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For Freddie

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IT WAS A NIGHT OF UNLIKELY PAIRINGS AT LONDON’S WEMBLEY Stadium, where 72,000 fans and an estimated world television audience of 1 billion watched a who’s who of pop personalities pay tribute to rocker Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, who died at 45 of AIDS in November. While former gay-baiter Axl Rose and AIDS activist Elton John were arm in arm, performing a show-stopping duet of Mercury’s hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” onstage, beauty and the beast were colliding backstage. “I was like taking off my clothes after our set, and there she is!” related a star-struck Slash, the Ewok-haired guitarist for Guns N’ Roses, after a greenroom encounter with Elizabeth Taylor. “I was just like, ‘Hi!’ ”

Good vibes permeated the April 20 tribute, which raised an estimated $35 million to fight the disease while memorializing Mercury, the flamboyant, high-decibel vocalist whose operatic compositions made Queen a mid-’70s supergroup. While Taylor assured the crowd, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing,” another unlikely rocker, Liza Minnelli, led a charged all-star chorus through Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” The concert opened with brief sets by Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Extreme and Def Leppard. Then the three surviving members of Queen backed an array of rock luminaries, including Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Annie Lennox, Lisa Stansfield, George Michael, Elton John and Ian Hunter. David Bowie closed his set by dropping to his knees to recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I’ve got a friend who’s dying at this very moment, fighting very bravely, but in the last stages,” Bowie said afterward. “I think the tragedy by now has hit just about everybody.”

The whole affair would have pleased Mercury no end, according to Queen guitarist Brian May. “Freddie is watching,” he said. “He would have been thrilled that everyone’s making such an enormous fuss.”