I remember when Lennon was killed. I also remember the reactions of his fans. I liked The Beatles, of course, but they were a few years ahead of me. And Lennon’s solo work underwhelmed me. So it’s fair to say that I really didn’t get his importance to Baby Boomers or the powerful emotional connection that many of them felt to him. As a result, I didn’t quite fathom the oppressive pall that seemed to fall over every part of the world inhabited by Boomers when, on December 8, 1980, he was gunned down on the streets of New York City. The Beatles weren’t my band. They weren’t of my generation. John wasn’t my hero. And I had never lost a rock hero before.
But on November 24, 1991 – 20 years ago today – I came to understand perhaps a measure of the grief felt by my older friends and colleagues. On that day the man who had been my rock hero succumbed to AIDS. We had only learned a few days earlier that he even had the disease, and I had no idea that the end would come so quickly.
I think back now on the first time I heard Queen – back when you could hear good music on the radio, the local stations played “Killer Queen.” Then, with the release of A Night at the Opera, the band began to blow up. I remember one morning when I was a freshman at Ledford High School, riding in with my next-door neighbor David Rush. He was a senior, starting QB for the football team, and as cool as it got at Ledford. I asked him if he knew anything about Queen. “They’re a hard rock band,” was all he had to say, and “hard rock” in my perception had something to do with Satan, probably. They didn’t sound like devil music, though, so I saved my money and used it to buy the record. I think it must have cost $7 or so, an outlandish sum of money, and I don’t recall my grandfather being happy about such wastefulness. But I did it, and A Night at the Opera thus became the first record I bought with my own money.
And I played it so much I thought the needle was going to wear through the vinyl.
I remember discovering that a girl on my speech and debate team, Melanie Gear, was a big Queen fan, too. We’d sit together in class or on the bus to and from tournaments and talk about anything Queen-related we could think of. I’d hear something and have to share it with her. She’d hear some news and share it with me. And on those too-rare occasions where we had heard that a new Queen album was on the way we’d talk about it nonstop. We didn’t think we’d make it until the drop date, we were so damned excited.
When I’d finally get my hands on the new one – A Day at the Races in 1976, News of the World in 1977, Jazz in 1978 – again, I’d go in my room and close the door and play it as loud as I could without making my grandparents mad. Over and over again. I still know every freakin’ note, every word, even when I may not have heard the song for years.
Freddie was god. Brian was god. John was god. Roger was god. We’d argue over who was the best songwriter (I always contended it was Brian). We argued over who was the best singer, even. Yeah, Freddie was marvelous, but both Brian and John were gravely underrated voices, and it can be cool to hold unconventional opinions. It makes one appear thoughtful and intellectual and independent. I’m still like that, I suppose, although I don’t recall being that way before Queen, before Freddie Mercury, became the biggest pop culture icons in my entire world.
We never argued over who was the biggest star, though. Or who had the most charisma, the greatest presence. Somewhere up in heaven, surely Jesus dreamed of being as glorious as Freddie Mercury.
I’ve talked elsewhere about Freddie’s importance to me. And to the culture generally. I’m not the only one, either. I hope you read Gavin’s piece the other day, because the view from South Africa was decidedly different that the view from Wallburg, North Carolina. And I’m especially glad that Freddie’s legacy has grown through the years, that two decades on he is regarded as Asia’s greatest rock star, as the greatest male rock singer of all time, as one of the 100 greatest Britons. Hype, certainly. Open to debate? Of course. But plausible arguments? No question.
I’m also glad that he is honored as a cultural influence, because true rock greatness involves more than just putting out good records. Influence on other artists matters. Staying power matters, especially in our current age of disposable pop stardom. And impact on the world beyond music matters a great deal. The Beatles were a political phenomenon, as was Dylan, and as Gavin points out, few people did more to get the crisis of AIDS on the public radar than Freddie.
He also accelerated the pace at which we all got over our homophobia because all the narrow-minded, ignorant hate that people like me grew up with simply wasn’t compatible with the magnificence and the beauty and the grandeur of the music that Freddie and his bandmates showered on the world.
The likes of Freddie Mercury don’t come along very often, and I’m reflecting on what I felt 20 years ago, sitting in a friend’s living room in Charlotte, when I learned that one of the most important formative influences in my life was gone. Who wants to live forever, indeed. I just wish we’d had a few more years.