barcelona as ‘Mercury’s final solo album’, even though in the same sentence she acknowledges that it was ‘recorded with soprano Montserrat Caballé’. In fact, it was a collaboration (they share lead vocals), and mere seconds of research would have shown Sullivan that the album was released under the names of both of them. It’s possible, of course, to see what caused this mistake – Sullivan was wanting to make the point that this wasn’t a Queen album, and through either error or ignorance wrote ‘solo album’ when ‘side project’ was the correct term – but there’s no getting away from the fact that describing Barcelona as a solo album by Freddie Mercury is like describing Bridge Over Troubled Water as a Paul Simon solo record. It’s a pretty basic error for a specialist music journalist, especially when you realise that the same sentence had already been corrected once after publication: Sullivan initially described Caballé as a mezzo-soprano.
Possibly these mistakes seem trivial, but they’re part of a pattern. Let’s examine these few sentences for evidence of more:
Mercury’s voice was a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t his “real” voice, or so claims Caballé. On the telephone from Barcelona, she says: “He had a baritone voice. I told him one day, ‘Let’s do a small duet of baritone and soprano,’ and he said, ‘No, no, my fans only know me as a rock singer and they will not recognise my voice if I sing in baritone.’ So I didn’t conquer him to do that.”
Where to begin? Ok, just because it annoys me – what the hell does describing a voice as having ‘the velocity of a hurricane’ even mean? The force of a hurricane: yes, that’s a fairly standard if irritating cliché, but the velocity of a hurricane? Who ever talks about a voice having speed? Unless, of course, Sullivan doesn’t know what the word velocity means – another pretty basic error, this time not just for a specialist music journalist, but for anyone paid to write.
Next up, let’s note the subtle misrepresentation of Caballé – where the opera star says only that Mercury had a baritone voice, Sullivan twists this into Caballé claiming that his familiar voice was not ‘his “real” voice’. One of the things Freddie Mercury was well known for was his extensive vocal range – so well known, in fact, you’d hope that a professional music journalist might have been aware of it, even one who thinks a duet is a solo, and that voices should be talked about in terms of their speed. In the terminology Caballé employs, Mercury’s range stretched from baritone, via tenor, to counter-tenor. In saying that Mercury had a baritone voice, Caballé is not saying that his other voices were “unreal”, just that he was capable of singing in this range, too, and that she would have liked him to sing a duet with her in that part of his range.
In fact, either Caballé’s memory is failing her, or Sullivan has misquoted her: she did sing a duet with Mercury using his baritone voice. The song is called “Ensueño“, it appears on the Barcelona album, and Caballé is credited with writing the lyrics. Even if the original error is Caballé’s – it would be understandable: she’s nearly 80, her collaboration with Mercury was 25 years ago, and it was only a few days out of a long and busy career – it does not reflect well on Sullivan that she failed to double check. As with the claim that Barcelona was a solo album, this was not hard to verify – a cursory glance at the album’s Wikipedia entry would have been enough to put her right.
So much for the errors (there may be others: these were the ones that jumped out at me, but I haven’t attempted a full fisking of the article). What I actually find more extraordinary is just how pointless the article as a whole is – I can see literally no reason for it existing. It seems to be partly based round a conversation with the director of the forthcoming documentary, and it sometimes seems that Sullivan has seen the documentary, or at least extracts from it – but it’s not a review, or even a preview, of the documentary. Then, too, it seems like it might be based round a conversation with Montserrat Caballé, presumably interviewed to not-really-coincide with the recent release of a special edition of Barcelona – but it’s not a full interview, and it can’t be a review of the album since it’s painfully obvious that Sullivan hasn’t actually heard it. (She asks people with a commercial relationship with Freddie Mercury’s estate if they like it: strangely enough, they say they do.) The headline suggests it’s an attempt to penetrate the ‘enigma’ of Freddie Mercury – but this it spectacularly fails to do. The closest it comes are interviews with people who confirm that, yes, Freddie Mercury was quite a private person, and you could even describe him as an enigma.
The frustrating thing is how banal and superficial the article’s treatment of all this is – it’s not even written about in an interesting way. Take this, for example:
with Mercury, the curtain went up and came down again, leaving us none the wiser about his real life. He didn’t live into the internet era, and so never had a chance to destroy his own mystique by tweeting and sharing. Twenty-first century rock stars are handmaidens to their fans, compelled to expose their lives to scrutiny, whereas, with Mercury, there was a kind of lordly absence of detail.
“If he was here now, they’d have wanted him to go on Dancing with the Stars and The X-Factor and you name it. He’d have hated that. People’s lives are now open books – is there anything we don’t know about Lady Gaga?” Freestone [Peter Freestone, Mercury’s former PA] says. “[…] He was enigmatic – everything he did raised questions he didn’t answer.”
This is so facile it’s maddening. For a start, we know way more about Freddie Mercury than we used to; several people who knew him intimately have published memoirs about him. We know the details of the two significant romantic relationships of his life (with Mary Austin and Jim Hutton), we know about his religion (Zoroastrianism), his ethnic background (Persia, via India and Zanzibar), and we know his real name – back in the day it was so little known that even The Guardian, reporting his death, thought Freddie had been born Frederick. Secondly, you’d have to be really quite ignorant about the way Mercury conducted himself – his fastidious avoidance of interviews stretching back over decades; his retreat into near-absolute reclusion in the final years of his life – not to realise that he would never have ‘tweeted and shared’, even if the opportunity had been available to him.
Then, too, it’s not true to say that all ‘twenty-first century rock stars’ expose their lives to scrutiny – take Brandon Flowers of The Killers, for example. He’s a pretty big star, his career has been entirely contained in the 21st century, and, like Mercury, he’s best known as the frontman of a band but has also pursued a solo career. His tweeting is sporadic and rare, and his infrequent interviews are not personally revealing – we know very little about Flowers-the-man, except that he’s a Mormon, and he’s married. And while we may know everything there is to know about Lady Gaga, that’s only because, like Ziggy Stardust, she’s a character who only exists in performance. We don’t know all that much about Stefani Germanotta, the woman who performs Gaga – so little, in fact, that the internet is awash with rumours that Gaga is actually performed by a man, and Germanotta is just a cover story.
Part of the reason the shallowness of this is so frustrating is that there are genuinely interesting things to be said about Mercury’s enigma. It’s interesting, for example, to note that he was trying to keep two secrets from the public – his sexual orientation, and his race – and to think about how that influenced his decision to be so private. It would be fair to say that Mercury hid his sexual orientation in plain sight, as did Elton John, but that’s not to say either was widely taken for gay. The 1970s was a time when it was ok for an entertainer to appear to be gay or bisexual – to be effeminate, sometimes flamboyantly so; even to simulate gay sex on stage – but only so long as the audience believed they were actually or predominantly straight. Mercury’s exaggeratedly camp persona was popular, but only so long as it came with a wink to the audience that suggested he was just play-acting, like David Bowie. That’s why, when people started to think he might actually be gay, the video for ‘Bicycle Race’ – featuring Mercury in a determinedly butch lumberjack shirt, and hordes of naked women on bicycles – appeared. (If there’s ever been a more blatant example of someone ‘straight-washing’ their own image, I can’t think of it.) Mercury’s racial background he hid even more assiduously. While he was alive I doubt if as many as one in a hundred people who owned a Queen record knew he was anything other than white British.
An article exploring all that might have been interesting, but that’s not what we have. Instead we have Sullivan’s article, with its amazement at shallow paradoxes – Mercury was both shy and extrovert? why, that’s as unheard of as a comedian who’s jolly on stage but miserable off it! – and its egregious factual errors, and its witless speculation about what would have happened if Freddie Mercury hadn’t died.
Yes, maybe he would have kept working with Queen, as Sullivan informs us is the consensus view. Then again, without the knowledge of Mercury’s impending death hanging over everything, would his band mates have agreed to come back to Queen, or would they have preferred to pursue their other projects? And, if his priorities hadn’t been radically altered by a terminal diagnosis, would the fiercely egotistical Mercury have agreed to the pooling of song-writing credits that was the necessary precondition of the band getting back together in 1988/9? And, who knows, maybe Mercury would have written stage musicals with Tim Rice, like he said he would – in the same way that maybe he would have followed through on that promise to collaborate with Bob Geldof on an album of Irish folk music, or taken that collaboration with Michael Jackson beyond the demo stage, or recorded that album of light opera he’d discussed with Montserrat Caballé. Or maybe they were all just the kind of vague, blue-sky plans made by a man who knew he was dying, but still needed to believe he could live for the future.