Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To


The euphemism is “bushmeat.” It means monkey or ape, and they eat bushmeat in Africa. The Congo is in Africa, and some time in the early 20th century, a hungry fellow ate some that belonged to a monkey or ape that was infected with the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV).

Viruses are clever fuckers, and they can swap out big parts of their code at once, and we call that a mutation. Scientists think it happened around 1920: SIV mutated into HIV.  That’s how humanity gets most of its diseases. Close contact with animals, and the viruses that live in them see an opening. Smallpox from cows, and the flu from pigs, and anthrax from sheep, and chicken pox from chickens. (Chicken pox is very unimaginatively named.)

Queen’s last album was Innuendo, and there’s no way to listen to it. Not bereft. Not without. Just listen to the record without the bullshit around it, but the bullshit is important this time. Not just silly Rock Star stories, the saddest one, and maybe the last one.

Which is a shame; the record’s a good one. The title track features an exceedingly rare guest, Steve Howe from Yes, playing the flamenco bit in the middle. It’s old-time Queen, full of whipsaw tonal shifts and imperialist pomp. Give it a listen:

For a few decades, this new disease spread around Africa, aided by unsterile needles. Not junkies: needles in hospitals got reused at the time. Unlike other viruses which could be communicated through any bodily fluids, HIV required blood; this meant it spread slowly, but the virus had a trick up its sleeve. HIV lays dormant for several years, asymptomatic, and so allows the host to propagate it further. Ebola burns itself out quickly, but HIV simmers unseen.

Freddie had been hounded out of London. He could stay in his beloved home, Garden Lodge, but that was all; there were photographers in the trees across the street. Everyone knew. An old hanger-on had sold Freddie out to the tabloids, lurid and gory details about orgies and doctor’s visits. He and the band decamped to Montreux to make Innuendo. No one bothered him in Switzerland. The album came out in Feburary, and he band made their last public appearance–the four of them–at the Brit Awards in February of 1990.

They looked like this:

Everyone knew.

By the 70’s, HIV had spread westward, first to Haiti and then to New York and San Francisco. It hid there for a while, seeping into body after body and laying low for years. Sharing needles or anal sex. Two good ways to mingle blood. The virus got into the blood banks, too. Transfusions are a great way to mingle blood. The blood banks didn’t know, at first: there was no test for the virus at first. Later on, they knew but refused to do anything about it.

Freddie wrote this one. He thought it was funny, and it is:

This is one of their better videos, actually, with winking visuals and a sense of fun. It also showcases something that delights all Queen Nerds: Freddie Mercury was the worst lip-syncer in the history of show biz. There are no examples of him doing it correctly; he’s always a tiny bit off. It’s not that he’s not trying–Freddie always gives a performance–but, for whatever reason, he’s incapable. It’s adorable.

There was a bed in the studio so Freddie could lie down between takes. There is padding under his shirt and jacket.

Still, he found the strength to chat up a gorilla:

The first death was in San Francisco in 1980, and then one in New York the next year. Then, the deluge. Doctors were confused. Young and healthy people, some gay men but not all, ravaged by weird and obscure maladies: sarcomas and lymphomas and pneumonias, illnesses that men in their thirties and forties should not be dying of.

Sudden weight loss, sores and cankers and unhealing wounds, and then the coughing would start.

At first, the disease was called GRID. Gay-related immune deficiency. The virus was renamed, but the sufferers were shunned. Hospitals wouldn’t treat them, schools expelled them, businesses fired them. The first official government report was not produced until 1986. No one gave a shit. There was no treatment.

Listen to this now, please. It’s a dying man. Listen to him.

This is Freddie’s last great vocal; he cut it in one take. His legs weren’t working well that day, and so he propped himself upright against the mixing board. Someone brought him a chilled Stolichnaya vodka. One take. He didn’t have time for a second.

In the eyes of the Lord, we are all equal. In the eyes of man, some folks get what’s coming to them. No one cared about junkies and faggots, but eventually women and children started popping up positive, and then Magic Johnson got it. Magic, you see, had gotten HIV through sex with women; this made it an accident and a tragedy. Public opinion shifted. It does that.

Liberace died, and so did Rock Hudson. Willie Smith, who made clothes, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who made art. Eazy-E and Mr. Brady. Thousands and thousands of young men whose mothers are still alive, and still miss them.

In 1995, a new drug called a protease inhibitor was created. It kept HIV from becoming AIDS. Rapid progress was made. The disease can now be managed.

On May 30th, 1991, Freddie, Roger, and John Deacon filmed the last video Queen would ever make. (Brian filmed his bit a few weeks later, and would be edited in.)

On November 24th, 1991, Freddie Mercury died at his home, Garden Lodge. Jim Hutton held his hand. He was not alone.

The world mourned. There was a tribute concert the next year, and an album of the tracks he had left set to posthumously-composed music. There was a Broadway show that plays in Vegas now. Brian and Roger have soldiered on in the face of public skepticism. John Deacon retired.

They cremated Freddie, and no one knows where his remains are. Mary Austin, his first girlfriend and lifelong love, scattered him somewhere, but she won’t say where. He used to tell people that he’d liked to be dumped in Lake Geneva, in his beloved Montreux.

“Just throw me in, darling.”

The town built a statue overlooking the lake.

Queen is dead. Long live Queen.


  1. I want you to write my memorial.

    Just not soon.

  2. You made me cry.

  3. Beautiful. An amazing telling of an amazing story. Bravo, darling. You really should knit this one and the Van Halen one into their own manuscripts and put them up as Kindle eBooks or some other similar digital format. These are among the best Thoughts On Those Groups And Related Context that I’ve ever read. Really, really fine.

    (In the mid/late 90s, I was PR and fundraising director for an HIV/AIDS community service provider in Albany. I would routinely have people and businesses tell me that they wanted to make contributions to help “the AIDS babies.” I would tell them thanks, but note that our clients did not include any AIDS babies at the moment, but I was SURE they would still want to support the wonderful and struggling and suffering adults who we did serve, RIGHT? And the number of people who said “nope” was really shocking, you know?)

    (Human beings are awful sometimes, aren’t they?)

    (Except when they’re not).

  4. amazing. again.

  5. Thanks, Terrific read from start to finish. Not being a huge fan, I just knew Queen from the songs and MTV videos over the years, but never really “knew them.”

    What other bands might you like to biography using your awesome prose?

  6. If you want to be angry — truly, fist-clenchingly angry, in a blind rage, against the middle-aged, straight rich white guys that we have typically entrusted to manage our affairs, check out the Reagan White House’s response to the HIV crisis.

    Or don’t, and cling to whatever remaining scraps of belief you have that human beings are fundamentally good.

  7. Outstanding! Thank you.

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