If I’m correct — and homophobia and fear of AIDS had little to no impact on Freddie Mercury’s decision to keep the location of his ashes a secret — it hardly ruins Mercury’s Ashes.
Mercury’s Ashes, written and directed by Lián Amaris. Staged by Vector Art Ensemble and the Salem Theatre Company, Salem, MA, July 14 through 16.
By Adam Ellsworth
Before his death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury requested that the location of his ashes be kept a secret. His former girlfriend Mary Austin was given the task of scattering the remains, which she did two years after Mercury’s passing, and she has kept mum on their whereabouts ever since.
Some guessed Zanzibar, where Mercury was born, or Montreux, where Queen did most of their recording in the 1980s and 90s. In his 1994 book Mercury and Me, Freddie’s lover Jim Hutton wrote that the singer asked that his ashes be buried underneath the weeping cherry tree on his Kensington property, though Hutton admitted that he did not actually know if that is where Austin spread them.
Then, in February 2013, it was reported that the location of Mercury’s ashes had (possibly) been found hiding in plain sight. A plaque inscribed “In Loving Memory of Farrokh Bulsara. Pour Etre Toujours Pres De Toi Avec Tout Mon Amour” was spotted at Kensal Green Cemetery in London on a plinth that notes those who have had their ashes scattered on the site. Farrokh Bulsara was Mercury’s birth name, and it is well established that Kensal Green Cemetery is where he was cremated, so it did seem possible that this was the spot. Throw in the fact that the memorial included Mercury’s correct birth and death dates and that the tribute was signed “M” (for Mary Austin?) and many speculated that the mystery had been solved.
For what it’s worth, Austin told the Daily Mail in March 2013, “Freddie is definitely not in that cemetery.” It is curious that, after all those years, the plaque was suddenly discovered at Kensal Green. And who first noticed it anyway?
This is where Mercury’s Ashes, an excellent new monologue written and directed by Massachusetts native Lián Amaris and starring Renzo Ampuero, picks up the story. Ampuero’s unnamed character is vacationing in London when he finds himself walking through Kensal Green Cemetery. As a child he often cut through a graveyard near his home on his way back from school, so it was only natural for him to poke around Kensal Green. By chance, he becomes curious about a plinth and examines the names on the plaques. That’s when he realizes that he may know more than Google “about something that people actually google.”
Austin has kept her secret for more than 20 years, but Ampuero’s character can only carry the burden for a few hours. He finds himself in a London pub on the night of his discovery where he spills the beans to the bartender (“I blame the Guinness,” he says). When he wakes up the next morning, the plaque in Kensal Green is front page news.
“How would you feel,” Ampuero asked a member of the audience (who just so happened to be me) during the July 14 performance. “Really, how would you feel” if you ruined someone’s dying wish? It was one of the many times that Ampuero interacted with audience members, bursting through a fourth wall that never truly seemed to be there at all. Earlier in the night, he presented an attendee with a cup of Earl Grey tea prepared with honey and lemon, just the way Freddie liked it when his throat was bothering him. Ampuero also handed one audience member a vinyl copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits II, which was originally released a month before Mercury’s death and was a prized possession of his character’s mother.
In moments like these, it was easy to forget that Ampuero was playing a character and did not actually travel to London and discover the possible location of Freddie Mercury’s ashes. Even when he wasn’t interacting directly with the audience, his conversational delivery of Amaris’ words, complete with British accents and humorous asides, always felt natural, as if we’d all been invited to his apartment to hear him tell us about his unexpectedly eventful vacation across the pond.
Amaris’ beautiful script deserves at least some of the credit for making Ampuero’s performance possible. Amaris deftly injects the minutiae of Mercury’s life (how he took his tea, his favorite flower) into the larger narrative, humanizing him along the way and reminding us that behind the legendary persona, he was just a man who never stopped using Johnson & Johnson shampoo. She’s equally clever in building the narrator’s backstory, taking seemingly random slices of life and pulling them together to show how he ended up in Kensal Green Cemetery in the first place, and how he even understood what he was looking at when he noticed the Farrokh Bulsara plaque.
If the play has any misfires, it’s the occasional musical interludes arranged by Ampuero and Amaris and performed by the actor on an acoustic guitar. Ampuero isn’t much of a guitar player, but then again neither was Freddie, so the amateur nature of his playing isn’t the problem. The catch is that these interludes simply don’t go anywhere, and they break the flow of the narrative. Are they supposed to act as transitions? Moments for reflection? They do neither; they seem to end as randomly as they begin. There’s certainly room for music in a play about Freddie Mercury: Ampuero’s strumming of Queen’s classic “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” early in the performance, and his dropping the needle on the band’s Greatest Hits II to play their unbeatable “Under Pressure,” make for effective musical moments. When in doubt, stick with the hits. Or at least give some explanation as to why you’ve picked up the guitar at all.
Our hero is justifiably upset when he believes he has spoiled Mercury’s secret. Granted, there’s no proof that Kensal Green is the definite location of the ashes, but it’s still a hell of a burden to carry. Who is he, after all, to go against an icon’s dying wish?
In the play, as in real life, the plaque is soon removed from the plinth. It’s gone by the time the storyteller returns to the cemetery, though there’s no information provided as to whether it was stolen, removed by cemetery staff, or taken by whoever put it there initially as part of a cover-up. Really though, what’s the big deal? Why was Mercury so intent that the location of his ashes be kept a secret at all?
In her Artist’s Note included in the Mercury’s Ashes program, Amaris writes “Before he died, Freddie Mercury asked that his remains be hidden because he was afraid people would desecrate his grave due to homophobia and fear of AIDS.” While this is presented as fact in the program, I admit I’m skeptical as to whether or not this was Freddie’s real reason for such secrecy.
Not that such a fear would have been unreasonable. As Mark Blake points out in his 2011 Queen biography Is This the Real Life?, Mercury was very aware of the stigma that surrounded (and surrounds) AIDS, and was afraid of how making his illness public would impact those close to him. This is one of the reasons his health status was not confirmed until the day before his death. Once he did die some in the press where merciless. “[Mercury’s] private life is a revolting tale of depravity, lust and downright wickedness,” wrote the Daily Mirror’s Joe Haines. “For his kind, AIDS is a form of suicide.” Even by the disgustingly low standards of British tabloids, this is some vile shit.
Still, while I haven’t read every word ever written about Mercury and Queen I’ve read an awful lot of them, and I don’t remember ever coming across anything that claimed Freddie wanted the location of his ashes kept secret for fear his grave would be desecrated due to homophobia or fear of AIDS.
The closest I’ve come to finding such information is in the March 2013 Daily Mail article in which Mary Austin denies that the ashes were scattered at Kensal Green. In it, David Wigg writes:
“Mercury, famed as much for his excessive lifestyle as his exuberant stage persona, died from AIDS at a time when it was feared and misunderstood. Mary says that just before his death, he was terrified his resting place would be defiled: ‘He didn’t want anyone trying to dig him up as has happened to some famous people. Fans can be deeply obsessive. He wanted it to remain a secret and it will remain so.’”
Assuming Austin’s memory is accurate, Mercury was certainly afraid of his grave being violated, but based on the quotation, it appears he feared desecration motivated by a warped form of hero worship, not homophobia and hate. Wigg beings his paragraph by mentioning the fear and misunderstanding that surrounded AIDS in 1991, but unless Austin said something that wasn’t quoted, the reporter doesn’t offer any evidence for his contention. It’s unclear why the information about AIDS is included — it seems unrelated. If Wigg was trying to imply—based solely on Austin’s above quote—that a fear of AIDS led to Mercury desiring secrecy, then he’s taking two and two and making five.
I obviously don’t know why Mercury requested that the location of his ashes be kept a secret. I’ve always thought that it was born out his natural shyness and his desire for privacy. People who only know Freddie as the larger-than-life character they’ve seen in old concert footage might find it hard to believe that he was shy and introverted, but by all accounts that’s who he really was. “Freddie Mercury” was literally a creation, a shield Farrokh Bulsara used to hide his essentially quiet nature.
As for secrecy, Mercury was an incredibly private person. This extended to all parts of his life, but certainly his sexuality and his later AIDS status. Partially, this was because it was nobody else’s business. Largely, it was out of respect for his more traditional Parsee parents. Jer and Bomi Bulsara loved their son, and they must have known more about Freddie’s personal life than they let on, but there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place for his relationship with them. As a result, Mercury didn’t hide who he was, but he wasn’t “out” either. His private life was private .Why should that change after his death?
If I’m correct about this, and homophobia and fear of AIDS had little to no impact on Freddie’s decision to keep the location of his ashes a secret, it hardly ruins Mercury’s Ashes. Amaris’ is out to explore fandom and the complex connections we develop with our heroes. Ampuero’s character wasn’t all that much of a Queen fan before his Kensal Green discovery. After he returns home from London, he becomes a walking Freddie Mercury Encyclopedia. He didn’t go looking for a connection with Freddie, but he found one. As for his role in (possibly) spoiling Mercury’s secret, that’s a cross to bear, but nothing bad comes out of his disclosure. Nothing was defiled. In fact, his sighting only seems to make people happy, or at the very least curious.
Besides, Kensal Green isn’t definitively proven to be the location of Mercury’s ashes anyway. The spotting of the plaque has only deepened the mystery. Where’s Freddie, and why doesn’t he want us to find him? We know so much about him, and we know nothing at all.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24