When a supergigantic star dies, it creates a black hole in the universe – a quantum singularity. The star collapses and implodes, and gravity becomes so dense that nothing can escape, not even light. When a true icon dies, their death creates a black hole in our hearts. All the love and grief collapses in on itself and is locked in forever. That black hole makes our grief so intense that the icon can take on a god- (or goddess-) like quality. They are forever at their most perfect, suspended in time.
Also, icons always seem to die too soon and in a tragic way. It isn’t new; it’s gone on for decades; thousands lined the streets for the funeral of Rudolph Valentino in 1926, but all of us can recall when this has happened in our own lifetimes – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Diana Princess of Wales… and Freddie.
Freddie was a rock giant; a highly complex character, he burst into our lives like a flaming comet, with his regal robes trailing behind him. He sang, strutted and totally commanded the stage, and we were in awe of his stunning performances. His voice was like no other at the time; the Queen sound was unmistakeable and took us through every mood, from the high camp of Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, the hard funk of Another One Bites the Dust and finally to the intense and heartbreaking Show Must Go On, when all of them knew they were running out of time.
Eighteen years of immense music and then Freddie’s star burnt out. The world was empty except for that black hole of grief – and Freddie’s ghost. Freddie’s been back to haunt us all many times; every time we listen to his voice on an old recording or watch one of their arena performances, he’s there, still larger than life and frozen in time. He will never grow old for any of us and listening to him brings pain and pleasure all at once.
But however painful the loss of Freddie was to us as fans, we can’t even begin to understand what it was like for Brian, Roger and John. For several years, they quietly sat on the knowledge that he was ill, and that he would not recover. They worked frantically with him as it became apparent that he was entering the end stages of full-blown AIDS, to get down the material for Innuendo and Made in Heaven. Then he died and their worlds must have fallen apart. The grief that they all suffered has been well-documented and there is a very insightful interview with Brian May which appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 2011:
The initial reaction of all of the remaining band members was to walk away from Queen when they had finished producing those final recordings; they were all deeply depressed and exhausted by sharing in Freddie’s final illness. The grief endured; they had been so close, closer than most families and now there was an essential part of the jigsaw that was missing, yet present every time they heard his voice.
However, they have all had to learn how to cope with the memories, one way or another. Freddie was a big part of the proceedings at the Wembley tribute concert in 1992, which was an intense, highly-charged occasion. That must have been enormously difficult for all of them as their grief must have still been raw.
After the release of Made in Heaven, there were other musical projects going on, and Queen didn’t perform again under that name until the collaboration with Paul Rodgers began in 2004; by that time John Deacon had opted to retire permanently. Freddie featured on some of the video footage during these live shows to rapturous audience reception, but Queen + Paul Rodgers sounded very different to Queen. This collaboration in some ways was an entirely different animal to Queen, although it was billed as Queen+ – the live sets included some Free and Paul Rodgers songs as well as Queen’s own, and this was more about a bunch of long-established rockers coming together. And at that time I think everybody needed it to sound different, and maybe this didn’t disturb Freddie’s ghost so much as peoples’ ears weren’t being challenged by a sound that reminded them – maybe painfully – of him.
Not long after the Q+PR collaboration ended, Brian and Roger took up the invitation to appear on American Idol, leading to their now very important first meeting with Adam. They were clearly captivated with his voice but it was a full two years before they performed on the MTV awards, and then another year before the Kiev concert.
I wonder at what point they all started to consider the risks of the QAL venture – and how much courage would be required to go ahead with it? Adam clearly knew that he could get his voice round these difficult vocals – this was well in his capabilities, but dealing with the ghost of Freddie must have been a huge challenge, and I wonder whether this was one of the reasons why he took a long time to make the decision to work with Brian and Roger? It’s difficult enough to step into a “normal” frontman’s shoes, but almost impossible to step into the shoes of a dead rock icon. I suspect a lesser person would have turned it down.
There was an enormous amount of risk on both sides, and this was made more acute by the similarities between Adam and Freddie; they both had astonishing voices, both had a huge sense of style and showmanship – and they were both gay. It’s true that Freddie didn’t wear his sexuality on his sleeve (unless you knew the signals) and was very coy in interviews about where his preferences lay. On the other hand, Adam is flamboyantly and extravagantly gay; four decades can make a lot of difference to how comfortable we are in our own skin.
For Brian and Roger, I’m sure they were very confident that Adam could sing the music, and I suspect they’d been following what he did post-Idol and will have seen that he could successfully do the frontman role, but what about the fans’ reaction? It could have imploded, could have seen QAL completely rejected as an attempt to replace Freddie with a young singer who was performing with Brian and Roger as a tribute act.
I’m aware that some of the “anti” comments about Adam have levelled the accusation of being “just a karaoke singer” at him, and amongst some of the hardcore Freddie fans – the ones who have been entirely drawn into the black hole of grief – there have been howls of indignation. For them, Freddie’s ghost is just too powerful and to quote a line from Highlander, “there can be only one”. Brian and Roger must have known this would be the reaction from some fans, so I’m sure the large-scale acceptance of Adam has been an immense relief.
I think the guys tried to manage the risk with careful planning of how to put the whole collaboration together in terms of touring as they would all have been aware of Freddie in the background, and everything had to be “appropriate”.
For Adam, he’s done the thing he needed to do, which is to be himself and not to even attempt to be Freddie. He’s very successfully trod his own path through these songs; there are times when the similarity between their voices is remarkable and other times when they’re very different.
I’d love to know whether Brian and Roger expected he would be able to perform to the level we’ve seen over the last couple of months. If they did, it was remarkable foresight of them to give him the opportunity; if they didn’t, they must be amazed at the levels he has achieved with their music. He has been utterly brilliant in the face of the pressure of having to pull off some of the greatest rock music ever written; he has considered every detail of his performance and strived to do it better every time.
There has also been some very intelligent work done by the guys together, in planning the set, their interactions with the audience and also acknowledging Freddie’s memory. I’m going to write in more detail in another blog with my views of how the sets were put together, but there were a few things from the UK/European tour that really stood out:
- Brian had to do Love of My Life – I know some Adam fans were very wistful about it and would have loved to hear Adam sing it (and he would do it beautifully). But it was Brian’s tribute to his brother-in-music and every performance of it was deeply moving
- When it was included in the set, Roger singing Days of Our Lives was wonderful. Again, this was a song that either Brian or Roger had to do as they were there; it was the days of their lives
- Adam’s interactions with the crowd were just right – we were left in no doubt that he loved Freddie as much as we did, and his sense of wonder at being able to sing with Queen was palpable. In doing this he did faced the issue head on, which was very courageous
- The on-screen “Freddie” moments were perfect places for him to join the show and I think they inspired and moved everyone
Watching the shows and the videos from both the UK/European tour and the 2014 dates, it’s obvious to me that Brian and Roger are now infinitely happier with their memories of Freddie and the tremendous music they made together. Performing as QAL has bought them great joy; through working with Adam they have maybe finally been able to come to terms with Freddie’s ghost and remember the good times.
And just as a postscript – I think Freddie would have loved Adam, and what he’s doing with the music. He appreciated great performers and great artistry. I bet he’s up there laughing his ass off.