Rocked (Sx2 Magazine 26th April 2002)Rocked
When Freddie Mercury tragically died of Aids in 1991, Queen were left in a musical wilderness. Without their flamboyant lead singer, how could they go on touring? They wisely decided they couldn't.
Instead they looked to alternative projects, turning their hand to film, solo appearances and - as is about to happen - a spectacular West End stage musical We Will Rock You, which opens next month at London's Dominion Theatre.
As Brian May, the band's guitarist watches a rousing group of new talent rehearse Queen songs - 31 of their hits are featured in the show - a smile of contentment spreads across his face. But he hasn't felt like this for a long time. After Freddie's death, few people were aware of the personal emotional crisis h went through in coming to terms with his own life.
Four years ago no one could suspect May had reached such a low state of depression that he felt suicidal. He was a gifted musician in one of the world's most famous groups, a multi-millionaire, and sharing his life with the woman he loved - actress Anita Dobson, with home he began an affair in 1988, when Dobson was at the height of her fame as Angie, the Queen Vic's landlady in EastEnders.
Yet, for all his success as a guitarist and songwriter with Queen, May found himself facing such despair that he consulted a whole team of psychiatrists and therapists. When they failed, he booked himself into a recovery clinic in Arizona, which he describes as a cross between a university, a health farm and a mental asylum.
"I regarded myself as completely sick", he explains, discussing the matter for the first time. "I was wounded and very much in pieces. I think I did get brain-fried and I went into a serious depression. Feelings of loss rather than achievements were at the top of my list.
Being in a touring band puts you into a particular situation where you've temporarily walked away from everything in normal in life. You put your friends and family on hold and you're out there, dedicated, focused on one thing - the band. When that thing finishes, you're out on a limb. The band finished, so there was a terrible feeling of loss, and the band was my family, so I kind of lost them too. We lost Freddie, my Dad died at almost the same time and my marriage broke up.
I was really not wanting to live. I'd lost myself completely. I coasted through and got by somehow, but I never healed. So I had to go into this place where I was completely isolated and removed from my life. It was like being put on a shelf and given an overview and I dealt with all those issues. I started to rebuild.
Before them, I did feel suicidal. That's what got me into this clinic. I used to go to my therapist once a week and he didn't do much for me. One day, I just said to him, 'Look, this isn't working. I don't care what it takes, but I can't deal with this anymore. You know I don't want to live. I feel so full of lead, negativity and depression - I can't go on' I said 'I'll do anything - If you told me to stand on my head for three months....' He recommended this clinic in Arizona. It was a wonderful place."
Brian left Anita behind in London and booked into the clinic alone. "We were going through a bad time anyway, which was all part of it, " he says, "It had all built up due to me. I was in one of my phases of trying to get away from her, because I thought she was the source of the problem. How demented is that? But the problem was me. Once I started to fix me, life started to work again."
The clinic helped Brian unravel his emotional problems and get rid of those feelings of loss. "The anonymity was great. Nobody knew who I was there. You talk about your feelings at the meetings and I continued to do some consultations after leaving. It worked fabulously and I feel great. I'm very busy now and that's fulfilling"
As I arrive for rehearsals, Brian is looking immensely satisfied as he listens to a young cast of 37 singers, actors and dancers repeatedly rehearsing Killer Queen. Nigel Planer, of Young Ones fame, plays the lead role.
The idea came about in 1996 when Brian May and Queen's drummer, Roger Taylor, met Robert De Niro at the Venice Film Festival. De Niro suggested they write a musical based on their work, and added he would like to involve his production company, Tribecca.
Ben Elton was recruited to write the story of this Â£7.5million production, directed by Tony award-winning West End and Broadway director Christopher Renshaw and choreographed by Arlene Phillips
Although the show features a Queen soundtrack, the story does not re-tell the life of the world-famous band.
"That would be too painful" says Brian "You can't do the history of your personal life without involving all your friends and family, ex-wives and children. That could be embarrassing.
You could angle it more towards Freddie - there's a wonderful story there of great heroism and courage - but it doesn't make Freddie's estate very comfortable, in particular Mary (Mary Austin, Freddie's one-time girlfriend to whom he left his London Home and most of his fortune) Then Ben Elton came up with this wonderful idea"
The story is set 300 years in the future in a place where musical instruments are banned and computers generate songs. But there secretly exists a bohemian group who want to o back to the golden age of live rock music.
"It's not going to be a musical like musicals have been in the past, that's for sure" Brian remarks "We're trading new ground and very conscious of it. We had to find a place where the show can still have the atmosphere of a rock show, but fulfil the requirements of a full theatrical production, where you feel the story and the characters are passionate about what's going on"
May was grateful that he was able to call on his wife's experience of the theatre. After a long relationship, Brian - who has three children from his previous marriage - secretly married Anita Dobson in November 2000, and the couple spent their honeymoon in Venice before returning to his mansion in west London. As Dobson has also appeared in West End Musicals, May values her remarks on his new compositions.
"She's my greatest critic. She tells me the truth - some time's it's uncomfortable. I usually get really angry, but next day I Think, 'Yeah, you had a point' The hardest thing for any artistic person to take is criticism, especially when you've spent God knows how long developing an idea.
Thank God we have a wonderful relationship now. We came through every kind of battlefield. Up to the point we got married, I think I was always off and on. But a passionate relationship tends to be that way and the passion has never left us.
Getting married put us into a new era and I think we feel very secure and are able to give each other a lot more rope. We've always spoken about this kind of thread that is between us and sometimes it's got very stretched incredibly thin, but it's always there. The more secure you are yourself, the more you are able to let your partner go out on a limb, but still feel the thread is there."
I ask him what attracted him to Anita. "Oh God, everything!" he replies. "There's something about that woman that is welded in my soul. I think we both tried to get away from each other many times during our relationship, but it just became too painful because the feelings were too string. And I feel great. It's a good time of life. And I know what those are because I've had bad times"
Brian grew up in Twickenham, Surrey, the son of an electronics engineer who helped him build his own guitar as a teenager. It was at the May family's home that Brian first introduced Freddie Mercury to Mary Austin, who was to become Freddie's only serious girlfriend. The group had gathered with their girlfriends to discuss what they should call their band. Freddie wanted to name the group Queen, while Brian favoured Build Your Own Boat. Typically, as in almost every situation, Freddie got his own way. It was the operatic influenced harmonies of Bohemian Rhapsody that shot them to No.1 in 1975. The single brought them international fame and the video established them as one of the most inventive rock bands in the world.
While the band was taking off, Brian was studying for a degree in astronomy and teaching at a comprehensive school in Brixton, south London. "Astronomy was just a passion from within. I had a great time studying it and I still keep in touch with it's developments but the power of music was something I couldn't resist." He says, "I remember that point vividly when I was trying to finish my PhD, teach and rehearse Queen and thinking, 'This can't go on I'm working 24 ours a day' I just knew I had to do music. I wasn't that good at astronomy - I wasn't disciplined enough - and I loved the teaching, but I was doing that because I ran out of money"
It's hardly a problem Brian faces now, Queen having made all it's members very rich men. "I'm very fortunate, but it was never the motivating force," May says of the money.
Reflecting on how many the remaining trio reacted in the days after losing Freddie, Brian says "They were strange times, We felt that huge gap. Of course we did. We'd been together as a group longer than any of our marriages."
Eleven years on, does he still think about the good old days of the group?
"Yes, but not all the time," he says, "I'm not a maudlin person and I enjoy the present day. I'm so thankful for the balanced life I have now. Probably more balanced than it was in the days when we toured nine months of the year. Well it's got to be hasn't it? But yes, you miss the elements of the life we had. There are those moments when you suddenly hear Freddie's voice on a recording and it's so magnificent, It's like he's there in the room. It doesn't sound the least bit dated, still full of vitality."
There are moments when I just have to go out for a walk. It just brings it all back and suddenly you get that terrible jarring when you think. 'Oh My God, he's not here' There's a dream like quality to it. Because of the recordings, he's so alive in that sense, and because of the bare facts, he's not. I still have a problem with that. He's a one-off. That's more and more apparent as time goes on.
The awful truth is that with all the advanced medical drugs they have now, if Freddie could have made it another couple of years, he would probably have still been here today."
One thing Brian eventually learned from Freddie was not to worry so much about pleasing people in life. If Freddie didn't want to do something, nothing would move him. "I don't really like disappointing people," says may, "It's a handicap and it's not very healthy. Freddie didn't have that problem. He had this instinct for not becoming a slave to what other people expected. It's a great thing to hold for me to hold in line"
After Freddie's death and his own breakdown, May was forced to re-evaluate his own life. "Being too busy is bad. You just become a human 'doing' instead of 'being'. I need to keep the balance. I love my work, but I want to have a life too. I want to be at home with my children, my partner. I want to be able to look at trees and walk around the garden enjoying the sunshine. How many more springs do we have? None of us know. I remember when I was young I'd think, 'Oh well there's load more springs' 'Well, who knows?"
Clearly he has been thinking about his own mortality. "Having lost so many friends, you have to," he says, "It can be any time. It's scary, but I think it's a good thing to be aware of your mortality. It makes you make better use of your day. Every year that you have is a bonus."
Brian treasures the last few months he shared with Freddie at their recording studios in Montreaux, Switzerland, as they worked on as much new material as they could while Freddie still had sufficient strength to record. "Those last few moments were so fabulous," says Brian, quietly, "In Switzerland he wouldn't get pestered. he wouldn't get people putting lenses through toilet windows at him.
All that was so appalling. It still makes me so angry the way he was treated in this country once they found out. We lied through our teeth for months about how ill Freddie was and it worked for a while, to protect him.
In Switzerland he could lead a normal life. We used to go out for lovely meals and we all enjoyed each other's company. We'd often go back to the studio late at night and start doing things. It was a wonderful time, very creative. I know he was able to leave it all outside. It was the impending doom, the pain, the dread of whatever.
He never showed signs of what was going on for us to feel sorry or him. He'd down a couple of vodkas - the same as always. He'd prop himself on the edge of the recording desk in the control room until he dropped. That's what happened with Mother Love - the last track I did with him. We always treasure that track more than anything else. That was the last moment.
He'd listen to the demo and then he'd sing it. In this case, he sang each line four times and when we got to the last verse he said ' Darling, I've had it - that's as far as I can go today. We'll finish off the next time I come in"
But that was that, he never came back in. So the last verse is on me. I put my demo in there, because it makes sense for the end of the song. I can't talk about it very easily, but the song says everything.
Of course, none of us knew he was actually going to die. We always thought, 'Oh God, there has to be some sort of cure."
If Brian is famous for something beyond music, it's his long curly hair, which seemingly hasn't changed style since the days of Bohemian Rhapsody. Ben Elton teased him about it at a press conference and lots of people asked him why he doesn't cut it. "It gives me a perverse satisfaction to ignore fashion" he replies, with a grin.
"I don't ask for special treatment from anyone. I just ask to be treated like a human being. not like some kind of strange creature that you should put in a zoo and poke at it through the bars. You know, that's how I feel a lot of the time. I don't think becoming famous should make you disentitled to being treated like a human being. I don't want to be regarded as a tourist attraction or an object of ridicule.
He pauses before laying to rest the issue of his hairdo once and for all "I expect it will all fall out soon anyway"