As I rambled through Saint Belfort’s Wood, The Entrepreneurial Skag Lepus accosted me, “I can get you hopped-up whether you want it or not,” he boasted, Gesturing to a commune of defrocked Praying Mantises nearby.
They stood transfixed like Pointer dogs, As they tried cleaning their antennae, Failing miserably in the attempt, Their eyes swirling cascades of hopelessness.
“You talk too much for a rabbit,” I replied, My eyes moving over his tweed waistcoat, “I’m a hare, actually,” he said, taking umbrage, “Then you, sir, are a follicular f-f-falsity!” I shouted.
I turned on my heel and walked away, “Don’t look a gift hare in the mouth!” he called after me, “I have and only see two buck teeth!” I responded, The hare huffed and hopped away to find another hophead.
At the rim of the abyss, Among the malignant smoking rubble, And the plane and body parts, The traumatised rediscovered their purpose.
In a moonscape of fallen pride, identity, and ambition, The anonymous saved something of the unsalvageable, Searchers with sandwiches and coffee in the toxic dust, Manna from Good Samaritans with unconditional gratitude.
As the lungs struggled to take in air, The hearts of each participant enlarged, And found shelter in non-partisan synergy, Becoming a family of former strangers.
The lesson of the lost was to stay loving and open-hearted, Not turn away and isolate from life and others, Even when the scars became unbearable, Their stolen affection remained a towering beacon from the ruins.
In the week of Freddie Mercury’s 75th birthday, let’s take a look back at Queen’s magnificent set at Live Aid. What is still left to say about the greatest performance of all time? We shall see, dear readers.
Firstly, this performance could never happen the way it did today. Not just because the world has lost the unique Freddie Mercury or that the Covid-19 pandemic ended live performances, but also because of the bugbear of modern live shows: the mobile phone. Yes, look at Live Aid, and you see Freddie has the entire crowd’s attention from start to finish. Now, people would be tuning out of the concert, heads down, texting on their phones, or, even worse, there would be that forest of arms holding up phones, filming and selfishly blocking the view of everyone behind them. It’s a weird form of technological ADHD we all suffer from now.
Live Aid was not a Queen audience, and tickets had sold out before they had agreed to appear on the bill. So, perhaps for the first time since their early days, they had to win over a crowd that was not there to see them exclusively. The promoters asked what time they wanted to go on. Queen said 6 pm, which surprised the organisers, who thought they would want to close the show like 99% of the other acts. Queen reckoned that they would be on around lunchtime in the States and might be the first act seen by most viewers over there.
Freddie and Brian skip onto the stage, and there’s an immediate roar of approval from the crowd. Freddie responds by affectionately giving the audience three air right hooks like a boxer. This is significant as Freddie had done some boxing in his boarding school days in India as a boy.
He was good at boxing, despite his protruding teeth giving his opponents an easy target to hit that bled heavily whenever struck. In a precursor to We Are The Champions, Freddie would never throw in the towel, no matter how badly he was injured or how much his friends begged him to concede. Boxers use a footwork technique called ‘cutting off the ring’ in which you essentially use sly footwork to corner your opponent and inflict damage upon them to win. Freddie’s footwork at Live Aid is immaculate. He covers every inch of the stage, does some intricate moves, and never puts a foot wrong (imagine if he had fallen flat on his face in front of the world doing all that prancing and running that he does!)
Freddie also worked with the Royal Ballet, and you can see that influence on his movements too when he glides with a balletic grace to the sides of the stage at different points in the set.
Freddie sits down at the piano (that belonged to Phil Collins, believe it or not!) and plays some scales to get the level. The audience respectfully pipes down as the artiste makes them wait until he is ready. Freddie adjusts the sound level and goes straight into Queen’s biggest hit, Bohemian Rhapsody. There is an adoring cheer from the crowd, who do instant backing vocals with Freddie as he sings of Mama just killing a man.
Freddie was advised not to do the show by doctors because of a persistent throat problem. I believe this was an early symptom of HIV/AIDS making an appearance. Two months before, Freddie was interviewed on the BBC by Simon Bates, his throat problem dogging him then also. He stuck his tongue out at Bates, who described it as the unhealthiest thing he had ever seen. This sounds to me like Freddie was suffering from a Fungal Throat Infection. One book I read said that a Fungal Throat Infection in an otherwise healthy patient nearly always led to a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. So Live Aid was the beginning of the end for Queen, and they were unaware of it. It was their last show outside of their final tour in 1986.
Before we know it, the opening snippet of Bohemian Rhapsody is over, and Freddie is up from the piano and strutting around to the opening bars of Radio Ga Ga. He then strides confidently to the front of the stage, daring 72,000 people to defy him, and waves to them. What breathtaking self-confidence that man had! The crowd is putty in his hands already.
The 1984 video for Roger Taylor’s Radio Ga Ga came in for criticism for its alleged Fascist imagery (Roger seemed to be trying to make up for it a decade later with his anti-Nazi anthem Nazis 1994.) At Live Aid, the crowd spontaneously chose to mimic the brainwashed crowd handclapping from the pop video of the song. Henry Rollins likened it to one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, and the BBC’s Paul Gambaccini described it as “a frightening kind of power.” Now, once Freddie grew his moustache and slicked back his new short haircut, there was a resemblance to the Nazi dictator. Hitler, of course, was a genocidal madman, while Freddie is one of the most loved performers ever and had no interest in politics whatsoever. Their approach to stagecraft does have similarities. Hitler would make his audiences wait to hear him as Freddie had done briefly at the start of his Live Aid performance. A magician taught Hitler how to use big stage poses to communicate with everyone in a large arena and have the maximum impact. Freddie used similar big poses too.
Then Freddie chose to do his famous Ay-Oh call and response with the whole of Wembley. Again, the crowd sings it straight back at Freddie without an embarrassing silence or him even telling them to. Freddie again takes a big risk, and it pays off incredibly well. It leads to the note heard around the world that Freddie sings even with his throat problems. He then rips into Hammer To Fall, and the song never sounded better.
Crazy Little Thing Called Love is next, and Freddie gets the crowd to sing a few chorus lines to save his voice for the big note near the end. A good trick that singers do now and then (witness Elton John at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert dodging high note bullets during Bohemian Rhapsody by getting the crowd to sing instead.)
Then it’s into a shortened version of We Will Rock You with Freddie directing the crowd to sing it only four times, so they don’t go into the second verse when the song is ending. Brian May is very modest and says Live Aid was Freddie’s day, but the solo in We Will Rock You has real venom to it here. Just like the rest of Queen, he gave admirable and unsung help to his bandmate all day.
We Are The Champions brings the curtain on Queen’s 20-minutes of magic with Freddie’s voice sounding the roughest it did all day. He gets through it and then says: “Thank you, goodbye! We love you!”
Freddie had been born in Zanzibar off the coast of Africa. Queen had gotten into big trouble for playing the Sun City resort in Apartheid-era South Africa, making amends by playing the Live Aid concert for the starving in Africa and later benefits for Nelson Mandela’s charity. And Freddie died of AIDS in 1991, the virus that originated on the African continent. It all came full circle, as most things have a habit of doing in life.
The shy, insecure immigrant Farrokh Bulsara had once banged his head on his piano in frustration at being unable to write great songs like his idols. He would proceed to write what is generally considered the best song of all time – Bohemian Rhapsody. The nervous young Freddie with his untamed, nanny goat vibrato was too petrified to face his first audience and stood with his back to them. He then changed his name to the heroic alter-ego of Mercury, after the messenger of the gods and, on July 13th, 1985, Freddie Mercury would give the greatest live performance ever seen. We witnessed a man at the height of his immense powers before his Icarus-like fall from grace.
Freddie Mercury, Queen, and their Live Aid performance will never be forgotten. Even if the great man never lived to be three-quarters of a century old, his music and iconic images will live on forever. His is the story of a self-made man who recreated himself through sheer willpower and got destroyed by the fearless risk-taking that had made him.
Long before Christ stopped at Eboli, Hades and all his underworld hellfire, Stopped at Pompeii in 79 AD, Consuming the coastal Roman city.
The waters in the aqueduct were dropping, A looming drought seemed to be the emerging problem Up in Vulcan’s cradle stirred the volcano Vesuvius, The price was fatal for those who ignored it.
On the ankle of the Italian peninsula, Oblivious Pompeiians sauntered languidly across the plaza, Or they went haggling in the market, Or they had relaxing conversations with neighbours.
Pumice began raining down for nearly a day, All but a thousand or so people fled, Then piping hot ash clouds flattened structures, altered the coastline, Instantly killing anyone struck by their extreme heat.
Some died where they stood, Or where they ran carrying valuables, Frozen in time in infernal immolation, A funeral pyre of ash blocked out the sun.
As clawed lightning, love strikes without warning to scorch the heart, And, as it is painful to be born, love, make love, and die, So we may surmise that life itself is pain in different guises, Some unwelcome interlopers but all necessary.
More than passing sensations, We are shocked into living, And in that shock, the heart plots a different course, To beat for the first time or quicken with excitement or cease.
Sometimes we stray into pleasure’s realms, Diverted there unknowing, And resolve to be passengers no more, But masters of when and where the burning chorus strikes.
Nightfall on Easter Saturday, A church in darkness, Flickering fire through stained glass, Hope so close yet out of reach.
The Paschal candle is lit outside from a small garden bonfire, And, in reverent procession, brought indoors, The flaming beacon makes its entrance at the rear of the congregation, The mother candle bows, bestowing blazing brows on the humbler candles of those assembled.
The welcoming brightness gently spreads among the pews, Confusing darkness now a sea of light, United in illumination, And He is there.