Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 12/1/91 9:02 AM

Feature: Tribute to Freddie Mercury

                                                       Tribute to Freddie M


I can just hear it, the Voice From Above crooning softly, questioningly, “Ready, Freddie?“ And down below, on his sick bed, Mercury would have put back his leonine head and let forth a `Ready!` in his rich baritone.

It is difficult to think of the music world without Freddie Mercury. There was never someone quite like him before, and there will never be a voice quite like his again.

Freddie Mercury and his band Queen had their own special niche in a chop-and-change music world. Groups got together and disbanded, musical cults had their moments in the neon lights and died natural deaths, but Mercury and his band of Brits rode the crest of all waves, arguably on the strength of his unforgettable voice. “We will, we will, rock you,“ he carolled, and the eager multitudes became his fans for life.

Queen — Freddie Mercury, lead vocals, Brian May on lead guitar,  John Deacon on bass and Roger Taylor on drums — gave an underpinning of jazz to classical rock around the late Seventies and rock music has never been the same since. They set the mould, then broke it and threw the pieces away. And no other group could hope to reproduce the Queensound.

Queen never did make singalong music. Not even a fan with musical training would have attempted the operatic, twin-choral effect of Bohemian Rhapsody, not even a twinkle-toed groupie would have tried to shimmy to the elusive beat of Too Late.

They debuted with Queen and as their other albums like Day at the Races and Night at the Opera climbed the charts, one fact emerged as  clear as the crystal which Mercury’s voice could well shatter in its higher registers: Queen was Freddie Mercury more than Freddie Mercury was Queen. Watching their performances only emphasized the fact that the others in the band were quite definitely the back-up, and it was presumed that they knew their place.

All his songs had that twist. In Fat Girls, he sang a paean to corpulence with incredible sincerity. One listens to Jealousy and isn’t  too sure whether he sings for the done-to or the doer.  His Death on Two Legs was the most scathing indictment to a nameless, genderless ex-flame, and Radio Gaga evocatively recaptured the halcyon delights of  radio days.


On the grounds of IITs, by the banks of Bombay’s Powai Lake, on the campus of Delhi’s St Stephen, at the Mardi Gras, Frederick Bulsara alias Freddie Mercury’s fellow countrymen would chant, “We are the champions, my friend,“ in not always the most musical of scales, triumphant fists reaching for the skies.

When local bands would play gigs, they would be inundated with requests for Deep Purple, Tull and Led Zeppelin numbers. But never did anyone ask to hear Freddie’s voice duplicated onstage. They knew it just couldn’t be done.

Was Mercury gay? Well, if he was, so what? He was not one of us, right? Maybe but then again, so what? Did he have a weird sense of sartorial style?  Well, no weirder than the likes of Ted Nugent or The Jagger.

If he was a bit heavy on the make-up, giving rise to uncharitable comments on how the group’s name fit him like a glove, that too was okay, as he was part of a rock scene that included the pancaked-masked Kiss and the androgynous David Bowie. Mercury’s fans were there to hear him sing. The rest was just fine trimmings.

Over the years, his eccentricities, peccadilloes and eventual lifestyle of a recluse in his country estate, rather uncharacteristic of the man who neatly stole the 1985 Live Aid show from Bob Geldof, was bound to give rise to much speculation, some of it concerned, some condemning, some prurient. In turn, some of that speculation was bound to hit the nail on the head.

And then Queen brought out what could now very well be their last album, Innuendo, which Rolling Stone maagazine characterised as containing some of Freddie’s best work to date. And the anxious multitudes calmed down. Nothing could happen to the man who sang , “ Life’s no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise…but I’ve come through it all.“

However, something did happen to Freddie Mercury, and AIDS, that great leveller, did not spare this victim either.

I can just see it. Freddie Mercury in a skinny vest and jeans, and a tuxedo on top. He takes a deep breath before singing. “I’ve taken my bows/my curtain calls/I’ve had my share of fame and fortune/I thank you all.“

Thank you, Freddie. I promise, we will, we will,  rock on in your memory.

Date of publication in The Sunday Times of India, Bangalore edition,  could not be ascertained. Since Freddie Mercury died on 24 November 1991, a safe guesstimate would be December 1991. That dateline must also serve as excuse for the cutesy manner in which his sexual orientation has been handled. 

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Sheila Kumar • December 1, 1991

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