British AIDS Case Opens Up Discussion
A rock star's death heightens awareness and sensitivity
LONDON — THE handwritten message taped to the door read: "Some people could say that life has been good to them. Only a few could say that they have been good to life. You have brought happiness to so many people. You may be gone, but your music will live on forever."The words were penned by one of the countless fans of British rock superstar Freddie Mercury, lead singer and songwriter of the band Queen, whose death last month was attributed to AIDS. Not since the death of John Lennon, in 1980, has a similar event attracted so much public attention here. The unassuming green door of Mercury's brick-walled home, situated on a quiet London side street, has had a regular stream of people coming by to pay tribute: bearing flowers, cards, or just a few lines written on a piece of paper expressing gratitude for 20 years of his highly distinctive music, including such worldwide hits as "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "We Are the Champions." Largely because of Mercury, Queen rose to its rarefied position in the pantheon of British rock alongside the Beatles, The Who, an d the Rolling Stones. To date in Britain, Mercury is the most famous person to lose the struggle with AIDS. While the plight of Magic Johnson and others in the United States has received news media attention here, it is Mercury's death that has galvanized public awareness. His popularity spanned several generations of rock fans. The day after Mercury died, the switchboard at the Terrence Higgins Trust, which provides the country's main AIDS help and advice telephone line, was inundated with calls. And the momentum hasn't waned. "Our average before would be 50, possibly 60, calls on a reasonably busy day," notes Jean Hearst. "The day ... after [Mercury] died we got 200 calls. And it still seems to be going at that rate." Britons are suddenly getting a crash course in the effects of AIDS. Until now, apart from a government advertising campaign, it has received relatively little coverage in the news media. "Obviously people can't avoid being made more aware of what's going on and questioning their own lifestyles," says Ms. Hearst. But not all the commentary has been constructive, observes Victor van Wetering, a spokesman for the Higgins Trust. Mercury's death, he points out, has highlighted the division in the British news media that exists concerning AIDS reportage. "On the one hand," remarks Mr. van Wetering, "You have a lot of people who are prepared to 'use,' if you like, this event or this death to [bring out] the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS as it affects everyone. Conversely, there is a significant minority of tabloid co lumnists who have chosen to portray Freddie Mercury [who never hid his bisexuality] in a very negative light and to perpetuate the idea that HIV and AIDS are just a gay or bisexual thing.... In fact, in terms of the World Health Organizational figures, we are looking at 70-80 percent of all transmission of HIV, on a global basis, occurring through heterosexual sex." Another talking point in the British press has been the question of sensitivity: the manner in which Mercury chose to handle the revelation of his situation vs. Magic Johnson's approach. While there was plenty of tabloid speculation for months about Mercury's condition and his retreat from public life, it was only the day before he died that he issued a statement confirming that he had AIDS, adding: "I felt it correct to keep this information private to date in order to protect the privacy of those aroun d me which included his parents and a devoted former girlfriend, his closest companion for the past 21 years. Many were touched by what they viewed as his dignity and discretion. This attitude was summed up by leading newspaper columnist Julie Burchill, who wrote that it was "very poignant" for Mercury, the seemingly flamboyant rock star, to show such "tender consideration for his parents and the woman he loved while Magic Johnson, she contrasted scathingly, announced his predicament with "a smirk and a monumentally selfish disregard for his family and for the numerous women he must have infected." NOT everyone here, by any means, would put it so strongly. But there does seem to be a widespread respect for Mercury's more British stiff-upper-lip approach. The important thing, they say, is that, whereas he could have avoided divulging the information, he instead chose to open people's eyes to the problem of AIDS. The remaining members of Queen - John Deacon, Brian May, and Roger Taylor - have not stated publicly whether they will continue as a group. Their last album, "Innuendo," which came out earlier this year, has already topped the British music charts. Queen has also just re-released "Bohemian Rhapsody," its biggest hit, as a tribute to Mercury, and is donating all the royalties to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Moreover, Mercury's song, "Barcelona," which he recorded a few years back as a duet with renowned Sp anish soprano Montserrat Caballe, has been put forward as the official tune for the 1992 Olympics, to be held there. In the US, Hollywood Records announced that it will be releasing "The Show Must Go On," the last song Mercury wrote, and re-releasing "Bohemian Rhapsody with all proceeds devoted to the Magic Johnson Foundation.