In the summer of 1985 I was 19-years-old and about to embark on a two-year mission for the Mormon Church when I heard on the radio that there was going to be a concert called Live-Aid to raise money for famine-ravaged Africa. More than 50 performers from Mick Jagger to Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan to Madonna and U2 and The Who were set to perform in Philadelphia and London. Even Led Zeppelin had agreed to reunite for the event.
As soon as tickets went on sale, I sped to the nearest Ticketmaster and bought two. Admission was steep. And to my mother’s chagrin, I spent hard-earned money I had saved to support myself on my mission. But I knew that none of the musicians were being paid to perform. All of the money was going to feed starving people. It felt empowering to contribute to the cause in a small way.
The other thing my mother didn’t like was the idea of me going all the way to Philadelphia for an all-day rock concert just days before I was set to leave home for two years. She had a point. Black Sabbath and Judas Priest – both of whom also performed at Live-Aid – were about as far from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as could be.
Yet I remember thinking at the time – ‘But this will be historic. Bigger than Woodstock. How often do we get an opportunity to be part of history?’
I was also thinking – There is no way I’m missing Zeppelin!
Back then there was no Internet. No live-streaming. We didn’t even have cell phones. So the idea of having 50 artists perform in one day on two different continents (roughly 25 in each city) was ahead of its time. Huge screens were erected in both venues, enabling concert goers to see the performances in the other venue in real time. Additionally, more than 1.5 billion people (roughly a fourth of the world’s population at the time) was able to watch the concert on television.
I still remember walking into JFK Stadium that hot summer morning, seeing Joan Baez on stage, and feeling the enormity of it all. There were nearly 100,000 people on hand. At that point in my life I’d never been anywhere with that many people. The funny thing is that I felt right at home amidst so many strangers.
My memories of Live-Aid came flooding back last week when I went with my family to see “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the new biopic movie about Queen and its front man Freddie Mercury.
The film masterfully begins and ends at Live-Aid. The New York Times called Queen’s performance at Live-Aid “one of the greatest live performances of all time.” I’ve seen just about every rock band and individual artist – Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Springsteen. None touch what Freddie Mercury pulled off at Live-Aid.
Yet, as I watched the film’s recreation of that day, it dawned on me that none of us knew at the time that Freddie Mercury had AIDS. Even his bandmates didn’t know. But he knew that his time on earth was limited. And before stepping on stage that day, he said something along the lines of: “Let’s punch a punch a hole in the roof of the stadium.” When a bandmate pointed out that Wembley doesn’t have a roof, Mercury countered: “Then let’s punch a hole in the sky.”
Mercury’s genius was his fearlessness about being absolutely unique. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar (eastern Africa), he had parents of Indian descent. After attending a British-style boarding school near Bombay (now Mumbai), he migrated to London with his parents and later legally changed his name to Freddie Mercury. By then, Mercury had a degree in Art and Graphic Design.
But he was destined to sing. Born with four extra incisors, Mercury had a massive overbite that made it appear as though he was always wearing a mouth guard. Self-conscious about the way his upper lip protruded, he often spoke with his hand in front of his mouth. People mocked him …until they heard his voice.
Mercury’s vocal range extended from bass low F (F2) to soprano high F (F6). He had a four-octave vocal range. One world renowned opera singer said, “His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming.” And no less than Roger Daltery called Mercury “the best virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll singer of all time.”
My 19-year-old son is a music major at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he’s currently researching the influence Freddie Mercury had on the evolution of disco music and its influence on rock and roll. This past week we were discussing the fact that rock and roll fans vehemently despised disco as “gay music” in the ‘70s.
Then Queen, a hard driving rock band, boldly started using synthesizers and electronic drums in the early ‘80s on rock songs such as “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Under Pressure,” and “Radio Gaga,” which reached #1 in 19 countries.
All the while, Mercury remained in the closet.
Human nature often shuns the unfamiliar. Yet our most beautiful music, our most inspiring art, our uplifting literature is generated most often by those who are utterly unusual.
When Freddie Mercury wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the president of Queen’s music label ridiculed it, insisting radio stations wouldn’t play it and fans wouldn’t like it. He completely missed the prophetic power of Mercury’s lyrics:
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooh, I don’t want to die
There is so much to learn from those who are different. Freddie Mercury died from complications due to AIDS in 1991. He was 45. But before he departed, he did indeed punch a hole in the sky one summer day in 1985. I was in the stadium in Philadelphia that day, watching on a giant screen, and thinking: ‘Not even Zeppelin can top that. Not even close.’