Over the decades, I've attended a lot of concerts. For me, nothing compares with seeing a great up-and-coming band in a small, sweaty club. When everything clicks, the energy is indescribable. The music slices into your core, and everything in the world seems right. You feel young and alive and beautiful. You're flushed with the feeling that, right now, there's no place you'd rather be on the entire Earth.
Sadly, this experience usually doesn't translate to larger venues. I've wasted wads of money to watch big, important acts play to large crowds (say, more than 10,000 people). Usually, the musicians fail to connect with the audience, and you never experience those feelings you get in a small club.
One performer, however, managed to make a stadium concert feel intimate. Freddie Mercury, the shy, African-Asian lead singer of the band Queen, was completely at home performing for large audiences. In fact, the larger the stage, the better his performance.
On a hot Saturday in 1985, my sister and I sat glued to the television all day long, fighting over the right to videotape our favorite performers. It was Live Aid, and she was 13, I was 17. Chandra got to record the New Romantics and New Wave acts. I recorded the more established acts. When it was time for U2 to take the stage, I invoked my first-born status and got to record their amazing set. Their performance at Wembley Stadium cemented their status as the best up-and-coming band in the world. Their performance of "Bad" transfixed the crowd, and I wondered how anyone could top them.
But then Queen took the stage. Queen was already very established, though in my mind, they were already well past their prime. Freddie Mercury didn't seem to dress very cool. He was almost forty years old. Wearing a pair of skin-tight faded jeans and a wife beater, he looked like a Tom of Finland character, before I knew what that was. I pressed "record," on the VCR, but wasn't expecting much.
Within a few moments, though, I realized that Queen was in complete command of the massive crowd. They burned through a few well-known songs, sounding tight and lean, and far younger than any band I'd ever heard. Freddie, in particular, was in total control of the audience, and I was stunned by his ability to capture the attention of such a huge crowd.
By the time the band started into "Radio Ga-Ga," the wall between artist and audience had been shattered. Everyone in the stadium clapped in unison to the chorus. It almost resemble a German Youth Rally. Mercury pranced and preened across the stage, relishing the moment, and you knew you were witnessing the highlight of the day.
In fact, many respected rock critics still rank this performance as the finest in rock history. Judge for yourself. For me, I still get goose bumps.
The song is essentially an aging man's love letter to a part of his past. He loves a thing that he knows is dying (radio), and delivers an elegy to her fading glory. But in the end, he still holds out hope that she'll rise up once again, cheating death:
"You had your time, you had the power
You've yet to have your finest hour "
Today he's reminding an audience half his age exactly what he loves. Watch his eyes. He's completely focused. Watch how he moves on stage. Nothing seems extraneous. He acts as if performing for 72,000 people were old hat.
Just two years later, Freddie Mercury would contract HIV. He eventually wasted away, and died at the age of 45.
Mercury was a complex man. He was born in Zanzibar, a tropical island off the coast of East Africa. He was raised Zooroastrian. He married a woman when he was young, and though they later divorced, they remained best friends until his death. In fact, he left the bulk of estate to his ex-wife, Mary. "The only friend I've got is Mary and I don't want anybody else," he once said. She still resides in his mansion in England.
His untimely death shined a bright light on the spectre of AIDS, and for many, served as a catalyst into action.
Over 20 years after his death, Freddie Mercury's status as a rock god has only grown. This sweet and gentle man with the enormous onstage charisma has become an iconic figure in rock history, and this performance at Live Aid may be his finest.