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Rock 'n' roll is finally coming out of the closet in the fight against AIDS.

The Concert for Life, a tribute to the late Freddie Mercury --the lead singer of Queen who died of AIDS in November -- will be held Monday in London's Wembley Stadium. It's the biggest gathering of rock stars since Live Aid, and a worldwide audience of more than half a billion television households is expected.

Concert highlights will be broadcast Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. on the Fox network, Channel 29 in Buffalo. MTV will show the entire concert on April 25 from noon until 4 p.m.

That telecast will be part of a worldwide AIDS awareness movement called "Strike Back Saturday."

The list of performers includes U2, Def Leppard, Elton John, Metallica, David Bowie, George Michael, Robert Plant, Spinal Tap and the three surviving members of Queen: John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor.

The most provocative and controversial band on the bill, however, will be heavy metal bad boys Guns N' Roses. They were scheduled to play an AIDS benefit three years ago but were booted off the bill when gay activists objected.

Axl Rose, lead singer of Guns N' Roses, infuriated gays in the late 1980s when he and the band recorded a song called "One in a Million." That record was a diatribe in which Rose sang: "Immigrants and faggots . . . spread some f------ disease."

There are rumors that gay activists will interrupt Guns N' Roses' performance at Wembley.

"We don't want them on the bill," John Campbell, a member of ACT-UP/London, told Rolling Stone magazine. "We will accept them when they have a press conference and publicly denounce everything they said about AIDS and homophobia. We want the words, 'We were wrong, we're sorry.' "

Guns N' Roses members indicate they will not apologize. ACT-UP/London has called for other concert performers to shun Guns N' Roses and for the 70,000 fans in the stadium to "boo the band off the stage." Despite those requests, there are rumors that Rose will sing lead on a song with Queen.

Some see the appearance of Guns N' Roses at the concert as a positive sign of change. "I think they were a young band that didn't know what was going on when they were bashing gays," said Kevin Supples, a documentary filmmaker who is a volunteer with the Niagara Frontier AIDS Alliance.

"As time has passed, I think Axl and the band realize they were wrong," Supples said. "ACT-UP has the right to ask for an apology, but if you talk to Axl today I think he knows he was wrong."

Rose recently admitted that as a child he was rejected by his mother and sexually abused by his father. This, he said, shaped his attitude toward gays and women: "Homophobic? I think I've got a problem, if my dad . . . (molested me) . . . when I was 2."

Regardless of Rose's state of mind, there is stark symbolism in his appearance at an AIDS rock benefit.

"It's going to have a tremendous influence on kids to see their heavy metal heroes screaming about AIDS," said Jeb Puryear, a member of the Ithaca rock band Donna the Buffalo, which recently played in Buffalo.

Young people need to know all they can about the disease. A recent study indicated that the number of people ages 13 to 24 with AIDS has jumped by 77 percent, to 9,000, in the past two years.

Puryear wants to do something about that frightening rise. He helped organize the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival last year in Ithaca to support the fight against AIDS.

It featured about 30 bands, including 10,000 Maniacs, and more than 3,000 people attended. Another festival will be held this year, July 17 to 19. For information, call (607) 277-5638.

"What people have to realize is that AIDS is not just a gay disease," Puryear said. "Rednecks are going to get AIDS, rock singers are going to get AIDS; it's going to touch everybody's life unless we do something to stop it.

"Music gives you a framework to make a statement about what's going on and increase people's consciousness."

Puryear believes that rock stars can help remove the stigma of AIDs. "When you have rockers performing in a benefit for AIDS, it creates a comfort level," he said. "It changes the way people think about it. It seems in America nothing is important until it hits your neighbor.

"AIDS and the HIV virus is starting to hit a lot of familiar people: Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe and Freddie Mercury. That makes it real to a lot of people."

The controversy over Guns N' Roses is an indication of how much trouble the rock industry has had in coming to grips with AIDS. For five years, Freddie Mercury was the subject of rumors that he had the disease. Hours before his death a statement was released saying that he suffered from AIDS.

"You cannot be gay in the music world," Jim Fouratt of Rhino Records, a co-founder of ACT-UP, told Rolling Stone. "The heavy metal and rock communities do not allow there to be a gay hero. Homophobia is at the root of AIDS phobia."

Rock has not come to terms with the consequences of casual sex. Most music videos, especially those in heavy metal and rap, treat women as sexual ornaments and encourage random sexual encounters.

There are few video messages about safe sex or AIDS education. Rumors continually swirl around rock stars and celebrities.

To squash rumors, Madonna recently had to publicly deny she had the disease. It took a year after the death of B-52's guitarist Ricky Wilson for the band to admit he died from AIDS.

Elton John has been dogged by rumors since he admitted in a magazine interview in the mid-'70s that he had bisexual experiences. He later said that statement "hurt me a lot. In America a lot of radio stations stopped playing my records."

Among all the pop music styles, dance music has been hit hardest by AIDS. Sylvester, a dance music star, died in 1988. Patrick Cowley, 32, a friend and associate of Sylvester and a major dance music star who grew up in South Buffalo, became one of the first AIDS victims when he passed away in 1982.

After Cowley died, his family requested that the local media not associate his death with AIDS. Today, Kenneth Cowley, Patrick's father, wants people to know what killed his son.

"A lot has changed since Patrick died, and we have to be more open about AIDS," Cowley said.

Cowley said it was difficult to witness the death of his son, and Patrick's associates such as Sylvester, and Patrick's manager, Marty Blecman.

"I've been to too many funerals," he said. "We've got to stop worrying about who's gay and who's straight and start caring about people who are hurting.

"I sat with my son through the last year of his life and I know how terrible this disease is. We need tolerance, understanding and we need to do everything we can to stop AIDS."

The Concert for Life can be a major musical step in that direction.

"I think AIDS is a political issue," said Dave Tidquist, a music promoter and manager from Jamestown who has worked for many AIDS benefits.

"A lot of times people are afraid to make a political statement," Tidquist said. "When you have rock stars coming out in a concert like this, in a way it may hurt their careers, but it's a tremendous help to the AIDS struggle.

"They have a high profile, especially with young people, and they can set trends. The rock stars can convince people that it's cool to help fight AIDS. It can help get rid of the stigma and confusion that's attached to this disease."

The rock star television extravaganza will also do something else. "I think this concert is the start of an age of compassion," said Kevin Supples of the Niagara Frontier AIDS Alliance. "The nastiness of the '70s and '80s is coming to an end.

"People are starting to feel for each other. When somebody like Freddie Mercury dies, people know that AIDS is real. And they realize the only way we can stop it is by coming together. It's time."

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