Freddie Mercury Under Pressure: Inside the Dying Queen Frontman's Quest to Live Forever Through Song

Freddie Mercury's Queen bandmates and close friends remember the iconic singer, who died on November 24, 1991, at the age of 45

Live Aid At Wembley Stadium
Queen's Freddie Mercury at Live Aid. Photo: FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty

Freddie Mercury once asked, "What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us?" And as the Queen frontman approached his final days, he felt those words more acutely than ever.

Mercury died on Nov. 24, 1991, after an intensely (and intentionally) private struggle with AIDS. In the 30 years since his death, his bandmates and closest friends have made it clear that, toward the end of his life, the singer was fueled by an almost defiant need to create — even as, and no doubt because, he felt time slipping away.

"Freddie lived for his music and loved his music and he was proud of himself as a musician above everything else," says Queen lead guitarist Brian May in the upcoming documentary Freddie Mercury: The Final Act.

"For him, the studio was an oasis, a place where life was just the same as it always had been," May noted in a 2013 interview with The Telegraph.

"We all knew there wasn't much time left," May told The Telegraph of heading into the studio in Switzerland to record in spring of 1991, but "Freddie wanted his life to be as normal as possible."

May's wife, Anita Dobson, sheds an even starker light on Mercury's mindset: "I remember he said 'When I can't sing anymore darling, then I will die. I will drop dead,'" she tells filmmaker James Rogan, according to a report in The Mirror. "And that's what he did."

Freddie Mercury Last video
Freddie Mercury on the set of the “These Are the Days of Our Lives” video in May 1991.

Once Mercury officially received his AIDS diagnosis in 1987, the four remaining years of his life were a constant negotiation between his drive as a performer and his visibly weakening body.

"Freddie was very extrovert onstage, as we all know, but he was very shy in his private life and liked to be private," May told PEOPLE in 2017.

When he first wrote "The Show Must Go On" in 1989, May admits he "was uncertain whether the title was too obvious."

However, he shared in a 2020 statement, "Freddie heard it and loved it and dismissed any thoughts that there was a problem with the chorus or the title. He wanted to work on it. We didn't discuss what the meaning of the song was, but it was of course evident in the background that it was an attempt to give a voice to the feelings that Freddie's valiant fight against AIDS created in all of us, and even in Freddie."

By the time the band headed to their Montreux studio in May 1991, the singer was prepared to be slightly more forthcoming.

"He did sit us down and say, 'Look you know what I'm suffering from, you know what the problem is, but I don't want to talk about it anymore. I just want to make music until the day I f---ing die. And let's get on with it,'" May shared in the 2011 documentary Queen: Days of Our Lives.

Justin Shirley-Smith, the assistant engineer in Switzerland, told The Telegraph in 2013 that the mood, surprisingly, "wasn't sad, it was very happy. He was one of the funniest people I ever encountered. I was laughing most of the time, with him. Freddie was saying [of his illness], 'F--- that. I'm not going to think about it, I'm going to do this.' We all were."

May — who added in The Telegraph that his friend "had no fear, really" in those final days in the booth — continued the thought in a 2014 conversation with Rolling Stone.

"There was a lot of joy, strangely enough," he said. "Sometimes it would only last a couple of hours a day because he would get very tired. But during that couple of hours, boy, would he give a lot. When he couldn't stand up, he used to prop himself up against a desk and down a vodka: 'I'll sing it till I f---ing bleed.'"

Queen's final music video with Mercury was the ballad "These Are the Days of Our Lives." Rudi Dolezal directed the video and recalled how the singer navigated around his illness.

"AIDS was never a topic. We never discussed it. He didn't want to talk about it," Dolezal told PEOPLE in 2019. "Most of the people didn't even 100% know if he had it, apart from the band and a few people in the inner circle. He always said, 'I don't want to put any burden on other people by telling them my tragedy.'"

Dolezal said the May 1991 shoot was filled with an unspoken meaning for Mercury: "He knew how ill he was and that this was the last time he'd ever be in front of a camera. In these last few seconds of that song, he gives us a resume of his whole life. 'I was a big superstar, but don't take it too seriously.' And then, 'I still love you,' which is to the fans, and then he walks out of life. That's how he wanted it to be."

"Although his body was failing him, his voice was still strong," Mercury's sister Kashmira Bulsara says in The Final Act.

"When Freddie would see his own videos he would say 'I was handsome then' and that is very hurtful as he knew what he was going through," she notes, adding, "I thought my brother was handsome, still do."

Photo of Freddie MERCURY and QUEEN
Freddie Mercury in his Zandra Rhodes stage costume, 1974. Fin Costello/Redferns

On Nov. 23, 1991, Mercury released a statement publicly confirming his AIDS diagnosis but noting, "I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease."

The next day, he was dead at the age of 45.

Looking back, Queen drummer Roger Taylor is certain Mercury "did not want to be the object of pity or scrutiny."

And though he gave his fans around the world less than 24 hours to process the one-two punch of revelation and loss, Taylor says, "It was probably perfect timing. Bloody good move, I thought."

Of course, the band members were personally devastated by the loss of their leading man, with Taylor telling Good Morning America in 2019: "We thought it was all over [when Freddie died]. I think Brian and I thought that was the end of that chapter."

"It was surreal," May had told The Telegraph in 2013. "Even though we had been preparing for such a long time, it still didn't feel possible."

Queen in September, 1981. Kent Gavin/Mirrorpix/Getty

But there was a telling line in The Guardian's obituary for Mercury: "His after-show parties went on for days and were legendary among those who retained any recollection of them."

And on April 20, 1992, Queen staged the ultimate afterparty — a tribute concert to raise funds to fight AIDS. More than 72,000 fans gathered in Wembley Stadium in London to watch Mercury's close friend Elton John unexpectedly duet with Guns N' Roses, to rally around Elizabeth Taylor's "electrifying" plea for AIDS awareness and prevention, and to see Annie Lennox soar through Mercury's "Under Pressure" scat-off with David Bowie.

George Michael's stirring rendition of a 1976 Queen favorite especially struck a chord, according to May in The Final Act: "When George Michael sang 'Somebody to Love,' there were moments where he had that crystal clear razor-edge just like Freddie. It was a real 'chills up your spine' moment for all of us."

And long after that spring night at Wembley, the band has found a way to continue building dreams and battling the slipping away of time — a fitting continuation of their friend's legacy.

To name just a few achievements: Their stage musical We Will Rock You has mounted productions across the world since 2002, they tapped American Idol alum Adam Lambert to perform with the group in 2012, their close input on the $1 billion-earning film Bohemian Rhapsody helped actor Rami Malek win an Oscar in February 2019 (in addition to prizes for editing, sound mixing and sound editing), and five months after the Oscars, their iconic rock anthem of the same name hit a billion views on YouTube.

"A lot of the time it feels as if Freddie is still with us, even though physically he is not," May told The Telegraph in 2013.

And Dolezal told PEOPLE in 2019 that he still hears the advice Mercury gave him back in 1991: "Never try to be second best. Always go for the impossible."

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