Freddie Mercury’s Munich Years: An Interview With Phoebe Freestone
Living in Munich for several years in the 80s, Freddie Mercury found a new pace of life. Phoebe, Mercury’s PA from the time, tells the story.
Freddie Mercury had some of the greatest times of his life in Munich. It was the city in which he recorded his cherished solo album Mr. Bad Guy; it was the setting for his notoriously wild 39th birthday party, a couple of months after Queen’s Live Aid triumph; and it was a place where he could relax with friends, playing table tennis and enjoying the beer gardens and German festivities.
Why Freddie went to Munich
Freddie Mercury first went to Munich with Queen in the late 70s and returned to live there for several years in the 80s. Peter Freestone, known as “Phoebe,” was Mercury’s personal assistant from 1979 until the singer’s death, in 1991, and he has treasured memories of their time in the capital of Bavaria.
“I think there was a sense of freedom in Munich that Freddie Mercury didn’t get in London,” Surrey-born Freestone, speaking from his home in the Czech Republic, told uDiscover. “Freddie felt he was able to do what he wanted there. He had friends there who closed ranks around him, so he could go wherever he wanted and do what he wanted without being so much in the public eye. Another reason he was in Munich for so long, was that he was having his London home, Garden Lodge, renovated. He bought that house in 1980 and it took five years to complete to his satisfaction. Being out of England meant that it didn’t figure in his thoughts that often. He got reports of how the restoration was going and he was happy with that.”
Adapting to Germany
Once in Germany, Freddie Mercury quickly adapted to the friendly, social ways of Munich. He would sometimes go to the beer gardens with his music engineer Reinhold Mack – and the singer would especially enjoy the festivities of Munich’s Fasching Carnival.
“Very often, Freddie would start out with that on a Thursday night and would finally go to bed on the following Tuesday morning. He enjoyed himself,” adds 64-year-old Freestone. “It was a chance to put on a costume for everyone, but for Freddie he would actually put on his ‘normal’ clothes – and the leather trousers and all that sort of stuff would end up being a costume. All of Munich was awake and celebrating for that weekend. He would always finish that period by going to the Old Market, which was always packed. People were still having fun eating the great street food after having been awake all night.”
Mercury, who rarely needed more than a few hours of sleep, wasn’t a great fan of some of the local cuisine, though. “He didn’t like much food anyway,” says Freestone. “He was one of these people who ate to live, rather than lived to eat. He was a master at having a plate of food in front of him and being able to chop it up, move it round the plate and look as though he had eaten a lot. Bavarian food comprises a lot of pork and roast duck, and that mix was heavy for him. The dumplings, he regarded as footballs rather than something to eat. He would say that he could never eat ‘such a big ball of suet.’ He would just look at the dumplings with disdain.”
Though Freestone says that Mercury could utter a few simple greetings in German, he wasn’t able to speak much of the language. Mercury himself once joked to an interviewer that “all I know is the swear words, like the German for ‘arse-licker’.”
An accident during a night out
Freestone says that Mercury was always in the company of friends when he went out and about. In 1984 in Munich, the Queen singer suffered a mishap during a night out. “He was in this bar and did something he occasionally did, which was to lift someone up with his hand under their knee and an arm around their back,” recalls Freestone. “He wasn’t tall or well-built and he would do it really just to show the people who imagined him to be really weak that they weren’t right. We were in a bar and he picked someone up off the ground. Then there was a commotion and another person knocked into Freddie. He was actually holding someone at the time and with all the added weight, he went down and his knee went sideways. He tore ligaments in his knee and had to have a plaster cast from his ankle to his thigh.”
Producer Mack remembers Mercury struggling about Munich with a cast. The singer told him about the “stupid” incident, when he got kicked on the side of his knee and the tendon snapped. “He was in the cast for nearly two months. His leg started itching so he borrowed knitting needles from my wife, Ingrid, so he could scratch inside the cast.”
Elton John and Freddie Mercury
Freestone said that Mercury never really had to use crutches, because he was driven about at the time and used to lie in the backseat of a car. One night in May 1984, the injured Mercury and his assistant even went to see Elton John perform at Munich’s Olympiahalle. “Elton and Freddie were very good friends, but they could never get together that often because of their touring schedules,” says Freestone. “But Freddie was recording Mr Bad Guy when Elton was playing in Munch, so it was arranged that Freddie and I would go to the show and we were given seats at the side of the stage.”
John’s pet name for Mercury was Melena – Mercury called the famous “Rocket Man” singer Sharon in return – and Freestone laughs as he recalls what happened at the gig. “It was wonderful,” he recalls. “Elton came on and said, ‘This song is for Melena, the poor cow,’ and then launched into an energetic version of ‘I’m Still Standing.’ All Freddie whispered to me was, ‘I’m going to kill her!’”
Freddie Mercury’s sense of humor and love of games
Freestone clearly misses his friend. “Freddie had an incredibly dry, English sense of humor,” he says. “He didn’t particularly like sitting down listening to someone talking for five minutes to come up with a ten-second punchline. That wasn’t his sort of humor. He could create something funny out of just about any situation. He loved laughing. You see him in interviews and he uses his top lip to cover his teeth. If he actually laughs, his hand would come up to cover his mouth. But when he was at home, he didn’t have to care about his teeth. He just threw his head back and laughed and laughed. Whenever someone says the name Freddie Mercury to me, that is what I see… Freddie at home laughing. I was incredibly lucky.”
Mercury loved playing Scrabble with his friends in Munich – and even had a table tennis table set up in the Musicland Studios during the recording of Mr. Bad Guy. “There was a basement and a huge corridor led to the back door,” says Freestone. “They set up there. Freddie played there a few times. He was competitive at anything – table tennis or even Scrabble! The way they play in the Czech Republic, is that about eight people hit the ball and move around. When you miss, you are out until you were down to the last two people. Freddie would have to win that sort of contest.”
Though they were living in one of Germany’s most historic cities, Mercury did not spend time dwelling on the war history of the city he had made his home. “Freddie generally avoided talking about political situations or things like wars,” explains Freestone. “Politics and religion were two topics he tried to avoid, because he firmly believed those topics were intensely personal to each individual and he wasn’t keen when famous people used their status to influence other people.”
A memorable birthday bash
Freddie Mercury’s time in Munich was also famous for the memorable birthday bash he threw at Old Mrs Henderson, a famous Munich cabaret bar, on Thursday, September 5, 1985. The invitations instructed friends: “Please come in Black/White Drag Costume.” There was drag, drugs and horse-drawn carriages on a night of true excess.
“I’m told I was there,” laughs Freestone. “Everything was black and white, and the invitation said that everyone had to cross-dress as well. Freddie went dressed as a man. He put on his outfit from Fashion Aid. He was still in costume. It was one of the more outrageous parties that I have ever attended. I don’t think there was one like it afterwards.”
The party was videoed and sections of the festivities were later included in the video for Mercury’s 1985 solo single “Living On My Own.” “It was a crazy party,” adds Freestone. “The amount of drink that was flowing was amazing. It was the first time I had seen a real champagne fountain with all the glasses standing on top of each other. The one at Freddie’s party was about five-feet tall. It was constantly flowing. I don’t know of anyone there who was sober. Freddie was turning 39 and was almost saying, ‘I’m still young enough to do this.’”
Though this excess made headlines, the image of a hedonist does not reflect the truth about Mercury. “Freddie was the total opposite of what you expect a crazy rock star to be, with his collection of antiques and art,” says Freestone. “One of the loves of Freddie’s life was his house, Garden Lodge, in London and he loved putting things in it, whether that was art or old-style furniture. He appreciated beauty.”
Balancing work and play in Munich
Munich wasn’t a time of total partying, but Freestone says the temptations of having a good time with friends sometimes proved too much to resist when it came to taking a break from work. “The solo album Mr. Bad Guy took almost two years to finish and it was one of the longest recording sessions I have ever known,” recalls Freestone.
“Freddie’s studio day would start at two in the afternoon. It is pointless calling a singer into a studio before then, anyway, because in the morning the voice hasn’t warmed up yet. With Queen, Freddie would be in the studio and playing around on the piano working on material. In Munich, he had lots of friends in the city, so we would get to the studio and at four o’clock we’d sometimes get a phone call from a friend saying, ‘Oh, Freddie, I’m bored, come and take me out.’ So work finished abruptly and off we went. There were a lot more distractions in Munich. Also, when it was Queen involved it was the responsibility of four people to get the work done, but Munich was just Freddie, he could just do it when he was allowed to. But he was very happy with the final album.”
Freestone says that Freddie Mercury’s favorite place in Munich was “the fabulous suite and apartment he had in the Stollberg Plaza, situated perfectly in the centre of Munich. He enjoyed Germany so much.”
Did the trend-setting dresser ever wear lederhosen breeches? “No, Freddie laughed at enough people wearing them, but he would not put them on himself,” says Freestone. “Besides, he could also admire the legs of people wearing them.”
The career-spanning Freddie Mercury box set, Never Boring, is out now. Order it here.
May 9, 2020 at 10:31 am
This was interesting and I just loved all the information about Freddie thank you.d
August 10, 2020 at 5:18 am
I wish I’d been in hs company! He sounded marvelous and so much fun!