Bio of Freddie Mercury also ends up a history of HIV
Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards & Mark Langthorne (Weldon Owen 2016) $24.95; 440 pp.
Farrokh Bulsara was born in India in the fall of 1946 to Parsee followers of the prophet Zoroaster — personal facts he tried to hide 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, according to authors Matt Richards and Matt Langthorne, 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 to Mercury, while his latest band rebranded to Queen; both began attracting attention in the U.K. 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 became HIV-positive.
At nearly 400 pages, sans notes, Somebody to Love is one of those books that might have been enhanced by being shortened by a third. It’s an exhaustive biography of the famed frontman, but that’s not all: this is also a surprising biography of the AIDS epidemic, beginning more than a century ago. That’s often imagined, since exact circumstances are unknown, but while it makes for a fascinating tale, it stretches too slowly, gets too breathy and loses its punch. 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, for fans, Somebody to Love may still be worth a try. Others may find this book to be a rough one.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 25, 2017.