Twenty years ago this week the world lost a major voice in rock music. I can remember exactly where I was when Kurt Loder announced on MTV News at 10 minutes before the hour that Freddie Mercury had died. It was a Thursday afternoon and I was 18, a senior in high school and had just gotten home. I stood in front of the television in my room with my arms crossed and a perplexed look on my face because just 24 hours before, Kurt had announced that Freddie was HIV positive. I turned off the TV, put Queen’s Greatest Hits on the record player and listened to it several times in a row before my mom called me to dinner.
While at the time I was not near the Queen fan that I am today, it was the first time a major rock celebrity had died in my cognizant existence (i.e. Lennon and Bonham I was too young to take note/care) and it struck me pretty hard. These rock stars were, after all, quite mortal.
It took me a few more years to really begin to appreciate Queen for more than a slew of super hits, and I’ve touched on that a bit on a previous post. But something Queen showed me and the world was that you could be sexy without being sleazy, and you could be campy and effeminate without being weak or really any less manly; that there is laughter amongst heartache and sobriety within joy; that you can sing about every day things like vacations and cars and cats and rock just as hard and with as much purpose as when you sing about girls, fairies, death or someone you despise; and that at the end of the day it’s all about enjoying what you do, so that you can do it well.
Queen embraced over the top rock and combined it with over the top fashion, creating a style of music that was everything and yet nothing else all at once. I don’t believe there was a major musical genre that they didn’t at least touch on, from straight rock to jazz to calypso to country to rag time and on and on, and yet all with a certain flair that was distinctly and unmistakably Queen.
The focal point in all of this was of course Freddie. Even on the songs he didn’t take lead on, his presence was known, lurking, hovering, giggling in the corners of fills and the spaces between notes. You cannot say the word “queen” in reference to anything without me first thinking of Freddie and then moving on to whatever the subject at hand is. That’s how much of an impression he made not only on me, but on the world of popular music. His was a voice so distinctive that, to my knowledge, no one has even attempted to imitate it, to incorporate it into their own self. No one else could be quite so passionate and tender, so brazen and feisty, so immediately capable of croons and venom within the same album, song or verse. Even when he was blowing the roof off, he did so effortlessly, as if he were just toying with the idea of completely annihilating the entire room with one note from his throat. And all the way to the end, making those last three albums, when the band knew what was going on, his voice never quavered, never lost that majesty, that thrill, that absolute sincerity that made the cheesiest lines convincing, even gospel.
And even when Queen began to, in my mind, lose vision and lag and begin to put our more “market” material, there was still that twinkle in Freddie’s eye that said, “You know you like it.” Yes, it’s true, even the stuff I don’t care for I certainly don’t hate, and that’s all because Freddie Mercury made me a believer.