Thursday, 3 March 2011 Don't let anyone who wasn't there try to kid you otherwise, the 1960s were a fantastic time to be alive. Or at least they were if you were young and living in London.
The famous Wordsworth quote "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven" seems to fit with my recollection of the 1960s perfectly. Even though we lived in the shadow of the Cold War and The Bomb etc. it seemed to be a time of great optimism.
I haven't yet seen it myself but currently there's a show on at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, East London called 'Stormtroopers in Stilettos'. It's a large-scale exhibition about the band Queen and covers their formative years. I knew Freddie whilst we were both at art school back in the late 1960s, so I thought now would be a good time to tell that tale.
In September 1967, at the age of 16 I became a student at Ealing School of Art. Only a few weeks previously, I'd ambled into school after the summer holidays, not at all looking forward to being a sixth former and studying for my A-levels for two years.
For various reasons which I won't bore you with now, I wasn't exactly welcomed back with open arms by most of the teachers. Save to say, I was a cocky and rather self-confident schoolboy and used to spend too much time larking around.
But, fortunately for me, I got on very well with the art master, Mr Edwards. I was quite good at art and I'd got both my O and A levels a couple of years ahead of time. So Mr Edwards pulled a few strings and got me enrolled into a course at Ealing School of Art, which was due to start only a few days later.
The '60s was a fantastically creative time and none more so than at British Art Schools. I missed both Pete Townshend and Ron Wood at Ealing by a few years but amongst my contemporaries were Freddie Mercury (then Bulsara), the author Robert Rankin, the film director Thaddeus O'Sullivan and the illustrator Alan Lee. Of the four of them, the only one whose talent really shone out brightly at that time was Alan Lee. I was a very conscientious worker at Art School but Alan was something else. He was usually the only one who was there hard at work when I got in in the morning and was often still working, in an otherwise empty Art School, in the evening when I left to go home. I would often tarry by his desk and watch fascinated as he hunched over, drawing these amazingly intricate illustrations of ancient warriors, fantasy battles and the like. All done in old fashioned pen and ink. In those days I could draw quite well myself but Alan's talent was light years ahead of mine.
On the other hand, Freddie's talents weren't quite so obvious. Or at least not to me. I well remember his degree show which was based solely on the image and the lyrics of Jimmy Hendrix. And it was pretty cursory at that. The illustrations were colourful Shepard Fairey style posterizations of photographs (probably traced on the Art School epidiascope) but they were not particularly good. I remember thinking at the time that, if it wasn't for the fact that he was such a popular guy, he most probably would never have been allowed to get as far as having a degree show and graduating.
Sorry if this pricks any Freddie Mercury fans bubble but I was certainly not alone in this view.
I had another reason to think negatively about Freddie. As I said, I was 16 when I went to Ealing and Freddie was four years older. Four years is quite a lot when you're that age and probably even more so in my case. I was an only child, I still lived at home with my parents and grandmother, and I was very unworldly.
On the other hand, Freddie was sophisticated, clearly intelligent, a real extrovert and had oodles of charm. One rarely saw him on his own and he was usually the centre of attention in whatever group he was with. He was always very fashionably dressed, usually in tight t-shirts, hoop neck sweaters, wide flares and stacked heel boots. I think I'm correct in remembering that he was one of the few students bold enough to wear white flares, always a risky business at an art school, where there's liable to be still wet paint or printing ink in all sorts of unlikely places. But Freddie fit right into the mood of the times perfectly. Of all of us students, he was the one that looked the most like a would-be rock star - whereas I was still scuffling round in my old white school shirts and tank tops knitted for me by my grandmother.
It was the afternoon of last day of term before Easter '68. The whole of the art school, almost to a man and woman, was squeezed into the small lounge bar of the Castle pub in St Mary's Road, across from the college building. You couldn't move. I was with my girlfriend of the time, a fellow art student. She was attractive and vivacious and I was totally enamoured with her. We must have made an unlikely couple. Because the pub was so crowded, my girlfriend was sitting on my lap. It was an arrangement I by no means disapproved of.
Being students, there was plenty of drinking going on and eventually I had to get up and use the bathroom. When I got back, I was somewhat shocked to see Freddie Bulsara had taken my place and my girlfriend was now sitting on his lap. To start with, I wasn't too bothered, I assumed that as soon as my girlfriend noticed that I'd returned, she'd turf him off and I could reassume my former, very agreeable, position.
This wasn't what happened. They both completely ignored me.
So I did what any immature and fairly unassertive teenage boy would do - I stood there sheepishly for a bit and then stormed off in a huff.
I don't exactly know what I expected. Maybe that she would come running after me and apologise. Back then, I clearly didn't know women very well. But this didn't happen. She probably didn't even see me leave.
For the most of the Easter holiday, I sat at home feeling sorry for myself, playing my records and waiting in vain for my now ex-girlfriend to telephone.
Needless to say, that call never came.
But, I hear you wonder, why on earth would Freddie have made a play for my girlfriend if he was, rather famously, gay? Well, although I don't claim to have any special knowledge in this department, he appeared fairly enthusiastically heterosexual at the time. And he was popular with everyone but especially women.
How on earth, you might also ask yourself, could this silly girl chose the handsome, talented and sophisticated Freddie Bulsara over me?
I have no idea, crazy isn't it?
Anyway, after being rather morose for about a fortnight, I managed to steel myself and remained relatively friendly with my ex-girlfriend. But I never once discussed with her her relationship with Freddie. A few months later, she became pregnant and left art school for good. Not, I hasten to add, pregnant by Freddie. Freddie was, by this time, history with her too.
For some reason, which I honestly can't now explain, after this Freddie and I became rather friendly. Maybe it was that now we both had something in common. I guess teenagers and young men don't harbour resentments about women the way they might when they're older. He'd have been a very hard guy to dislike either way.
Plus I was also very good friends with a guitarist in Freddie's first band - Tim Staffel. He was also at the art school and we used to play five-a-side football together at lunch times. So I heard about the formation of Smile, almost as soon as anyone, from him. Smile later evolved into Queen when Tim left to join Humpy Bong (in the perspective of the time Humpy Bong, with an ex-Bee Gee in their number, seemed like the much surer bet).
I was looking forward to seeing Smile the night they played in Ealing Art School student union bar. I didn't think they were very good but, as the world soon came to know, Freddie was a marvellous singer. Albeit one that seemed, at the time, to be a little too keen on aping Robert Plant.
Wikipedia says that "Mercury possessed only rudimentary skills" on the guitar but having played with him during a few of the very impromptu, large scale art school jam sessions, I can say this wasn't quite true. He certainly played an acoustic guitar very musically and in my judgement showed a decent enough talent on the instrument. He played barre chords in the open tuning style, very rhythmically a little like Richie Havens. He played the guitar far better than I and most others at those sessions.
After Freddie left art school, I often used to pop into the Kensington Antique Market for a chat with him. He worked upstairs on a stall selling leather boots. Not as Wikipedia also says "clothes." The kind of glam rock style, stack heel boots he wore himself at the time. At that point, I felt somewhat sorry for him, assuming he'd be stuck in that sort of job for quite a while.
Of course, that's not how things turned out.
After he became a huge star, I only ever saw him once again. It was at Ronnie Scott's in 1974 after a gig by the American funk singer Betty Davis. I'd been taking photographs and, as the club cleared slightly, I noticed Freddie sitting at a table on his own. He called me over and we had a beer together. We spoke about old times and he was just as warm and friendly as ever.
Fame appeared not to have changed him at all. Whether as the iconic rock star or as an unknown fellow student, he always seemed to have plenty of time for people. A truly lovely guy.
As ever, if you have any comments, please email me.
*The woman in the photograph above wasn't my then girlfriend. I have very few photographs from that time. She was simply a compliant model for an advertising project I was working on. It was shot in the art school canteen.