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Freddie's dead, that's all they said: a debacle on MTV

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Watching the "Concert for Life," the Freddie Mercury memorial affair held at Wembley Stadium in England a couple of weeks ago, was a lot like watching a worldwide convergence of Spinal Tap tribute bands. Spinal Tap, you'll recall, was the mythical rock 'n' roll group invented for Rob Reiner's band-documentary spoof. The band--comics Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean--actually played the Mercury gig, trooping out in regal robes and crowns (McKean wearing a lime green SpiderMan suit underneath) to play a song from their new album, Break Like the Wind. Spinal Tap's brilliance is in its . . . I want to say subtlety, but subtlety isn't the word, is it, for a band with an album called Break Like the Wind. I guess the word is restraint. Their art is in the little things--the onstage grimaces, the awkward postures, the utter vacuity of their public statements.

Anyway, when Spinal Tap was followed by Roger Daltrey, backed up by the three surviving members of Queen, who could tell where one joke ended and the next began? The diminutive Daltry (he's roughly the size of Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls) grimaced predictably on "I Want It All," one of Queen's last UK hits; behind him a very tepid band played aimlessly; beside him Queen guitarist Brian May, his dopey Louis XIV hairstyle bobbing about, grimaced as well. (If a member of Spinal Tap wore his hair like May's, you'd think they were carrying the joke too far.) A few minutes later, James Hetfield of Metallica took his turn with Queen, his walrus mustache only a shade less silly than the muttonchop whiskers favored by Harry Shearer's Smalls. A while later a grimacing Robert Plant fronted the band, then Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, and so on . . .

The Freddie Mercury concert would have been one of the most unintentionally hilarious undertakings in the history of the universe if it wasn't for the seriousness of some of the underlying subjects. Mercury, the embarrassing lead singer of the largely bad and largely forgotten (in America at least) Queen, died last November of complications resulting from AIDS. His death made the band a sudden nostalgia sensation. The remaining members of Queen started organizing a memorial concert, and the guest list quickly blossomed out of control: David Bowie, Guns n' Roses, Metallica, George Michael, U2, Def Leppard, Robert Plant, Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, Elton John, and quite a few others. (The list seems a bit disproportionate, but it does show that Queen's popularity in England has never lagged.) The show was a couple of Mondays ago, with MTV broadcasting a somewhat less-than-fulfilling precis in a four-and-a-half-hour special the following Saturday.

I'll argue that the concert--at least as it was presented on MTV--was a watershed for rock 'n' roll. It's not--as everyone keeps saying--that the rock 'n' roll establishment finally acknowledged AIDS. The striking thing to me was that the concert was barely about AIDS at all, and it was most definitely not about being gay. It was about denying those two things, and that was its significance and its disgrace.

By any estimation, the show's high point was the duet of Bowie and Annie Lennox on "Under Pressure," the 1980 hit by Bowie and Queen and easily the band's finest moment on record. It was an interesting and significant pairing: the artistically barren Bowie, at heart a calculating publicity hound, has based his career on chameleonlike image changes. Lennox is a chameleon as well (remember her eerie Grammy appearance dressed as Elvis?), but she's a much more abstruse and difficult one; I've always liked her group Eurythmics, but I haven't the faintest clue what she's like as a person. Bowie looked pretty slick in a lime green suit, but after Lennox hit the stage you couldn't take your eyes off her. With a large area around her eyes blackened and her hair slicked back and wearing a huge black ball gown whose diameter approached six feet, she looked like some wild animal--probably a raccoon--from a piece of avant-garde animation. The pair grabbed the song and ran with it, Lennox turning Mercury's rather silly recorded attempts at scat into moments of sheer musicality and completely neutralizing Bowie with her extravagant singing and exotic posing. At the end, with Lennox draping herself around Bowie's shoulders, practically sucking on his neck, and Bowie staring into the camera, his mismatched eyes flickering, they looked like the main event at the Star Wars cantina. The crowd just went nuts.

It's worth checking out a tape of the show just to see that duet, but the rest of the concert largely consisted of tired, has-been rock stars fronting Queen and tired, soon-to-be-has-been rock stars fronting Queen. Seal gave a passable run at Mercury's "Who Wants to Live Forever"; otherwise the show was either boring or just plain weird: Axl Rose's constipated reading of "We Will Rock You," Rose and Elton John's duet (!) on the closing bars of "Bohemian Rhapsody," Liza Minnelli's closing rendition of "We Are the Champions," which will rank right up there in the Minnelli pantheon with her version of Joe Tex's "I Gotcha" on Liza With a Z.

The moment that has to take the cake, though, was Bowie's closing speech. He made a brief euphemistic reference to AIDS, mentioning its toll in "family and friends." Then he said, "I'd like to offer something in a very simple fashion, but it's the most direct way that I can think of doing it," and suddenly he seemed to pitch forward onto the stage. The camera dipped down to catch him, and damned if he didn't start reciting the Lord's Prayer. This isn't the most productive thing to do in a stadium (Our father, who art in heaven . . . "Whoo!" Hallowed be thy name . . . "Yeah!"), and it was so obviously gratuitous that it made you feel a little squeamish.

The only other performer who even mentioned AIDS was George Michael, who was surprisingly eloquent on the subject. He said: "I think a lot of people here this evening, not necessarily people who have anything against gay people, not necessarily homophobic people, are probably taking some small comfort in the fact that though Freddie died of AIDS, he was publicly bisexual. It's a very, very dangerous comfort."

Here he quoted figures that estimated some 40 million people will be infected with HIV worldwide by the year 2000. "If any of you out there really think that those are all going to be gay people, or drug addicts, then you're pretty much lining up to be one of those numbers. So please for god's sake, and for Freddie's sake, and for your own sake, be careful."

Along with Kiss, Queen typified the campy, overblown heavy-metal style of the early- to mid-70s. Kiss and their fans, however, were so proletarian that the camp sometimes got lost; Queen was always a little less sloppy, a little more refined in its excess. Its musical base was derived almost entirely from the Who; its most potent admixture was Mercury's penchant for the music-hall novelty number favored by such other English eccentrics as Paul McCartney and the early Bowie. Mercury managed to overcome his physical limitations--his tiny stature, buck teeth unattractive even by rock 'n' roll standards, a Terry-Thomas lisp--and make himself a genuine star even as 70s proto-metal kids thrilled to guitarist Brian May's limited but forceful power riffing. Between their heavy-metal credibility and the band's unaccountable facility for pulling novelty singles out of a hat--"Killer Queen" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," of course, are the best-known examples--they became one of the biggest groups in the world and stayed that way until the early 80s, when their American popularity went into the toilet.

"Bohemian Rhapsody," which was apparently created by sticking Tiny Tim, Verdi, and a multitrack recording console into a Cuisinart and hitting puree, is of course a marvelous parody of a rock 'n' roll epic. Over the course of the band's albums, certain other moments also stick out: "We Will Rock You" has a fascistic charm, and the bass riff that fuels "Under Pressure" is indeed potent. "You're My Best Friend" was a nice single, and what 14-year-old boy didn't thrill to the group's most noted album, A Night at the Opera?

But the band's early albums are clogged with Mercury's atrocious lyrics and indiscriminate musical borrowings and Queen's propensity for turning every half-baked idea anyone in the band came up with into a six-minute album track. Today listening to these records is a painful assignment. (Why doesn't Congress put warning labels on albums like News of the World? They could read, "Warning: Brain Advisory.") If the band had simply taken their shot at immortality with "Bohemian Rhapsody" and then disappeared, their story might be appealing. Unfortunately, they confused their fluke success with artistic license and embarked on a career of excess that epitomizes the wrong turns big-budget rock was making in the 70s.

Indeed, I think the argument could be made that Queen was the model for Spinal Tap. Take a look at the group photos across the bottom of the gatefold of A Day at the Races--Mercury in an absurd pair of bulging tights, May in some draping hippie garment, drummer Roger Taylor looking a lot like Christopher Guest, and bassist John Deacon dressed as a member of Black Oak Arkansas. Like Spinal Tap, Queen saw its peculiar visions strike a chord with unquestioning fans, and as its American appeal faded it turned to even-less-discriminating rock fans overseas. After the Concert for Life, MTV broadcast a Queen-funded documentary on the band, and particularly in the film's second half the band takes on some serious Spinal Tap attributes as the surviving members earnestly explain the thinking that went into the making of its voluminous, unlistenable later recordings. At one point, May credits what he seems to think was an artistic resurgence in the late 80s to the band's decision to credit all its songwriting to the group as a whole, instead of to individual band members, as if anyone in the world not on the Queen payroll gave a tinker's damn.

But judge for yourself. Here are four lyrical snippets: try to figure out which were written by Queen and which come from Spinal Tap's new album.

(a) That's the majesty of rock

The fantasy of roll

The ticking of the clock

The wailing of the soul

(b) Ploughman, Waggoner Will, and types

Politician with a senatorial pie--he's a dilly-dally-o

Pedagogue squinting, wears a frown

And a satyr peers under a lady's gown, dirty fellow,

What a dirty laddio

(c) Woman, you're like the empire and I still want you back

We may be gods or just big marionettes

But the sun never sweats

Life is a gamble and we're placing our bets.

(d) You little spoilt thing, girl you kept me waiting

Never contemplating my point of view

But now I've seen through your disguise

Who needs, well I don't need, who needs you?

A final clue: The next time you happen to throw on the live version of "We Will Rock You" (the one on side four of Live Killers), listen carefully to the opening bars of the song. After the crowd sings "We will / We will rock you" for the fifth time, Freddie audibly shouts the words "Spinal tap."

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Anyway, the startling revival of the band's credibility caught me and every other sentient being on earth by surprise. Classic rock rules the world, but Queen had been thankfully overlooked; the band was never an AOR staple. ('XRT, which still persecutes us with cuts from Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, dropped Queen about a millennium or so ago.) While the revival seems a bit inevitable now, it did take a lot to get going: Vanilla Ice's stupendous sampling of "Under Pressure," the unaccountable success of Wayne's World, and of course the unfortunate death of Mercury.

That Mercury was gay or bi was not news to most people in the industry, or to any fan who noticed that by the late 70s Mercury was looking a lot like an understudy for the Village People. My impression is that at one time Mercury hadn't been particularly sensitive about having his preference known; he always cut a wide swath through San Francisco's Castro, for example, whenever Queen came through the Bay Area. I didn't follow his career closely after that, so I don't know whether or not he was discreet on his home turf. But when the tabloids in England printed the news that Mercury was dying of AIDS, he reportedly denied it; it was only a day or two before his death that he released a statement acknowledging his condition.

This is a sad way to go: ashamed of your life-style, and ashamed of the causes of your death. You could have watched hour after hour of the Concert for Life without finding out what Freddie died of. Was this just discretion on the part of Metallica, Guns n' Roses, and the rest? Should the papers have left poor Freddie alone, in keeping with the new sensitivity we're supposed to have toward celebrity AIDS victims in the wake of the Arthur Ashe affair?

I'm not sure I follow the logic, but here's the articulation of the Ashe-Mercury rule as I see it: A celebrity is a celebrity, and it's OK to print any sort of frivolous or trivial gossip about him or her, especially if it's publicity in conjunction with the promotion of some product that will make the celebrity money. But it's not OK to print gossip that might actually do some public good, either by (a) illustrating graphically the damage wreaked by a tragically ignored disease, in this case AIDS, or (b) demonstrating the universality of a persecuted human condition, in this case homosexuality. In those cases we're supposed to respect the celebrity's privacy.

Ashe and Mercury deserve all the sympathy in the world, but it's not as if they had hard lives. I don't expect them to have perspective on their own conditions, but that doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't have some. The sad truth is that AIDS--a scary but not unbearable condition--has, through the work of political demagogues and an indifferent social structure, become a pariah disease. Celebrity victims help bring its import home. The outpouring of vitriol attacking USA Today's publishing Ashe's condition amazes me; it's as if the entire media establishment has become one big PR firm.

And of course that makes it easier for people who don't want to face the truth. The silence of the stars at the Concert for Life--notably the members of Metallica, Def Leppard, Extreme, Guns n' Roses, Mott the Hoople, and May and his cohorts in Queen--wasn't exactly sickening, but it was certainly portentous, for at least two reasons.

The first is that denial on this scale is almost impossible to do anything about. People grow up with the damnedest prejudices, and trying to force them to unlearn those beliefs is almost always counterproductive; besides, it's a free country. So we can hope that various sorts of societal pressure will do the job gently; and we can hope that people in positions of responsibility--rock stars, newspaper columnists, sports stars, politicians, whoever--will do their best to tell the next generation something approaching the truth.

It might have been nice if someone from Metallica, say, or Def Leppard, had had the moxie to step to the front of the stage and say, "Freddie sucked cock, but there's nothing wrong with that. He died of a disease that he might never have heard of when he caught it, and there's nothing wrong with that either." That they didn't reinforces perceptions of AIDS and gayness as something that you shouldn't talk about, or as something that's uncool to talk about, something that deserves its pariah status. It sort of makes you despair.

Debacles like the Mercury memorial concert--and this is the second point--really make you think about the worth of rock 'n' roll. There's a lot wrong with rock music, but the one thing that you could always say about it was that, to some extent and on certain subjects, its practitioners were a little less hypocritical than their counterparts in other mediums. That's not much, but it's something. But at the Concert for Life, almost no one would talk about the fact that Mercury was dead of AIDS--a fact with a presence like a 500-pound gorilla. Everyone pretended the gorilla wasn't there. That sort of behavior, of course, is standard operating procedure in the worlds of film and TV, but rock 'n' roll was supposed to be different. In this case--an important case, a case where the difference mattered--it wasn't.

Which brings us back to poor Freddie: human clown, bad rock star, unwilling victim. Had a Mercury in good health been hanging over a vat of boiling oil, I would cheerfully have cut the rope on aesthetic grounds alone. But he didn't deserve to die emaciated and ashamed. You could argue that Mercury's milieu was stupid music played by stupid people, and so we shouldn't be surprised at the behavior of his peers. And there's some hope in the fact that the show's major star from a post-70s world--George Michael--spoke out. But when rock 'n' roll dies, this is how it will end: its players decadent and dishonest, enervated by hypocrisy, and dancing on one another's graves.

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