Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life'

'Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life.'
'Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life.' (University of Texas Press)

While streams of classic-rock acts like Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan have spiked during listeners' search for musical comfort food in recent weeks, Queen streams have dropped, curiously. Who doesn't want to hear Queen, now or at any other time?

Maybe it's those jock rockers kicking off their cleats, maybe it's the parties that aren't happening, maybe it's just too sad right now to listen to a band so famously associated with live performance. The 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody met with some grumbles from fans who didn't appreciate the way the film airbrushed Freddie Mercury's personal life, but no one could argue with the film's transcendent recreation of the band's legendary set at Live Aid.

According to Brian May, Farrokh Bulsara's stage name was inspired by a line from the singer's early song "My Fairy King," while the Queen frontman said it was a tribute to the Roman god Mercury. Either way, it was apt. Peers like David Bowie went through personae over the years, but Freddie Mercury could be five different people in the space of a single song.

The quintessential multi-part song of the rock era, of course, is Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Alfonso Casas divides his book Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life (buy now) into sections mirroring the song's. "Intro," "Ballad," "Guitar Solo," "Opera," "Rock," "Coda."

The book, published in Spanish two years ago, is now available in an English translation by Ned Sublette. At 136 pages it's a concise life, written in a clear and linear style that would make it easy to recommend to a middle-schooler writing a report on Mercury.

Casas goes no deeper than the Bohemian Rhapsody filmmakers into the nitty-gritty of Mercury's complicated personal life, but nor does it paper over his sexuality, his excesses, or his death of AIDS in 1991. The author calls it "a modest homage to what his music and his person signified to many."

Visually, Casas makes clear that Mercury did not live most of his life in the mustache and muscle tee familiar from the Live Aid stage. "That was only his most recognizable look," Casas writes introducing a paper-doll section allowing fans to dress the singer in a deep-V harlequin body stocking; striped shorts and red suspenders; or a relatively restrained satin suit.

Poignantly, the book begins with an illustration of a photograph of young Farrokh standing near the water in his native Zanzibar. The prominent teeth are already apparent, and so is an open-faced eagerness to please. A few pages later, Mercury stands bare-chested, caped with a giant British flag.

Lyrical illustrations follow Mercury through the phases of his life: rocking a skinny tie in an early band back home, lying rapturously with his then-partner Mary Austin, clad in fur coat and plucking a guitar as he works to break into the London music scene.

Casas, as any biographer would be, is fascinated by Mercury's relationships with his bandmates. Queen were a true band, with all four members contributing songs (the logo Mercury designed for the band "depicts the four members' zodiac signs guarding the letter Q," Casas points out), but it was Mercury who sparked superstardom. Casas notes the tension around Mercury's on-again-off-again solo career, reserving particular praise for his 1987 recording of "The Great Pretender," but emphasizes that by the end, Queen were firmly a unit standing in support of their ailing frontman.

There are plenty of always-learning nuggets here for all but the most ardent Queen fan (did you know about his 1988 album-length collaboration with a Spanish opera singer?), but An Illustrated Life is first and foremost a visual experience. There's Mercury lying in slanting sunlight, listening to Liza Minnelli with his cats. There's Mercury resplendent in a rose-pattern kimono, swirling around him as he sings. There's Mercury sitting in a bathtub, writing "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

The author also shares his interpretations of Mercury's lyrics, which he acknowledges you may want to take with a grain of salt. Is "Bohemian Rhapsody," as a two-page spread suggests, really about Mercury's honesty with others and himself regarding his sexuality and his marriage, then his triumphant emergence as a new man? Sure, why not?

An Illustrated Life is an appealingly modest book: Casas aims to let Mercury shine, but his striking illustrations shine in their own right as well. If you do end up cutting up a copy for the paper dolls, you may be tempted to razor some pages out to hang on your wall for a true Zoom glow-up.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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June 3: Me & Patsy Kickin' Up Dust: My Friendship with Patsy Cline by Loretta Lynn (buy now)

June 10: Cult Musicians: 50 Progressive Performers You Need to Know by Robert Dimery (buy now)

June 17: Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest by Ian Zack (buy now)

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