If you’ve been looking for the book that answers the question “What world-famous pop star named Farrokh Bulsara was born into a Parsee family in Zanzibar?”, then look no further. That and every other fact of Freddie Mercury’s over-the-top life are now related in a biography by Lesley-Ann Jones, whose title, clumsily yet fittingly, names him twice.
“Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury” may remind some readers of the 2008 documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” but whereas that band fizzled, the subject of this book bestrode the music world like a god. If it had been up to him, no doubt Mercury would have found a way to work in his name a third time.
If you never thought of him as Zanzibarian, that’s because Mercury went out of his way to keep his origins a secret. His early years can’t have been easy: When he was 8, his parents sent him to boarding school in India. As a teenager there, he formed his first band, the Hectics, but when his grades slipped, he returned to Zanzibar to finish high school. After he moved to England and became a success, relatives and schoolmates complained that the former Bucky Bulsara (so nicknamed because of protruding front teeth) wanted nothing to do with them.
In London, his great pal was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, who also took on the name of a Roman god when he became Elton Hercules John. The similarities don’t stop there: Both were devoted to their mothers, both studied piano at an early age, both were bothered by their appearance and developed an outlandish look to disguise self-perceived ugliness. And each, writes Jones, “was confused to say the least about his sexuality.”
Fortunately, Mercury was anchored throughout his career by bandmates who would have appeared able and intelligent in any profession, particularly in the anarchic world of rock and roll. The other three members of Queen were honors students at different universities. In the words of one observer, “They genuinely liked each other’s company” and thus avoided the rifts that fractured many bands.
Not that they were choirboys. One album-release party that “could only be described as an orgy” featured “drag queens, fire-eaters and female mud-wrestlers, strippers and snakes, steel bands, voodoo dancers, Zulu dancers, hookers, groupies, and grotesques, some performing unimaginable and possibly illegal acts on . . . each other.”
Fans looking for more on the band’s nothing-succeeds-like-excess lifestyle will relish Harry Doherty’s “40 Years of Queen.” It’s a coffee-table book described as “an official publication . . . approved at every stage by the band.” Doherty’s prose is less frank than Jones’s, but his book’s lavish photos do a better job of conveying the antics of that crazy time.
Freddie spent many of his nights prowling the gay districts of the world’s capitals. He may have been infected with AIDS before the disease had been identified. At any rate, he was diagnosed in 1987 and died in 1991, and he and the band continued to work together to the very end.
Like most rock bios, “Mercury” tells a lot about the musician and not much about the music. Jones toured with Queen and had unrivaled access to them and their circle; her best quality as a journalist is the way she spotlights the canny assessments of industry insiders, such as the record executive who described their sound as “the purest ice cream poured over a real rock and roll foundation.” Future fans may or may not decide that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is little more than a six-minute oddity, but few groups have seen their hits cross over the way Queen has: “We Will Rock You” was adopted as an anthem by both the New York Yankees and the Manchester United soccer club, and “We Are the Champions” seems destined to be sung in sports arenas forever.
While details remain fuzzy, there is talk of a biopic in the works starring Sacha Baron Cohen in the title role. The king of comedy as the queen of camp: that seems royally right.
Kirby teaches at Florida State University and is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury
By Lesley-Ann Jones
Touchstone. 350 pp. $26
40 Years of Queen
By Harry Doherty
St. Martin’s. 92 pp. $35.