Unraveling the Enigma Known as Freddie Mercury
What comes to mind when thinking of Freddie Mercury? Is it his remarkable voice and songwriting skills, his utter magnetism on stage or his wild public persona and lifestyle? Unraveling these qualities and revealing the person underneath is achieved with brilliant accuracy by Lesley-Ann Jones.
Jones had so much more than an "all-access" pass to the legendary rock n' rollers. She has taken her time spent with Freddie Mercury to acknowledge and create a realistic, well-researched and vivid portrait of this man who would be "Queen."
A casualty of the AIDS virus, Mercury died in 1991. His far more than casual sex life just adds to the mystique of the man while his unique genius as a songwriter, producer, singer and stylist continues to remain a musical life force.
Author, music journalist and friend of "Freddie" discusses just a few of the idiosyncrasies of Mercury, Freddie and his band mates, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor's amazing contribution to music and the "Jekyll and Hyde" transformation of his stage persona for EDGE Media Network. Lesley-Ann Jones' observations entice, inform, reflect and capture the man behind that certain "kind of magic" in "Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury."
EDGE: At the beginning of your book, you mentioned spending time at a pub and meeting Freddie Mercury there. Was this your first time meeting him?
Lesley-Ann Jones: No, it wasn’t. I had known him quite well, actually, by that time. Originally, we met at their [Queen] office because I was a journalist for The Daily Mail and that was in early 1984. At that point, I just became one of their friends. They had a bit of a rough ride with the music press at that time. The music press wasn’t ’mad’ about Queen.
I just happened to be a genuine fan, so it was a huge deal for me to meet them. They realized very quickly that I loved the music and so, the management began to invite me along when they were playing gigs in different countries. I was flown out to cover the shows and to write reviews for the paper.
EDGE: That is marvelous. How did your impressions of Freddie Mercury evolve over the years, in being around him?
Lesley-Ann Jones: It’s interesting because the very first time I met them and Freddie was in their office, Freddie said hardly anything at all. He was excruciatingly shy. He sat on a sofa with his knees drawn up to his chest, with his arms hugging his knees.
Brian [May] was very articulate, very lively and very funny. He would say funny things every few minutes and Freddie would spontaneously laugh. But his hands would fly up to his face to cover his teeth. He didn’t want me to see his teeth.
EDGE: Yes, I had no idea he was so self-conscious of that.
Lesley-Ann Jones: I was told by Roger [Taylor] awhile afterwards that he had to feel really comfortable and at ease with people, to be able to laugh openly in front of them without covering his mouth. He did get to that stage with me. He wasn’t a ’bosom buddy’ of mine or anything because he had a lifestyle that differed from mine.
I was very much with the straight camp when we traveled and Freddie’s entourage had another agenda. It got to a stage at one point, where Freddie and his immediate circle were staying in one hotel and the rest of the band, crew and media were staying in a completely different hotel. The agendas after the shows were different. They were going in different directions.
EDGE: I remember reading that in ’Mercury.’
Lesley-Ann Jones: I didn’t really answer your question. I think Freddie was very guarded and he didn’t open up very much. Though, after a time, he would become more at ease with you.
But, it didn’t come swiftly as it was with the others. The others were more open for it and fun-loving, eccentric and wild. Freddie was eccentric but much more contained. He had to trust people first.
EDGE: Definitely, I felt that. When did you first decide that you wanted to write a biography on Mercury?
Lesley-Ann Jones: It was about four years after his death in 1991. I was asked by a literary agent, who sadly has passed on as well now, if I knew anybody who would be interested in writing a book about Freddie. Freddie’s life partner, Jim Hutton, who was with him the last six years, had written a memoir called ’Mercury and Me.’ Very bad grammar in the title (laughter) but the book did extremely well. So, they were looking for someone who would do more of a generic biography that wasn’t just from one person’s point of view, but that covered him from every angle. The agent asked me if I knew anybody and I said, ’Yeah, I would love to do that!’ I knew Freddie and remembered hanging out with Queen lots of times. They didn’t even know that... it was interesting. The initial book was published in 1997.
Cut to all these years later in 2010, I got a call from out of the blue from Peter Morgan, the screenwriter. He said that he had been hired to write a screenplay on Freddie Mercury for a film and he wanted to meet me. He read my original book. He lives in Vienna and he came here and we met a couple of times. He wanted to know more and had questions.
EDGE: That’s a trip.
Lesley-Ann Jones: He thought that we should republish the book because of the film. I said that I would need to rewrite it because that’s a long time ago. First off, I am more mature now and would have better psychological insight. I understand him better, perhaps than I did back then. I would write a much better book. Secondly, Queen is a bigger band now than they ever were in Freddie’s lifetime. There was a bigger profile going on and a bigger perspective. People who didn’t want to talk with me for the first book... felt that they might this time. They’ve had time to process their grief and most often, that’s been the case. And, the funny thing is, the original publisher bought it again and that has been just great for me.
At Odds With Himself
EDGE: One facet of Queen’s career was their contract with Trident and that the band didn’t make a substantial amount of money until four or five albums later.
Lesley-Ann Jones: It was unusual; people were experimenting with deals at that time. They didn’t have a ’standard’ record company contract. Trident had put money into their career and they had to earn that back. It was a bit like a huge advance. Queen spent a lot of money in the way they recorded their albums and it took a long time to pay it back. They moved on in the end but they were not rich men for a very long time. They are now!
EDGE: Oh yeah. You mentioned the major flux between the personality of Freddie the man and when he was performing on stage. He had such bravado on stage and was so powerful as a rock star. Yet, there is a completely opposite side to him... even in the way he spoke, like he could have been completely content just having his cats and his house in the country. Some aspects seem so polar-opposite.
When do you think this opposition of mind and character began to transpire within Freddie?
Lesley-Ann Jones: I think it goes back much further into his childhood, actually. I think he was at odds with himself from about the age of eight years. He was sent away to school from his home in Zanzibar, all the way to India, to a very English public school. It was a very ’stiff upper lip’ environment. You were expected to contain your emotions and not show your feelings. He was separated from his family and he couldn’t speak to them on the phone. There wasn’t the technology. He was writing letters. He was a little tiny boy. That has to have a profound effect both psychologically and personality-wise.
EDGE: It’s a way of rebelling against the situation in which he found himself.
Lesley-Ann Jones: He clearly had this urge to be extrovert and to be a performer. He was having piano lessons at school and was very into the early rock n’ roll. Vinyl singles were just beginning to reach that part of England at that time. He was getting exposure to that kind of thing. I think that the split-personality started to develop in his very-own tunes. He perhaps saw his being able to create his stage persona as the perfect foil for the angst-within and confused little boy that he remained throughout his life. It was the perfect cover for that. I think it just went to extremes really.
EDGE: That aspect of remarkable entertainers is somewhat of a common occurrence.
Lesley-Ann Jones: Right. You’ve got this larger-than-life Freddie Mercury who goes out on a stage and commands an audience. He seems like a giant in the stadium. Then, he comes off stage and he’s actually quite a small person, stature-wise. He seemed always to physically reduce in size, when he got off stage. It was a projection of Freddie. Freddie Mercury as being the ’star’ and it’s not who he really was.
EDGE: Some performers have this magic ability to really turn it on when entertaining and are electric, yet off-stage quite shy and sensitive. Ann-Margret is like this, I think.
A Country Gentleman
Lesley-Ann Jones: Have you seen the newest film about Marilyn that came out last year?
EDGE: Yes. You mean ’My Week with Marilyn.’
Lesley-Ann Jones: Yeah, there’s a fantastic line in that film. She’s at a public school for boys in London. They come down the stairs and there is a whole bunch of young boys all sort of standing there, gaping at her. She’s obviously stunningly beautiful and they know who she is. She turns to the guy [Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark] and says, ’Shall I be her?’
I think that was Freddie, really. He was just ’Freddie,’ then he’d go shed him and he was obviously flipping it on for the crowd, really. That wasn’t really him.
EDGE: That’s very, very true and I got that from reading your book. There are tons of interviews in "Mercury." What were some of the surprises around the bend for you in researching the book?
Lesley-Ann Jones: You know? I hadn’t been party to Freddie’s domestic life. After they finished in 1986 and they came off the road...that was the last tour that Freddie performed with Queen. So, I didn’t see much of him after that.
I was quite surprised to learn from Peter Freestone, who was his press assistant and lived in his house with him for all those years, was the middle-aged gentleman domestic existence that Freddy loved and he was very content to live that life. He had very specific ways, he liked things done. Apparently, on Christmas Day, when they would lay out the table for dinner, Freddie would be there with a tape measure, (laughter) measuring out the cutlery from this side of the table to that side. He was really particular about domestic things.
He was into painting, ballet and opera and a very cultured man. I had no idea he was quite into all those things. You really didn’t expect that. He was a rock star. It was nothing like you’d expect a rock star’s house to be. I’ve been in a number of rock star houses and they are nothing like that. It was very classical; something like the Queen would have as a country home. He just liked being at home.
The Magic of Queen
EDGE: Or someone such as George Cukor [renowned film director].
Lesley-Ann Jones: Yeah, very old-fashioned. Quite old in style in a way, there was nothing really modern about it.
EDGE: With such an amazing amount of worldwide success over the years, how would you describe the magical combination of talent that made up Queen?
Lesley-Ann Jones: A lot of that had to do with the fact that you had four supremely intelligent individuals, who collectively were very blessed. Freddie was the only one who didn’t have a major academic degree. In the early days, the publicist used to lie about that and make things up. Freddie actually hadn’t done very well in school. Freddie wasn’t unintelligent... he just hadn’t made it in the academic mainstream. All these things and more contributed to the creation of their music. All of them wrote number one hits. All of them would fight in the studio with ’this has got to go here’ or ’this must be done...’ it wasn’t a Lennon/McCartney situation, where you had two guys and the other guys mostly going along with it, in terms of songwriting.
These were four very strong songwriters who were also fantastic musicians. No two songs are alike. You have completely eclectic albums almost from every form of music. I just can’t think of another band who explored the whole gamut of musical styles in history. I can’t think of any other band who really dared to do it to the extremes that they did. It’s brilliant.
EDGE: No doubt. Thank you for your insight and ’Mercury.’
Lesley-Ann Jones: Thank you ever so much for talking with me. You’ve been very generous. Take it easy.
Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury (Touchstone, 368 pages) is available on Amazon.com or at a bookseller or bookseller website.
Watch this video made to celebrate Freddie Mercury’s 65th birthday: