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(Safe) Sex, (No) Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll : A Star-Filled Send-Off to Freddie Mercury

April 22, 1992|JEFF KAYE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Elton John and Axl Rose joined to sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" . . . Liza Minnelli fronted 98 singers and instrumentalists on "We Are the Champions" . . . Elizabeth Taylor brushed off a heckler while speaking about the dangers of AIDS . . . David Bowie sank to his knee and recited the Lord's Prayer.

And the late Freddie Mercury himself--via video--led a crowd of 72,000 rabid rock fans in a call and response sing-along.

High points came vibrantly and often at Monday's sold-out send-off to the Queen vocalist, who last November became the first rock superstar to die of AIDS.

The "Freddie Mercury Tribute: Concert for AIDS Awareness" at London's Wembley Stadium--the site of the celebrated Live Aid concert in 1985--provided a glittering showcase of safe sex, hugs and rock 'n' roll.

The star-studded affair successfully mixed all sorts of pop-rock attractions, from heavy metal to pop-R&B: Elton John, U2, Guns N' Roses, Metallica, David Bowie, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, George Michael, Def Leppard, Bob Geldof, Annie Lennox, Seal and Lisa Stansfield. Of course, the cosmic glue holding it all together was the crowd's adoration of Mercury and Queen.

During the second half of the four-hour show, the band's three surviving members backed an array of singers filling in for Mercury on the group's best-known songs.

One of evening's most dramatic moments came when Elton John and Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose teamed. When the Los Angeles-based rock band was announced last month as part of the bill, the London branch of ACT UP, an AIDS activist group, urged fans to boo Guns N' Roses if the group didn't apologize for alleged anti-gay lyrics and statements. Neither the apology nor any apparent booing materialized.

John, who has long been active in AIDS-related projects, once criticized the late comedian Sam Kinison during a rock awards show in New York for what the rock star felt were earlier anti-gay remarks, but there was no sense of antagonism Monday. Both singers reached out and held each other warmly at the end of "Bohemian Rhapsody."

The capacity crowd participated in every way possible during the concert--singing along, clapping, swaying and waving the red AIDS-awareness banners that were distributed to everyone entering the stadium.

"This was probably Freddie Mercury's finest moment and he wasn't there," said fan Julian Taylor after the show. "But he was there in spirit."

There was no doubt this was a Queen crowd: Tickets for the show sold out in three hours--before any of the participating acts were announced.

Following Mercury's death, the surviving members of Queen--Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon--decided to commemorate his life and work with a concert to promote AIDS awareness.

Mercury, who was openly bisexual, did not publicly admit he had AIDS until the day before his death at age 45.

Although AIDS awareness is coming increasingly into the spotlight, the deadly disease hadn't previously been the focus of such a grand-scale rock benefit.

In an interview prior to the show, drummer Taylor said he had particularly wanted to include metal bands, whose followers have not seemed to grasp the reality that AIDS is a threat to everyone.

The concert was televised in 70 countries, with the potential to reach 1 billion viewers, organizers said. In the United States, MTV aired a 30-minute pre-concert backstage program and the Fox network produced a two-hour edited version of the show. MTV will present the entire concert on Saturday at noon as part of a special day of programming devoted to increasing AIDS awareness and generating funds for AIDS charities.

All profits from the concert will be donated to AIDS charities worldwide. Organizers said Tuesday it will be several weeks before they know how much was raised. Ticket prices ranged from $43.75 to $87.50 (although scalpers got far more). Concert-goers purchased more than $1-million worth of T-shirts, programs and other show-related merchandise, breaking previous sales records at the stadium.

Queen guitarist May greeted the exuberant crowd at the start of the concert, telling them, "This is all about Freddie. Let's give him the biggest send-off in history." Drummer Taylor added: "Today is for Freddie, for you and for me. AIDS affects us all, that's what these red ribbons are for. You can cry as much as you like."

But ultimately, there was a lot more rocking than crying and a lot more singing than preaching.

The first half of the show was devoted to metal, with Metallica blasting the crowd with three songs followed by Extreme and Def Leppard. U2 appeared next on a satellite hookup from Sacramento. Guns N' Roses finished the first part of the concert, stirring the audience with "Paradise City" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Rose wore a British flag jacket, with UK written across the back and front, and a tartan kilt.

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