The invitation to dinner at Freddie Mercury’s home held the promise of a fun-filled evening for his close friend, Sixties pop idol Dave Clark. Clark — leader of the chart-topping group The Dave Clark Five — had spent many a happy time at the flamboyant Queen singer’s lavishly furnished house in West London.
But when he got there, Clark was greeted with shattering news. Freddie confided that he had been diagnosed with HIV — at that time, a virtual certain death sentence, as indeed it was to turn out for him.
As the 20th anniversary of Freddie’s death looms — he died on November 24, 1991 — his friends have been celebrating what would have been his 65th birthday this week with an AIDS charity dinner for the Mercury Phoenix Trust at London’s Savoy Hotel, marking the start of a fund-raising year.
It is a time of poignant memories for Clark, who was alone with Freddie at his bedside when he died.
‘When Freddie first told me about his illness that night, I was shocked. He didn’t seem down about it, though I’m sure it had taken him aback.
In fact he looked great, he didn’t look ill, he looked very healthy. He just carried on. It was only later when it started to kick in, then it was hard.
‘Freddie confided in me a lot. When he was diagnosed there were only a handful of people who knew.
'Not even the band knew at first, and his family didn’t know. At that stage you always believe and hope there is going to be a cure, that you’re going to get well, you have to. You have to be positive.’
Freddie himself was a fan of Dave Clark, whose band was once seen as The Beatles’ biggest rivals.
A kind of magic: Freddie on stage in 1986
A kind of magic: Freddie on stage in 1986
The DC5, whose hits included Glad All Over and Bits And Pieces, helped spearhead the British Invasion of America scoring 15 consecutive Top 20 hits and selling over 100?million records.
Clark and Mercury had been friends since meeting in 1976 after a Queen concert in London’s Hyde Park, though they became close working together in 1985 recording the soundtrack album for Clark’s musical Time, including the title song with its poignant line ‘We’ve not spoken about it at all, the fact that time is running out for us all’.
‘Freddie had tried everything. He had special new medications flown in by Concorde from America.
He said the next generation will be the ones to beat this. And the sad thing is if it had been 12 months later, he might have been OK when combination drug therapy first came in.
‘But he was getting frail and he decided to come off all the medication apart from painkillers.
Freddie loved life. He lived it to the full. And towards the end, when he realised it was no longer fun, he decided to come off medication. He was suffering and sadly there was no way out’.
On the evening Freddie died, Clark took over the bedside vigil from Mary Austin, Freddie’s former girlfriend and closest friend.
Also in the house were his long time and loyal friend Joe Fanelli, his chef, Peter Freestone, his assistant and Jim Hutton, his lover.
‘We made everything as comfortable as we could for Freddie. His bedroom had an adjoining lounge and looked out on to his beautiful garden. He was grateful for everything and for his friends.’
Clark was alone with Freddie in the bedroom when he suddenly died. ‘The doctor had been there half an hour before and said he’s got a few more days, so we didn’t expect he would die so soon,’ says Clark.
I WANTED TO DIE TOO, BY BRIAN MAY
The death of Freddie Mercury brought his close friend Queen guitarist Brian May to the brink of suicide.
Seriously depressed by worries about his own future, exhausted after years of touring, and unable to come to terms with the loss of Freddie, he found himself facing a complete mental and physical breakdown.
In desperation, he booked himself into a clinic in Arizona, which he describes as a cross between a university, a health farm and a mental asylum.
‘I regarded myself as completely sick’, he revealed to me. ‘I was wounded and very much in pieces. I went into a serious depression. I was subsumed by feelings of loss.
‘Being in a touring band puts your friends and family on hold and you’re focused on one thing — the band. When that finishes, you’re out on a limb. The band finished, so there was a terrible feeling of loss — the band was my family.
'We lost Freddie and my Dad died at almost the same time. I didn’t want to live. I’d lost myself completely.
'I coasted along and got by somehow, but I couldn’t get myself into gear. So I had to go into this place where I was isolated and removed from my life. Gradually, the suicidal feelings went away.’
The clinic, he says, helped him unravel his emotional problems.
‘I talked about my feelings and it worked fabulously. The problem had been me. Once I started to fix me, life started to work again.’
Freddie had confided to Brian and other members of his inner circle his HIV diagnosis. ‘We lied through our teeth to protect his privacy’, says May.
‘Maybe I was in denial myself. We were all hoping a cure would be found. But we agreed we’d make life as comfortable and as private for Freddie as we could’.
‘We phoned Mary immediately. She lived just round the corner. It was unexpected otherwise she would have been there.
'She had the terrible task of phoning Freddie’s parents and sister to say he’d passed on.’
Freddie only publicly revealed his HIV/AIDS status the day before he died.
Clark defends that decision. ‘Because it was so stigmatised Freddie wanted to keep it a private matter. At the time it was still looked upon as a plague.’
Raising money for AIDS charities is close to Clark’s heart. Even before he knew of Freddie’s status, he organised a benefit performance of his musical Time at London’s Dominion Theatre with Cliff Richard, the show’s star, and Freddie performing on stage together.
Clark believes he had a special friendship with Freddie as Freddie knew he wanted nothing from him.
Clark was a visionary in the music business, producing all the DC5 recordings and owning the rights to all his music at a time when it was unheard of.
‘It surprised me that Freddie and I became such great friends because our personalities were total opposites. But maybe I brought a bit of sanity.
‘Where we were similar was creatively. We were both perfectionists. Freddie was very much in control of his own life, of what he recorded and everything he did. He would come to me for advice.
'He could talk to me about his creative things and his businesses which he couldn’t talk to other people about because he knew I had no vested interest and I would give him an honest opinion.
'Freddie lived life to the full. He had a zest for life. He was definitely not a sad person at all. He had his crazy parties.
'And right up until the birthday before his last he decided to have an amazing dinner party at his house for his close friends and we had 30 courses created by his personal chef Joe Fanelli with a different wine for each course.
‘Freddie was larger than life and yet he was very kind and caring. The thing I really miss about him is his enthusiasm. He had an amazing sense of humour and he always made you laugh. He didn’t take life too seriously. He lifted your spirits up.’
Freddie once said, ‘I don’t expect to make old bones.’ But Clark dismisses this as the sort of off-the-cuff statement any young rock star might make.
‘He wanted to live. And if he was around now I’m sure he wouldn’t have gone to seed. He was not that type of person. He was too proud. Freddie loved taking risks, which is my philosophy too.
‘His legacy will go on for ever. His songs and his recordings are timeless. He was a creator, a revolutionary, a one-off. He would have carried on. That’s what motivated him, his work.
‘Freddie was in a lot of pain, but he never complained once. He didn’t throw any dramas. He
Living Life on Life's Terms