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Lesley Ann Jones on Freddie Mercury, 'Bohemian Rhapsody'
By Thomas Bateman
2012-08-08

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Award-winning music journalist Lesley Ann Jones, author of Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, recently spoke with Windy City Times about the process of writing her latest book.

Speaking to us from her home in England, Jones illuminated the process of collecting hundreds of interviews, reinterpreting famous lyrics, assessing Queen's newfound popularity and providing a broad perspective on Mercury's life more than 20 years after his untimely death.

Windy City Times: First of all, I've just finished reading Mercury, and was very impressed. I'm wondering when and how you conceived the project and subsequently how long it took you?

Lesley Ann Jones: What happened was in 1991, a book was written by Jim Hutton, Freddie's lover, after Freddie died; I was then approached by my literary agent at the time, who said, "I think there's a market here for a wider book about Freddie—not a personal point of view, but an overview. Do you know anyone who might be interested in writing that?" And I said, "Well, obviously, I would!"

WCT: Of course!

LAJ: I had seen Queen four times by then, so we did a proposal, and my original book about Freddie was published in 1997 (Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography); it did very well. After all these years, I was called by Peter Morgan, the scriptwriter, and he was writing a movie about Freddie Mercury. He'd read my book, which had been recommended to him by Jim Beach, Queen's manager. I was very surprised about [this] because Jim is always a little disdainful of anything written about Queen that isn't by him!

I spoke to my manager about re-publication because of the movie, and I suggested that old book was a bit of out of date. Freddie's still dead, of course, but Queen has a career in America now, which they never had when Freddie was alive.

Americans at that time didn't get Queen's music at all; it was a bit too strange. Your market was about heavy rock, and we were in a glam phase. Queen just fell on deaf ears, you couldn't give it away. But that's not the case anymore; I think that's largely because of "We Will Rock You" and because a number of Queen songs have been picked up as sports anthems in your stadia—America football and basketball and so on.

So I decided I needed new material and I ran around. It was very interesting because quite a few of the people had refused to speak to me for the original book; I guess because they were still too grief-stricken. But 20 years down the line, people saw the point of talking about him. That made a massive difference and, suddenly, I had over a hundred new interviews.

WCT: Fascinating, so with over a hundred new interviews, who did you talk to who provided the most illuminating insights into Freddie's life?

LAJ: One in particular—I'm sure you've heard of Tim Rice? [Note: Rice is a British lyricist and author noted for his work with Andrew Llyod Webber and Disney.]

WCT: Of course.

LAJ: Well, he's a close personal friend of mine and he had worked with Freddie on the Barcelona album and he had been elusive the first time around, but this time we had a number of sessions talking about Freddie. He gave me a revelation about the meaning of "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen's most famous song. It had never occurred to me, but "Bohemian Rhapsody" was Freddie's coming-out song, written in a time when he wasn't able to be honest and open about his sexuality.

It was a very covert statement about who he was as a gay man, which he couldn't come out directly and say because of the lifestyle he was leading. His parents brought him up with a very rigid Zoroastrian lifestyle and he didn't want to offend them. Homosexuality is still outlawed by the religion and in Zanzibar, where he was born. [Note: Zanzibar is now part of Tanzania.]

Freddie never came out during his lifetime to whom he loved very much, Mary Austen—in fact, he adored her. They had a sexual relationship, as well as a loving and emotional relationship, that lasted about six years. Deep within himself, though, that wasn't who he was and he was being drawn in another direction. "Bohemian Rhapsody" expressed all of that anxiety.

When Tim said that, everything fell into place and I went back and read the lyrics and everything fell into place. "I see a little sillhouetto of a man"—that was the old Freddie leaning over his shoulder and saying, "There's going to come a time when you have to be open with yourself or you're going to explode." And this was very frightening; he even said that, "Thunder bolts and lightning, very, very frightening."

Galileo, Figaro, Scaramouche—all of those classical references that he loved [actually] represented the other members of the band. They were surrounding him—protecting him from the outside world, but also from himself, as he was a very fragile creature. In interviews, whenever they were asked, "What do the lyrics mean?" they would never say. Freddie himself, whenever you asked him, would say, "It means whatever you want, darling. If you see it, it's there."

WCT: That's intriguing, because it would essentially mean that what is arguably the greatest song of the 20th century is, in fact, a coming-out song. You mentioned in Mercury that there was considerable tabloid controversy after his death. How did his family cope with his status as a publicly gay or bisexual figure?

LAJ: I think the really tragic thing is that they would've accepted it. I've met his mother and father; in fact, I talked with his mother recently at a party given at the Savoy Hotel for Freddie's 65th birthday, with quite a few prominent gay figures in London getting up and speaking about the politics of homosexuality and how far we've come. It's such a tragedy that Freddie couldn't enjoy his sexuality openly. He could've helped gay people and the fight against AIDS so much, had he been allowed to. His mother said that attitudes have changed, and had we known we might've been able to accept. But we didn't know.


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