Thursday 23 May 2019

Love story made in Heaven - how Freddie Mercury met his Irish partner

On the 25th anniversary of Freddie Mercury's death, Jonathan deBurca Butler looks back on the exotic life of the Queen frontman, and on how he met and loved his Irish partner

Schoolmates recalled how Freddie Mercury could pluck a tune from the radio and copy its melody almost instantly
Schoolmates recalled how Freddie Mercury could pluck a tune from the radio and copy its melody almost instantly

To celebrate his 39th birthday, Freddie Mercury hosted a fancy dress party in Munich. Hundreds of guests attended dressed as bikers and harlequins, sailors and harlots. Copious amounts of cocaine were consumed as partygoers tried to outdo each other's uninhibited outrageousness. They quaffed from bottles of Bollinger served by men dressed in bare-buttocked briefs and danced themselves into near oblivion. Freddie himself roamed the decadent feast dressed like a Napoleonic figure in a navy blue military jacket. By his side was his latest beau and the man with whom he would spend the last seven years of his life, Jim Hutton from Co Carlow.

Everything about Freddie Mercury seemed exotic. His surname, his dress, his flamboyant onstage caper. Even his place of birth - he was born in Zanzibar in 1946 - seemed otherworldly. And yet according to those closest to him, Queen's lead singer was a quiet and softly spoken gent who liked nothing more than spending time in his garden with a cup of coffee and his cats.

"He loved his cats," recalled his now deceased boyfriend Hutton in a 2006 interview with then Sunday Times journalist Tim Teeman. "I'd get in from work. We'd lie together on the sofa. He would massage my feet and ask about my day."

Hutton and Mercury met in a gay nightclub named Heaven. It was March, 1985 and Mercury was at the peak of his powers. Just one year beforehand, he had released Queen's eleventh studio album which included hits Radio Ga-Ga and I Want to Break Free. According to Hutton, Mercury approached him at the bar, offered him a drink and asked him if "he had a big cock", a standard greeting by all accounts. The same evening Mercury got his answer.

Shortly thereafter the couple embarked on a relationship that would last until Mercury's untimely death 25 years ago this week. The burgeoning relationship was sometimes a little turbulent. "I saw him with another guy in Heaven [on another occasion] and we had a huge row," recalled Hutton. "He told me he did it to make me jealous. Then one day I saw him leaving his Kensington flat with another guy and we had an argument. I told him he had to make his mind up. And he said, 'OK', he wanted to be with me. Deep down I think that he wanted to be secure with someone who was down to earth and not impressed by who he was."

Hutton was brought up in a family of 10 children in Carlow. His father was a baker. After a brief period with an order of brothers, he became an apprentice hairdresser. When he met Mercury on that fateful night he was working at the Savoy Hotel. It was not long before he moved into the star's Georgian mansion, Garden Lodge, in south London where his was given a job as a gardener and handyman for a weekly wage of £600. That summer, Hutton was backstage as Queen blew the socks off a global audience at Live Aid.

"I was gobsmacked," he recalled. "You could feel the effect his stage presence had on the crowd. Afterwards, Elton [John] came out and said, 'Bastard, you've stolen it'."

But then Mercury had a habit of stealing the show. The singer's path to stardom started when he was a child.

Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. His father, Bomi (died, 2003), was Indian but of Persian heritage, hence Mercury's attachment to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. Along with his wife Jer (who died, aged 94, on November 13), Bomi moved to Africa to work as a registrar for the colonial government.

Freddie, and his younger sister Kashmira, were raised in Zanzibar but at the age of eight Mercury was sent to St Peter's boarding school in Bombay. It was here that he first made inroads into playing the piano; an instrument he would come to master.

Schoolmates later recalled how he could pluck a tune from the radio and copy its melody almost instantly. It was also at school that he became known as Freddie. The new surname would come later.

Almost immediately after his return to Zanzibar he was forced to flee. Independence in 1963 was followed by a revolution. Wealthy Indians were targeted by the largely poor African population in riots that swept the country. The Bulsaras moved to London in 1964 and settled in Feltham, not far from Heathrow Airport. Mercury enrolled at Isleworth Polytechnic where he studied graphic design, but he spent most of his time on music and was involved in several relatively unsuccessful bands.

"He would write songs from an early age," his mother recalled in a 2011 interview with The Telegraph. "Once when I went into his bedroom at our home in Feltham, I told him I was going to clear up all the rubbish, including the papers under his pillow. But he said 'Don't you dare'. He was writing little songs and lyrics then and putting them under his pillow before he slept. It was more music than studying and my husband said he didn't understand what this boy was going to do. I made him type some letters for jobs and when he posted the applications he said 'I hope I don't get these jobs'. The applications were for graphic design. Had he got one of those jobs, things would have been quite different. In the end, he thought it was too much because he was in his bedroom most of the time and the elderly neighbours were complaining about the noise and he decided to leave home."

Fortunately, those job applications were unsuccessful. In early 1970, Mercury was introduced to guitarist Brian May and drummer Peter Taylor who at that point were members of a band called Smile. Mercury soon joined the pair and convinced them to change their name to Queen.

"It's very regal obviously," he said later, "and it sounds splendid. It's a strong name, very universal and immediate. I was certainly aware of the gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it."

At around the same time he changed his surname to Mercury, inspired by the line "Mother Mercury, look what they've done to me" in the song My Fairy King. That track appeared on Queen's first, eponymous, album. That album, though well-received, sold poorly. In fact, it was not until they released their third album Sheer Heart Attack, which included the upbeat and more radio-friendly single Killer Queen, that the band began to take off both at home and in the United States. The following year, they released A Night at the Opera, which included the groundbreaking Bohemian Rhapsody and became a touchstone for both Mercury's musicality and charisma. It was also in the early 1970s that Mercury embarked on a long-term relationship with Mary Austin. The couple lived together in West Kensington and though they never married were considered an unbreakable partnership. Austin's world came crashing down however when Mercury revealed he had been having an affair with a male companion who he had met at Elektra Records. When Mercury came clean about his true nature the couple split. They remained firm friends however. He wrote many songs about her and for her and it was to Austin that the singer left his beloved Garden Lodge when he passed away.

Rumours of Mercury's illness had started in 1986. In October of that year the British press reported that he had his blood tested for HIV/AIDS but any time he was confronted he denied it. According to Jim Hutton, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after Easter in 1987.

"His attitude was 'life goes on'." recalled Hutton. "He took AZT and nearly every other drug available. The doctors came to the house to treat him."

Hutton did not get tested himself until 1990 and did not tell Mercury that he too had AIDS/HIV until he took a second test a year later.

Mercury became increasingly gaunt but continued to deny his illness. After his death he was criticised by some for not drawing attention to the virus, but as Hutton explained Mercury really felt "it was his business".

"The doctors thought he shouldn't do the Barcelona video," recalled Hutton. "But his attitude was 'I'm not going to let this thing beat me'. I noticed how skeletal he'd become only on the morning of his last birthday. Maybe I was in denial. But I think Freddie knew when it was the time to let go. He decided to come off his medication three weeks before he died."

"The last proper conversation we had took place a few days before he died. It was 6am. He wanted to look at his paintings. 'How am I going to get downstairs?' he asked. 'I'll carry you,' I said. But he made his own way, holding on to the banister. I kept in front to make sure he didn't fall. I brought a chair to the door, sat him in it, and flicked on the spotlights, which lit each picture. He said, 'Oh they're wonderful'. I carried him upstairs to bed. He said, 'I never realised you were as strong as you are'."

Hutton recalled Mercury's death vividly: "He was dosed on morphine and in Neverland. He wet himself. I knew that if he woke up and saw that there'd be blue murder so we changed his underwear and while I was putting his boxers on I knew he'd gone. I went into my bedroom and stopped a carriage clock Freddie had given to me: the time was 12 minutes to 7."

Hutton and Mercury had been together for six years. Mercury had left Hutton £500,000 which he used to buy a house in Shepherds Bush and build a home in Ireland.

When he was asked to vacate Garden Lodge he took the clock with him.

A few years later, during Christmas 1995, he was sitting on his couch when he heard it tick-tock. Hutton interpreted it "as a sign it was time to move on". He started on a course of HIV drugs, and moved back to Ireland. After a quiet life back home, Hutton became ill and died in 2010 at the age of 61.

Sunday Independent

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