“Bohemian Rhapsody. The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury” (by Lesley-Anne Jones) (1997; recently re-issued)
This biography (not to be confused with the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody – click here for our review) is a sympathetic look at the life of the Queen front-man, from his lonely boyhood as Farrokh Bulsara, diligent Parsee schoolboy at an Indian boarding school, to his lonely death at age 46 as Freddie Mercury, adored British rock star. Some of those from his Zoroastrian background do not see this as an upward trajectory – his cousin Diana said, “He gave up his family name. He did not live like us. He was nothing at all to do with us. He never came back. He wasn’t proud of Zanzibar. He was a stranger. He was of another life.” Certainly, Freddie kept his sexuality and the more sordid aspects of his lifestyle from his conservative parents as well as he could, although it is hard to believe that they were as naive as he hoped. They could read the newspapers, after all.
It’s always a mistake to call a biography “definitive”. (See our review of Gold Dust Woman : The Biography of Stevie Nicks although Jones’ book is much better than Davis’s). Several earlier biographies are mentioned by Jones, “Mercury and Me” 1994, by Mercury’s partner Jim Hutton (and Tim Wapshott) apparently is an undignified tell-all about their sexual practices and Mercury’s final days. This one, although not “sanitised” sufficiently to horrify Sacha Baron Cohen (see review above), is light reading and not sensationalist. It is kind and generous to Freddie, who although kind, generous and polite himself, could be vicious and demanding – not surprising given that he was part of a multi-million dollar business which sent tens of tons of equipment by sea and air in advance of international dates.
The pivotal place of Mary Austin, an early friend and former lover, in Mercury’s life is well-documented. The image of Mercury in his long-haired, velvet-and-satin bohemian days lunching with Mary in the Rainbow Room is too much for this Biba aficionado. Mary was with Freddie until the end, finally as a sort-of paid friend and hard-edged keeper of the door. It is suggested that in part she used Mercury’s guilt about having not fulfilled his promise to marry her to retain her closeness. Mercury’s liaisons with Jim Hutton and countless nameless men are well known. Less well-known and surprising is his relationship (and yes, it was sexual) later in life with Barbara Valentin, a plump, middle-aged former actress whom he seemed really to have loved.
Jones’ book suffers from the fault of all biographies written by an “I was there journalist”, who really wasn’t there all that much. A breathless piece in the Introduction details the conversation Mercury had with Jones and other journalists who happened to be in the same pub (Mercury having apparently not yet “sussed” them). Jones – “We were keeping a lid on it. Trying to be cool. Willing the killer instinct to subside, the one that would have had us flying at the phone to call our news editors with the scoop of the year, that we had rock’s most sought-after showman cornered in a foreign boozer; we swallowed a couple more shots and waited. This was a priceless opportunity”. And the off the record – until now – scoop? Freddie ‘mused’, “I’ve created a monster. The monster is me. I can’t blame anyone else. It’s what I’ve worked for since I was a kid. I would have killed for this. Whatever happens to me is all my fault. It’s what I wanted. It’s what we all strive or. Success, fame, money, sex, drugs – whatever you want. I can have it. But now I’m beginning to see that as much as I created it, I want to escape from it, I’m starting to worry that I can’t control it, as much as it controls me.” Freddie, no more naive than his parents, could read the papers too.
As is usual in this sort of biography, there is a lot of regurgitating of things said by the subject’s fellow band members, family, assistants, managers, hangers on and other musicians – usually not to Jones herself. Oddly, photographs of Jones with these types of people (none with the subject of the book) are included in the photos. These, and other pictures should have been excised and the money saved spent on better quality paper.
Criticisms of the book have included the claim that it jumps around time-wise. That is so, but typical for this kind of soft biography. There are a helpful Chronology and Discography and an unhelpful Index at the back. A list of the major players would have helped, as the various sound engineers, managers, PR people, musicians and accompanists quoted are difficult to differentiate. Perhaps Jones should not have asserted that in the film to be made after publication of her book, “Freddie is played by Borat and Bruno star Sacha Baron Cohen…”
From this reviewer’s personal point of view, it is surprising that there is no mention of Queen being booed off the stage in Victoria, Australia in 1974 (“go back to Pommyland, ya pooftahs”). Nor is there mention of Queen’s tour of Australia in 1976, which the reviewer knows happened, because she saw them on stage in Adelaide on the 15th April that year.
Naturally, a book about Freddie Mercury will contain much about his sexuality and partiality for orgies. This is not a book for musicians, but perhaps a little more about the actual mechanics of Queen’s music and Mercury’s talent would have brought it up a stage.
This seems a lot of criticism for a three star book. Do not let these fore-warnings deter you if you are a Queen devotee or simply interested in the horrors of the rock world. It is an ordinary rock biography, just a cut above average, unlike its subject. On other hand, it is charming and fast-moving, like its subject.