*Image from a drawing I bought at an art fair that hangs in my office, artist’s name illegible
I think it was Lou Reed, on a song from his landmark late-80s album New York, who sang about the “duality of nature, human nature, godly nature splits the soul.” I’m not sure I knew what he was talking about when I was listening to that song in my car on cassette, driving around Northwest Arkansas. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to piece that together a little better. For example, on a superficial level, I can tell you that autumn is my favorite time year (“autumn’s sweet, we call it fall” as the Chili Peppers sang). At the same time I can tell you that I hate this time of year. The faceless corporation I work for does most of it’s business in December so autumn and early winter are always insanely busy. My travel goes up, my time to listen to rock and roll goes down. The only thing that throws the balance of autumn to the positive is football and well, it is bourbon season.
Being so busy this time of year has prevented me from my favorite past time – holing up in the B&V labs and scribbling about the music that shaped my life. I’m long overdue for a post, but enough about me. I got home from one of my interminable business trips this Friday, dropped my suitcases in an exhausted heap and learned that the Rock Chick had bought us tickets to see the new bio-pic about Freddy Mercury and Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.” This was quite a delightful surprise. She was not keen to go see this movie. Earlier in the week, there had been an intense negotiation around which flicks we would be seeing in the near term. In exchange for her going to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I fear I may have committed to go to ‘A Star Is Born.’ Say what you want about Lady Gaga, (and while I think she’s talented, I’m not a fan…not my style), Kris Kristofferson and Streisand own that movie for me… Little known fact, Streisand originally asked Elvis to play the part of the druggy, burned-out rock star… He (or more likely, the Colonel) turned her down. They speculate that taking the role could have saved his life. He’d have had to sober up and get in shape. At least Baabs tried. What might have been…?
Last night, I finally got to do something other than work and we went to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The movie stars Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon (or Deacon John as we knew him back in the day), and finally Gwilym Lee as Brian May. Gwilym? This kid’s parents must have been hippies or had a strange sense of humor. Not enough can be said about the performance of Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddy’s long time friend and briefly, his wife. I will be the first to admit, this movie is flawed. The timeline as to which songs or which albums were released was way off. Probably only an OCD rock fan with a blog would notice but I kept muttering about it to the Rock Chick. I think Freddy was probably a tortured soul and struggled with his own “duality of nature” if you will, and I think Rami Malek captures that well. However, I think there was a lot of joy in Freddy’s life and I don’t think they captured enough of that. Freddy always looked like he was having a great time to me. All of that aside, as a rock fan, I really liked this movie. But then, I really love Queen.
Queen were already international rock stars when my own rock and roll awakening took place in 7th or 8th grade. My parents weren’t musical, they never played the radio, but somehow there were just certain songs or groups that seemed to pierce my consciousness. I can distinctly remember going to the pool in the summer, which was literally my only exposure to pop music when I was a kid (except those rare times I went into my brother’s room, he was far more advanced musically than I was), and being aware of hearing “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac and “Killer Queen” by, of course, Queen. I was literally aware of Queen before I was aware of rock and roll.
My first vinyl Queen purchase was 1977’s News Of The World. It was one of the first rock albums I’d purchased. You couldn’t get away from the lead singles “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.” The “Champions” part was Freddy’s snarky reply to the punks, and probably the best reply by a “classic” rock band other than “Who Are You?” Who would have dreamed a band fronted by a gay man would pen a song that would be played in every arena and stadium at every macho sporting event for the rest of recorded time. I simply loved that album. It had a little bit of everything. People forget that Queen started as a hard rock band with prog rock influences. While they rocked, they could certainly roll too. Freddy, very early on, cited Robert Plant as a singing idol. Metallica has covered some of their early stuff… News Of the World had plenty of hard rock (“It’s Late” is my perennial favorite), but it also had piano ballads (“My Melancholy Blues”), disco (“Get Down Make Love”) and epic arena rock (“Spread Your Wings”).
After News, I was on the bandwagon. Queen was on top of the world at that time. 1978’s Jazz which was described in Rolling Stone magazine as “fascist,” and had nothing to do with the musical genre it’s named after. It was all rock and roll. That was followed by their oft overlooked live album, Live Killers that always seemed to be playing at keg parties I went to. It was always that album and Rush’s 2112 that somebody put on. Queen finally reached their second career zenith (the first being, of course, their masterpiece, A Night At the Opera) with 1980’s The Game. The lead single was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and it still knocks me out. I was too young to realize that Freddy was doing Elvis.
The Game always conjures a bit of a bittersweet reaction in me. Queen came to Kansas City on that tour. My friend Matthew and his hot girlfriend Debbie tried to talk me into going to the show. By then, I was a “Death Before Disco” guy and didn’t like “Another One Bites the Dust.” I hate to admit it, but I think there was more to it than that. For The Game Freddy had cut his hair short, grown a mustache and was dressed like a butch biker. All the time we’d been listening to Queen, we’d all say, “he’s not gay, he’s just English, they’re more flamboyant,” with all apologies to every Englishmen out there. I fear I was part of the backlash against Queen and I didn’t go the show. I wish I’d seen these guys, I blew it. My friend Matthew sadly passed out as they came on stage and only regained consciousness when they were saying goodnight. I think we’ve all had nights like that…mine was Neil Young and Crazy Horse… what happened?
It was then that Queen began to “lose” America. Their next album, Hot Space was their worst… I shudder when I think about the lead single, “Body Language.” Not even the presence of David Bowie and “Under Pressure” could save that record. There was more to it – I don’t know if it was gay backlash. I know at the time of The Game I was an adolescent kid who didn’t know much about the world. I was still forming. An in your face gay Freddy was more than we could handle. I’m ashamed of that now. Now I’d say it doesn’t matter who you’re fucking, what matters is the music… Despite all that, we all still made sure we were home when Queen were on Saturday Night Live. I can still remember being thrilled to see them perform “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Under Pressure.” That was back when SNL was “appointment” television. You’d make sure to get home to see the skits, and more importantly for me, the bands.
While it wasn’t until much later that I picked up 1984’s The Works, I certainly got back on the bandwagon for their album, A Kind of Magic, which was basically the soundtrack to one of my all time favorite movies, ‘Highlander.’ I can remember Matthew saying at the time, “Brian May needs to take control of this band,” which probably shows our lack of understanding as to how Queen operated. Queen went on to have a very strong late career. The highlight of which, and the climactic moment in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ was their performance at Live Aid. I remember watching them on TV and being blown away. Forget all the reunions – Zeppelin, CSNY, Mick and Tina Turner, Black Sabbath – Queen stole the show. The final scene in the movie, which is a spot-on recreation of Queen’s Live Aid set (slightly edited) put tears in my eyes. When I got home from the theater I had to pull up the YouTube video and marveled at how kick ass Queen was that day. Mercury was warned by doctors he could lose his voice if he sang that day, and he still went on. The fans at Wembley went certifiably nuts… As I watched the YouTube footage, again, tears welled for a friend lost too early, Freddy Mercury.
Fans of rock and roll, fans of Queen, fans of the human experience, the “duality of nature, human nature…”, all of you should go and see this movie. It’s not a perfect biography but it was a fun and enjoyable movie. The thing that you’ll enjoy the most is the power and majesty of the rock and roll Queen and Freddy made. It’s certainly better than that mess Oliver Stone made about the Doors. After you’ve seen it, run home and drop Sheer Heart Attack on the turntable, pour something dark and murky and marvel… Long Live the Queen!