Inasmuch as there's nothing particularly fair about a disease as random and vicious as AIDS, it goes without saying that Freddie Mercury's death on Sunday -- from AIDS-related pneumonia, at age 45 -- was cruelly unfair. Such deaths always are.
For one thing, the news caught most rock fans completely unaware. Although rumors of the singer's illness had been circulating in the British press for almost a week, Mercury died less than a day after admitting he had the disease, barely leaving time to absorb the first bit of news before the second bulletin came through.
Yet beyond the shock and surprise such news naturally brings, there's a certain sense of inappropriateness to Mercury's demise. It just doesn't seem right that someone with such an outsized stage persona would take his final bow with such unexpected quiet. If ever a rock star deserved to go out with a bang, it was he.
Even in a world as ill-suited to understatement as rock and roll, Mercury's flamboyance always stood out. As lead singer with Queen (which celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year), he fronted one of the loudest, gaudiest, most over-the-top acts in popular music. Where some musicians might flesh out a recording with one or two overdubs, Queen used dozens; where other bands would tour with a couple dozen lights, Queen would take a couple tons. For them, excess equaled success.
Granted, that attitude made the group a natural target for critics, who laughed at the mock-operatic interludes in "Bohemian Rhapsody" (which turned Mercury's powerhouse tenor into a one-man chorale) and scorned the celebratory exuberance of "We Are the Champions." Queen was definitely a wide-screen rock and roll band, and Mercury clearly enjoyed hogging the frame.
To its credit, the band was just as capable (if not as fond) of understatement. As 1980's "The Game" demonstrated, Queen could be perfectly at home with the Chic-derived groove of "Another One Bites the Dust," and had no trouble paring itself down to rockabilly dimensions for "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Craft-obsessed as its recordings may have seemed, there was no denying the band's musicality.
But the band had a hard time adjusting to the '80s. Sales slacked and the band's output slowed. Mercury cut a few solo singles, including a remake of "The Great Pretender," and a duet with opera star Montserrat Caballe (a 1987 rendition of "Barcelona") -- both made the U.K. Top 10. But the closest Queen has been to American success recently was when Vanilla Ice sampled the bass line from "Under Pressure" for his hit, "Ice, Ice Baby."
Still, the determination was there. In fact, one of the great ironies in Mercury's death can be found at the end of "Innuendo," the band's latest (and, presumably, last) album. Entitled "The Show Must Go On," the song finds him totally in character as he sings, "I'll top the bill, I'll overkill," adding, "I'll never give in!"
And even though the curtain has finally and inexorably fallen, it would be nice to think that he never did.