About 24 years ago, Freddie Mercury died of AIDS.
But he’s far from forgotten. He’s everywhere, even in television commercials for a pet mart. Playing in the background as pug-nosed, bow-legged little dogs chow down on kibbles, is one of Queen’s early hits: “You’re my best friend.” Honestly, Queen is like wallpaper, stuck firmly to the walls of our existence. And now Mercury and Queen are insidiously penetrating the figure skating world, especially this season, the second year that vocals have been allowed. It’s like a dam has burst and Queen has come flooding through.
I heard the news about Freddie’s death 24 years ago, but didn’t understand it, didn’t feel it, didn’t pause over it too long. Yes, he was another celebrity that the disease had claimed. I had known figure skaters who had died of the disease when it was an ominous mystery. Their deaths were more real to me.
To me at the time, Freddie Mercury was just that. An unusual name for an unusual guy. Strangely enough, although he and the band he fronted so well were in my era and my time, I MISSED them. How do you miss one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and the greatest frontman of all time? But yes, I did, sort of.
The reason? Queen was at the height of its powers when I was in university and during those years, I was on a mission. I had earned a gigantic scholarship, which paid all the major costs: tuition, a room in residence and food five days a week – for FOUR years. My parents had told me to forget about university because they could not afford to send me. So I found a way. This scholarship, however, had to be earned every year. If my average fell below A- for any of those years, I’d lose it forever and my university education would be finished. The scholarship was my only shot. I had no Plan B.
So I spent every night in the library. I was relentless, driven and uber-organized. I did not own a television set. I had a little tinny analog clock radio and its purpose was to wake me up for another full day of work, not to listen to the latest hits. In the midst of all this, I hardly heard Queen’s voice.
Within five years, I went from my humble little hometown of 400 to working in Canada’s largest city at Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. So once again, I had to pull out all the stops to adapt and establish my career. I had come from a rural community that, when I was growing up, barely received two television stations, had no internet, no YouTube videos, no laptops. In Toronto, I worked nights and weekends. I worked all the time. I freelanced, too. I was busy, taking care of life.
I knew there was a band called Queen. I knew they sang “We Are the Champions.” I heard their music, loved it, too, mostly without ever realizing it was Queen. Or indeed that Freddie Mercury was part of it. I never looked into the makeup of the band or what it represented. I had no time. There are sacrifices to be had when you are driven by a single-minded purpose, with big blinders on. Would I have done it again? Yes. No question. Absolutely. I’ve had the time of my life.
So Queen was, in a way, a sacrificial lamb to my driven lifestyle. I heard the news of Mercury’s death 24 years ago and then he slid out of my consciousness again.
Less than a year ago, I was doing research for a silly blog about Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau and a thing they had going all year with moustaches. I researched moustaches vigorously, always curious, and up popped a photo of Freddie Mercury, because his hairy upper lip was apparently judged one of the top 40 sexiest moustaches by OUT magazine.
“Oh,” I thought to myself when I saw it. “So that’s what Freddie Mercury looked like.” Honestly, I didn’t know. And I didn’t expect that he would look so clean-cut and well, rather stunning to behold. Perhaps I was expecting a messy topper of stringy hair of various hues, torn bluejeans and maybe a piercing or two. But that’s not what I saw. It’s hard to believe, but my first sight of Freddie was in January, 2015.
In September, one of my Facebook friends posted a YouTube video of Queen playing at the Live Aid concert in 1985 at Wembley Stadium in England. I scrolled past it twice, paying little heed, but enough to notice a caption that revealed that Queen had “stolen the show” at this iconic concert.
But the third time I scrolled over it, I hovered on it, and inexpliquably that caption finally went to the front of my mind. I knew all about the existence of the Live Aid concert, but I had never watched it, beyond the odd news clip. (Guaranteed that I was working that day.) I found myself wondering: “So how did Queen steal the show at this concert? What on God’s green earth did they do?”
So I clicked on it.
I haven’t been the same since.
As I watched and listened to Queen playing their 20-minute time slot, I felt the hair go straight up on the back of my neck. Something was striking a chord.
I recognized all these songs they were playing, and realized, to my great astonishment, that they had all come from this band.
And of course, this was also the first time I had seen Freddie in action. To hear him is one thing and quite a wonderful thing. To see him, quite another. And of course, my first viewing of the group happened to be at a concert that many say is Queen’s best performance at the top gig in history.
I was mesmerized. Sold. Hooked. Utterly spellbound. Signed, sealed and delivered. On another planet. I was like one of those people in the massive crowd of 72,000, waving their arms above their heads as one, like willow trees in the wind. I was right there, with them, drawn by the power of Freddie Mercury. And the voice, the voice, the voice. How could I not have heard it and recognized it as special before? After that momentous click, I couldn’t get enough of Freddie and Queen.
In this social media world, when you see one YouTube video, you can see scores more. For the next three or four weeks, I clicked on every single one of them, and watched and marveled. Queen’s work was so varied, so creative, the harmonies unbelievable, the melodies so fine, the guitar work stellar, and the drums gave me goosebumps, too. I came to know all the band members by their first names: Freddie, Brian, Roger, John. It felt like an explosion going off in my head when I saw the original video of Queen singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Freddie was young and had a thatch of black hair and long eyelashes and the most unbelievable vocal range. And this epic song had an operatic section. Yikes. What was this? What rock band does that?
So I listened to all of their songs, more than once, of course. Saw all of Freddie’s different looks and flamboyant costumes. And I heard Freddie’s story. I watched all the documentaries and all of the interviews. I learned about his battle with AIDS and how he dealt with it. I watched, intrigued, when he sang: “These are the Days of Our Lives,” with a luminous face, as he was weak and dying. “I’m going to sing until I f…ing well bleed,” he said in the way that he was known to do. He’d down a vodka or two and hit every note, forcing things out of his body in a way that was “superhuman,” according to lead guitarist Brian May. At the end of this beautiful video, I watched him look straight at the camera and whisper: “I still love you,” as a goodbye to his fans. It still turns me inside out. It was his final video. I sucked it all up like a Miele vacuum cleaner, catching up on all the decades I’d missed. On Nov. 24, on the 24th anniversary of his death, I had 20 of 24 questions correct on an internet quiz about how well you know Freddie Mercury.
And so I began to mourn his death too, late by almost 24 years. I finally understood the loss.
Sometimes I’d be up until 1:30 a.m. or later, listening to Queen. I listened to these talented lads every day. When I was not listening to them, my head was full of their music. I painted a ceiling and an epoxy finish on my garage floor with “Bohemian Rhapsody” playing in my head. (“Mama! Just killed a man!”) My neighbours had no idea. They just admired the artistry of my garage the next day. “You should have had a radio in there,” one said. I didn’t need one.
Finally, I said to myself: “I need a break. This is absolute madness and the madness must stop. I need to take a breath.” I had to remind myself that there was life beyond Queen.
My break came when I went to Autumn Classic in Barrie, Ont., in mid-October. That would get me off the Queen YouTube loop, right?
During the men’s practice on the first day, I heard it: the opening bars of “Who Wants to Live Forever.” I knew what was coming. I couldn’t believe it, as I sat there, watching Italian skater Maurizio Zandron, bringing Freddie back to me, just in case I had forgotten. Then the next skater, former Canadian junior champion Mitchell Gordon, took his spot, and skated to the same song. Back-to-back Queen. Both were using it for their short programs. A third, Canadian Bennet Toman, was skating to the same music, but by the Ten Tenors, for his long program.
So much for letting Queen rest. But Queen is not resting this year in ice arenas anywhere.
Okay, young Mr. Zandron, who wasn’t born when “Bohemian Rhapsody” was unleashed on the world, what’s your story on skating to Queen? In fact, he was born the year after Freddie died. But Zandron loves Queen, and would really have preferred to skate to “Bohemian Rhapsody” but didn’t think it would easily translate onto the ice. Understandable, completely! So he picked “Who Wants to Live Forever,” which seems to be the Queen song of choice with the skating crowd. (Chinese stars Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao skated to an instrumental version of this song to win the 2010 Olympic pair gold medal in Vancouver, at a time when vocals were not allowed. And the best skating performance of all time of this Queen song, in my mind, must be the routine that Jamie Sale and David Pelletier did on the 2005 Stars on Ice tour. STUNNING. Have we forgotten how good they were?)Actualy, I have a distinct memory of sitting in the audience at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto when they performed this routine and Freddie’s voice filled the arena. I remember thinking that it was a particularly beautiful song sung by an incredible voice. But I was watching Olympic champions skate, and then the next solo came on and …..so that was that.
But, said Zandron, who is from Milan, his father was the real fan. Father Zandron had a collection of Queen on these round discs and son Maurizio struggled to explain how they worked. Well, he’s talking about vinyl LPs and you need to drop them onto a turntable and lower a needle onto them to play them.
Toman doesn’t know much about Queen at all. “I’m pretty sure my dad knows, but not me,” he said. Heralded music specialist Lenore Kay picked the music out for him. And he likes it. “When I first listened to it, I felt really inspired,” Toman said.
This year, there have been other Queen performances, too, on ice. Russians Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin skate their short dance to “Somebody to Love” (a Ravensburger Waltz?) and “We Will Rock You” (a march).
American Ross Miner used two Queen pieces for his long program: “Too Much Love Will Kill You” and of course, “Who Wants to Live Forever.” It worked for him. He used it to finish third at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia last month. It’s not the first time Miner has used Queen. During the 2008-2009 season, he skated to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” as an exhibition, the only vehicle at the time that allowed a skater to perform to Freddie’s powerful, four-octave-range voice.
My favorite Queen performance this season (so far) is the short-program routine done by Adam Rippon, he of the lavender hair. Rippon breathes Queen better than anybody.
Rippon whose repertoire over his long career has included such classic composers as Liszt, Debussy, Bizet, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Minkus, Saint-Saens, and Chopin, decided he wanted to take a different route, and go for rock and roll this time, a change for a skater who feels brand new in his skin. After a chat with his choreographers Tom Dickson and Jeff Buttle, Led Zeppelin came into the conversation but in the end, they found Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” for his short program.
Rippon asked coach Rafael Arutunian what he thought of the idea to skate to Queen. And Arutunian, a former coach in the Soviet Union, knew all about Queen. “Ha, ha,” Arutunian said. “I like Freddie! “
All systems go. Tom Dickson choreographed it. “I’ve always been a fan [of Queen,]” said Rippon. “The music makes me feel powerful. I feel like Freddie Mercury has such a powerful and magical voice.” He feels the spirit of Freddie carrying him. You see it during his footwork sequences, when he channels a typical Freddie mannerism: throwing his head back. And his final pose is Freddie to a T.
Why is figure skating aligned so well to Queen music? Renowned choreographer Sandra Bezic knows. The first year she worked as Stars On Ice’s choreographer in 1992-93, she designed a 23-minute production finale around Queen music, something that hadn’t been done. Some of the skaters were skeptical about the length of the finale until opening night in Lake Placid when the crowd rose in standing ovation before they were finished.
After having won the Olympic gold medal, Kristi Yamaguchi was signed up for Stars On Ice and it was her first season with the tour. Bezic wanted to give her a look of strength, despite her petite frame. She found inspiration in a fashion magazine photo that showed a costume with tails that floated from the back waist and a set of jazzy leggings.
Co-choreographer Michael Seibert looked at the costume photo with its seventies rock vibe and said: “We should listen to Queen.” Before long, they knew there was a production number in the Queen playlist. In all, they used nine songs, including (you guessed it) “Who Wants to Live Forever.” In that number, Yamaguchi, a former pair skater, is eventually lifted by three pair skaters at once: in Canada, Paul Martini, Doug Ladret and Sergei Grinkov. It was a powerful image, especially to the backdrop of that music.
Bezic and Seibert created their own story that linked the tunes together, centering on Yamaguchi and – in the United States production – using Gary Beacom as a mentor, an elder teaching a newcomer. (Bezic did not use “Bohemian Rhapsody” because it would have detracted from the finale’s storyline.) Beacom’s role was to take Yamaguchi through her new life as a pro skater, her new journey. In the Canadian production, Toller Cranston took Beacom’s place. Both of them skated in strait jackets, to Queen’s “I’m Going Slightly Mad.” The role was created for Beacom, but it translated perfectly to Cranston, who whirled chaotically around the ice and finished with his cheek against the freeze and his legs in the air. Freddie would have approved.
Why does Queen work so well? “It is very theatrical,” Bezic said. “It is emotionally powerful and it lends itself to story-telling and skating.” It “skates,” she said, meaning that not all rock music skates.
“It’s big and it’s full and generally the tempos work,” she said. “I think when things get too frenetic, it doesn’t lend itself to the glide and the edge and the power behind it. And the melodies work. The tempos work and they are emotional and theatrical. It really is a good marriage.”
Bezic says she would like to return to Queen sometime, somehow. I know the feeling. It’s a kind of magic.
NOTE – Much to my shock, I have found skaters who have tackled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Canada’s world synchronized skating champions, Nexxice, who performed to the iconic Queen song at the Grand Prix Final Dec. 12 in Barcelona. Because of injuries, they pulled in former team member, Lee Chandler, days before the event. With little time to train, they won bronze. Wait until they really start to rumble with this inspiring music.