The last days (and exuberantly wild life) of my friend Freddie Mercury: Even 30 years after his death, we’re still bewitched by the Queen singer’s music and charisma – but DAVID WIGG reveals the fragility the world never saw
A cold and dark November evening in 1991 and Freddie Mercury was dozing fitfully in his king-sized bed, in the yellow-painted bedroom of his West London mansion.
Garden Lodge was one of the grandest private houses in Kensington and its contents — a fabulous collection of exquisite antiques, artworks and gilded Louis XV furniture — were more than a match for it.
But rock’s greatest showman had precious little time left to enjoy it. Aged just 45, the ailing star was nearing the end of his life.
Earlier that day his GP, Dr Gordon Atkinson, had visited and warned Freddie’s carers, including his devoted ex-girlfriend Mary Austin, that his days were numbered.
Mary was sitting by Freddie’s bedside, tenderly stroking his thick black hair. Emaciated, his body ravaged by the Aids virus, he was desperately weak and suffering terribly.
His only permitted visitors were his most loyal staff and closest friends, and all they could do was try to make him as comfortable as possible.
As his sight had started to fail, he decided that he would no longer take the medication that might have helped him live a little longer. It was time, he felt, to take his final bow.
‘I’ve had enough,’ he whispered to Mary.
Journalist David Wigg pictured with his friend and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Munich
But Freddie had one last request: he asked her to play a video of one of his most spectacular performances with his band Queen.
He wanted to relive how he had conquered audiences with his charisma, dazzling stage presence — and surely the greatest voice in rock music.
Turning to her as the footage came to an end, Freddie said: ‘I think I was good-looking then.’
‘You’re still good-looking!’ was her instant reply.
Mary was on the verge of tears and, as Freddie had decreed that no one should cry in his presence, she left the room.
Shortly afterwards, he rang the bell by the side of his bed, which he used to summon assistance, and everyone in the house rushed to his bedroom.
By the time they got there Freddie had gone, at peace at last.
It is 30 years since that sad night on November 24, 1991, but the Freddie Mercury legend endures.
He may have sung ‘Who Wants To Live Forever?’, implying the prospect was unappealing, but it turns out he has, through his music.
Queen have sold more than 300 million records, making them the fourth biggest-selling artists of all time after The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.
The Oscar-winning 2018 biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, which recounted Freddie’s life, has taken almost £1 billion globally.
And tonight, a special feature-length documentary, Freddie Mercury: The Final Act, which details the extraordinary last chapter of Freddie’s life, will be shown on BBC2.
Freddie with his devoted ex-girlfriend Mary Austin at his 38th birthday party after his Wembley Arena concert in 1985
It features interviews with many of those closest to him, including bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor, his sister Kashmira Bulsara and contributions from those who performed at Freddie’s epic tribute concert at Wembley in April 1992, including The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Lisa Stansfield and Paul Young.
Doctors and HIV survivors appear alongside veteran human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to recount the intensity of living through the Aids crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the moral panic it brought about.
As a music journalist and broadcaster, I witnessed that harrowing time at close quarters, and watching Freddie and so many other talented artists fade away was heartbreaking.
By the time he died, Freddie and I had been friends for 16 years, often meeting in Chelsea, where I lived, or on the club scene at Tramp, or the celebrity restaurant San Lorenzo.
I joined him and Queen at gigs all over the world: from Paris to LA, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. We did 12 interviews together and I lost count of the number of Freddie’s lavish and flamboyant parties I attended.
But I shall never forget my first interview with him in 1974. We’d met a few days earlier at September, a showbiz restaurant on London’s Fulham Road, where we were introduced by Kenny Everett, the Radio 1 DJ and TV presenter.
Kenny, who himself succumbed to Aids in 1995, would later help propel Queen to stardom by playing their 1975 masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody 14 times in two days, after mainstream radio stations baulked at its six-minute length.
Freddie told me that he had enjoyed my interviews with the Beatles, and demanded: ‘Why haven’t you interviewed me yet?’
And that was that. We agreed that I would interview him in his dressing room after a gig in Birmingham.
And he made quite an entrance. At the end of the two-hour show, he stormed in, picked up a clothes iron and hurled it at a full-length mirror, smashing it to pieces. Well, I thought, he’s obviously not superstitious!
Freddie donning his now iconic bright yellow jacket and white trousers while performing at Wembley
His outburst had been sparked by a faulty microphone on stage. Though the audience were unaware anything was wrong and were cheering for more, Freddie had blown his top.
When he calmed down, I asked whether it was worth getting so wound up over a problem his fans knew nothing about.
‘Some people can take second best — but I can’t,’ he replied.
‘If you’ve got the taste for being number one, then number two isn’t good enough.’
Then he slapped me on the knee and exploded with laughter.
‘I’m not just going to be a rock star — I’m going to be a legend like Nureyev. And I’m not going to be one of those old hams that keeps going on and on.
‘I’d rather leave at the top. I just want to spend my life doing wonderful things.
‘Whatever you say about me, don’t make me sound boring.’
I thought: how could you ever be boring? He was utterly outrageous.
This is the man who sang Bohemian Rhapsody while being held upside down by Royal Ballet dancers, who belted out I Want To Break Free in full drag before thousands of screaming Brazilians at 1985’s Rock In Rio festival, and, unforgettably, stole the show at Live Aid in 1985 as almost 2 billion people — 40 per cent of the world’s population — watched in awe.
One of the most eye-popping experiences I had with him was in Munich in 1984, where we were scheduled to film a TV interview together.
I arrived at the luxury flat Freddie had rented and was greeted by ‘Phoebe’, the nickname he had given his personal assistant Peter Freestone.
‘Freddie is waiting for you in the sitting room,’ Peter told me.
DAVID WIGG: I thought: how could you ever be boring? He was utterly outrageous. This is the man who sang Bohemian Rhapsody while being held upside down by Royal Ballet dancers, who belted out I Want To Break Free in full drag before thousands of screaming Brazilians at 1985’s Rock In Rio festival, and, unforgettably, stole the show at Live Aid in 1985 as almost 2 billion people — 40 per cent of the world’s population — watched in awe. (Pictured: Freddie Mercury)
He led me down the corridor and opened the door — where I beheld Freddie, three strapping young German men and the Austrian actress Barbara Valentin — all naked and romping on the floor together.
Freddie looked up at me and said: ‘Ah, David, thank you for coming. Would you like to join us?’
I laughed and said: ‘I think I’ll just have a glass of champagne with Phoebe, Freddie!’
As for parties, Freddie believed the more outrageous, the better.
Perhaps my favourite was his 40th at Pike’s Hotel in Ibiza in 1986: a beautiful old building with a thatched roof, where Wham! recorded the video for their single Club Tropicana.
Freddie flew a group of us there, putting us up in style. But this time he really wanted things to go with a bang, so he decided to send his staff downtown to invite along all the local transvestites.
We watched agog as, sure enough, every transvestite in Ibiza soon came clattering up the hill in their high heels. Freddie had covered the pool area with balloons filled with helium, and as one of the transvestites lit a cigarette, a ribbon attached to a balloon was accidentally set alight.
DAVID WIGG: As for parties, Freddie believed the more outrageous, the better. (Pictured: Freddie Mercury at Wembley Stadium during Live Aid, July 13, 1985)
The balloon sailed into the sky and we watched mesmerised as the flame progressed up the ribbon towards the balloon.
It eventually exploded with a great bang and the flaming remnants fell on to the hotel’s thatched roof — which immediately caught fire.
Half the roof was destroyed before the fire brigade put out the blaze. And since the hunky Spanish firemen had done such a wonderful job and looked so smart in their uniforms, Freddie insisted they join everyone else.
That was truly a night to remember: Freddie, his best friends, the firemen and tranvestites of Ibiza, partying the night away.
On another birthday, he flew all his friends to Munich in a private plane, but only if we agreed to dress in black and white — and as the opposite sex.
Again, ever the perfectionist, Freddie provided make-up artists to transform us all into whichever male or female celebrity we had chosen to be.
We were then driven in carriages through cobbled streets to Old Mrs Henderson’s Nightclub, a Munich gay bar that Freddie had transformed with diamante wall coverings, glitter and lights.
The music throbbed and the champagne flowed until dawn, when the mascara started to run. And this is how I choose to remember Freddie: not in his final year or two, when he was so frail.
Peter ‘Phoebe’ Freestone told me of those last days: ‘They were very sad times, but Freddie didn’t get depressed. He was resigned to the fact that he was going to die.
‘After all, we’re all going to die some day — and could you imagine an old Freddie Mercury? I think not.’
As the end approached, Freddie became anxious that his grave might become a target for fans and be defiled.
DAVID WIGG: Freddie’s favourite mantra — one he repeated to me often — was: ‘Life is for living: life is for fun. F*** tomorrow, it’s today what counts, dear.’ (Pictured: Freddie in 1973)
‘He didn’t want anybody to dig him up as has happened to other famous people,’ Mary Austin told me. ‘Fans can be obsessive. He wanted it to remain a secret.’
And so Mary, who Freddie used to call his ‘common law wife’ and to whom he left Garden Lodge, along with half his share of his Queen recording and songwriting royalties, made him a lasting promise.
For two years after he died, she couldn’t bear to be parted from him, and kept his ashes in his bedroom.
Then, when she was ready, Mary left the house alone with the urn, and travelled to a secret destination: Freddie’s final resting place.
Some days earlier, she had invited his parents to Garden Lodge to say a few prayers in his memory. Even they weren’t told where she was taking him.
Some have suggested it was Switzerland, where Queen had a recording studio and there is a wonderful statue of him overlooking Lake Geneva. But Mary will never tell a soul.
‘I never betrayed Freddie in his lifetime,’ she said. ‘And I’ll never betray him now.’
Freddie’s favourite mantra — one he repeated to me often — was: ‘Life is for living: life is for fun. F*** tomorrow, it’s today what counts, dear.’
It was a motto he lived to consummate perfection.
Freddie Mercury: The Final Act, BBC2, tonight, 9pm