Bohemian Rhapsody grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide and touched off increased sales, and interest, in Queen’s music. The broader cultural effects are harder to quantify, but I’ve certainly felt them. I can’t go three days without stumbling across a reference to Queen or Freddie Mercury: a line from “Bohemian Rhapsody” in an editorial, a Queen song over the store speakers, their songs in other films, a mention of Mercury in a stand-up routine. DVDs are still on display on the endcaps at my local Target, long after Instant Family, The Crimes of Grindelwald, and other November 2018 releases have faded away.
Maybe these random exposures led me to read Somebody to Love, an interesting but flawed biography of Freddie Mercury. The book draws heavily from other biographies and memoirs about its subject, press interviews of the band, and interviews with some of Mercury’s inner circle. The book intertwines the singer’s story with the broader, sociological narrative of HIV/AIDS’ spread from the Congo to the entire world. Both stories are fascinating and tragic.
The authors show how recklessness and ignorance led to the spread of HIV/AIDS, from the Congo to Haiti and then to the Americas. They don’t sugarcoat the promiscuity that supercharged the disease’s spread, or the mass indifference, even celebration, of the disease’s impact on gays, Haitians, and drug addicts (211). They distill a complex subject into a readable narrative, walking us through misstep after misstep that led to the epidemic. Through this book, I learned about the Hemo-Carribean plasma clinic, which exported thousands of liters of blood from Haiti to the United States, long after HIV had already reached Haiti. I also learned about the first doctors to notice the rise of an unknown, new disease around 1980. Contrasting these chapters with Mercury’s individual story brings home the impact of the disease.
Richards and Langthorne also do well in writing about Queen’s first years. This is the most interesting part of the book, an “anti-montage” that shows all the band’s struggles before their first big hit. The band searched for a bass player for a year, played gig after gig in small clubs across England, refined their set and their look without attracting much attention. They turned down a record deal and held out for one that would give them more creative control; there was no guarantee they’d get one. Their first big hit, “Killer Queen,” came from their third album. At any point, Queen might have foundered, but they didn’t. Unfortunately, after the release of A Night at the Opera, the book centers on Mercury’s personal life at the expense of his music.
Some of the book’s claims are hard to trace, e.g. that Mercury once had a conversation, in a nightclub, with Gaetan Dugas, an early HIV/AIDS case wrongly identified as Patient Zero (241). How do the authors know about this conversation? Was its content notable? Who saw them talking? They never tell. Things get worse when they detail Mercury’s various one-night stands. How can you know that two random men slept together forty years ago, especially when they’re both dead? How do you know it’s not a boast? If you could credibly claim to have slept with him, wouldn’t you? Coworkers might stop stealing your lunch, if nothing else.
The book raises a few issues that it doesn’t have enough time to even mention, much less address. In one chapter, they include a long quote from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS as Its Metaphors. If AIDS remained in Africa, Sontag says:
It would be one of those ‘natural’ events, like famines, which periodically ravage poor, overpopulated countries and about which people in rich countries feel quite helpless. Because it is a world event, which afflicts whites too, and because it affects the West, it is no longer a natural disaster. It is filled with historical meaning. (374)
Early victims of “slim” and “junkie pneumonia” didn’t attract any attention; it was only when American dermatologists started noticing new Kaposi’s Sarcoma cases, concentrated among gay men, that anyone realized a new disease was present (181-91). Mercury was a gay man in the West, a group which Sontag describes, in the same quoted passage, as “almost all white, many of them educated, articulate, and knowledgeable about how to lobby and organize for public attention and resources devoted to [AIDS].” Many of them were affluent, even rich, and well-connected in political and cultural circles.
The authors of Somebody to Love fail to connect this passage to Mercury’s story. They go to great lengths to show how ubiquitous anti-gay and anti-AIDS sentiments were at the time. How do these negative reactions tie in to Sontag’s concept of “historical meaning”? Were gay men really “almost all white,” or were white gay men most likely to publicly lobby on their own behalf—unlike Freddie Mercury, a Parsi immigrant who never publicly came out as gay, only revealed his AIDS diagnosis the day before he died, and kept his sexuality a secret from his parents his entire life? These questions may be beyond the scope of the book, but then why include the quote?
Before HIV arrived, Western medicine facilitated the promiscuity of men like Freddie Mercury, Wilt Chamberlain, Gaetan Dugas, Mick Jagger, and nameless others. A four or even five-digit notch count was no longer a sentence to death, disfigurement, or delirium. STDs were nuisances, not devastating ailments. Was this super-promiscuity possible in “poor, overpopulated countries” without access to modern medical care? How is sexuality expressed and treated in places without ready access to antibiotics, prophylactics, vaccines, and other modern treatments? Any one of these questions could be a dissertation or two, but to include Sontag’s quote, without at least mentioning them, makes the book feel frustratingly half-baked.
What of the quote’s relevance to other “‘natural’ events, like famines,” outside the West? Live Aid was a benefit for the Ethiopian famine, yet people mostly remember Queen’s set; the famine, not so much. How does that set, the pinnacle of Queen’s career, fit into Sontag’s thesis? The authors don’t make the connection—they only mention the famine once, on page 251—so the question goes unanswered.
This book goes into granular, frankly excessive detail about Freddie Mercury’s sex life, but it sidesteps his culpability in exposing others to HIV while he knew or suspected he was infected. The authors pinpoint his likely date of infection to the summer of 1982, describe symptoms he experienced that summer and afterwards, and chronicle his alleged positive HIV tests from 1985 on. There’s no way to know his thoughts, but the authors make the case that Mercury knew he had HIV/AIDS for years before he told those close to him. Yet they gloss over the book’s most explosive allegation, that he knowingly exposed his partner, Jim Hutton, to HIV, and that he might have knowingly or half-knowingly exposed others as well.
Late in the book, Freddie Mercury reveals his AIDS diagnosis to Jim Hutton. “[N]ot only was Jim his partner, but they had been having unprotected sex throughout their relationship and it was impossible to ignore the fact that Freddie had exposed him to the virus.” It’s just after Easter, 1987, two years into their relationship. Hutton “refused to accept the news, suggesting Freddie get a second opinion, unaware that he had already had a second opinion and had failed 12 HIV tests over the past few years.” (303-4) At this point, the two men lived together and even exchanged rings. In late 1986, Mercury denied taking an HIV test, to the press and to Hutton, and apparently kept further tests a secret from his partner (292-5). At this time AIDS was a death sentence, yet the singer held back this vital information, despite their relationship, their shared lives, their rings.
Imagine not telling someone you love that you have a fatal, incurable, transmittable disease, and continuing to expose them to it for over a year. This is what the authors allege Freddie Mercury did. If this is accurate, it must be one of the most evil things he ever did, yet the authors don’t address it, except to state the bald facts. Why?
They might fear sounding anti-gay. In the 1980s, AIDS was considered a “gay disease”; patients were often abandoned by family and friends, reviled by the public, and treated as plague vectors, not human beings. You deserved AIDS, you didn’t suffer from it. The press’s treatment of Rock Hudson, after his AIDS diagnosis was confirmed in July of 1985, deeply affected Mercury. According to a friend, “if it came on the news he would watch it intently and not speak afterwards.” (280) Why join this “chorus of condemnation,” especially now?
They may also empathize with their subject’s emotional state. The singer may have feared that telling other people would push them away, leaving him to die alone. Maybe they would tell the press, end his career, make him a pariah. Maybe telling would make it more real somehow. This might explain his actions, but they don’t excuse them. Nor does fear of anti-gay prejudice absolve him. It would not be better if he only put women at risk.
They might not have enough evidence to back up this claim, although this seems improbable. What reputable publishing house would publish a celebrity biography without thorough vetting and fact-checking? Why include this allegation at all if you can’t corroborate it somehow? Why make such specific claims, e.g. that Mercury failed “12 HIV tests” from 1985 to mid-1987? If the authors can’t support this claim, then their book has serious problems and should be pulled from circulation.
However, this issue goes beyond what Freddie Mercury did or didn’t do. Should a man face censure, even prosecution, for not telling his partner that he’s HIV-positive? Critics of anti-transmission laws say no. Prosecuting HIV transmission could become an excuse to crack down on gay sex. It may keep people from getting tested. Since it’s difficult to prosecute, HIV therapies are more effective than they used to be, and prosecution may increase infection rates, then it isn’t an issue.
Except it is. Lying about your HIV status can alter your partner’s life, even end it. Pulled the trigger, now he’s dead—or spending $20,000 a year on medications, suffering from exhaustion, heart disease, opportunistic infections, medication side effects, and much else. What if your erstwhile partner doesn’t get tested? HIV can incubate for up to ten years, with steadily increasing health problems or a steep drop-off at the end. Ten years for him or her to infect others, who also don’t know they’re at risk. All because of you.
Neither the left nor the right have really grappled with this issue. On the right, they tried to turn this into a religious issue, and…I guess it is, just as drunk driving is a religious issue. I think it’s even worse if you’re not religious. If death is the end, if you’re just gone, then “pozzing” someone cuts short their only conscious experience, their entire inner universe of thought, feeling, memory, ideas, dreams, all so you can feel pleasure, avoid a hard conversation, or pretend that you’re not sick. On the left, it’s just absolute denial. Any criticism is “blaming the victim” or anti-gay. But the issue isn’t having HIV or AIDS, it’s spreading it. You can lament the Reagan Administration’s slow response to the AIDS crisis, the institutional corruption that let it spread, and the people who knowingly and half-knowingly infected others. Each group made the epidemic much worse than it had to be.
I wish I didn’t read this book. Before I read it, I only knew that Freddie Mercury was the lead singer of Queen, he was gay, and he died of AIDS. Now, instead of thinking about his music as music—first hearing it as a teenager, listening to Jazz on my Dad’s record player, singing their songs Wayne’s-World-style with friends, school dances, parties, playing the songs for my kids—I now think of some of the issues I’ve raised in this review. I don’t want to think about these heavy subjects every time “Killer Queen” plays at Barnes & Noble, which is often, or whenever some acquaintance raves about Bohemian Rhapsody, which is doubly uncomfortable. This book made me “fall out of love” with Queen’s music; though I still recognize its merits, the emotional connection isn’t there anymore. Part of me still wishes it was.
This is not to demonize Freddie Mercury, or split him black. All people are capable of horribly selfish, dangerous acts, however generous or sweet they are at other times. Good deeds don’t blot out out the bad ones, or vice versa. It’s also possible that Richards and Langthorne are badly wrong, that someone remembered incorrectly, that the early tests didn’t happen, that Freddie suspected nothing. If they’re not wrong, this is another reminder how important it is to do the right thing, especially when it’s difficult.
Page numbers are from the book’s Kindle edition, and may not correspond to other ebook or print editions of the book. If anyone knows the source of this photo, please tell me. I can only find Tumblr and Pinterest links. Feature photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash.