All eyes on culture: Freddie Mercury

“Munich was a real paradise for Freddie”

He was one of the biggest rock stars of all times: Freddie Mercury. Between 1979 and 1985, the Queen singer was a regular visitor to Munich, recording albums and enjoying wild parties. One of his friends at the time was Peter Ambacher, also known as the drag queen "Miss Piggy". Today, he offers guided tours of the city following in the footsteps of Freddie Mercury. We joined him.

Still young-looking, he wears sports trainers and carries a jute bag: we meet Peter Ambacher at the Marienplatz (main square). He wants to take us to where 40 years ago the world's formerly biggest rock star fell in love, where he used to eat pork knuckle, and where he enjoyed the best parties. Ambacher leads us through a few side streets – and stops outside number two on the Stollbergstrasse. This is where it all began.

Where are we?

This is the site of the former Stollberg Plaza boarding house. Freddie lived here during his first few months after moving to Munich.

But why on earth did he choose sedate Munich over, let's say, West Berlin?

Freddie wanted to record music at the Musicland Studios in the basement of the Arabella Haus, and work with the producer Reinhold Mack. Everyone made their albums here: Elton John, Iggy Pop, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones.

Did you also visit him in this apartment?

Yes, quite often actually! I'd usually still be with him after a night spent in a bar or a disco, and Freddie would often say: "Come on, let's go back to mine." We'd hang out together there. The apartment wasn't that great, because there were only furnished rooms at the Stollberg Plaza and Freddie couldn't be bothered to change anything.

"Freddie was a real queen on the stage. I think he came to Munich because he wanted to be a queen in real life."
Peter Ambacher

Let's turn the clock back a little further: How did you find out that Freddie Mercury was living in Munich?

I was a regular at Jeans, a gay bar. Back then, it was in the same block as the Stollberg Plaza. I heard a rumour at the bar that Freddie Mercury was in town.

Were you a fan of him and Queen at the time?

I had seen them perform on television. Freddie was a real queen on the stage. I always thought: he's gay. But in 1979, when he moved to Munich, he hadn't yet come out in public. I think he came to Munich because he wanted to be a queen in real life.

1979: Freddie Mercury, aged 33, is at the pinnacle of his career so far with Queen, having recorded singles like "We will rock you", "We are the Champions" and – most famously – "Bohemian Rhapsody". At home in London, Mercury is often pursued by the paparazzi. The rock star hopes that in Munich, he will be able to concentrate on his music in peace, without the constant interruption of autograph-hunters.

Peter Ambacher becomes animated as he recalls the Glockenbach district back then. He was in his late 20s, and went to every party he possibly could. Today, he needs to take breaks along the way, rest for a while, the medications he's on leave him gasping for breath at times. He recently had a hip replacement. After walking along the pavement for a few hundred metres, Ambacher stops in front of an office complex. Not far from the Isartor, in the valley, he scurries along number 48 to enter a narrow passage through a building. This is where he met Freddie Mercury.

In front of an office building?

This used to be Fisherman’s, a sauna for gay men. You had to ring the bell and look straight into a camera. Then the door would buzz open. Most of the men were looking for a quick encounter in a cubicle or by the pool.

And then one evening, in marched the great Freddie Mercury?

This man was suddenly standing in front of me with his hairy torso and just a towel around his hips. We got talking, I thought he was really nice, I was just surprised that he was speaking English. It was his assistant who told me who I was talking to.

So you didn't recognise Freddie Mercury, one of the biggest pop stars in the world?

I noticed his memorable moustache. Although it wasn't that unusual. Everyone in Munich had a moustache at the time. Freddie was just a really normal guy – like you and me. He was shy, and certainly didn't big himself up.

"The windows at the Frisco were blacked out so that no one ever saw daylight. There were many times that I didn't leave until early morning, and I remember thinking: that was another crazy party, wasn't it?"
Peter Ambacher

Last year, the film "Bohemian Rhapsody", a biopic of Freddie Mercury, went on cinema release. The film depicts the Munich period as a low point: Freddie at rock bottom surrounded by false friends. Not true, of course, says Ambacher – and at the next stop on the tour, at the Sebastiansplatz (square), he gives his version of the story.

Where are we now?

This is the former Sebastianseck (bar). This is where Freddie met his great love: Winnie. Winfried Kirchberger ran the Sebastianseck. He was also responsible for introducing Freddie to Bavarian cuisine.

Did he like it?

He loved pork knuckle. Winnie took care of him. Once, on Winnie's birthday, Freddie had a brand-new Mercedes Coupé delivered to him outside the bar, with a huge bow wrapped round it. Certainly by then, we'd formed a real clique: Freddie, Winnie, myself and a few other chaps Freddie had met in the sauna or in the clubs. It was a wonderful time.

It was a wonderful time as long as they were among themselves. But there were also "gay-haters" as Ambacher calls the men who hunted down and beat up gay men like him. The police also harassed homosexuals. Paragraph 175 of the German Civil Code still had sex between men down as a punishable offence. Gay men met in bars and clubs in the Glockenbach district. Peter Ambacher even ran a bar himself at Blumenstrasse 43: the former Frisco. Ambacher sits down on the steps in front of the St. Willibrord's Church and points to the roadside opposite.

Is this the site of the former Frisco, where you served drinks yourself?

The bar was on the ground floor, and we were open for six days a week. Our place was so popular that the restaurant and bar owners in the area wondered why their guests hot-footed it at 11.00 pm to head our way!

Why at 11.00 pm exactly?

The Frisco Girls performed at midnight! It was two friends, and me as "Miss Piggy". I donned my piggy nose and ears, lip-synced to songs, and danced.

And was Freddie a fan of the Frisco Girls?

He was there a lot to see the shows. But he generally stood in the corner, drank his vodka and orange, and watched the crowd.

Were there any wild parties at the Frisco?

(laughs)

So were there?

We drank, we took coke, I guess we took everything. It was a really crazy time. The windows at the Frisco were blacked out so that no one ever saw daylight. There were many times that I didn't leave until early morning, and I remember thinking: that was another crazy party wasn't it?

Did you have any quiet moments with Freddie Mercury?

We once went to New York: my partner Rainer and myself, Winnie and Freddie. We'd actually planned to have a really quiet holiday. But the others wanted to visit the hard leather clubs. I am now sure that's where they got infected. With HIV.

"He was gone between one day and the next. He just sent his best wishes and thanks via his assistant."
Peter Ambacher

Ambacher pulls an envelope of photos from his rucksack. He doesn't really like looking at them. Freddie Mercury died in 1991 of AIDS-related complications; Winnie Kirchberger died two years later.

Wie ging es dann zu Ende mit dem Frisco?

I worked there for 13 years, through to 1987. Then Rainer, my life partner, also died from AIDS. I didn't want to carry on alone.

Ambacher continues to talk about the old "queen scene" as he calls it: the places around the Müllerstrasse like the old Pimpernel, the Peppermint, the Violine, the BAU with its darkroom, and the Teddy Bar with its furry bears on the ceiling. Today, the gay subculture in the Glockenbach district has all but disappeared. Homosexuality has now become mainstream. In Munich in 2019, gay men can hold hands and kiss on the street – in full public. Before ending the tour, Peter Ambacher wants to show us Old Mrs. Henderson on the Rumfordstrasse, today known as the Paradiso Tanzbar.

Isn't this where Mercury recorded the music video to his song "Living on my Own"?

Freddie first celebrated his 39th birthday here, that must have been in 1985. We all turned up in fancy dress. Someone came as Maria Stuart, someone else as Queen Elizabeth, I was dressed as a lady-in-waiting because I couldn't fit into drag. We crossed a red carpet to be met by television station broadcasting vans, including one from the BBC. It was the best party of my life. We drank through bottle after bottle of Cristal champagne.

And it was at this party that the music video to "Living on my Own" was made?

We had to shoot that over the next days. Totally hungover! But it didn't matter, for me the best gift was simply getting to spend this time with Freddie.

1985: Freddie Mercury's solo career is not the great success he had anticipated. At the same time, his band is asked to perform at Live Aid in London, the biggest benefit concert of all time. Mercury leaves Munich.

Did Freddie say goodbye?

He was gone between one day and the next. He just sent his best wishes and thanks via his assistant. It was weird, a few days earlier we'd been eating together, partying together. And then he was gone. I think Munich was a real paradise for Freddie. But it wasn't a paradise for eternity.

 

Questionnaire: The best place in Munich for a romantic date, Peter Ambacher?

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle

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