By Terri Schlichenmeyer, January 2018 Issue.
Last year, this season was particularly rough. Every time you opened a newspaper or turned on the computer or TV, it seemed as though someone – a Hollywood actor, singer, or stage performer you liked – had died.
Even now, whether six months, a year or, as in Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, more than a decade has gone by, you still miss them.
Farrokh Bulsara was born in India in the fall of 1946 to Parsee followers of the prophet Zoroaster, facts he tried to hide it as a young man. For reasons he didn’t belabor, Bulsara claimed that he was “Persian” and seldom discussed his relatively privileged childhood. He even changed his name to Freddie.
Known as a shy boy and famously ashamed of his prominent front teeth, Freddie was nevertheless so in love with music that he helped form his first band in 1958, in part to “impress the girls.” As soon as he was old enough, he moved to London, where he became a hanger-on for two popular local bands, one of which eventually hired him as a lead singer. Freddie, say the authors, loved to put on a show.
At around this time, he also fell deeply in love with a woman, though he “was struggling to come to terms with whether he was straight, gay or bisexual.” Indeed, despite social mores and legalities of the time, he was also undoubtedly sleeping with men, but he “had no intention of coming out … even if in truth he had felt able to.”
By mid-1970, Freddie changed his surname, while his latest band changed its name to Queen; both began attracting attention in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Mercury fell in love with someone whom he considered his “common-law wife.” She, too, seemed to have no idea that he slept with men, which might not have mattered much anyhow: Mercury had led a “hedonistic” life for years and that was just Freddie being Freddie.
But then, possibly some time in 1982, he was infected with HIV …
Richards and Langthorne did an exhaustive job with the biography of the Queen front man. But Somebody to Love is also a surprising biography of the AIDS epidemic, beginning more than a century ago, which is often imagined, since exact circumstances are unknown.
While it makes for a fascinating tale, it stretches too slowly, gets too breathy, and loses its punch (think: 400 pages, sans notes). Even Mercury’s career seemed a mess here; readers get names and dates in a bounce-around narrative on a story-loop.
There’s merit in this book – early sections on the beginning of AIDS and the beginning and end of Mercury’s life are all stellar – but much of the middle part is pretty ho-hum. In the end, Somebody to Love may still rock you loyal fans.