When Freddie Mercury passed away in November 1991, the world lost an irreplaceable icon. But It’s A Kinda Magic!, a theatrical tribute show, offers fans a special taste of Freddie – and Queen’s – flamboyant magnetism.
Peter Freestone, Freddie’s close confidante for more than a decade, brought unique insights about his dear friend to the production. We spoke to him about their friendship, this electrifying act and one of the 20th century’s leading musical lights.
How did you meet Freddie?
It was in 1979. I was working at the Royal Opera House in London, working for the Royal Ballet. My job was looking after stage costumes for dancers – you know, keeping them clean, putting them on the dancers getting them on the stage.
Freddie was a special guest star with a charity show and he performed two songs. I met him after the show and said I thought it was wonderful. He asked me about my job, which I explained. Ten days later, someone from Queen’s management called my boss and asked if I’d be available to do a tour with Queen. And that was it for 12 years. My job actually finished three months after he died.
How did your relationship evolve or 12 years?
Within one year of starting to work for Queen, I started to work for Freddie. Initially I did the costumes. Then Freddie decided to leave Britain for two years because he was fed up with giving the government 90% of his money – which was the tax at that time. It was fairly easy to do that that because he spent a lot of time out of the country anyway. But it meant he wanted someone with him at the times he wasn’t touring. So he and I would be everywhere in the world, joined at that hip.
We got along well because we had things in common. I found out he was in boarding school in India for a few years when he was young, and so was I – but not the same one. So I understood things about him… we didn’t have to discuss things. I understood why he didn’t ring his mother every day – because when you’re from a boarding school education you saw your parents once a year… We didn’t have to waste a lot of time getting to know each other.
I’ve heard that Freddie had something of a temper. Is that true?
It is. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Provided you did what you were supposed to do as well as you could, and you thought through your actions through to the end, it wasn’t a problem if it didn’t work out. But stupidity, he couldn’t deal with. Also, he knew the value of a tantrum. He could threaten one, and that was good enough – he didn’t actually have to lose his temper. Quite a few times in the band they would come to sticking points in meetings, or trying to sort out which mix of a track they liked and they’d all start neh neh neh (laughs), just little kids’ squabbles. And he’d just say, “Look, if you cannot get your acts together, I am out. I will be gone, I don’t care”, (laughs) and all of a sudden everybody grew up. So he didn’t actually have to lose his temper.
Once Freddie died, you got involved in caring for people with neurological conditions. What made you do that?
Once I got my head out of a vodka bottle when Freddie died, I felt I needed to use the experience I gained looking after Freddie. And what better way to do that than looking after people who need looking after? So I worked at a neurological ward in London. There was MS, Parkinson’s… It really makes you remember how lucky you are not to have one of these diseases. These diseases are not picky. You can live in a palace or you can live under a bridge – they don’t care. They can happen to anyone. So I spent a few years doing that.
Why didn’t that last?
I gave it up because of Freddie. A newspaper published that I was one of Freddie’s ex-lovers and that started going round the ward. People started wondering whether I had AIDS. I was making their stay in the hospital worse. So by choice I left because people were scared of getting AIDS – that was the thinking in those days.
Do you have a favourite song by Queen?
Mine is something totally off the wall. It’s a song called My Melancholy Blues. I think it’s because all the biggest Queen hits are full of 230 guitars, 100 voices. But My Melancholy Blues has Freddie on the piano, Freddie’s vocal, drums and a bit of base. It’s just a real wonderful blues song. If I had to go for one of the biggies, it would be Don’t Stop Me Now because that was Freddie’s biographical song at the time. That was when he was living life 24 hours a day.
Did Freddie have a favourite?
Somebody to Love… He loved the gospel choir, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson.
How might Freddie have reacted to the growing freedoms of the LGBT community?
This is where people may not be happy about Freddie’s attitude. For him this was a personal issue. I don’t know that he was happy about being gay becoming a political issue. He didn’t answer this sort of question because answering it put you in the gay box.
How would Freddie have taken to the current show?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t think Freddie ever really thought of himself as someone people would want to copy – because Freddie was Freddie. If you wanted Freddie you went and saw Freddie. Why should someone want to copy him? Basically he might have said, “Did I really do things like that?”
But I sit and watch this show and I love that you never know where Giles is going to be. I remember when Freddie did that. It’s a nostalgia trip for me, I suppose. It always gives me a good feeling.
How have you found South Africa?
There’s something you can’t put into words about this country. It’s full of everything. There’s conflict in every country, but the good here outweighs the bad. Each of the cities is different. For me, South Africa fits like a glove, and I feel good.
What do you want people to know about the show?
I’m prepared to guarantee that you will come away surprised by how much music you know. And you cannot beat the atmosphere of a live show. The whole world can watch it at home, but you cannot beat a live show… and that’s what you get here.
* It’s A Kinda Magic! is playing at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town from November 11 to 22.