Brian May plays to a darkened stadium in March 2006
Of all the strange, and some
might say, outlandish things I discuss on this blog, it seems ironic that I
should ask that you give me leave to dream a little today. Suffer me to be
sentimental, to be starry-eyed, to hang up my adult skin, just for one essay.
I’ve always been fascinated by
the dynamic between celebrity and adoring fan, between performer and audience.
(Apparently, to examine this closer, I married a performer.) In particular, I
find extremely interesting the fine and distinct thread that connects a single
member of an audience to a performer, who expands his or her aura to touch many
at once. It’s an incredible phenomenon: It’s impossible for any performer to be
aware of each individual person who has come to experience his or her talent,
be it at a show or behind the privacy of their own earbuds. Yet, every single
member of an audience is hyper-aware of the artist in the spotlight. Without
one there would not be the other. Furthermore, it is not so much the talent as
it is the emotional connection behind the talent that sustains the
relationship. I’ve come to view this as a symbiotic balance; any artist
who says he or she does not create for an audience is probably lying. I believe
that all expression is based on the assumption that someone or something is
going to bear witness – even if what results is the repression of a certain
kind of expression. Music is meant to be heard, art is meant to be seen, food
is meant to be tasted and eaten. As Forster said, “Only connect.” That’s what
art is meant to do. Teaching, too. You may say, I suppose, that you choose
yourself to be your own witness. But really, it all comes from a need to share
– with others.
Where was I? Oh yes. Dreaming.
Let me tell you a story.
How a Big Scary Robot Changed My Life
When I was little, I would often
sit on the floor in the living room, flipping through my Dad’s massive record
collection. I’d spend hours this way, while he’d listen to music for what
seemed like an eternity. (Only three artists stick out in my memory: Pink
Floyd, the Incredible String Band, and Leonard Cohen; to a small child, this is
the uncut soundtrack to Eternity.) I’d pull out the records – much to his
chagrin, as they were meticulously alphabetized by artist – and just look at
I could never pass up the
opportunity to pull this one from the shelf...:
...Which most people will
remember was one of those records that flipped open to reveal much larger
... And I’d look at it for a
long time, a bit scared of it but also perhaps morbidly attracted.
Then, one day when I was six, I
decided I was brave enough to hear what such an album would sound like, so I
asked Dad to play the record. (He was a real stereophile then, and I knew that
I was never to touch anything, especially the record player, much less take
records out of their sleeves. In truth, the real obstacle was that I was too
short to reach the turntable.)
Now, you can’t have existed very
long on this planet without having heard “We Will Rock You.” I think it is an
unwritten natural law. I certainly recognized it as the needle played it
through Dad’s woofers and tweeters. I felt ‘cool,’ now knowing the words to
what I heard at school basketball games and televised sporting events.
At that tender age, I didn’t
care much for the song that followed it, and certainly not at all for the one
after that. But then, in stark contrast to the first three tracks came one like
a soft, cool hand to a fevered forehead – a ballad by someone named Brian May entitled “All Dead, All
Dead.” Until that moment, it was the song I most dreaded hearing, because I
was sure it would have something to do with the bloody album cover.
But it was soft, and lovely, and
kind of made me want to cry. I loved it. I listened to it over and over – when
Dad would let me.
That was my Dad’s only Queen
record, and in fact it was given him by a friend. I wouldn’t hear it again –
regularly, anyway – until years later:
I was 14 and in high school. The
battle of identity raged within: was I a goth or a neo-hippie? I cared too much
about the planet, peace and the Beatles to be your garden-variety apathetic
goth, but I liked the Cure, Siouxie, and wearing black clothes and lipstick too
much to be a proper hippie. When you’re a teenager, your taste in music is what
defines you, and in the early ‘90s there was a lot to choose from (and
strangely, it all devolved into ‘grunge').
One day I was in my boyfriend’s car – I
don’t remember where we were going or if I was a goth or a hippie that day –
when from out of dead air on Q101 came the words “Is this the real life? Is
this just fantasy?” The (now) unmistakable opening to Bohemian Rhapsody. And
what a rhapsody it was! My world suddenly shrank to this infinitesimal point,
where only myself and the music existed. It was unlike anything I had ever
heard, it was so good, MY GOD that guitar solo, those voices, and not only did
I want to hear more of whoever the hell this was, I wanted to live inside the
Most of us have been blessed
with experiences like that. However, not so many of us are blessed with a
sustained version of such an experience, which, little did I suspect, was
exactly where my ears were leading me.
Imagine my surprise as I discovered
that this was Queen, the same Queen I’d been so superficially fascinated with
as a child. Out came the Big Silver Scary Robot again, to remain in rotation
permanently for the next few years. Out came all the spare cash from my little
job as a detail clerk in an auto shop going right into the till at music
stores, all for 20 years’ worth of Queen records, purchased in chronological
That summer, I had a fantastic
dream. In it, I was a guest at a crowded, lavish ball held in a great hall. I
decided to leave the lights and the dancing for some quiet. I walked through
wide, high-ceilinged, stone-floored hallways, following the sweet scent of
blossoms in the cool night air. I arrived at a pair of doors that opened to a
giant balcony overlooking a large pond and ancient trees, thrown into silvery
relief by the stars and crescent moon overhead. I walked forward to a wrought
iron railing at the edge of the balcony. I delighted in my secret find and
looked contentedly at the vista before me. Then, I heard the latch turn behind
me. I turned around just in time to see none other than the afore-mentioned Brian May, whom I now knew as Queen's guitarist, emerging into
the moonlight. Through the open door, faint strains of the music sailed out
into the night. Both of us were dressed to the nines (I can’t remember if this
was set in the present day or not). He asked me to dance. I said yes. We
danced. Then, I woke up.
I floated through the day, fresh
on the memory of this sweet (albeit rather formulaic – oh, there goes my
30-year-old critic!) dream. That afternoon, I accompanied my dad on a
shopping errand which included a visit to the music store. I picked up a copy
of “Jazz.” There is a song on that record, written by Brian, called “Dreamer’s Ball.”
I don’t need to recount the reaction of an adolescent girl to hearing that song for
the first time the day after she dreamed it.
But there weren't only Queen albums. There were also Queen
(Let me pause to state the
obvious: since the dawn of MTV, image and image-making have claimed
ever-increasing importance in the trajectory of musicians’ careers; that is,
how you look is almost as important as how you sound – which certainly allows a
lot of mediocrity to get through, at the expense of the solid talent out there
that’s less, shall we say, modish. Now, thanks to reality TV and the Internet,
almost anyone can be a “celebrity.” (Big, BIG quotes around that one.) Here’s
what I’m getting at: Simulacra is simulacra, but back before photos of
celebrities were flashed in front of you every five seconds in every
conceivable setting, images actually had power. There’s no such thing as an
icon anymore. Now it’s all fodder for post-modern detritus.)
Back to those Queen videos then.
Queen had their own style. A
look, a crafted image. It changed a lot and I certainly favored some periods
over others in their 20-year career, but while it was always over the top, it
never eclipsed the quite unbelievable talent of the members of the band. And it
was this guy in particular who took my breath away, time and time again:
Yup, that's Brian. All right, let’s have an image
that makes him a bit more accessible, shall we?
So, fueled by these videos and images made extra powerful by Queen's attention to grandiose and flamboyant visuals, at 14, I fell in “love.” Not
with some hunky dude on a sitcom or a pop star, but with the man you see above.
And the more I found out about him, the more I fell in love, because he just
kept getting better! I’ll get to that in a moment.
Close Encounters and Close Calls
Looking back, it was such a
strange time to become obsessed with Queen. Freddie had just died, the Concert
for Life had not yet happened, and “Wayne’s World” (the film), which was about
to bring Queen into focus for so many people of my generation, was not yet
released. Stranger still, past and present began to slide together when, just
before my 16th birthday in 1993, Brian would release his first solo record,
“Back to the Light.” I was still slowly savoring my way through the Queen
catalogue. My favorite albums were the first two. There were no guarantees that
I’d like the new stuff. (I have to say I enjoy his solo work more now because I
understand it better now.)
When I found out that Brian
would be coming to town for a concert in late 1993, it was a big deal. A VERY
big deal. I’d never been to a concert before. That year, I was invited to see
bands I loved – James, Depeche Mode, Radiohead. Turned ‘em all down because I
wanted to lose my concert ‘virginity’ with Brian May. Yes, I said it (or typed
it, rather, which is probably worse because now it’s here for all posterity).
It was an amazing night. (It was
weird, too – seeing him with a totally different band, including two young
female back-up singers.) I was right in front. He was still completely
untouchable, and he certainly never looked at me, but I had a feeling this was
as good as it was going to get, because I’d never be this close again.
Starstruck, when I got home I
started to write him a letter. I wanted to tell him what an impact he’d made on
me, how thankful I was. I worked on it, illustrating it (as only a teenager
would), making it perfect, selecting the right paper, etc., for a week or so.
Then I handed it to my Mom to put in the mail. She asked me if she could make a
copy of the envelope. Here’s some of it:
And after two weeks I began the
anxious ritual of compulsively checking my mailbox several times a day.
Nothing ever came.
Looking back, I’m sure he never
saw my letter, to which I say, “Thank GOD!” I never made a copy of the actual
text, but if 20/20 hindsight serves, it was full of your typical melodramatic
teenage prose. As a writer now, I’d rather die than have anyone see some of the
cringe-worthy material I put to paper back then; and here I was, sending a nice
fat slice of it off to the one person in the world whose opinion I valued over
all else. I shudder to think what he might have thought, had his eyes seen the
thing. And I never thought I’d say this, but if someone out there screened it
and tossed it into the recycling pile before he could get at it – Thanks.
My first year of college, not
satisfied with the grueling schedule and demands of journalism boot camp, I decided
to take a basic astronomy course. Why? Well, because, Brian May is an
astrophysicist, don’t you know. I hold no less wonder for the stars and planets
after having taken that course, but boy did it spoil an up-til-then stellar
GPA. Pun intended.
So this brings me back to why
finding out more and more about Brian May made him better and better. In other
words, livinglegend/rockstar/guitargod &c. &c. aside, here is why he
1) Let’s start with the brainy
Brian May was pursuing a Ph.D.
in astrophysics and stopped short of finishing that degree when Queen hit it
big and went full time. He designed and built a telescope to collect data for
his dissertation on zodiacal (interplanetary) dust, which, to my knowledge, is
still collecting data on the Canary Islands. (Picture above of Brian and his telescope, circa 1968 (?) used without permission but hopefully with forgiveness from Brian's Soapbox on www.brianmay.com.)
There’s more. If
ever there were
anyone who might have earned the right to rest on his laurels, it could
Brian. But after 30 years exploring stardom of a totally different
Queen, he decided to return to his notes and complete his thesis, which
just this year. He has received multiple honorary degrees but will
one he truly set out to earn next May, assuming his thesis is approved.
Here he is from just last week, capped and gowned in the robing room
and ready to receive an honorary doctorate from Exeter University:
(Photo by Phillip Webb, also used without permission but hopefully forgiveness from Bri's Soapbox.)
Brian also co-authored a book
on the history of the universe with astronomy colleagues Sir Patrick Moore and
Chris Lintott. “Bang! – The Complete
History of the Universe” was published late last year.
Good Lord. Sometimes, I can’t
even finish a crossword puzzle.
2) I talk a lot about magic and
intention on this website. For all intents and purposes, Brian built, from
scratch, a magical tool of his own, the famous “Red Special” guitar.
That’s right, Queen’s signature
sound comes from a home-made guitar. Luthiers and techies will appreciate the detailed information here,
but most people who read this blog will be content to know that the Red Special
was created with mahogany from a 19th century fireplace (plus oak
for the body – mahogany and oak being fiery trees, elementally speaking); the
body and neck were shaped by hand; the position inlays are made from
mother-of-pearl buttons; the tremolo is made from an old bicycle saddle bag
carrier and a knitting needle; and he plays this guitar with sixpence coins
instead of a regular pick. Most magical of all, I think, is that Brian built
this guitar with his Dad, Harold. They began work on it in 1963.
I haven’t been able to get much
into the discussion of the importance of creating one’s own magical tools yet
because that is not something I’ve had to do much of this year, but if the “Red
Special” doesn’t inspire one to make one’s own tools, I don’t know what will.
The immense amount of energy, creativity, intention and love that must have
gone into the making of that instrument is staggering to me – not to mention
where it has taken its owner. Magically speaking, it is on par with a wizard’s staff
or fire-forged sword (or in this case, ‘axe’). It is an illustration that “the
little self inside the creation” fosters a bond that renders the tool and the
bearer together quite powerful. (And I promise that that is about as Dungeons
and Dragons as I will ever get on this blog.)
3) And then, there’s the music.
Most people who’ve seen Brian as
a part of Queen know him as the reserved, quiet guitarist cultivating a healthy
aura of mystique. Women find him attractive, in part, because he seems shy and
like he might need a bit of mothering (I should say that this perceived quality applied to him 30 years ago, not now). Men find him attractive because his
guitar playing can rock the paint off cars.
Behind all that is a brilliant
composer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with remarkable range. He’s the
guy behind the testosterone-saturated “We Will Rock You,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,”
and “Tie Your Mother Down.” If you know Queen’s catalogue you’ll also know the
blistering “Stone Cold Crazy” or “Dead on Time,” the apocalyptic (but hopeful!) “Prophet’s
Song” and driving “Headlong.” In his solo career we have examples like
“Resurrection,” “China Belle,” and “The Guvnor.” Allow me to remind you that he
has been called one of the fathers of heavy metal.
But he also penned some of the
most lyrical, elegant, delicate and, well, sensitive songs ever. Brian has a
constellation of compositions linking almost every album (Queen and solo) that warp time and space,
or exist on a
liminal dreamlike plane, and/or are bound in a certain kind of melancholy
longing, often for something
untouchable or lost along the
way. I have to admit that these pieces are the ones that form a running
soundtrack perfectly matched to what I call my vast interior life. It’s a
place, perhaps unfortunately, where I live too much, but at least I can say
that it’s never boring. These compositions are the ones guaranteed to send me
there, leaving my body here with a faraway look on its face.
They’re also the ones that bleed
into reality in strange ways, like my experience with “Dreamer’s Ball.” In
World” pulled me out of a particularly dark place. In May of 2006, having
the Beltaine opportunity to touch the world of the White Queen breathed life
song, though from a totally different perspective.
Best of all of
these came again
in dream form last year, extraordinary also because it happened on a
island of sound sleep in an ocean of insomnia. In this dream, I was
Brian in an intimate, uncrowded concert. (This was Brian as he is now,
not circa 1975 as the picture at left may suggest.) After he finished
playing, he stepped
down from the stage to mingle with the fans. Enough of them thinned out
to be able to talk to him, and he greeted me as though he recognized
asked him, “Brian, how did you become sure that this was your
motioned to the stage and the idle instruments. He put on a thoughtful
a moment and then signaled to me to come closer. He looked into my eyes
said, “Pay attention now, because I am going to sing you the song of
becoming.” And he leaned forward, put his lips to my ear, and began to
was still singing when I woke up.
I stared at the ceiling of my tent (I
happened to be camping in the forest that day), feeling simultaneously blessed
and overwhelmed. Also, totally exasperated because the song completely
evaporated, as dreams often do in the sunlight. While the words and the melody
were gone, the feeling of it remained, however, and it reminded me of another of his
songs in real life. When I got back to the city I listened to it closely
for the first time in years, and discovered a whole new meaning.
To be clear, I’m not saying I
believe this man ‘visited’ me in my dreams or anything like that; but I believe
he is certainly the instrument my subconscious uses to remind me to continually
evolve into the best me I can be, invoking balance and harmony all the while.
There is a something and a someone that I will one day be, as yet untouchable,
and perhaps that is why I connect with Brian’s songs of longing. I guess that
through the example of Brian May-the-man comes Brian May-the-archetype, who
represents to me a kind of ideal – a harmony of empiricism and intuition,
science and art, reality and surreality, the ancient and the unfolding.
If this essay hasn’t jumped the
threshold of hero worship yet, it never will.
If at first you don't succeed...
Brian and Roger Taylor, plus
Paul Rodgers as a new front man for Queen, came here for a concert in the spring of 2006.
I got second row seats, stage way, WAY right. (Note to self: If they ever come back to America, get tickets stage left
next time because where his fretboard is, his face follows.) I was a
tiny individual in a throng
of really big (yes, I’m talkin’ sizewise) audience members. At the end
concert I jumped on my chair so that I could actually see Brian as he
forward on the catwalk to say good night. (The picture at the beginning
of this post shows how far away that was.) I flailed my arms around and
undiscernable from the cries of the stadium full of people. One of the
the venue asked me to step down from my seat because it might break.
I came home after this wonderful
concert and pounced on my computer to e-mail Brian. Less melodrama this
time. Short and sweet. (Contrary to the idea you might get, dear reader, from
this unabashedly self-indulgent essay, I am indeed capable of terse verse).
Remember how I said that any expression assumes or anticipates a witness? That
holds true for e-mails to rock stars too, but the difference was that this time
I knew the odds were against that assumption.
And here we are.
Hey, at least I saved the cost
of international shipping!
Occasionally, in my weaker
moments, I still sing the lament of the teenager who wrote the rock star 15
How can it be that, on a ribbon
of time stretching millions of years in either direction, and in a universe
chock full of galaxies containing countless suns and planets, two beings of the
same species may be allowed to be born within the same lifetime, on the same
rock, within a few thousand miles of each other … but then not be allowed to
know one another?
Maybe it’s just
ever-increasing awareness of limitations that comes with adulthood but
at it now and more and more I begin to think that there’s an order that
just should not be rearranged, or a veil that cannot be parted. I leave
it up to the guys at Pixar to
prove me wrong, but all the old myths seem to mostly preserve a kind of
natural laws that even the gods could not pervert. Not without great
and consequences, anyway.
And in truth, that veil is
necessary to holding the whole thing together, you know?
So, back to that crazy
phenomenon between performer and audience I referred to at the beginning of
this article, and which I illustrated shamelessly here with my own story. There
is the hero we create in our own mental and emotional landscapes, and
there is the hero sitting at home clipping his or her toenails. There is a very
real place where the two overlap, I think, but it exists in the
Twilight Zone. It is no less real, however.
Today is Brian’s 60th
birthday. He spent part of
it receiving an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.
Another day, another accolade! He continues to be a shining example of how to
follow one’s dreams and make them come true. I don’t know Brian May-the-man
at all, but what I know of his work and life brings out something special in me
– he inspires me to aim higher and to work harder, to be the best, motivated not
by competition or fear but by following those things about which I am
passionate – my tropism, my true vocation (which I am still figuring out... late bloomer). He
inspires me to have the courage to dream big as long as I have prepared a good
anchor ahead of time. He also gives me a spectacular soundtrack by which to work and play.
Ah, my inner teenager wants to
He’s also still one of the most
handsome men in this solar system.
Happy birthday and God bless
you, Brian. Thanks for being a continual teacher and inspiration, and for all
that magnificent music, veil notwithstanding.
Finally, God bless you readers
who stuck with this essay all the way to the end. And now, a real life paper
calls – if only I knew half as much about the life of 17th-century
herbalist/physician/astrologer Nicholas Culpeper as I do about Brian May!
Aside from the ones from Brian's personal website,
the concert photos I took, the photo of the centerfold of "News of the
World" from an eBay auction, and the last one of Brian in red with the
telescope, which bears a copyright to David Burden, all images here
are from the fan gallery at QueenZone.