Mama, I don't want to die, I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all. ~ Freddie Mercury
There is something enduring about the Bohemian Rhapsody and it still finds a place on many of my playlists. It was on an evening during lockdown last year while I was out walking, in a singular perfect moment I thought I actually felt this song, its poetic composition and its musical score and decided I wanted to write about it. I did. I was Freddie obsessed for a month or more and I never got around to publishing the article. It is his birthday today, so it appears to be the perfect time to post it.
This is a fresh look into why the composition reads like an expression of his personal inner conflict and I was further inspired that his early childhood and adolescence appear like a montage of scenes from familiar places given that he lived in India and Zanzibar until he was around eighteen.
Freddie Mercury would have been 75 years old on the 5th of September this year if he were not to tragically die so young from AIDS related complications at forty five, in the November of 1991. He was a flamboyant performer, the one to attain the distinction of having written a six minute rhapsodic suite that catapulted the British Rock band Queen to superstar status; in fact, his Bohemian Rhapsody, taken from their 1975 album, A Night At The Opera, has been streamed way over a billion times on Youtube  and remains one of the most intriguing lyrical compositions to this day.
So, I wish to use this occasion to send some love to wherever in the afterlife this Persian Popinjay may be strutting around but also to ponder why this poet/bard would have rhapsodised thus ..
Many are aware, I assume, of the 2018 movie starring Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody, a biographical drama about Mercury that renewed interest in Queen as well as all the biographies written about him. The song itself reads like a nihilistic anthem but is in fact a uniquely poignant and perhaps, concealed message, on what the composer Tim Rice  called, a sort of coming out song about being gay. Interestingly, Freddie began writing this song while in his twenties that was completed and recorded after around the middle of his roller coaster life, in 1975.
Mercury didn’t give that very many interviews and in those which he did, he actually spoke more about his music, the business and other such related matters, offering very little insight into his personal life, of which he was very guarded and discreet. At the same time, of the various biographies  that were written about him, the one by his partner Jim Hutton, Mercury and me, focuses mostly on their complicated relationship and provides a unique perspective of Freddie Mercury in his final years. The other, A Life in His Own Words, edited by Greg Brooks and Simon Lupton, is a collection of quotes and interviews in no chronological order, with a foreword by Mercury’s mother, Jer Bulsara. Then there is Somebody to Love, which was compiled by entertainment industry veterans, Mark Langthorne and Matt Richards, who speak mostly of the impacts Mercury had on the acceptance of LGBTQ and about the AIDS crisis.
His British biographer, Lesley-Ann Jones , who wrote Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury in 2011, in her interview with Billboard, recalled Freddie as a very polite, respectful and an incredibly shy man despite his flamboyance on stage. She noted that although he was inherently gentle and kind, he could be waspish and cruel. The movie [she said] hadn’t scraped the surface of his multiple contradictions. When she enquired about the meaning behind the words to the song, he didn’t give her a clear answer although he did allude that the song was about relationships.
She also noted that the childhood and adolescence of Freddie, until the forced exodus of his family from Zanzibar in East Africa to the UK in 64, was shaped largely by Freddie’s life in boarding school, discovering UK pop singles and avante garde contemporaneous music and being consumed by separation anxiety for living so far away from his family; it is what largely shaped him and his art and is little spoken of.
Extremely reserved about his birth family and his cultural upbringing as a Parsi from India, Freddie also never openly admitted to his sexual orientation, in fact is known to have stayed away from his partner Tim Hutton while in the eye of the public or the British tabloids. His relationship with his ex wife Mary Hutchins was without children and he left her a vast portion of his legacy, his beloved home and entrusted her with dispensing with his ashes after death. They had a remarkably long lasting relationship evidently, built on trust and mutual affection, despite a divorce and presumably, admittance of his sexual orientation early into his marriage.
The Bohemian Rhapsody , as it were, appears to encapsulate the unspeakable tragedy of Freddie’s life as he perceived it at the time, something he could perhaps never articulate to himself then but foundered below the surface. Many have attempted to interpret the song but haven’t exhausted every approach to its intrigue. The real Freddie Mercury behind his leonine theatrics, drug fuelled orgies and endearing onstage persona will forever remain an enigma but he admitted to his beelzebub in lyrical acceptance of his own fallibilities, which is endearing. Perhaps, that’s why a song inspired thus can capture the imagination of millions.
As bohemian as they make them, Freddie Mercury was a stitcher of songs for his rhapsody was written on scraps of paper while a student at Ealing college (1966 – 69, hardly two years after he left Zanzibar), so most likely manifesting his inner voice, finding expression in his episodic, yet unified and free flowing single movement work, that sweeps across contrasting moods, tones, voice, operatic crescendos, literary devices. The music he set it to even includes a lengthy guitar riff. It is remarkable that a song without any formal structure, is so engorged on a potency of feeling through words displaying pathos, eliciting sympathy, expressing outrage, making invocations of exculpation, indicating resignation and surrender to an inescapable fate (or in retrospect, functions like a premonition) and interrupted by what loosely functions as a sort of flippant chorus, this particularly he described to Kenny Everett, a DJ friend of his, as random rhyming nonsense.
If random be the faux chorus at conception, irregular it hardly appears upon analysis. Almost akin to the West African Oriki praise songs or rhapsodies in traditional Yoruba music with bards employing great poetic license leaving much to interpretation or the imagination of the listeners, or even the far removed Chinese elegiac Han rhapsodies with their many literary devices, Freddie Mercury, in more recent times, has been the ultimate rhapsodist, in essence a Rock Genre contemporary stitcher of songs, with an avante-garde composition that evolves like a sum of many disparate parts to yield this six minute episodic ballad.
Joshua Allen  of The Morning News, sometime in 2008 , made a jocose argument that the perfect track length is 2:42 seconds, a kind of golden mean of audio. Even if they didn’t know it then, Queen did not succumb to the pressure of reducing the duration of this six minute song to conform to any existing idea of a perfect song length. Freddie Mercury was no conformist. It is so heartening to see artists remain impervious to pressure in their radical, risky, creative out- of- the box approach while they push the envelope, so to speak.
The decades of the sixties and seventies were those of counter cultural free spirits and hippies, the era of corduroy or bell bottoms or puka shells and feathered hair. Also, in an interview with David Wigg  in Munich, 1985, Freddie, alluding to his Parsi heritage said: “That’s something inbred, that’s part of me and I’ll always walk around like a Persian popinjay . No ones going to stop me honey”. There’s frankly, nothing more bohemian than that. In fact, his silver sequined jumpsuit  and harlequins, wing tops, vinyl pants, yellow buckle jacket are unforgettable.
In the same interview in 1985, Wigg pointedly asked Mercury, “Have you become disillusioned with mankind?” The artist was nonplussed for a while before he laughed and retorted: “That’s a bit heavy isn’t it David?” In that conversation with Wigg, Mercury admitted or quoted that he has no true friend and that Mary Hutchins was the only one he would refer to but he treasured his independence, hid behind his work and admitted to going on stage for the adulation of his fans, which he considered being his fantasy land. When he came back to reality, there was no one to give him that emotional support that he most definitely craved.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, No escape from reality.
Yet, his theatrics, the outrageous costumes, being blasé with the public that ‘trapped one’, he said, ‘into delivering what they wanted to hear based on what one had done before’, was the last thing he would want, to stymie his creativity. It was truly the knife edge Mercury wished to tread on, the danger element which was exactly what he thought the band needed. His biographer Lesley-Ann Jones noted his perfectionism and attention to detail and that Mercury approached being a frontman for the band as a job like any other and yet, he was happiest while on stage.
Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Balsara in Zanzibar, to Indian Parsis originally from Bulsar, now known as Valsad, a city in the Western state of Gujarat in India, mainly known for its Vansda National Park. It lies along the Gulf of Khambhat (Cambay), south of the city of Surat. The Parsis are Zoroastrians who fled Iran in the seventh century, with many settling in Gujarat and Maharashtra. His father was a cashier at Zanzibar’s British Colonial Office  and was transferred to the island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), where Mercury was born in 1946. His parents’ house is now converted to a hotel on the island. Mercury spent his youth in India where he attended St. Peter’s Church of England School, a prestigious all-boys boarding school in Panchgani, near Bombay along with many other expatriate Indians living in East Africa at the time. While in India, he called himself Freddie and also formed a popular school band named the Hectics. He finished the last two years of his courses at the Roman Catholic St. Joseph’s Convent School back in Zanzibar.
His family was relatively wealthy and by no means was he a poor boy. In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution  helped overthrow the islands’ first post colonial regime after independence from British rule, a period of several weeks where people of Arab and South Asian heritage were targeted, in many cases lethally, by African islanders, the former being mostly affluent and economically privileged. During this time, he and his family used their British passports to flee to England where he attended Isleworth College and Ealing Art College, and graduated in 1969 with a diploma in graphic art and design. It was a turbulent life, moving under duress from Tropical Zanzibar to Temperate England.
Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see, I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy, Because I'm easy come, easy go, Little high, little low, Any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to me, to me.
It is also the life of a boy, who during his formative years, had been separated from his family across the Arabian Sea, where one needed to board a ship to attend boarding school or return home. Freddie is known to have been shy by nature and made fun of for his hyperdontia or his famous protruding teeth and was nicknamed ‘bucky’,  experiencing perhaps the usual traumas of childhood slurs. It wouldn’t appear odd that he hankered after sympathy, considering his later, flamboyant life. Freddie didn’t quite hide behind who he thought he was, or the legacy of his childhood impressions, instead he stood before the world to court adulation.
Reportedly, after Freddie Mercury married Mary Hutchins in 1973, he confessed to her he was bisexual in 1976 but his song went public in 1975. It was a remarkable relationship but this is not to minimize what Mary may have gone through, discovering after marriage that her husband was gay. The 1980’s are understood to have been a period of intense homophobia; the conservative governments at the time provided very little support to LGBT either in the UK or even in the US. To exacerbate the issue, the AIDS epidemic was demonised in common parlance as the ‘gay plague’  and manipulated to blame or vilify LGBT people, to justify increasing homophobic repression.
Moreover, Mercury had his childhood and adolescence spent in fairly conservative environments, in Catholic Schools, in being a part of the Parsi community, even undergoing the traditional Navjote ceremony which is akin to a Bar Mitzvah in Judaism. So, here was a boy who was most certainly having an immense emotional conflict regarding his sexuality sitting squarely in the middle of contrarian societal, parental and religious expectations including those of the multitude of his fans. He never told his mother he was homosexual; and she recounted this  with a tear in her eye in an interview, dismissing it as things that weren’t spoken of in those days. For a public persona like Mercury, traveling the path he had to is like traveling along a paralleling of soul desires of sorts. These were most probably immensely powerful sets of anachronisms, of the culturally conservative and the contemporaneously glam rock, to carry within one’s heart, to try and contend with.
Mama, just killed a man, Put a gun against his head, Pulled my trigger, now he's dead. Mama, life had just begun, But now I've gone and thrown it all away. Mama, ooh, Didn't mean to make you cry, If I'm not back again this time tomorrow, Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.
If he were, in that day and age, to resort to understanding and coming to terms with his sexual orientation through confessions, public admissions, or even scanning the liturgical texts of the day, which perhaps he did, it may have set the tone of what he truly felt was his fate as a gay man which wouldn’t have been an easy path to tread. To be a ‘man’ in a conservative society at the time, would be to assume then the task of procreation within heterosexual partnership, fulfilling the expectations of carrying on the familial bloodlines. In light of this, in his song at least, he publicly admitted to his Mother it would appear that he was not the man she hoped he would be.
Too late, my time has come, Sends shivers down my spine, Body's aching all the time. Goodbye, everybody, I've got to go, Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.
People sometimes say that HIV appeared in the 1980s in the USA, but in fact this was just when people first became aware of HIV and it was officially recognised as a new health condition. Freddie Mercury recorded the Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975, long before this. It was on June 5, 1981, that the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) published an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) about Pneumocystis Pneumonia in Los Angeles, wherein it described cases of a rare lung infection in five young, white, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. Other unusual infections in all the men were also reported as well, indicating immune systems that were not working. Two would have already died by the time the report was published and the others would die soon after. This edition of the MMWR marked the first official reporting of what would later become known as the AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) epidemic.
Mama, ooh (Any way the wind blows), I don't want to die, I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.
A sexual orientation that isn’t the norm in a generally homophobic society can be difficult to come to terms with, let alone safely express. This, compounded with liturgical texts and codes that list out punitive measures rather than an empathic understanding, along with the seemingly archaic laws of the day and age, would have surely triggered a debilitating inner turmoil within Freddie even if he were a pop star and celebrity. One can only wonder if he were able to connect with his family or community or peers over this, for a secrecy around it would have surely been a recipe for emotional and psychological trauma and isolation of sorts. It might serve to remember that Freddie Mercury spent all of his formative years and until he was 18 in India and Zanzibar. Even though the Parsi community is considered quite progressive within India, homosexuality nevertheless, had a bad rap across religious divides in either of the places at the time.
Of the five books of the Avesta, also called Zend-avesta , the sacred book of Zoroastrianism that contains its cosmogony, law, and liturgy, and the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra), the Vendidad/Videvdad is the main source for Zoroastrian law, both ritual and civil. Zend-Avesta literally means ‘interpretation of the Avesta’. The information about homosexuality contained in this literature is restricted to anal intercourse, as defined in the Videvdad (8.32) In the Avesta there is no mention of heterosexual anal intercourse, but in Zoroastrian texts this practice is alluded to and equally condemned. There is also a distinction between consensual  and non-consensual passive partners; thus, in the Videvdad (8.26-32), the punishment for a man who is submitted to intercourse against his will is a whipping, the same as would have been the punishment for killing a sheep-dog (Vd. 13.2); but, if he does it willingly, his sin is inexpiable. There is also an Avestan fragment which indicates that the passive partner may be killed with impunity (Fragment, Vd. 7.52.3)
Given his background and sociocultural context, perhaps Freddie Mercury at the time of writing the song, already considered himself damned. In an age with very few answers available, it would be a remarkable feat to live a way of life that was against the grain of society.
I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning very, very frightening me. (Galileo) Galileo. (Galileo) Galileo, Galileo Figaro Magnifico o o o o.
There have been many interpretations of who from the band would most likely have been any of the characters mentioned in this verse. Scaramouche was interpreted to be Freddie himself. Italian Scaramuccia, is a stock character of the Italian theatrical form known as the commedia dell’arte; An unreliable servant whose affinity for intrigue and unscrupulous nature landed him in knotty situations from which he always managed to conveniently extricate himself, usually leaving an innocent bystander as his victim. If these words were, as Freddie himself described them, nonsensical rhyming words, then he was well versed in poetic gibe.
Expecting the Scaramouche to perform a triple metre lively Spanish dance like a Fandango, to the accompaniment of guitar and castanets is much less like the tomfoolery it was actually meant to be , for Freddie, the quintessential performer simply only wanted to have fun on stage.
Even so, it hasn’t deterred ardent fans from trying to guess who inspired those characters. Galileo was purportedly the guitarist Brian May, who went on to get his PhD in Astrophysics. Figaro, according to some analyses, would have been the tuxedo clad kitten Figaro from Walt Disney’s 1940 animation film, Pinocchio or simply, the enigmatic  bass player, songwriter in Queen, John Deacon.
Freddie wanted to be adored and lived his life large. He said so himself. He was known for his outrageous parties, one of which was famously known as ‘Saturday Night in Sodom’ and not for nothing. Guests were rumoured  to have been welcomed by dwarves serving Bolivian cocaine from trays strapped to their heads amidst a menu of other exotic diversions.
I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family, Spare him his life from this monstrosity.
What may have been the price of this adulation, the raunchy hedonism and dissipate debauchery? Alexander Atkins in an insightful analysis  of the song, refers to next stanza as revealing a Faustian bargain that has possibly been struck with the devil, wherein the central character of the song trades his moral integrity and soul in exchange for worldly pleasures and comforts. Is this what perturbs the composer of this rhapsody?
Easy come, easy go, will you let me go? Bismillah! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!) Bismillah! We will not let you go. (Let him go!) Bismillah! We will not let you go. (Let me go!) Will not let you go. (Let me go!) Never let you go (Never, never, never, never let me go) Oh oh oh oh No, no, no, no, no, no, no Oh, mama mia, mama mia (Mama mia, let me go.) Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me.
In Christianity, alternate names for Satan or even a lesser devil are Beelzebub or Beelzebul which derives from the New Testament’s preservation of an otherwise unknown Jewish tradition in which Baal Zebub was thought of as the ‘prince of demons’. Deep within perhaps, there is the crystallization of a thought or belief, that his sexual orientation attracts damnation.
The severity of punishments  and future prospects of ridicule, ostracism or even harsh penalty for men performing anal intercourse vary in the religious sources that dilineate such issues. The Ardā Wirāz-nāmag also known as the Arda Wiraf or Book of the Just Wiraz, a Zoroastrian religious text of the Sasanian era written in Middle Persian, describes the dream-journey of a devout Zoroastrian (the Wiraz of the story) through the next world. In the case of homosexual intercourse, the passive performer is punished by having a snake the size of a beam go in through his body and out by the mouth, while other snakes are chewing up the rest of his innards (chap. 19; tr. Gignoux, pp. 174-75) . Interestingly, this sin is the first that Arda Wiraz (The wise Wiraz) encounters in Hell; all other sins are further down, with the more serious among them, presumably heterosexual anal intercourse and adulterous seduction, which are also punished by being eaten by snakes and worms (chap. 71; tr. Gignoux, p. 201). Strangely, religious texts, however dated and irrelevant to contemporary situations, dictate much of the socio-cultural, even if the religious avatar of an argument is eventually discarded for some moral, ethical or in some cases, even a scientific garb.
Interestingly, Peter Freestone , Mercury’s close friend and former assistant who helped execute the singer’s funeral, wrote in his book ‘Freddie Mercury: An Intimate Memoir by the Man Who Knew Him Best’: “Freddie had been far from being actively opposed to anyone’s religion or faith. The things that offended him were the trappings and hypocrisy involved in the various clerical and institutional aspects of established religion.”
So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye? So you think you can love me and leave me to die? Oh, baby, can't do this to me, baby, Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.
If the Bohemian Rhapsody were about relationships, it would appear to be a sad case of unrequited love with a lashing out at anyone that perchance, sought to diminish Freddie’s self worth. I don’t think it is, it is a lashing against his personal and public circumstances. It wasn’t easy being who he was then, except for the slight relief of the stage.
Nothing really matters, Anyone can see, Nothing really matters, Nothing really matters to me. Any way the wind blows...
Recording the operatic section  itself took over 70 hours. If anything, the very declaration of his indefinable sense of vulnerability and angst in poetic lyricism, is what shot Queen to super stardom. They say that every person has at least one book within them, maybe even a song; this was, I believe, Mercury’s song, his profound expression of a potently effervescent self, steeped in his innermost despairing conflicts.
One often overlooked aspect is his astrological portrait. Given the human tendency to assess and judge people not personally known through psychological, anthropological, social, cultural and religious lenses, an astrological lens should not seem then, too far-fetched.
Freddie appeared to be consumed by an innate and intense desire to create an alter ego worthy of adulation on stage. His purported out-partying at the time, of even Elton John, his addictions, multiple sexual partners and over the top sartorial flamboyance on stage, made me curious as to what the actual stars revealed about Mercury. It wasn’t easy to find any information on this aspect except for some birth charts on popular sites. I did find one particularly interesting analysis by Sidereal astrologer, Michael Conneely, which presumes that Freddie was born under the lunar mansion or nakshatra of Moola (within the Sagittarius constellation) His natal chart stands true for what is already well known about Mercury – his star output on stage, his creative talents, his theatrical flamboyance, even his hyperdontia and early death, but what lies behind his very personal Bohemian Rhapsody, is revealed by the position of his Moon, which in astrology is the seat of emotions. This particular one, Moola, can be a difficult one and part of the constellation can be located at (which Sidereal astrology defines) the point Gandanta or the spiritual knot. The Moola Gandanta is placed where the sign of watery Scorpio meets the sign of fiery Sagittarius, potent merging of water and fire that turns into steam, metaphorically speaking. Vedic Astrologer Komila Sutton explains rather poetically, what it means to have a personal celestial body like the powerful moon (the bedrock of emotions and the inner life as per astrological belief) at this point, and it applies to Freddie Mercury quite aptly in the light of his very famous song which in turn seems the blueprint of his famous persona !
She says,  “Sagittarius Moola Gandanta is the most difficult one as it moves the inner soul towards it’s final direction towards merging with the universal consciousness. This is the stage where the material ties are being shattered and the soul realises it’s true spiritual direction. This is where the maximum churning of the inner emotions takes place. Even when the soul recognises it’s path towards its true nature, it fights against it. This is never an easy task. It creates many psychological or physical blocks that need to be tackled with great maturity.”
And she goes on further to elaborate “The belief is when life crystallises at a certain point, then we journey towards the higher manifestation of the soul and the consciousness. We have to go through a particularly trying time to prepare our minds for the next step in the journey of our soul. If you are born in any of the gandanta, you can expect some spiritual difficulties in this birth. A lack of support, a sense of transformation.” I found this so poetically expressed that it felt like she was speaking of this song, the intent of the person behind it and I had to share the whole of her definition.
Short of Freddie Mercury himself being resurrected to explain the meaning of this song, a request he did not concede to during his lifetime, I believe all modes of theorising have since been exhaustively employed. Freddie Mercury passed on before the world collectively condemned homophobia, before AIDS was no longer labelled a gay plague, before nations and communities slowly moved towards the acceptance of differing sexual choices, before religions, clerics and zealous adherents foisted less their views and judgements although they still do in many parts of the world.
In the decades rife with bohemian free spirits , all the angst that Mercury harboured, he transformed on stage, for the world to behold. A conflicted man perhaps, a dual persona, living disparate lives in the eye of the public and in private, he wrote this song when he was a relative nobody, one that only reveals his lust for life: “ I don’t want to die; I wish I’d never been born.” Mercury prevailed for as long as he did and still prevails long after he is gone.
Happy birthday Freddie !
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