If ever there was a thing as a pure writer, it was Richard Corliss. The way sharks have to swim, he had to write. Often it was about movies, but he could, and did, write engagingly about, well, anything — baseball, Harry Potter, yoga, gerontology. He died yesterday — Richard Zoglin has a lovely piece here. A short remembrance:
I had the great fortune of editing most of Richard’s “That Old Feeling” pieces for Time.com; it was one of the two or three best experiences of my 10 years at Time. Richard was in some ways the toughest person I ever edited, not because he was difficult — in fact, he was the most courteous and responsive of writers — but because he was so good at what he did. He reveled in the fact that Internet publishing had no constraints of space and would regularly turn in pieces that ran to 6,000 words or more — longer than most Time magazine cover stories at the time (“I was in a hurry, so I had to write long,” was always his excuse). Every time, I would sit down with the story, convinced I needed to cut it at least by a third, just to make it more accessible, only to find that Richard would have constructed the piece in such a way that removing anything would have consequences elsewhere. You could cut three paragraphs from the third page, say, but then find that it really set up two important points made on pages 5 and 8, and if you then tried to tweak those, page 4 would start to seem a little weak, and in the end you just gave in to what was always a great, great ride.
“That Old Feeling” was Richard’s baby — he pitched it to me with this piece, already completely written, and it’s just so, so perfect. His high note (certainly from an SEO perspective) might have been “When Porno Was Chic,” about porn films of the early 70s, but I have a soft spot for this piece, mostly about the London Theater, that includes as an aside one of the best mini-biographies of Freddie Mercury you’ll ever read:
Born Farouk Bulsara, in 1946, to a Parsi family on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar — his father was an accountant with the British High Court there — he was sent at age 8 to St. Peter’s English Boarding School, in Panchgani, in western India. There Farouk formed his first band, the Hectics.
At London’s Ealing School of Art, where he showed burgeoning talent as an illustrator and graphic designer, he met May, Taylor and John Deacon, then in a group called Smile. They became Queen, and Freddie their lead vocalist. In an early Queen song, “My Fairy King,” Freddie had written the lines: “Mother Mercury, Mercury/ Look what they’ve done to me.” He told his mates that, since he’d written about his mother, he was from now on Freddie Mercury. It allowed a shy boy to turn his latent artistry into blatant theatricality. “The young Bulsara person was still there,” Taylor says, “but for the public he was gonna be this different character — this god.”
At 15, he had written a Harold Coffin aphorism into a schoolmate’s book: “Modern paintings are like women. You’ll never enjoy them if you try to understand them.” Freddie loved women; perhaps he understood them. His closest friend, former shopgirl Mary Austin, was for a time his wife. In the 80s he was close to the Met soprano Montserrat Caballe; they spent one whole night together, singing, and later recorded the “Barcelona” album of duets. (His fans, she says, would ask, “Who is the woman that screams so much with Freddie?”) But he was also a gay man — couldn’t everyone see this? — with a need to dissemble, to flaunt his effeminate eccentricity even as he publicly denied, until two days before his death, his gayness.
As Queen’s popularity grew, so did Freddie’s instinct for extravagance, on stage and off. “There was the odd wild moment,” a smiling Rice said of Freddie’s at-homes, “which I would, I think, have to consult my lawyer before talking about in great detail.” Relocating to Munich in the 80s, he threw the odd wild party, like the notorious one for his 39th birthday. “You had to come dressed as your favorite person,” says Peter Starker, a friend of Freddie’s. “And he just came dressed as himself, obviously.” The band’s sound engineer, Trip Khalaf, recalls “a dwarf covered in liver. He laid there on a platter…and when anybody dug this dull knife into him…the whole plate of liver would quiver. So it was like a moving pate pastiche!” Khalaf is not easily shocked. “I’m used to seeing my grandmother crawl up my leg with a knife in her teeth.” Still, he describes the bacchanal as “pretty much Wretched Excess. That was the worst thing I’ve ever been to. I’ll probably go to hell because of that.”
Beelzebub had a devil put aside for Freddie too: AIDS, which he probably contracted when he spent time in New York in the early 80s. Mercury spent his last decade with Jim Hutton, whom he called “my husband.” He loved Hutton as “someone to come home to.” Like the speaker at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Freddie had spent all his venom, all his passion. “I’ve stopped having sex,” he told a reporter, “and started growing tulips.” Toward the end, his costume designer Diana Moseley visited him; they played Scrabble, and as she was leaving he said, “Thank you for spending the afternoon with an old man.” At his death, on November 24, 1991, he was 45.
Richard always had to smoke when he wrote, or even talked about writing. This became increasingly difficult over his last 25 years at Time HQ — for a while, after smoking was banned in offices, Time maintained a “Smoking lounge,” and Richard quickly made that his office. Later, when that too was taken away, Richard made friends with the construction guys who were gut renovating the Time Life building one floor at at time; they gave him a chair, a board and a hardhat, and he happily kept writing. The benefit, he said later, was there there was no wifi on the construction floors, so he didn’t have email to distract him, and could write even more.