If you had unlimited lovers, wealth and fame, you’d be happy, right?
Ask Freddie Mercury. Queen sold 400 million records and a generation after his death the world still knows classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Will Rock You”, and “We Are The Champions”.
Freddie amassed $75 million. One birthday he rented an entire floor of New York’s elite Berkshire Hotel and flew his friends over in the Concorde. The wait-staff wore nothing but bodypaint by a famous artist. Guests drank 350 bottles of Moet et Chandon in one hour, and the party lasted days. But a friend said, “In his personal life behind the scenes, I felt he wasn’t really enjoying himself, not deep down.”
This thing called love
Each morning I get up I die a little . . .
Take a look in the mirror and cry . . .
Can’t anybody find me somebody to love?
Freddie’s girlfriend Mary Austin stuck with him through years of low pay and rejection. Queen’s bass player John Deacon said that “what came across most was that they were very good friends . . . Freddie trusted Mary.” Freddie told his deeply religious parents she was his future wife. But then he told her he was bisexual and, as Queen’s fame rocketed, he started sleeping around in London, Munich and especially New York: “When I am there, I just slut myself. It’s Sin City . . .”; “I’ll go to bed with anything.” That cost him Mary. His producer and close friend said that “for all the star’s sexual activity . . . he was ultimately dissatisfied with his gay lifestyle.”
A lover said of Freddie and of the impact of multiple partners, “You can get hurt very easily. . . . Each finished relationship builds up a new barrier and they become difficult to break down. . . . You can have . . . friends . . . yet still feel agonisingly lonely, as Freddie said time and time again,” afraid of being “alone, unwanted and unloved”.
Freddie sang confusing love songs. “Love Of My Life” (written for Mary) is all about loss and hurt. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is about lust: “I just can’t handle it . . . it jives, shakes all over like a jellyfish.” “Fat Bottomed Girls” boasts “I knew love before I left my nursery” from “Fanny the naughty nanny”—but that sounds like child abuse, not love. “You’re My Best Friend” gets passion and intimacy together, but it was written by John Deacon, who was happily married.
Freddie was playing by different rules, but it wasn’t working. “I’m riddled with scars, and I just don’t want any more,” he said.
I want it all, I want it now
It’s hard to think of anyone else as flamboyant and experimental as Freddie—except perhaps the ancient Jewish king, Solomon, who was wildly wealthy and decided to ignore the rules of his religious parents and see what made him happy. He wrote, “I said to myself, ‘Let’s go for it—experiment with pleasure, have a good time!’” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, The Message*).
Solomon’s diary, Ecclesiastes, records how he tried fine wines, huge building projects, leisure, the best singers and a harem he thought would encompass “the delights of the heart of man”—sexual conquests in similar numbers to Freddie.
“But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke,” he wrote. “There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. . . . I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It’s smoke—and spitting into the wind. . . . That’s when I called it quits, gave up on anything that could be hoped for on this earth” (Ecclesiastes 2:11, 20,17). Eventually Solomon decided he needed God to make sense of living: “Yes, we should make the most of what God gives, both the bounty and the capacity to enjoy it, accepting what’s given and delighting in the work. It’s God’s gift!” (Ecclesiastes 5:19).
Floating around in ecstasy?
Freddie was still seeking satisfaction from the next thrill—cocaine. But it brought ugly mood swings. His tantrums kept fans waiting hours in Chicago snow. He smashed a mirror on a roadie’s head—then ordered him to clean it up. A friend said, “He was brilliant. . . . But, oh, close up, he irked me a lot. It was such a disappointment.”
Queen broke up, sick of his selfish arrogance. Freddie felt burned out and depressed; his existence had become a cliché of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. He considered moving back to the security of Mary’s love. Mary even suggested they have a child. He answered, “I’d rather have another cat.”
Freddie complained, “Love is Russian roulette for me. No-one loves the real me inside. They’re all in love with my fame, my stardom.” Yet that was not true of Mary. “All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s impossible. The only friend I’ve got is Mary. . . . I couldn’t fall in love with a man the same way.” Yet for all the nice words, he seemed to want the impossible—security without commitment.
Who wants to live forever?
I’m just the pieces of the man I used to be.
Too many bitter tears are raining down on me
I’m far away from home
And I’ve been facing this alone
For far too long.
I feel like no-one ever told the truth to me
About growing up and what a struggle it would be
In my tangled state of mind
I’ve been looking back to find where I went wrong.
Freddie sang “Who Wants to Live Forever?” in 1986, amid whispers of a new disease. All doctors knew was that homosexuals and intravenous drug users seemed to be most at risk. Freddie took minimal precautions. An ex-lover visited him, dying of AIDS. In panic, Freddie got tested and found he was HIV-positive. Only then did he start using condoms and sticking to one lover.
It started off so well…
Save me, save me
I can’t face this life alone
Save, save, save me
I’m aching and I’m far from home.
Freddie buried himself in work. Another party didn’t stop the blotches on his body or his dropping white blood cell count. Confined to bed, with Mary caring for him, he was carried downstairs one last time to look at his beautiful house. He spent his last days sleeping, and then the big sleep. His final statement: “You can have everything in the world and still be the loneliest man, and that is the most bitter type of loneliness. I’ve had a lot of lovers. I’ve tried relationships on either side, male and female. But all of them have gone wrong. Success has brought me world idolisation and millions of pounds, but it’s prevented me from having the one thing we all need—a loving, ongoing relationship.”
But was the problem success or his choices? Solomon wrote something similar: “I turned my head and saw yet another wisp of smoke on its way to nothingness: a solitary person, completely alone—no children, no family, no friends—yet working obsessively late into the night, compulsively greedy for more and more. . . . More smoke. A bad business.
“It’s better to have a partner than go it alone. Share the work, share the wealth. And if one falls down, the other helps. But if there’s no-one to help, tough! Two in a bed warm each other. Alone, you shiver all night” (Ecclesiastes 4:7–11).
I’ve tried it all
Both Freddie and King Solomon tried everything the world can offer—more than most people ever could—hoping that money, sex, fame, creativity and power could make a human heart happy. Freddie sang in “The Show Must Go On”:
Inside my heart is breaking
My makeup may be flaking
But my smile still stays on.
Whatever happens, I leave it all to chance
Another heartache, another failed romance,
On and on, does anybody know what we are living for?
And in “Pain Is So Close to Pleasure”:
. . . pain is all I got when all I needed was some love and affection…
Where are the answers we’re all searching for?
There’s nothing in this world to be sure of anymore.
But Solomon found something to be sure of: “The last and final word is this: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent . . .” (Ecclesiastes 12:13,14).
Freddie questioned God in “Innuendo”:
If there’s a God . . .
If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die,
If there’s an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask,
Show yourself, destroy our fears, release your mask.
Solomon searched until he found God. He said faith improves a person’s experience of everything else in life so you can “Seize life! Eat bread with gusto. Drink wine with a robust heart” and “Relish life with the spouse you love” (Ecclesiastes 9:7,9). Good advice for anyone who wants to live.
Will Hamilton is a Sydney-based writer and producer.
* Bible verses in this article taken from The Message, © 2002, Eugene H Peterson. Used with permission.