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Queen Guitarist Brian May on Freddie Mercury's Final Days

Queen Guitarist Brian May on Freddie Mercury's Final Days

Hardly anyone knew how bad Freddie's condition really was before he passed away in 1991. 

Music legend and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury died at the age of 45 in 1991 from AIDS-related pneumonia, not long before antiretroviral drugs would change the lives of those impacted by HIV forever. Unfortunately, the singer didn’t live long enough to reap the benefits of such a medical breakthrough.  

But while the singer continued to willfully live as full a life as possible, Mercury never let on just how bad his suffering was — not even to his band mates.

Queen guitarist Brian May sat down with the Sunday Times and reflected on his early years with Freddie, who ended up coming out to him twice: first, as bisexual (though at the time, many labeled him gay); and second, as HIV-positive.

“In the beginning, the band lived on a shoestring,” May said to the Sunday Times. “We couldn’t afford individual hotel rooms, so I would share a room with Freddie … There isn’t a lot I don’t know about Freddie and what he got up to in those days — which was not men, I have to tell you. It was fairly obvious when the visitors to Freddie’s dressing room started to change from hot chicks to hot men. It didn’t matter to us, why should it? But Freddie had this habit of saying, ‘Well, I suppose you realize this, that or the other,’ in this very offhand way, and he did say at some point, ‘I suppose you realize I’ve changed in my private life?”

May continued: “Years later, [Mercury] said, ‘I suppose you realize that I’m dealing with this illness.’ Of course, we all knew [he had HIV], but we didn’t want to. He said, ‘You probably gather that I’m dealing with this thing and I don’t want to talk about it and I don’t want our lives to change, but that’s the situation.’ And then he would move on.”

May’s latest project is a 3-D photo book called Queen in 3-D, which chronicles his years in the band, globetrotting the world to screaming crowds and die-hard groupies. In it, he also writes about Mercury’s final days, including the slow demise of his foot.

“The problem,” May wrote, “was actually his foot, and tragically there was very little left of it. Once, he showed it to us at dinner. And he said, ‘Oh Brian, I’m sorry I’ve upset you by showing you that.’ And I said, ‘I’m not upset, Freddie, except to realize you have to put up with all this terrible pain…’ He missed [antiretroviral therapy] by just a few months. If it had been a bit later he would still have been with us, I’m sure…  You can’t do ‘what if’ can you? You can’t go there because therein lies madness.”

It has been known that at that time, Mercury decided to go off of AZT. Paparazzi and screaming fans were outside his home, desperate to get a glimpse of his condition.

In Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury, authors Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne write about Mercury’s relationship with a woman in his youth, Mary Austin, who he’d call the love his life. It was during this time, he started having sex with other men. When he reportedly told Austin he was bisexual, she responded, “No Freddie, you’re gay.”

But as The Advocate’s editorial director, Diane Anderson-Minshall, writes, “Could [Mercury] really have just been bisexual, in a world that flirted with the notion but didn’t — and still doesn’t — understand bisexual identity, especially in men? In a world where any man who has sex with men is automatically considered gay no matter how much he professes a love of women, could Mercury truly have felt torn between these two sides of himself?”

Langthorne says of the notion, “I would like to think that by now Freddie would have come out of the closet. The world has changed so much. He was a recording artist in the ’70s and ’80s, two decades when the level of homophobia is difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully comprehend. In particular, Britain and the USA were scary places for gay people, and the onset of AIDS gave license to the religious fulminators and right-wing zealots.”

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