The Mercury That's Rising in Rock Is Freddie, the Satiny Seductor of Queen
The British are a strong-minded, outspoken people who are ambivalent about very little except possibly the monarchy and sex. So it was inevitable that out of the rock rebellion would come a group with the exploitative impudence to crown themselves Queen. “The whole point,” says androgynous co-founder Freddie Mercury, “was to be pompous and provocative, to prompt speculation and controversy.” But that was seven long years ago, and now at a time of preternaturally primitive punks like the Sex Pistols, Queen has entered the Establishment, and Mercury has himself, at 31, emerged from the closet. The bloke, it turns out, is a mere heterosexual.
“If I told you,” the king of Queen used to dissemble, “it would destroy the mystery.” But this month, as the group launched an SRO, 22-city tour of the U.S., Freddie acknowledged there was a bird in hand. She is Mary Austin, 26, a former shopgirl turned Mercury’s bookkeeper/ major domo and quiet live-in lovely for seven years. Mary admits to being “a bit puzzled” by her relationship with a simulated bisexual, but apologizes for him: “He’s mentally all over the place.”
Physically it’s the same—onstage anyway, as Freddie stretches to the frightening outer limits of both his spandex jumpsuits and good taste. Behind the outrageous costuming and choreography, however, the rock is diamond-hard and highbrow and, as on the new (and sixth straight gold) LP, News of the World, definitely for sophisticated fans who think Kiss is death. For that, at least, much of the credit owes to the rest of the quartet and, in the past, their meticulous, 4½-month marathons in the studio that left them, says Mercury, wasted like “zombies and mad professors.” Queen is open to the latter label anyway. Mercury’s bandmates among them hold degrees in biology, infrared astronomy and electronics. Yet they suppress any private resentment at playing in the swaggering shadow of a poseur-composer who is, by comparison, a musical illiterate. “It’s the natural thing with his being the singer,” says drummer Roger Taylor, who does allow that Mercury lets “small annoyances build into violent rages: he’ll throw bottles, glasses, mirrors.” But the primadonnaism doesn’t hurt the group’s box office. “I imagine we come across as being cocky and arrogant,” says Mercury, using the queenly “we.” “But that’s not condescending—it’s theater.”
Mercury’s own background, the most exotic (unless Bianca Jagger retired the adjective) in rock, is pure Kipling. Of Persian parentage, he was born Frederick Bulsara in Zanzibar, where his accountant dad served with the British Colonial Office. Freddie was shipped off to a boarding school near Bombay at 7, where, besides being the school’s star jock, he first began to pound at a keyboard with a group called the Hectics. By age 18, he was off to London’s Ealing College of Art and into illustrating, but Mercury quickly found his “mind wasn’t on it.” So after trying out a number of groups, he helped discover Queen. “Nobody took him seriously,” says Taylor, though they admired how “he just forced himself to learn.”
Never having had a singing lesson, Freddie has the rawest vocal-cord nodules this side of Stevie Nicks. To spare him and get the tour on the road, the group zipped through the current LP in half the usual time, leaving Mercury free for tennis and for “getting a buzz by outbidding dealers at Sotheby’s” art auctions, where he finds the Oriental antiques that fill his London maisonette. Last summer he also had time for another buzz he is phobic about—the dentist’s drill, which he had avoided for 15 straight years. Remarkably, he had only one cavity but a serious gum problem. “I’m not worried about the look,” he says, “but only whether they’re going to fall out.” Would he settle down with Mary should he lose his snaggletoothed charm? “I’m not the marrying type,” says Freddie. “But maybe later,” he adds, “when I’ve burnt up enough energy.”
That is not yet. Queen’s new single anthem is We Are the Champions, but Mercury concedes, “We’re still grasping and have a lot more to do musically.” He keeps his own future options open: There’s the business side or a possible solo career. “I won’t be parading around for more than another few years,” says the singer-pianist who can’t sight-read. “I’ll just play it by ear.”