If I could speak to the late Farokh Balsara, it would be to ask him, “What’s a nice Parsi boy like you doing in a biography like this?” As biographies of popstars go, Lesley-Ann Jones’s book is adequate. It covers the ground, cruises the highs and lows of success and doubt and enters the personal soul and conscience of the ‘genius’ the world knows as Freddie Mercury.
Jones has—after travelling with Freddie, interviewing him, partying with him, cremating him—thoroughly explored the perceptions that his band members, associates and partners had of him. We have here first-hand accounts of events and estimates of the man, the talent and the dilemma. The Parsi boy’s life in Zanzibar and his sojourn in St Peter’s school in Panchgani are engaging and the story of his secretive passing away in the grip of aids is moving. In between there is the story of the struggle and success of a pop group.
No doubt the account of which recording entailed which number of tracks and an album’s rise and sometimes abject fall in popularity is life-blood to Mercury’s fans and of great interest to chroniclers of pop. But for me, who can hum three or four tunes from Queen’s repertoire of hundreds, this sort of information is non-addictive. It leaves me cold.
One understands why most of the book is dedicated to these serial triumphs: because that’s what Freddie’s life seems to be about. The composition of the songs with their inspirations from classical sources would be intriguing but Jones’s accounts of their gestation leaves us wanting more. She tells us that someone called Peter Freestone explores Freddie’s creative impulse: “Where did he get his inspiration from?” He smiled: “The lines just come to me.”
Pop biogs have to work on the assumption that their subjects are geniuses. Some go further: “I couldn’t quite believe I was talking with this icon...I was shaking and nervous. Why? The aura. He had it. Who else? Frank Sinatra. I knew the second he walked into the room. You felt it like a nuclear wave....”, says the same Freestone.
The critical approach to the songs that Freddie wrote is not startlingly incisive: “Freddie’s Hard Life was...famously visited by the Beatles twenty years earlier. As Paul McCartney put it, ‘the idea behind that song was that all these material possessions...won’t buy me what I really want.’ Freddie had to learn the hard way how true this was.” Wow! Roll over Immanuel Kant!
Jones explores, sometimes in explicit detail, the bisexual life that Freddie lived. Cocaine, sex, the schizoid nature of the stage performer coexisting with the quiet Parsi are cliches of the pop life. That Freddie invited groups of rent boys to have sex with him while the rest watched, each being invited to penetrate him while he went through the motions with indifference, begs a proper psychological study which we don’t get. Perhaps there isn’t an answer beyond the one Jones supplies—that it’s what some gay pop stars do because they can.
For me, the fascination of this biography would be Farokh’s renunciation of his background and origins, as fascinating as the journey into bleached skin and freakish plastic surgery of his friend Michael Jackson. At the end of the book the questions emanating from that fascination remain unanswered.