Somebody To Love is a unique biography about Freddie Mercury, with the writers exploring the life of a world famous rock star alongside the emergence of an appalling virus.
It launched in 2016 at a time when Queen’s popularity was once again enjoying a resurgence. Along with Mercury, the band have risen to the height of Gods.
But the success story is also marred by tragedy and is forever linked to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. And this is where the story begins.
Somebody to Love: The Medical Biography by Mark Langthorne and Matt Richards
For the topics in Somebody to Love, we’ve rarely come across a work where the benefit of hindsight is so prevalent.
And as the chapters move on, the inevitability of what’s going to happen to Mercury makes for painful reading.
In part you have the staggering rise to superstardom of one Mr. Mercury (epitomised by the way he could carry an audience in the video above), but playing out alongside this is the relentless onslaught of a terrifying illness.
But what’s disturbing is that, even as Queen hit the big time in the early 1970s, and unbeknownst to the world, HIV was already slowly starting to wreak havoc.
And Mercury’s fate seemed destined to collide with the virus.
This means Somebody to Love is a story of Freddie Mercury and Queen’s global dominance, but also how HIV/AIDS came to overwhelm humanity. In terms of the cost of life and the sociological ramifications.
Some might wonder why anyone would write such a depressing book. And why you’d read it.
Certainly after the coronavirus pandemic, attention has again turned to what happened in the 1980s.
We were too young at the time to understand any of it, but were warned by our parents to steer clear of any blood. We didn’t know why. But we just stuck to parental law.
The interest in Mercury is undiminished. He’s now an icon, a flamboyant star a bit too cool for this world.
And as a creative powerhouse he’s as popular as ever. But in his appeal, you simply can’t ignore his heroic battle against the virus.
Which he all managed with good cheer (enforced or otherwise) and little complaint. As Langthorne and Richards put it:
“In a career that spanned 20 years, it is reasonable to assume [Mercury] was HIV positive for almost half of it. So what we were witnessing, through a time with no treatment per se, was the slow death of an individual and artist. However much it might not be palatable to most fans, it’s impossible to write about Freddie without the story of his HIV and AIDS. It was, and would be more so after his death, a defining aspect of what he was.”
The Emergence of HIV/AIDS
Flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, who died aged 32 of AIDS in 1984, is often wrongfully attributed as “patient zero” for the the outbreak of HIV.
This is incorrect, as the virus made the jump from simians (SIV) to humans around 1908 in the African Congo.
It likely spread as hunters killed infected simians, before themselves becoming infected as blood entered open wounds.
And as humans consequently do their thing (in this case, hunters sleeping with local prostitutes etc.) the virus began to reach further destinations.
This wasn’t helped by certain medical aid in the region in the early 20th century. Hypodermic syringes were in short supply, with doctors having to re-use the same ones over and over.
“Even by the end of World War I [syringes] were still only handmade, their components of glass and metal shaped by skilled craftsmen, making them extremely rare. During one medical expedition to the upper Sangha river from 1917-1919, the French doctor Eugène Jamot treated over 5,300 cases of sleeping sickness using only six syringes.”
In the late ’80s, scientists were able to look back and identify early AIDS cases across the world.
The first known case was in 1959 in the Congo. A decade later Robert Rayford (16) was the first recorded death in North America.
Then in 1976, Arvid Noe (29) and his wife and daughter all died due to AIDS complications.
Noe was a sailor who travelled through many African destinations and, after sleeping with prostitutes, unwittingly caught the virus in the mid-late 1960s.
Somebody to Love notes that 1976 was a turning point for the upcoming crisis, the year when many became unknowingly infected.
But one of the big tragedies with HIV is, when someone gets infected, they typically have no idea. There can be flu-like symptoms, so this led many to shrug off a sudden illness as just the flu.
They could then spend five or more years feeling absolutely fine, although the virus would be slowly destroying their immune system.
Whilst essentially lying dormant, this allowed the virus to spread at a frightening rate as the unaware passed it from one person to the next.
This is why HIV/AIDS seemingly came out of nowhere in 1981, when it hit America and led to a social panic.
Once it became a public health crisis, the situation was exacerbated further by misinformation, homophobia, and political denial.
Topping everything else was the lack of a reliable HIV test. The first tests didn’t exist until 1984 and could provide false positive and negative results.
It wasn’t until 1986 that a more reliable test became available.
So amongst the backdrop of all that, a lot of uncertainty, homophobia, and government failures allowed the virus to proliferate throughout the1980s.
We’ve seen some criticisms of Somebody to Love for its use of guesstimates. The logic is there, but of course no one can specifically know when Mercury became HIV positive.
But the book argues it was in 1982 when Mercury was in New York, during which time he exhibited severe flu during a live performance.
That’s the exact symptoms of someone who may have just become infected with the virus. Or he had just had the flu.
After 1982, Mercury was acutely aware of AIDS as many of his friends were dying of it. When movie star Rock Hudson (1925-1985) suddenly died of AIDS, his perception of the situation changed further.
In his last interview (above) in 1987, when he was working with Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018), he knew he had AIDS. He was diagnosed in April 1987.
That came only nine months after Queen’s famous performance at Wembley in July 1986, where many iconic images of Mercury came from.
The book attests he was aware he was probably HIV positive and this would be his final tour, so he wanted to go out in style.
Of course, despite Mercury’s flamboyant (“arrogant” as he put it) stage persona, he was actually quite painfully shy off stage.
To bring out his real personality, he drank a lot and took cocaine. Although he never got addicted to either.
And despite his excessive lifestyle, he also managed to stay in great shape.
But as AIDS took its toll, by 1991 Mercury was extremely ill. To make things worse, he was having to battle the vile tabloid press. Rags such as The Sun hounded him mercilessly for a scoop on his health.
During his illness, he turned to creativity for relief. And in early 1991 Queen wrapped up what would be the final album with its lead singer: Innuendo.
We think this is one of the band’s finest works, a really poignant period of creativity. It even features Grandville’s (1803-1847) brilliant Juggler of Universes artwork as its front cover.
Justin Shirley-Smith worked with Mercury during this period. An assistant engineer in the studio, he said:
“This is hard to explain to people, but it wasn’t sad, it was very happy. He was one of the funniest people I ever encountered. I was laughing most of the time, with him. Freddie was saying, ‘I’m not going to think about it, I’m going to do this.'”
Mercury was getting increasingly frail, but decided to do two final videos. Both of which we think are some of Queen’s finest work.
I’m Going Slightly Mad was filmed in February of 1991 in London. He was caked in make-up, wore a wig, and padded out his clothes to hide his weight loss.
Mercury then filmed These Are The Days Of Our Lives in May of 1991, the video of which didn’t launch until after his death six months later.
Although he was reclusive in his final few years, he pampered himself as much as possible.
He spent his life between his home Garden Lodge in London and the panoramic idyll of Montreaux in Switzerland. Particularly Lake Geneva, where in his final year he bought a small flat overlooking the lake.
When possible he’d head out to feed the swans, free from the onslaught of the British tabloid paparazzi.
And we think he was very brave and noble in his fight.
He continued on doing what he loved most—making music. And he did it all with a sense of humour right until his final days.
And that’s what Somebody to Love captures rather poignantly.
We must stress it’s not an exploitative work. It’s not here to list lurid details for the sake of it, instead it adds clarity for why this health crisis occurred.
And why it affected one of the ’80s leading superstars.
For sure, it’s a difficult book to read. But it’s also a fascinating account of how one life can follow a doomed trajectory, but still battle on to make a difference even decades later.
Celebrating Mr. Mercury (darlings)
24th November 2021 will mark the 30th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death.
There’ll be a lot of stuff in the media round the time, no doubt, as we think it’s important to celebrate his life.
Books like this often aren’t welcomed by some Queen’s fans. But we think it’s all an important, even glowing, testament to a great showman and what he did with his 45 years.
And Queen’s popularity is as massive as ever. Along with the likes of Queenpod, there’s an iPhone game called Rock Tour that’s free to play.
There’s also the Mercury Phoenix Trust. The band founded this after Mercury’s death to help battle AIDS across the world.
And Mercury is playing his own part in that battle, which we think is a fitting tribute to a great man with a heck of a lot of talent.