Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lesley-Ann Jones - Freddie Mercury - The Definitive Biography

Lesley-Ann Jones
Freddie Mercury - The Definitive Biography
Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Australia

Originally published back in 1997, Lesley-Ann Jones’ ‘Freddie Mercury - The Definitive Biography’ has been given a timely revamp and re-release to coincide with the film ‘Mercury’, which sees actor Sacha Baron Cohen (Whose known by his characters such as Ali G, Borat and BrĂ¼no) portraying the late Queen front man Freddie Mercury - documenting the band’s humble beginnings through to their triumphant and unforgettable performance on the 13th of July 1985 at Live Aid.
While there’s no shortage of biographies dedicated to Mercury, few have ever come as close to capturing the true spirit of who Mercury actually was as a person as Lesley-Ann Jones’ book. Unlike a lot of Mercury efforts in the past (Or Queen for that matter), Jones dispenses with the accomplishment Queen and Mercury made in their time together on the musical front, and for a very good reason.  This book is about Mercury rather than simply another Queen biography. But the other reason is that while everyone is keen to tell Mercury’s story from a musical point of view, few were willing to tell the story of Mercury on a more personal level. And again, there’s a very good reason for that. While there are plenty of people that have claimed to have known Mercury, there’s precious few that could wholeheartedly say that Mercury allowed them to know the whole him.
As with most biographies, Jones starts off the journey with a semi-introduction of herself, intermingled with a rather interesting tale of meeting up with Mercury whilst in Monteux (Which was far from her first time, having been on the road with Queen on several occasions throughout the years, and behind side stage while the band played Live Aid), where he, in not so direct terms, hinted that his time was short. It was a hell of a story, and nothing short of an exclusive. But despite this, it would have ultimately been a betrayal to Freddie, and was therefore never put to print.
From here, the story jettisons to Live Aid. While it was no doubt a monumental event, there’s more behind the band’s appearance than what meets the eye. It’s in this chapter that Jones really sets the story – one that sees Queen through one show stealing performance in front of a live audience of 80,000, and a global audience of 1.9 billion, resurrect their flagging career that was close to coming to an end.
Of course, such a story has to have a start, and it’s from here that Jones journey’s right back to start, where in Zanibar, Farrokh Balsara was born to a Parsee court clerk and homemaker mother. Mercury’s upbringing is explored in detail, with his family and friends interviewed. It also explores Mercury’s detachment from family after being sent to boarding school at an early age, his religious upbringing and his first forays into music.
In further chapters, the book goes into great detail about Mercury’s eventual move to London, his gypsy lifestyle, and the early origins of his musical outfits 1984 and Smile. As the story progresses, the assembling of Queen is presented to the reader, alongside a more detailed account of how Mercury was reinventing himself as a person with the more time he spent in the thriving London music and fashion scene of the times.
For around half the book, most of the story is dedicated to Queen’s formative years, documenting their gradual rise to fame and fortune, all the while lifting the lid on Mercury’s personal life. While the Queen story is a well known one these days, it’s the details surrounding Mercury’s own story that is less known, and one that Jones goes to great lengths to bring to light – who he was, and how he struggled throughout his whole life with his family, his devotion and relationship to Mary Austin (Who was essentially a wife and mother to Mercury throughout his life), his bisexuality and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that he lived to its fullest.
It’s around the second half of the book that the tone of the story changes, with a greater focus placed on unveiling Mercury’s broadening decadent lifestyle, the untangling web of partners that comprised of both men and women, and the complex relationships he had with his friends and associates. Mercury seemed to present different sides to himself to all, rarely allowing to totally reveal himself to anyone, including family members and lovers alike.
Jones appears to have covered all the bases here, with almost everyone who was closely associated with Mercury throughout his life being interviewed for the book (With the exception of former Queen bassist John Deacon, who has had little to do with anything Queen related since 1997). As a musician, opinions across the board are of a man brimming with huge talent, as a singer, a song writer and a showman. But in terms of a person, there’s little agreement about who Mercury really was. For some, Mercury was an honest, loyal, generous, quiet and shy kind of man. For others, he was the life of the party – a man who was the perfect host (A demanding perfectionist no less), and the ring leader whose decadence knew no bounds. The rest saw Mercury for who he really was – and that’s a man who tended to compartmentalise relationships in order to mask his loneliness and often confused lifestyle both in the public eye and in private.
Towards the tail end of the book, Jones takes a deeper look into the final stages of Queen’s career, Mercury’s battle with AIDS and the eventual aftermath. Like much of the book, Jones doesn’t take sides, or deliver the story through rose coloured glasses with a personal point of view. Instead, she attempts to paint a portrait of how Mercury spent his final years out of the public spotlight, and how much his death affected those closest to him.
In this revised edition, Jones has included some information on Queen’s more recent activities (Queen + Paul Rodgers, the ‘We Will Rock You’ stage show and the upcoming ‘Mercury’ film).
Overall, ‘Freddie Mercury - The Definitive Biography’ is a balanced and forthright take on Mercury’s life, even if its presentation comes across as little more than a glorified magazine article expanded to encompass an entire novel.
Many books have been written on Mercury, with precious few have anything new to add to what has already been told countless times before. And while I wouldn’t go as far as to call this the definitive take on Mercury’s life, I will concede that Jones’ book is something different. Jones’ tome manages to give fans an insight into who the real Mercury, without glossing over Mercury’s own imperfections and character flaws, or resorting to a story that reads like a glorified bio and nothing more.
Pinning down Mercury is a near impossible task given who he was and how much he meant to people. But Jones has more than managed to do just that. Highly recommended.

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© Justin Donnelly