INTERVIEW | Peter Freestone: It wasn't the right Freddie for me in Bohemian Rhapsody. He laughed much more in real life

Vydáno 09.01.2024 | autor: Aleš Materna

Peter Freestone worked as Freddie Mercury's personal assistant for twelve years. He wrote down his experiences with the frontman of Queen in the book Freddie Mercury - confidential memories of a genius musician, which was published in a Czech translation by the Slovart publishing house. On the occasion of the launch of this publication, we met with the author at the Futurum Club and interviewed him. We learned many interesting details about the life of the legendary singer.

INTERVIEW | Peter Freestone: It wasn't the right Freddie for me in Bohemian Rhapsody. He laughed much more in real life INTERVIEW | Peter Freestone: It wasn't the right Freddie for me in Bohemian Rhapsody. He laughed much more in real life


You wrote a book about Freddie in 1998. If you were writing the book today, would you change anything?
Would I change anything? No, I wouldn't. The thing is, it wasn't even supposed to be a book originally. For 2.5 years I just talked about my life with Freddie and David Evans wrote everything down. He let me talk, didn't ask me any questions.
In the process of telling it, I was able to get it all out, sort through it, get rid of the painful stuff, and then put the cleansed memories back in their original place. It was a form of psychotherapy, which, by the way, was becoming very popular at that time. But it didn't make sense to me to talk about all this to a stranger who didn't even know Freddie. It was much more natural to tell David. Therapy, and free. And it was David who suggested I turn my memories into a book. He told me that the text was over 100,000 words, more than would be enough for an average book, and that it would be a shame not to use the material. And a lot of fans kept coming up to me and asking questions about what Freddie was really like, how he behaved in private and what he normally did.
We had 1,000 copies printed of the book, and we thought there probably wouldn't be any more demand. And now, all these years later, the book is coming out again. According to Omnibus, the publishing company that licenses the book, it's one of their best music biographies.

SMRT SI ŘÍKÁ ROCK'N'ROLL: Freddie Mercury (1.)

Did you have to leave anything out, did you have any memories that were too personal or painful to appear in the book?
I do, I have memories of Freddie that I'll never talk about. I know Freddie's gone and there's no need to protect him, but there are still things that will remain between him and me. You see, when Freddie was alive, a manuscript about him and Queen came to him, ready to be published. When he read the text, he said it would only come out over his dead body. The book was full of superlatives, the band was portrayed as the most amazing and flawless, and so was Freddie, only the successes and the prizes won were mentioned.  Freddie said that if anything was to be published about him, it should be objective and portray both his good and bad side.

What did the other members of Queen think of your book? Did you use any of their memories?
I think they quite liked it, if it had been otherwise, I probably would have heard about it. (Laughs) And the other question? It's rather the other way around, I know that the management of the band draws information from my book.

But this isn't your only book, is it? 
Yes, it's my biography Right Place, Right Time, I wrote it during covid, what else was there to do at the time? And when I thought about everything I've been through, I realized how lucky I was, how wonderful my life was and how great it is that I can still talk about it.
For example, I spent my childhood in India.  When I had Christmas holidays, I helped Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa! And she's a saint now!!! and I used to talk to her normally!
When Freddie threw one of his parties, never failed to mention to his friends how proud he was of stealing me away from the real stars - before I landed permanently at Freddie's I worked in the costume department of the Royal Opera House in London, where I was surrounded by artists like Domingo, Carreras, Sutherland, Caballé ... In addition to these musical giants of the time, I met dancers like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, and I worked with these amazing people.  And these were artists that Freddie admired, people who were working hard on their careers and who were refining their talent. In fact, Freddie himself was doing the same thing. He worked on his voice relentlessly - listen to the difference in his vocal performance from 70s to the 90s. And he never took singing lessons, his only singing lessons were in the church choir. As for music lessons, he only took piano lessons. But he cultivated his voice on his own.

Talking about your childhood in India, do you think that similar childhood experiences brought you and Freddie closer together?
Yes, I'm sure it did. Our stays in India overlapped, although of course we didn't meet at that time. Maybe that's why Freddie pulled me out of the Royal Opera House, because we got on so well and were able to bond so quickly. Others might not have understood why he didn't call his mother regularly. But I knew from my own experience that if you're used to being at boarding school and you don't see your parents for most of the year, your relationship with them is affected by that and you don't feel the need to be in touch with them all the time. I understood him and I didn't try to get him to change anything about it.

 Let's leave the last century for a moment and move into the present. I know that you are involved in a project that raises awareness about AIDS, please tell us about it.
The project is called TFA - Titanic - Freddie - AIDS. The project was created by a Czech student who is a big fan of Freddie. When he approached me, he had just finished high school and realized that during his entire studies he had received very little information about AIDS and offered me cooperation on this project to help change this.
At the beginning of the talk there is  a very emotional video showing the last 4 years of Freddie's life.  And the Titanic is used as a simile - a huge modern unsinkable ship.
The students are told how his life was affected by a virus and how something invisible - like an iceberg mostly hidden under the surface that sealed the fate of the Titanic, the invisible virus destroyed and ended the life of a great musician.
Footage is also shown of Freddie's life shortly before his death, where he was already in a very bad way physically.
Then I answer questions. What always surprises me the most is how many of the 13 year olds know Freddie and his work. Just consider, you have to be at least 50 to be part of the generation that could see Freddie sing live. And yet these kids know him.
People ask me why I think Freddie is still so popular and I say - it's the music he made. He wrote some of the best songs. I mean, if you turn on the radio, think about how often you hear some of Freddie and Brian May's collaborative work. Songs like We are the champions and We will rock you, These are still playing and everybody knows them.  and they were written in 1977.

What's your favourite Queen album?
A Day at the Races. And my favourite song is definitely My Melancholy Blues, because it's the complete opposite of Queen's most famous songs, which are full of elaborate harmonies, multiple voices, opulent and booming energy. And in My Melancholy Blues, Freddie plays piano, some bass guitar, drums, his voice telling an almost autobiographical story " Another party's over, and I'm left cold sober, my baby left me for somebody new... "I just love that song.

What do you think of Queen's current cooperation with Adam Lambert?
Adam's voice is absolutely amazing, he's not trying to be Freddie... and if you listen to Queen with Lambert, you'll find that the music has changed a lot, so Adam can't even sound like Freddie. The dynamics of the songs, for example, are different.
But it's really hard for me to judge, I'm definitely not objective. Freddie was just Freddie. And I've heard Freddie sing all those songs so many times. But on the other hand, if it takes Adam Lambert can get the other members of Queen on the same stage to perform together, I am happy with it. And bringing Freddie and Queen's music to the people is great. The audience that comes to see Adam then finds and gets to hear the original Queen recordings and Freddie lives on.
And what would Freddie think of that? He reckoned he'd be heard for about 10-15 years after his death and then the popularity would gradually fade. I don't think he ever dreamed that 33 years after his death his music would still have the same success. And it's still the same music, it's safe to say he didn't write anything new. (laughs)

Freddie hated his teeth

You were invited to help with the production Bohemian Rhapsody, how did you like the finished film?
Take into account that it's a Hollywood big budget film that was made for millions of viewers. It wasn't made for millions of Queen fans. It's obviously an amazing film that won 4 Oscars, but it's not a documentary. When I watch the film, I don't watch the story, I watch the scenes. There's a grain of reality in every scene and a lot of Hollywood embroidery around it. Of course, the filmmaker who wrote the script didn't really know Freddie. But on the other hand, he wrote a great script. But it just wasn't the right Freddie for me.
The problem for me was the sadness that almost never left Freddie in the film. I understand that tragic fates look better on screen, but that just didn't seem like Freddie.
For me, a lot would have changed if one more scene had been added, just 40 or 50 seconds, set at Freddie's home, him having fun and laughing with his friends. Because you never see him happy in the film.  He smiles, but it's more of a forced smile.
And what I remember most, is him laughing with his friends. He used to sit on the edge of one of the couches that were arranged around the fireplace and laugh like hell.  If you think back to contemporary interviews with him, when he smiles, he still keeps his upper lip over his teeth, and when he starts laughing, his hand flies out and covers his mouth. That's because he hated his teeth. But at home among his own, he didn't care, he laughed full on with his friends, and that's how I'll always remember him.

RECENZE: Bohemian Rhapsody - Strhující zmrtvýchvstání rockové legendy jménem Freddie Mercury

Which years of your time together would you consider the happiest?
They were all happy. Of course, not everything is always perfect, but that's just life. The last 4 years have been worse for obvious reasons.  He was dying, so he wasn't happy all the time, but that didn't stop him from laughing and enjoying moments with friends.
The years in Munich were too intense for me too, too many drugs, alcohol and everything. It was getting a bit much.... But apart from that, everything was great. Freddie liked touring because he was in a different place every day, maybe he didn't enjoy touring that much, but he definitely enjoyed a different bar in a different city every night (laughs).

And the fans abroad who, even though they didn't speak English, knew the lyrics of Queen.
That was probably the truest scene in the film, although chronologically misplaced. When we were in Rio de Janeiro, and Freddie started singing Love of My Life, and 350,000 people sang the song with him in perfect English, it was really breathtaking and incredible.
And another example where he was truly shocked by the audience was Live Aid. It was probably the first concert that took place in broad daylight, and when Queen started playing Radio Gaga, Freddie couldn't believe the endless forest of hands clapping and repeating his gestures.
That's also why he was careful never to talk about religion or politics in public. He didn't want to influence his fans in that area. He carefully avoided these topics, believing that everyone should have their own opinion and not take it from their idols.
He also didn't like it when others tried to influence their surroundings in that direction, like Bono or even Brian. He didn't want his songs to have any political overtones, music was simply meant to bring people pleasure and entertainment.

One more question about the costumes Freddie wore when he performed. I know he had his favourite designers, but was he involved in the designs himself?
All the costume ideas came from Freddie. The role of the fashion designers was more to tell him what was possible and what couldn't be made and then to produce them.  It was similar with the interior design of his house.  The interior designer didn't come up with ideas, didn't explain what would look good, just give Freddie’s ideas direction. So when Freddie pointed to a wall and asked for it to be removed, it was up to the designer to explain to him that it wouldn't work unless he wanted the whole house to fall down.
Same with the costume design. He developed a great relationship with his favourite designer, Diana Moseley and she spent a lot of time with him even when he was ill. It was as if they were connected, Diana seemed to be able to read Freddie's mind, all he had to do was say a few words and she was clear and started to create a model.

Why did you decide to live in the Czech Republic?
In 2000 I came to Prague for 4 days, and like probably every tourist, I fell in love with Prague.  Then back in London I was looking for a flat. On the day I was expecting call about viewing a flat nothing happened for a long time, then I got a call from the agent apologising that the flat he had picked out for me wasn't what he thought it would be... at that point I made a decision, went to the airport and just bought a ticket to Prague. I didn't speak a word of Czech, yet it didn't scare me at all.
You may not realize it, but Czechs are nice and open. For example, young people and children are much more polite than in England. When I walk through our village, every now and then someone invites me for a coffee. This is my home now.

Text: Lenka Walker, Aleš Materna, Jarda Hudec, photo: archiv Petera Freestonea, Vladimír Šigut, archiv iREPORTu
Key words: Peter Freestone, Freddie Mercury, Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody