Who Wants to Live Forever: Freddie Mercury’s Last Years and his Battle with AIDS

Winner of the Fall 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Best Descriptive Article

The year was 1985. Coca-Cola just released its “New Coke” with a new formula, the Unabomber began a massive spree of bombings, an earthquake in Mexico claimed the lives of thousands; but on Saturday, July 13, Live Aid was set to kick off. Some of the most legendary bands and artists were in the line up—Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Elton John just to name a few—all helping to provide funds for the famine in Ethiopia. One band in particular would rock the world like no one has done before. Later, in 2005, a BBC poll called that band’s performance that day “the greatest live rock performance of all time.”1 That band was Queen. Queen was well known for their chart topping albums and hit singles. Their frontman Freddie Mercury was a flamboyant, over-the-top, and extremely talented singer-songwriter who could hit notes that others could only dream of doing. Queen’s twenty-minute performance included songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Radio Gaga,” and “We Are the Champions.” These songs not only ignited the crowd, but stole the whole show with the band’s passion and invigorating performance. No one compared to Freddie’s performance, and everyone agreed, he was on top of the world. Sadly, few at the time knew that he had been HIV positive for the previous three years, and that time was not on his side.

Over the course of time, Freddie underwent various tests for the AIDS virus. One of these tests was a biopsy that was performed on a lesion that appeared on his shoulder. Freddie began seeing news and getting calls that some of his ex-lovers were dying due to AIDS related illnesses. This was more evidence for him to conclude he also probably had AIDS. In 1986, Freddie was tested ten times for AIDS, and every single one of them came back positive. There was no hope running from the facts laid out before him.2 To Freddie, this was not a huge revelation. The diagnosis would’ve come sooner or later. Freddie was experiencing symptoms from the virus, such as lymph node infections; he experienced weight loss, constant fatigue, night sweats, and throat infections. Freddie just hoped he would have more time to accomplish more.3 Freddie only told a select number of people in order to reduce pressure and stress. He told Jim Beach, his lawyer, but people left in the dark were his family, and the media. If he chose to reveal his diagnoses to the media, by extension it would reveal that Freddie was homosexual. He believed if the media knew he was homosexual that it could be the suicide of his career.4 If it became generally known that Freddie had AIDS, it would have made touring next to impossible, since it was still unknown how the virus was transmitted. To make sure his career wasn’t put at risk, he only told a select number of people as time went on.

Homosexuality was a hotly debated topic in the media, and anybody of high status that was outed for being homosexual was put at risk. There were not many gay celebrities coming out, so it was risk to even publicly declare being homosexual. At the time, Freddie believed that the revelations could have damaged the band’s image, so the media and friends were left in the dark for many years.5 Freddie avoided mandatory HIV tests in America with the excuse that he “wasn’t up to doing tours,” in order to keep his secret from being made public.6 From that point on, he  barely left his own home; there was too much risk associated with being seen in public. Jim Hutton was perhaps the most important person informed of Freddie’s condition, because he was Freddie’s partner at the time, and “they had been having unprotected sex.” Freddie feared that he may have transmitted the AIDS virus to him.7 After Jim returned from a family visit in Ireland, Freddie revealed the lesion on his shoulder and confirmed to Jim that he had AIDS. Freddie chose not to tell his bandmates or even his parents, because he thought he was “protecting” them and feared their potential backlash. If he chose to reveal his diagnoses to the media, by extension it would reveal that Freddie was homosexual, and this would be the suicide of his career. To keep up the illusion that he was doing well, Freddie had become The Great Pretender.

Freddie Mercury, New Haven, 1978 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

By 1988, Freddie Mercury was under the care of Dr. Gordon Atkinson for regular and routine checkups. He was also seeing various other specialists, so his condition was closely monitored in order to further prevent any complications from the virus, and possibly give him more time. Due to his status and connections, he was able to obtain fast-tracked advanced drugs not available to other people who also had the virus. His doctor prescribed for him a drug named AZT, which was an experimental drug at the time that was showing promising results. Freddie was started on a daily dose of 300-500mg of AZT per day, giving “a tangible effect for a six to nine month period.”8 With AZT taking effect, Freddie felt he was in good enough condition to get back into the studio and begin recording new music again. Queen began working on their album The Miracle. This was the band’s first time adopting a collective-writing credits policy. After months spent on the album, Queen took a break. Roger Taylor began to work on his solo project, and Freddie started making arrangements of his own. Freddie had the chance to work with Montserrat Caballé, a Spanish opera singer at the time. During all of this, Freddie began to experience stronger side effects from the virus, such as headaches, vomiting, nausea, and insomnia. When going back to record with Freddie, bandmate Brian May started to suspect that something was wrong with Freddie, but he didn’t know what for sure. In October, Freddie went to Barcelona to perform with Caballé, even though his doctors strongly advised against the decision. Dr. Atkinson said that Freddie would not “[allow] his physical condition to interfere with his professional commitments.”9

As time progressed, Freddie’s health declined, making his ability to perform nearly impossible. For his performance with Caballé, the decision was made that he would have to mime the whole set. During playback of the tape for his first number, it was playing at a slower speed than normal, so the performance had to be stopped and restarted again. This mishap in his performance with Caballé didn’t go unnoticed by the audience, and most importantly, by the media. After the performance, rumors of Freddie having AIDS became rampant, with Freddie being asked questions about it in interviews and conferences. Freddie attempted to cover up his illness the best he could by stating that the songs he performed with Caballé were very difficult to perform live, and that he didn’t want to underwhelm the crowd. Mercury revealed to Caballé that he was positive for the AIDS virus. After many weeks of working together, he thought it was right to tell her and to make sure she didn’t catch anything from him due to the chance of it being transmitted. Caballé told Freddie that he was “so strong, and so [was his] voice.” He did not give off the impression of a dying man, he was still very much Mercury. She recalled when Freddie was performing “his eyes were shining with tears” and that “he knew it was probably his last performance.” It was his farewell, “it was his goodbye, at least to the stage.”10

Brian May performing at New Haven Coliseum, in New Haven, CT, 1978 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

When Freddie made his return back to England, with the album being finally completed, he started recording some solo work. Even though he was terminally ill, complaining about his physical condition wasn’t beneficial and wouldn’t contribute to anything; so he stuck to finishing business as best he could. Freddie, however, could not overlook the glaring detail that he hadn’t told the band about his condition, and finally concluded that the time had finally come. When the band accepted the award for its “Contribution to Music” earlier in 1990, his appearance was more gaunt and skinny, and he was a shell of his former self.11 Brian May and Roger Taylor conjectured that Freddie had had AIDS, but then they always denied it, thinking that it couldn’t happen to their friend; they just couldn’t imagine it. Their suspicions were finally confirmed when Freddie called them all to a dinner, and broke the news to them. He instructed the bandmates to not talk about it to anyone; they were distraught, but understood the gravity of what had just been presented. Freddie couldn’t bring himself to ask for their sympathy, or pity, which is why he never told them up to that point. For someone with AIDS, lying is just a way to make things easier; everyone that Freddie told was now a part of the lie.

Death was knocking at Freddie’s door, and he knew his time was running out. The press was still oppressing him, trying to uncover his secret illness. People were pressuring him to come out and say he had AIDS, but Freddie didn’t want to give in. While his body may be decaying faster than he would like, he knew that the show must go on, and he must finish recording his music. In order to escape everyone and just be able to write and record, he brought the band back to a recording studio in Montreux. Brian May noticed that the “people got used to the sight of [them], and nobody made a fuss.” And they went to work by themselves, and recorded their music, without distraction.12 The band stayed in a nearby town, while Freddie went back to a flat that he had bought in previous years. The bandmates chose to be as close as possible to him, while also giving him his privacy. While the band was ready to record and could withstand long sessions, Freddie’s energy was not like it use to be. Freddie made a limit of about an hour or two for time in the studio, and on some days, due to the virus, he was unable make it to the studio at all. Even though he wasn’t there, he constantly pushed the band to “make as much music as [they] could while he was still alive”.13 Freddie was still explosive in personality and his drive was still there, even when his body failed him. In this last album of Freddie’s, he was trying to cultivate his last testament on Earth; every song carried a lot of weight to it; these were his final works. Freddie found his family in that studio. All his “troubles were left outside the studio.” It was only the band and the music; there was no more room for anything else.14

With the album still unfinished, Freddie told the band in early November that he was returning to London for a while, even though it may very well be the end of his life. Freddie scheduled a flight back to his Garden Lodge home, where he shut himself away in his own secluded world, away from the noise, and away from the pain. In his home, he was starting to regain his sense of control; he no longer had to abide by what other people had to say. Freddie made the decision to ultimately stop taking his medicine; he didn’t want to suffer from the side effects of the drug any longer. On November 22, Freddie rang Jim Beach on the phone, requesting that he release a statement to the public that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Freddie was unable to do it himself because he was losing his sight, and was drifting in and out of consciousness constantly. At midnight on Friday, the statement was given. News headlines of that same day began covering the statement that Freddie released, but while that was happening, Freddie was dying. The time was “6:48 on Sunday, 24 November 1991, Freddie Mercury was pronounced dead.”15 His announcement of AIDS came a day before he lost his battle, due to a complication with the AIDS virus. The public could barely react to the news they were given. One day they were given shocking news, and the next day everyone was devastated by his death.16 Many news outlets broadcasted the many stories of Freddie Mercury. Some papers released articles saying that his death is a tragedy, and the loss of a legendary icon who will never be forgotten. Some articles only wanted to cover the story of his lovers and so on, in order to expose him and his homosexuality. On November 27, Freddie was laid to rest. There were no more rumors, no more speculation. Everything was out in the open now for everyone to see.

Freddie Mercury House, 2014 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Brian May and Roger Taylor pressed on to finish the album with as much of the material as they had from the recording sessions. Everything was put together and the album was released under the name Made in Heaven, where it went on selling as one of their best albums of all time, and it debuting at number one on the UK charts. The band, along with Jim Beach, also created an AIDS charity called the Mercury Phoenix Trust, and even held concerts to bring awareness to AIDS.17 Freddie was dead, but his music has lived on. Many remastered albums have been released in the 2000’s, giving a new generation the chance to listen to his music. And tribute bands have formed to perform popular Queen songs. And Queen today still performs, now with frontman Adam Lambert. Most notably in recent years, the film Bohemian Rhapsody was released in 2018, which has reinvigorated the love for Queen for many old and new fans alike, despite the factual liberties it takes. In Montreux, a bronze statue was built, and this is where fans who make the visit present different kinds of gifts and pay their respects to Freddie. Queen has been an international icon, being a part of the top “100 greatest artists” of all time, according to Rolling Stones, and by many others. Queen has no boundaries, and Freddie has no physical borders restraining his music. He is for everyone, no matter who they are.

Freddie Mercury Statue, Switzerland, Lake Geneva, 2015| Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Freddie Mercury possessed a sound that is unique to him, and one that no one could ever replicate. His vocal range, his extreme personality, and his dedication to his craft also set him apart from all the competition of the time. Whether it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” or “Somebody to Love,” people know the sound of Freddie Mercury. Just like Brian May, Freddie is still in our minds “all the time,” and “he’s part of our lives,” despite him not being there.18 His life wasn’t perfect, and his early death is something that has saddened the hearts of music fans for many years. But his legacy will never die.

  1. “Queen Win Greatest Live Gig Poll,” BBC News, November 9, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4420308.stm.
  2. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 294-295.
  3. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 300.
  4. Olivia B. Waxman, “Freddie Mercury Didn’t Want to Be a ‘Poster Boy’ for AIDS- But He and Other Celebrities Played a Key Role in its History,” Time Magazine, November 5, 2019, https://time.com/5440824/freddie-mercury-celebrity-aids-awareness/
  5. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 328.
  6. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 292.
  7. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 305.
  8. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 315.
  9. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 320.
  10. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 321.
  11. Paul Schrodt, “How Did Freddie Mercury Die? What to Know About the Queen Singer’s Last Days,” Menshealth Magazine, February 23, 2019, https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a26463053/how-did-freddie-mercury-die/
  12. Cole Moreton, “Inside the studio where Freddie Mercury sang his last song,” The Telegraph,December 1, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/10486116/Inside-the-studio-where-Freddie-Mercury-sang-his-last-song.html
  13. Cole Moreton, “Inside the studio where Freddie Mercury sang his last song,” The Telegraph,December 1, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/10486116/Inside-the-studio-where-Freddie-Mercury-sang-his-last-song.html
  14. Stefan Kyriazis, “Queen Brian May: Last Days working with Freddie were special ‘All his troubles went away’,” Express, May 28, 2019, https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/music/1133127/Queen-Brian-May-Freddie-Mercury-death-music-fans-Bohemian-Rhapsody-Roger-Taylor
  15. Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (Weldon Owen, 2018), 365.
  16. Barbara Wexler, “People with HIV/AIDS,” AIDS/HIV, (2012): 99-106
  17. Meg Mac Donald and Michael Belfiore, “Queen,” Contemporary Musicians 48, (2004): 133-135.
  18. Neil McCormick, “Brian May interview: Freddie is in my thoughts every day,” The Telegraph, Match 9, 2011, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandpopmusic/8371458/Brian-May-interview-Freddie-is-in-my-thoughts-every-day.html

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115 Responses

  1. Even though I am too young to be able to see Freddy Mercury perform I have always been a fan of him because my father showed me many concerts of him and his band, Queen. I really liked how this article talks about Freddy’s life in a chronological way showing the beginning of his career and his tragic death. I believe many of us didn’t know how the secret was his disease especially his fans that were born after his death. I really enjoy reading this article.

  2. Freddie Mercury was such a prominent part of my life. Listening to Queen is what helped me learn to speak English. As you mentioned, his music, his sound is unique to him, and everyone must have felt that. This was what helped people feel so connected to his music. This article was so hard to read because of how heartbreaking it was, and knowing that Freddie Mercury was so strong in trying to fight against AIDS just so he can do what he loves, it’s so difficult to understand because suffering in a situation like that, it makes it so much easier to give up. The article was amazing and well written, I was heartbroken reading this, but it was amazing.

  3. As you mentioned earlier, Freddie Mercury has a unique voice that could never be replicated and because of that and many other traits of him, like his style, or his famous way of engaging with the audience, Freddie created a legacy. I knew his unfortunate story about AIDS before but what I didn’t knew the announcement of his AIDS had come one day before he died, that was shocking news. Freddie Mercury was Queen’s star and it was so sad that when he passed away, their music was never the same. I liked the chronological sequence of this article, starting off with his first years in the band, their success and then the development of his AIDS and the suffering that came along with it. Freddie Mercury will forever be remembered and changed the industry of music forever. I found very interesting your choice of topic.

  4. I love that Freddie Mercury’s music still touches the hearts of old and new souls, that last scene of the movie based on Freddie Mercury that came out in 2018 really showed the energy he and his band Queen had to empower people. And I have never really gone into research about his story other than the movie, this article has greatly detailed all his strong power to fight AIDS and how that can encourage others fighting against it at well back in the ’80s to fight it. It would have been a good ending if he had survived but sadly the fight against AIDS is still ongoing.

  5. Freddie Mercury was a person who was loved by all and was viewed as a legend that will stand the test of time. Even now there are people who still listen to his songs from the old and new generations. I myself is a big fan of Freddie Mercury as his voice was one that nobody could replicate and that is why he will always be remembered as he was one of a kind. This article was just so amazing but also heartbreaking from reading how Freddie Mercury fought a fierce battle against AIDS till the very end. To read how he hid the fact that he had AIDS, but never stopped working till he couldn’t no more just showed how committed to his career he was. From every detail about Freddie’s journey of finding out he had AIDS, to the problems he went through, to the description of the symptoms Freddie experienced because of the AIDS, and to the eventual downfall of him losing his life was truly eye-opening in seeing what he was like in his last parts of life.

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