“They got on well except for the fact that I suddenly
got a call from Freddie, saying, ‘Miami, dear… You’ve got to get me out of here. I’m recording with a llama… I’ve had enough and I want to get out.” —Rock band manager Jim ‘Miami’ Beach on the collaboration between Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson in The Times of London.
It wasn’t just the llama, if you know what I mean.
I was there at the studio. Me: the serf of sonics, the domestique of decibels, the peon of pop. Mr. Assistant Engineer. You know—or maybe you don’t, since almost nobody records in studios anymore—I was the underpaid, under-washed, under-everything guy who always has a roll of duct tape and walks around connecting wires, hooking up effects, and moving the mic two inches to the left, then one inch to the right, and then tilting it just-so and going back to the control room only to be told by the executive knob twiddler behind the board to go back and "Move it an inch to the right and straighten it up."
Yes, I remember it like I remember all my years as a studio rat: through a nonstop haze of pot and pizza. I was there for practically every second, except when I was sent out on errands to the florist, or to ask Mrs. Jackson to send in some chamomile tea for Michael.
This was all in Encino, at the estate. It was around ’83, pre-Bubbles, pre-Neverland, post-Thriller. Michael still lived at home. But he had had a state-of-the-art studio installed next door.
We were all expecting magic. Freddie had already spun gold with Bowie on “Under Pressure.” Yeah, there were rumors he and Ziggy Stardust had battled over the final mixes. But that’s just part of the process. It’s not like Freddie was a diva. Listen, you don’t get from Zanzibar to Madison Square Garden by lounging on rickshaws eating Indian sweets with weird names like barfi. You need to have talent and drive. And I suppose a great mustache helps.
The expectations were huge. Michael had just released Thriller. I can remember thinking that I was watching the two greatest musical talents this side of Alan Parsons. That’s probably a meaningless comparison to you, but it was my way of saying they were gods, like Skrillex and Danger Mouse are today, right? Or maybe it’s DeadMau5 that I mean. I get Danger Mouse and DeadMau5 mixed up.
But that’s how good they were. I mean, Freddie had squeezed an entire opera into 5 minutes and 55 seconds, and Michael had worked with Eddie Van Jesus on “Beat It.” You don’t get better than that.
Anyway, trust me, it wasn’t just the llama. It was more to do with the 15-minute discussion Michael had with Mr. Big Shot Engineer about whether the llama was an alpaca or a llama. That time-waster ended with me, the gopher of glam, the houseboy of hip, having to go to Encino library to research the matter.
And if that wasn’t what irked Freddie, it was probably the next day, when we showed up in the studio and there were four Peruvian pan pipers playing “Human Nature.”
“What the hell is this?” said Freddie. “You’re not going all Paul Simon on me?”
“Oh no, Freddie,” said Michael. “I just thought it might cheer up the llama.”
“Good. Because for a minute there, I thought you’d lost it. Now I know you have.”
“I just love animals, Freddie.”
“Is it working?”
“Is what working?”
“Is the llama feeling any better?”
“I’m not sure. Hard to tell. Maybe after the empanadas get here and the vet arrives, we’ll know more.”
Freddie turned away. Then Michael had the engineer roll back the tape so he could listen to yesterday’s vocal tracks for “State of Shock,” which Mick Jagger would later sing instead of Freddie. Thinking I would have some time before anyone needed me, the toiler of top forty, the midwife of Motown, I ducked out to smoke a bowl.
Freddie joined me. This happened a lot: Rich rock stars mooching off the roadless roadie. But I didn’t mind. This was Freddie Mercury. “Can I have some?” he asked.
“Sure. Is that good for your voice?”
“The llama can sing for me.”
“Here.” I gave him the pipe and the lighter.
I was thrilled. Usually, I tried not to suck up to rock stars at the studio or ask too many worshipful questions. I couldn’t help myself.
“Freddie, this might sound like a stupid fan question, but how did you pick a brilliant punk-before-punk, super glam name like Queen? It’s so cool. My band can never decide on a name.”
He inhaled and held the smoke. Then he exhaled. “This is good stuff, isn’t it? We’ll be glad when those empanadas arrive, right?”
I laughed. I was glad someone else thought Michael was a weirdo. But I was a little bummed Freddie ignored my question.
“Listen, I’ve got to go face the music. But thanks for the buzz.”
We both went in. The pan pipers were playing “I’ll Be There.”
“There you are.” Michael was holding a cordless phone and looking at me, the doula of disco, the handmaid of heavy metal, the janitor of jam. “See if you can get a llama specialist from the San Diego Zoo on the phone.”
The bell to the studio buzzed. “That must be the empanadas,” said Freddie.
“Oh shit!” called Mr. Big Cheese Engineer. “The llama is eating our two-inch tape!”
Michael rushed into the live room where we had stacked some reels, and pulled the animal away. “No, no, no! Bad llama!” he said. Then he started nuzzling the beast’s neck.
Freddie turned toward me and reached for the phone. “Actually,” he said, “can I borrow this? I just remembered. I have a call to make.”