As today's cute Google Doodle reminds us, it's the birthday of the late Freddy Mercury, the flamboyant queen of the rock band Queen, a musician who changed the world and whose untimely passing affected me deeply. I'd assumed he had this effect on everyone, but recently I came across a colleague who had never heard of Freddy - so such people do exist! Whether you're one of them or not, you may want to read the Wikipedia entry linked above and then wade through each of the 15 Queen albums spanning over two decades. Or just read on.
I first heard the music of Queen when I went to the US as a graduate student in 1976. At the time they had a cult following and enjoyed the status of an "alternative" British hard rock band whose lead vocalist was flamboyant, outrageously effeminate and inclined to operatic outbursts. By then Queen had already released their masterwork, Bohemian Rhapsody, a song that successfully blended hard rock with opera, but it was too long and complex for the limited attention span of radio listeners and so remained restricted to connoisseurs. It surfaced every so often on WPLR 99.1 Classic Rock, my constant companion over five years at Stony Brook, which was among the few radio stations that dared to play longer and more complex songs. I came to enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody but it baffled me and I might not then have voted it one of the greatest rock songs ever (as I would today, without hesitation).
The lyrics are memorable, which means I can quote them from memory:
Is this the real life, is this just fantasy,
caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.
The singer goes on to recount his recent exploits:
Mamma, I just killed a man,
put a gun against his head,
pulled my trigger now he's dead,
Mamma, life had just begun,
and now I've gone and thrown it all away....
But then this storyline turns out to be allegorical: there's a staccato piano interlude and Freddy recites, in his trademark camp, operatic style:
I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the fandango
followed by cries of "Mamma mia", "Galileo", "Figaro" and remarkably "Bismillah, we will not let you go". Then it ends in a defiant blaze of hard rock, followed by a melancholy "nothing really matters to me" and the faint sound of a gong.
This "Bismillah" seems to be one of the few references in Freddie's music to his Eastern roots: he was an Indian Parsi after all, and studied at - where else - my school, St. Mary's, at Mazgaon in Bombay, before his parents migrated to England. The only other reference to Eastern/Persian roots that I can recall is the opening track, Mustapha, of Queen's 1978 album "Jazz" which mystifyingly begins "Ibrahim, Ibrahim, Allah Allah Allah will pray for you". Apparently the lyrics are a mix of Arabic and Farsi, besides English -- if you know all three languages you can judge for yourself here.
There was a fresh Persian connection after Freddie's death: apparently a compilation of Queen's hit songs was officially released in Iran in 2004. This collection included Bohemian Rhapsody but excluded the love songs (I can't imagine the Iranian censors swaying to the Elvis-like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and forget about "Fat Bottomed Girls"!!). Moreover the package contained Farsi translations of the lyrics, as well as an explanation of Bohemian Rhapsody: it's about a man who has accidentally killed someone and loses his soul to Shaitan (I assume the genuine Satan, not the US government...). Before he is executed he regains his soul from Satan by appealing to God with several "Bismillah"'s. I found it hard to believe this entire story about the release in Iran, but you can read a BBC report about it.
The year after I reached Stony Brook, Queen's status in America changed suddenly with the release of a pair of very short and powerful songs: "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions". The foot-stomping rhythm of the first one quickly propelled it to the status of baseball anthem, and the second song, very moving and lyrical, fitted that theme perfectly... So then Queen became as American as peanut butter. But the songs are eternal and global: just today during a phone call, my friend Vishwanath sang me a short draft of "We Will Rock You" set by him to a Carnatic raga (Shree, apparently) and in my view this works very well too!
It's fair to say the other members of Queen were very important to the music, particularly Brian May about whom let me say a few words. To my knowledge he is the first and only rock guitarist to have a published paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society even before embarking on a stage career. Not only that, he completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Imperial College around the time I was visiting there, three years ago! That's not all that can be said about Brian: his guitar style was supremely original, and within Queen it also became an echo of Freddy's voice: fluid, bubbly, eloquent and occasionally hysterical. I do wish other astrophysicists I know sounded so good :-)
One of the two Queen songs that had the most powerful impact on me personally was "Play The Game":
Open up your mind and let me step inside
Rest your weary head and let your heart decide
It's so easy when you know the rules
It's so easy all you have to do
Is fall in love
Play the game
The other was "The Show Must Go On" which was written and performed when Freddie was seriously ill with AIDS. It has a haunting theme of optimism in the face of tragedy. Thinly disguised as the story of a stage musician putting on a brave face in a time of intense emotional heartbreak, it's obviously something a little different: the courageous, desperate outburst of a dying man. Opening with:
Empty spaces - what are we living for?
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score.
On and on, Does anybody know what we are looking for?
it touchingly reveals the internal turmoil of the singer:
Inside my heart is breaking,
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on...
and closes with Freddy, our own Farrokh Bulsara, the Parsi kid from St. Mary's school with the protruding teeth, at the end of a short life lived to the full, screaming his lungs out:
I'll top the bill!
I have to find the will to carry on!
The show must go on...