When I saw a lipstick commercial last summer featuring Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” I didn’t know at the time it was a Queen song, but I knew I had heard the singer’s voice somewhere before. Sure enough, the voice belonged to Freddie Mercury, rock and roll’s most flamboyant and legendary frontman, and from the day I saw that commercial, I’ve been hit with Queen fever, becoming increasingly fascinated with the band and its mesmerizing lead singer.
Among the countless interviews I read and watched on YouTube, I stumbled upon Matt Richards’ and Mark Langthorne’s Somebody To Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury. Published in 2016, Somebody To Love is a comprehensive biography paralleling the life of Freddie Mercury and HIV/AIDS, the illness that would claim his life on November 24th, 1991, along with millions of others worldwide.
Somebody To Love does not disappoint. Richards and Langthorne did an amazing job recounting Mercury’s beginning in Zanzibar, where he was born Farrokh Bulsara, how he went about creating a name and image for Queen, and how the band rose from bombing performances in front of unforgiving crowds to being one of the most iconic British acts in history. All this amidst raging homophobia in the U.K. and the U.S. (not everyone was appreciative of how Freddie pushed the then strict gender boundaries) and the spread of a mysterious new illness that was plaguing primarily gay communities in the U.S. and Europe.
Though I read and watched plenty of interviews prior to reading this book, I learned more about Freddie Mercury than I knew was out there to know. He was a force to reckon with on stage but extremely reserved when not in front of a crowd. He was said to be frivolous with his money, spending tens of thousands on parties where there was seemingly no limit on food and alcohol and drugs, but he was also said to be generous when it came to charity. He seemed to want the consistency of a steady relationship but wanted the freedom to explore his sexuality with whomever he fancied, which lead to a string of failed relationships. My favorite thing about Mercury, however, was how private he was about his sexual preferences but at the same time seemed to tell the world his sexuality with just his appearance. The shift from long hair, painted nails, eyeliner, and sequined leotards to short, cropped hair, leather pants, and that incredible mustache was apparently in line with how the gay community identified one another by making fun of the “macho man” stereotype. To other gay men it was obvious that Freddie was gay, but us straight folks were too dumb to realize it. Thankfully so, probably, because Freddie was sure that should the world know of his attraction to men it would have meant the end of his music career.
Interesting as Freddie Mercury was, I absolutely loved the chapters dedicated to HIV/AIDS. I found them informative and gripping as they took me through not only the origin and spread of the disease, but the general public reaction to it, the stigma surrounding it, and how presidential neglect in the search for a cure for the currently infected helped ensure the death of millions more. The authors were even able to connect Freddie Mercury to Gaëtan Dugas, incorrectly nicknamed AIDS “Patient Zero.” Although Dugas was in fact not Patient Zero (the writers do a great job of making sure we know that Dugas, or any one person for that matter, was not singlehandedly responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout the U.S.) I just thought it was pretty interesting that through sexual partners, Mercury and the man who was once thought to have spread AIDS throughout the U.S. were linked.
What I didn’t like about the book was the authors’ constant dramatization of Freddie as he dealt with having to hide his sexual preferences. If I had a nickel for every time the authors wrote about how tortured Freddie was as a result of his sexuality, I’d have… a lot of nickels. I have no doubt Freddie struggled with his sexuality, but that’s something none of us, not even Richards and Langthorne, could possibly know for sure. Freddie was coy in interviews about his sexuality; I just can’t imagine such a flirtatious, tongue-in-cheek man being in as much anguish over his sexual preferences as the authors made it seem. At some point it felt like they were writing a drama novel about Freddie Mercury instead of a fact-based account of his life. No one knows how Freddie handled his sexuality, whether he constantly anguished over it or not. However, because this is an account of Freddie Mercury’s life by people who never personally knew him, I just had to take the writing with a grain of salt.
While I mostly enjoyed reading this book, had it not been for my fascination and admiration for Mercury, the poor editing would’ve made me abandon it. Interesting as it is, it’s a clunky text that doesn’t read as smoothly as it should; it’s riddled with spelling and grammar errors. The authors once wrote the date of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert as “20th April 1991,” a glaring typo considering Mercury was still alive in April 1991. I had to wonder at some point if anyone bothered to proof read the text before printing it. As a grammar enthusiast I can forgive the rare typo but there were quite a few in this book.
It also isn’t the smoothest read in terms of chronological story-telling. I found it to be overwritten and repetitive. There were whole chapters where not much of importance was said, and yet the chapter was full of ongoing sentences and clauses that could have (and probably should have) been left out. Had Richards and Langthorne gotten a quality editor to shape up the spelling and grammar and cut out the fluff instead of releasing what very well could have been a rough draft, this book (in my opinion) would be perfect.
Poor writing aside, I still enjoyed this book. I’m sure the notoriously private Freddie Mercury would have hated a ~400-page book on his life being available to the world, but I’m happy I came across it. I think part of my intense interest in Queen the past few months has been me grieving Mercury; he died four years before I was even born, so it’s almost like I was introduced to this great person but never got the chance to say goodbye. By providing me with his story, Somebody To Love helped give me some of the closure I was looking for.
In summation, if you’ve got Queen fever, I’d definitely recommend you give this book a chance. I got so much more than I bargained for when I picked it up. Clunky and awkward in places, it was still thorough and informative, and in my opinion is a great read for anyone wanting to know about The Great Pretender, Mr. Fahrenheit, Mr. Bad Guy, Freddie Mercury and the mark he left on the world.
Long live the Queen!