Interviews - Brian May

From Queen, a tribute to Her rock ’n’ roll Majesty by Jasper Gerard (Sunday Times - May 05, 2002)

Sunday Times

JASPER GERARD MEETS BRIAN MAY

From Queen, a tribute to Her rock 'n' roll Majesty

Sunday Times - May 05, 2002

Some rockers are revered for their sexual persistence (Mick Jagger), others for their wifely abundance (Rod Stewart), one for his financial incontinence (Sir Elton John) and another for his accounting ignorance (Sting). A few are even revered for their musical brilliance (um...). Then there is Brian May of Queen. He is one of rock's great guitarists, but now, at 54, he is revered for his follicular luxuriance.

Nobody in music does hair quite like May (nice try ZZ Top, the Wombles, but keep applying the Baby Bio). May just let it grow. And grow. For 29 years. And should he ever feel short of hair, he is married to Anita Dobson, the former EastEnders actress, so now they have his and her matching sets.

May used the time saved at the crimpers well. A middle-class lad from the London suburbs, he was about to gain a PhD in physics when Queen, then a struggling band, suddenly went stellar. But still he travels the globe gazing at stars (he is to appear on The Sky at Night with Sir Patrick Moore) and he has just created a musical with Queen's Mr Rhythm Stick, Roger Taylor. We Will Rock You, based on Queen jingles (backed by Robert De Niro, written by Ben Elton) is previewing in London's West End.

This marks a happy renaissance. May was close to suicide when his father, a close friend and Freddie Mercury, Queen's flamboyant singer, died in quick succession. His lively relationship with Dobson looked over, as did his career, and he suffered paralysing depression. It was only cured by a timely trip to an Arizona clinic.

An unconventional rock star, May. That's clear when he actually apologises, profusely, for breaking our first appointment. He even manages to be quite polite to Ben Elton (whom he runs into while recording Parkinson): “I'm really sorry for that f horrible e-mail I sent you yesterday.�? And, for a rocker who has just blown Parky's studio away with a rousing solo, he is softly spoken, even shy.

The musical, he tells me, takes us to a future where good ol' rock is replaced by manufactured rot until an intrepid band finds the world's last electric guitar (May's). With British pop in a particularly bad way, is rock really about to roll into the sunset? He looks pained: “There is a feeling out there — and in here — that things could be better. But the play is not vicious, all we are concerned about is that music stays alive.�?

But will it? “Yes. I'm convinced there is somebody out there we haven't heard of who is brilliant. The problem in England is it is so hard to be seen and heard. I would hate to be an exciting, innovative rock band at the moment. The climate makes it so difficult.�?

Surviving members of Queen will be playing at the other Queen's jubilee celebrations. “The 50 years of her reign coincides with the birth of rock,�? he reflects. “So she is the rock 'n' roll Queen.�? (Which might come as a surprise to Her Maj.) He believes the musical will preserve Queen for posterity; but isn't pop, thankfully, ephemeral? And isn't he sick of Queen anthems? How has it been listening to other performers playing his tunes? “It's been a joy. A lot of tears, too, a lot of fights,�? he says, adroitly adapting to the milieu of musical melodrama. “We have a show that is getting standing ovations that none of us is happy with.�? Reassuringly, he admits: “There have been very few musicals I have enjoyed, ever.�?

May and Taylor's appearance with the troupe on Parky aside, the two members of Queen do not go on stage in the musical, which May finds frustrating. “Half the company comes from musical theatre, half from rock 'n' roll, so we have a lot of abrasive moments. The banned phrase is 'this is the way it's always done'.�?

And what has it been like working with Taylor after all these years (there had been obligatory “musical differences�?).

“It's very good. We have both grown up in the past 10 years. We have both reached about six. We recognise that the great differences between us are part of our strength. And then there's Ben Elton, who is at least as pig-headed as us.�?

Absent, of course, is the biggest talent — and ego — of all: Freddie Mercury, who died of Aids in 1991. Think of the Stones without Jagger: there is an absurdity about a band struggling on minus its charismatic singer, however dexterous its drumming and strumming. May has said as much in the past, and I observe him jamming with the man who plays Mercury in the musical and he looks quizzical. The show is great fun, but ghostly. “It will never be the same without Freddie. You will never see Queen again as it was in 1986,�? he says a touch mournfully.

“We went round the world playing football stadiums, and we took incredible risks. That was the best we've ever been. But we will continue to do things we consider worthwhile.�?

Mercury's death is something he has never got over. “I live with those thoughts every day,�? he says. “It's like losing someone in your family. We were very close for a very long time. It's been a great joy working with arrangements of his songs; they are very precious. I'm proud I've kept the original spirit.�?

Despite May's shyness, he has extravagant views about Queen's legacy. “I didn't really know where we stood, but having seen the songs worked on I do think the 'oeuvre', as Ben calls it, is phenomenal. I am not too modest to say that. I think we were a great band.�?

The greatest moment? He recalls almost tearfully that it was landing in Los Angeles for the first time. “Our previous attempt had been coitus interruptus as I had hepatitis, so the tour was cancelled. There was the sunshine, the Sunset Strip. The bonus was they knew who we were and we got a flood of feedback before playing a note. And the people at the party afterwards I will never forget. I never knew such people existed. I guess we attracted the outrageous: artists, people who liked dressing up, people of every sexual persuasion, colour and creed. It blew my mind.�?

But mostly May makes being a rock god sound tortuous. “Everybody has a slightly different idea of how the music should be and I just want to walk out on occasions. So I just play, blast away, and it exorcises that frustration.�?

So he never threw televisions from hotel windows? “I've never done a huge amount of damage because usually sanity took over, but I have wanted to destroy whatever was around. When you are on stage you have no skin. Then you're off and people want photos and autographs. Then you go to your room and there's somebody banging on your door and you really find you have passed your limit and suddenly you are a monster.�?

I can't imagine him being a monster. “Oh, I'm not always Mr Nice Guy. I remember in Japan the hotel rooms were very small, windows didn't open and you couldn't go out because there were thousands of people and you were besieged. You feel like a rabbit in a hutch.�?

It's normally silly to ask someone who has had as much fun earning as much money as May (£55m has been mentioned) whether they regret it; but then few have come through so scarred. “I don't regret it, but some of it has been very painful and did actually deprive me of things.�? Such as? “Well, my personal life. We all resisted the pressures for so long, but it takes its toll and you become a different person. For ages we managed to behave like a rock band then close the door and become very ordinary again. We treasured that. But eventually doors were knocked down and we became fodder for the tabloids.�?

For Mercury that meant lurid stories about homosexuality; for May it was about his first marriage break-up and his tempestuous second marriage (his indiscretion with a secretary and treatment for “love addiction�?).

“That is the only regret: I do not accept this belief that if you are successful, intrusion is the price. If you don't have a private life you become dysfunctional and lose everything.�? Did he? “I came pretty damn close,�? he smiles. “I'm great now, but there were very difficult times, particularly when we came off tour. There is a long recovery process.�? He pauses. “I never want it to be all enveloping again. I have to keep my space or I'll die.�?

Does depression, like alcoholism, hover over the sufferer for life? “That's a very interesting question. But I feel very in control now and at last able to really enjoy my life.�?

His contentment is reflected in modesty about his abilities (in marked contrast to his claims about the band). “I can't play very fast or very clever, but I can play with my heart and soul — on a good day.�? I can't get over how bizarre he must have felt, a budding astronomer, suddenly prancing in sequins and dry ice with fruity Freddie. “Well science is pretty crazy, too. It's full of people charging around trying to discover something first.

There were a lot of parallels.�?

Being a star rather than looking at stars was, he insists, the right career choice. “You have much more fun as an amateur astronomer. You just go out on a clear night, look up and go 'wow'.�? He will appear with Moore to talk about his PhD thesis: the motions of inter-planetary dust. He does explain further but I have to confess to not having a clue what he's on about. Still, I'm impressed: ITV Digital's monkey harbours more intelligent life than most rock stars.

There's much more to May than his mane.

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