Taken from The Times (May 21, 2017)
Brian May exclusive interview: Queen, debauchery and Freddie Mercury
Tragedy, debauchery … and dwarves — the guitarist Brian May gives Krissi Murison an access-all-areas account of his life with Freddie Mercury and rock’s most flamboyant band
by The Sunday Times
Killer queens: from left: Deacon, Mercury, May, Taylor, 1970
Brian May does a great Freddie Mercury impression. He leans forward in his chair, clasps his hands together conspiratorially and channels the high-speed, staccato delivery of the greatest showman of the late 20th century: “ ‘I had an idea … you know Michael Jackson did this album and it’s called Bad?’ Yeah, Fred. ‘Well, the album we’re making, we could call it Good.’ ”
May laughs. “He would always knock you sideways. Sometimes it was great and sometimes it wasn’t.”
The visitors to Freddie’s dressing room started to change from hot chicks to hot men. It didn’t matter to us — why should it?
May, the guitarist in Queen since their 1970 inception, remembers when Mercury finally announced to him that he was gay, “years after it was obvious”. “In the beginning, the band lived on a shoestring. We couldn’t afford individual hotel rooms, so I would share a room with Freddie … There isn’t a lot I don’t know about Freddie and what he got up to in those days — which was not men, I have to tell you. It was fairly obvious when the visitors to Freddie’s dressing room started to change from hot chicks to hot men. It didn’t matter to us, why should it? But Freddie had this habit of saying, ‘Well, I suppose you realise this, that or the other,’ in this very offhand way, and he did say at some point, ‘I suppose you realise I’ve changed in my private life?’
“And years later, he said, ‘I suppose you realise that I’m dealing with this illness.’ Of course, we all knew [he had Aids], but we didn’t want to. He said, ‘You probably gather that I’m dealing with this thing and I don’t want to talk about it and I don’t want our lives to change, but that’s the situation.’ And then he would move on.”
Dredging through old memories has been the subject of May’s latest project: a compilation book of his personal collection of 3D photos from his time striding around the globe during Queen’s heady reign of stadium-rock supremacy. The accompanying words mark the first time any member of Queen has written about their experiences in the band.
It is harrowing to read of Freddie’s final days and the devastating effect the HIV virus took on his body before he died in late 1991. “The problem,” May writes, “was actually his foot, and tragically there was very little left of it. Once, he showed it to us at dinner. And he said, ‘Oh Brian, I’m sorry I’ve upset you by showing you that.’ And I said, ‘I’m not upset, Freddie, except to realise you have to put up with all this terrible pain.’ ”
Equally hard is May’s belief that the “magic cocktail” of drugs that has since stopped Aids becoming a death sentence was discovered just too late to save Freddie.
“He missed by just a few months,” May sighs. “If it had been a bit later he would still have been with us, I’m sure. It’s very …” he breaks off sadly. “Hmmm. You can’t do ‘what if’ can you? You can’t go there because therein lies madness.”
Brian May on his Queen picture book and Freddie Mercury
Honestly, I had expected to meet a sanctimonious old git. May has been dubbed “the world’s grumpiest rock star” thanks to his online blog, Brian’s Soapbox, on which he posts pious rants about politics, the press, badger culls and animal rights. There are flashes of the same hectoring tone in the book. But it must be a mean trick of the typing, because in real life he seems a terribly gentle and pleasant soul.
I meet him in Windlesham, Surrey, in the vast pile where he has his offices. The bookshelves are lined with antique cameras and 19th-century volumes of Punch. In the middle of the room is a female mannequin wearing a sweeping Victorian crinoline skirt — another of May’s esoteric interests.
He wanders in wearing clogs, gardening trousers and a woven red jacket, almost as arresting as his bright grey corkscrew barnet. Under the jacket is a white shirt, unbuttoned dangerously low for someone who turns 70 in July. Bohemian chain pendants clatter against nipple as he leans in to say hello. He is very tall — or maybe that’s just the hair — and frightfully easy-going.
The wife of Brian: with Anita Dobson at London’s Roundhouse, 2015KEITH MAYHEW/NEWZULU/ALAMY
Tea is arranged and he briefly excuses himself. I assume he’s gone to use the facilities or take an urgent phone call. But after 20 minutes I look out the window to see him tottering around the back garden taking pictures of his rhododendron. Has he forgotten me? When he finally returns, it’s with a box containing his treasured collection of “stereoscopic” (3D) cameras and some of the original slides he took.
He shows me one of his favourites: a picture of Freddie and the Queen bassist John Deacon on a private plane in 1977. A blonde woman gazes at Freddie from the seat next to him.
High flyers: Mercury with Mary Austin, his girlfriend, and John Deacon, 1977
“That’s Mary, his long-term girlfriend.” Despite Mercury’s sexuality, Mary Austin was his longest relationship and the woman he called “the love of my life”. “They were still very close right to the end,” May nods. “He took care of Mary in his will.”
We look at another photo of Freddie having his make-up applied before a show. “You just feel he’s so close there, don’t you?” May smiles. “It’s almost painfully real. He was this strange mixture of flamboyance and shyness,” he says, remembering his first impressions of Mercury. “He had already built this image around himself, which was very confident and colourful. He was a rock star long before he made a record. In the old days they would have called him a dandy. And more recently a metrosexual. He was like a peacock, a person who brought his own fantasy to life.”
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, east Africa, to Indian Parsi parents in 1946. He had already started calling himself Freddie before his family came to England, fleeing the Zanzibar revolution for Feltham in west London when he was 17. May grew up a few miles away in leafy Hampton, a studious only child who would later quit a PhD in astrophysics at Imperial College London to pursue his rock’n’roll dreams. (He eventually completed it 36 years later in 2007, specialising in zodiacal dust.)
May tells me about the day he met Freddie. The guitarist was already in a university band called Smile. One day Smile’s singer unwittingly brought his colourful, outspoken mate from Ealing Art College to watch a rehearsal. “Freddie was full of enthusiasm, really fired up,” May remembers. “He loved watching us. Then, on the other hand, he was: ‘But you’re doing all of this wrong. Why are you just standing there looking at the floor? Why aren’t you giving a show for people?’ ”
Was he angling for the frontman job himself?
“I think so. He was very complimentary to me. He said, ‘You should be my Jimi Hendrix.’ Freddie loved Hendrix, he followed him everywhere, he was like a disciple.”
A band, Queen, was born with Mercury as singer. I had no idea how revolutionary his crowd interaction was until May explains that most audiences going to watch a rock band in the early 1970s would sit on the floor, nodding. “These days groups encourage audience participation, but Freddie asking people to sing along was almost uncool in those days. It was viewed as something that might happen in cabaret. What we did, if you want to be crass about it, is we amalgamated rock with music hall. That’s why we wrote We Are the Champions, We Will Rock You and Radio Ga Ga — it was consciously allowing the audience to be part of the show.”
Showtime: Mercury has make-up applied before a Queen concert, 1976
Then there were the outfits. May’s book features some beauties: early 1970s Freddie in flowing locks and Zandra Rhodes’s white pleated “winged” capes; gay-icon Freddie, barechested in black leather trousers and black leather biker hat; “Mediterranean prawn” Freddie with his porno moustache, bouffant wig and strappy red leotard.
Wasn’t he scared of getting beaten up?
“No, not really. There were times when we went, Fred, are you really going on in that? I think the maroon sequin shorts were close to the edge as far as we were concerned. But he loved to outrage people. We were very much a people’s band. If people stopped us in the street and got excited, it was generally bricklayers or truck drivers. Freddie had an amazing way of being in contact with everyone, making people feel like their inner selves were going to come out. We liberated a lot of people.”
Mercury the daring peacock, May the soft-spoken brainiac … it is hard not to see them as two polar opposites, but May disagrees. “We were all striding around the world being big-time rock stars, but actually we’re quite fragile inside. It’s probably the reason we’re rock stars, because it’s a big compensation thing, playing a loud guitar or strutting around singing. You do it because you want to feel confident, you want to find yourself and achieve your potential.”
It says much about Mercury’s light-sapping charisma that May spent much of his time in the shadow of the singer while he was alive. And it says much about May’s strategic brilliance that he hasn’t subsequently faded into obscurity, but become the figurehead of a band that is now even more successful than it was during Mercury’s lifetime. According to this year’s Rich List, May is worth £125m, while a recent survey named Queen the favourite band among fiftysomethings.
He will rock you: May hits a high note on the roof of Buckingham Palace, June 2002REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
Next year will finally see the release of a long-awaited Freddie Mercury biopic, with Rami Malek playing the singer, and May and Queen’s drummer, Roger Taylor, on board as music producers. We Will Rock You, a musical based on Queen’s hits, ran at the Dominion Theatre for 12 years from 2002. Since 2012, Queen have toured live with the American Idol finalist Adam Lambert singing Mercury’s lines (heresy in my opinion, but apparently Freddie would have loved him). Nothing, though, can eclipse May’s 2002 moment astride the top of Buckingham Palace, playing a guitar solo of God Save the Queen for the jubilee. The roof was his idea; the organisers had initially envisaged him wandering through the state rooms for the performance, but he thought it lacked impact. Perhaps he is more like Freddie than we will ever know.
Absent from any of the post-Mercury Queen activity is the bassist, John Deacon, now said to be a recluse. “I don’t see him at all, no,” says May. “It’s his choice. He doesn’t contact us. John was quite delicate all along. He could be very outgoing and very funny, but I think some of the stuff that happened in Munich gave him a lot of damage, and I think losing Freddie was very hard for him as well. He found that incredibly hard to process, to the point where actually playing with us made it more difficult.”
Munich was where Queen holed up at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s to write and record. Things got out of hand. May coyly refers to it in the book as a period of heavy drinking in a local bar, “living in a fantasy world of vodka and barmaids”.
Today he is more forthright: “We all lost our minds … we were all in a perilous place where our emotions were out of control. It manifested itself in way too much drinking, a certain amount of drugs, which I didn’t share — but certainly an awful lot of vodka went through my body. We all fell to bits. That’s the moment Freddie wrote It’s a Hard Life. If you look at the video, it’s a metaphor. There’s all this wonderful, fanciful clothing and excess of food, wine and debauchery, but Freddie’s saying ‘It’s a hard life’ as the grapes are thrust into his mouth. The Freddie writing that song was actually in a very painful, emotional place.”
It inevitably also had an impact on the band dynamic. “We overreacted with each other at times. We all left the band at some point. The studio’s a hard place for a band anyway, but in our case all four of us as writers had had worldwide hits — and I think that’s unique, I don’t think there’s another band in history where that’s true. You have four writers trying to create the next statement of what we are, so what could that statement be except a fight between the different visions? The lifestyle we led magnified that conflict.” In Deacon’s case, it culminated in “John disappearing to Bali and seeing God or whatever”.
When it comes to legendary Queen decadence, May’s book does its best to brush over the carnage. So let me be the one to remind you: there was the Madison Square Garden aftershow party at which male guests were served by topless waitresses in stockings and heels and female guests by men in nothing but gym shorts (to avoid accusations of sexism). And the champagne bill for Freddie’s 35th birthday in New York in 1981, which is said to have been £30,000. Most outrageous, though, was a 1978 album-release party in New Orleans, involving “a flock of transvestites, fire-eaters, dancing girls, snake charmers and strippers dressed as nuns”, according to Mark Blake’s well-respected Queen biography. The tales of what happened next range from the lurid (naked mud-wrestling, public fornication) to the unprintable, but perhaps the most famous involves a fleet of dwarves carrying platters of cocaine strapped to their heads. Does May remember seeing them?
“We knew a lot of dwarves,” he concedes. “I’m still very friendly with the dwarf community because my wife, Anita, used to do pantomimes. I don’t want to sound big-headed, but I’m pretty big in the dwarf world. I’ve spent many long nights propping up bars with dwarves.”
Of New Orleans, he says: “We chose to launch the album there because it was completely broad-minded. We knew a lot of people on the ‘edge of society’, as you would have called it then. You wouldn’t call it that now, you’d call it LGBTBF or whatever it is now. To that party came all sorts of pretty outrageous performers of every sex — and there are a lot! It was fun, nothing sinister went on at all. Nobody was abused, nobody was taken advantage of.”
Fat Bottomed Girls — I was proud of that song. The nude photoshoot was fun at the time, but I wouldn’t find it amusing now. Attitudes change
He would rather distance himself from some of Queen’s less politically correct japes. “For instance, Fat Bottomed Girls. I am very proud of that song, but as part of the album packaging we had this nude [female] bicycle race for a photo session and it all seemed quite innocent and fun at the time. Now I wouldn’t think that was amusing. Attitudes have changed to lots of things.”
He was far from the hardest-partying member of Queen. He’s never even tried drugs, having decided while still a student that “I want to get to the end of this and know that everything I felt was real”.
His weakness was always “company”. He bemoans his sensitive and emotionally immature nature, which meant he was endlessly trawling the world for “the perfect bond with the perfect partner … the place where you could dissolve with someone to the point where you don’t know where they start and you end.”
Did he ever find it? “No, it’s impossible. I’ve glimpsed it. Various times, various moments. But it’s a wonderful fiction, really.”
Don’t feel too bad for him. While he was searching, his then-wife, Chrissie Mullen, was stuck at home with their three children.
“It was very different in those days. There were no mobile phones and phone calls were incredibly expensive if you were on the other side of the world. There was this feeling that life on the road was this separate bubble from your life back home. Nowadays you can’t even begin to think that because communication is so good. We lived in a time that was very exciting, but lonely because you were cut off. You were exploring the frontiers of what was around you, but also the frontiers of what was inside you. In the same way as people who went to look for the Northwest Passage in the 1950s. It felt a bit like you were an explorer in another universe.”
As justifications for adultery go, I suppose it’s a pretty classy one.
He met his second wife, Anita Dobson — aka Angie, the original Queen Vic landlady from EastEnders — in 1986 at a film premiere, while he was still married to Mullen. He and Dobson wed in 2000. There was much amusement in the early days about them both having the same huge poodle perms — though May’s is the real deal and Dobson has been platinum and straight for some time now. In his book’s acknowledgments, he thanks her for managing to live with “possibly the most infuriating man in Britain for 30 years”.
“I know I’m not easy,” he says. “I’m constantly obsessed with one thing or another — astronomy, stereoscopy, music, saving animals … Living with someone like that is appallingly difficult, so I think she deserves a medal. I’m not going to tell you she’s easy, either. She’s an artist and a fearsomely creative person, so our life has always been turbulent, but I suppose that’s what’s kept us young.”
He has previously spoken about the depression he suffered from in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he dealt with the fallout from his first marriage breaking down and the deaths of both his father and Mercury. Last year he cancelled a tour due to a mystery “persistent illness”. And on Christmas Day he published an alarming blog on Brian’s Soapbox. “I’ve been going through some radical and painful changes in my life … if you had seen me a few weeks ago, you would’ve wondered if I was going to make it to Christmas,” he wrote, before publishing a “tool kit” of apps, a book and a prayer to help others struggling to cope “physically or mentally or spiritually”.
“I went through a very bad period before Christmas and cancelled everything, not just the tour, everything,” he explains. “I just knew I couldn’t handle it.”
Would he call it depression?
Do stop me now: The notorious poster that was inside Queen’s 1978 album, Jazz© 1978 ELEKTRAL ASYLUM RECORDS, INC
“Strangely enough I prefer not to call it depression now. I’ve recently got very much into the body and mind. All my life I’ve been pathetic at doing exercises. I now have a regime — every morning I do 40 minutes’ exercise, then I finish with meditation. It’s really enabled me to recentre. I feel like I’m in a much better place.”
He is an advocate of mindful meditation — a way of living in the present that he believes Mercury used in the final days of his illness. May is happy to speak openly about his own mental health. “I noticed Prince Harry opened up in a similar way. I’ve always thought it’s nice to be open and I get reinforced in that because I get tons of mail saying the fact that you talked about it has helped me feel like I wasn’t alone and wasn’t a freak. I don’t think all this taboo business is helpful at all.”
I wonder if it might be a better use of his platform than his zealous activism on behalf of badgers, which seems a rather niche concern. In brief, then: he is a fierce campaigner against the policy of culling badgers to try to eradicate bovine TB. It is his scientific belief that the cull isn’t working. But it is muddled by his more deep-seated conviction: “Martin Luther King said we hold it self-evident that every man is born equal. I hold it self-evident that every creature is born equal.”
He can point to numerous childhood traumas that led him to this conclusion: watching his mother pour boiling water over an invasion of ants on the path outside his house; squirting a bumblebee with the pesticide DDT, then recoiling in shame as it dropped to the ground, buzzing to its slow and agonising death. If he hasn’t yet had therapy for the latter, he really should.
The animal fanaticism is odd, because on everything else he seems so calmly rational. Perhaps he learnt some of that composure from Freddie. Despite his pain, Freddie was determined to keep working during the band’s final days together in a recording studio in Montreux.
“What we did was get on with business as usual, which is what Freddie wanted,” May remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t want anything to change. We just do what we always do and we love what we do, so it’s going to be fine.’ Certainly those days towards the end were fabulous, full of laughter and joy, Freddie as wicked as ever. He was incredibly matter-of-fact about everything. ‘Oh darling, I’ll just get on with it.’ There wasn’t any self-pity at all. He wanted a ballad, so I very quickly sketched something in the studio and Freddie liked it. He said, ‘Gimme some words’. It was a question of scribbling a few lines and he’d chuck a couple of vodkas down — because he could hardly stand at that point — ‘Oh darling, I’ll do it now.’ Then he’d prop himself up on the desk and sing the lines. We didn’t quite get to the end. I gave him the last verse and he said, ‘Oh darling, I’m not feeling too good now, so I’ll come back to it. In a couple of days I’ll be fine, we’ll do it then.’ And he never did.”
May finished the song after Mercury’s death. It’s called Mother Love, “an attempt from the two of us to look at life and sum it up, to reconcile the end with the beginning, although we wouldn’t have put it that way.”
What does he think Freddie would be doing now if he were still alive? “I don’t think he’d have the patience for social media, because I hardly do and he was much more impatient than me. I don’t think he would be tweeting, he would probably be still writing his little memos on pieces of paper. He was becoming more and more reclusive towards the end of his life. That was partly because he was becoming more and more visible, but partly not wanting his illness to be public. But he was very private anyway and I think that would have continued.”
He is adamant Mercury would still be creating music. “His creativity would have carried on. He was unstoppable and very lateral-thinking. Always coming up with things that were surprising. Often Roger and I, if we’re creating something for Queen, both of us have said that we feel like he’s in the room and you know what he’d say. You can tell if he would have been scornful or enthusiastic — although of course the whole thing about Freddie was that he wasn’t expected.”
We have touched upon May’s depression, infidelity, the painful death of one of his closest friends and the painful death of a bee. Yet there is one subject so sensitive, I have avoided raising it until the very end. His hair. He hates talking about it, but he must on some level like the attention it brings, otherwise why doesn’t he just cut it off?
“I’m comfortable with it,” he says. “It’s completely real. For a time when it was going grey I got very worried that I had to keep it a certain way or I wouldn’t be me any more. Anita encouraged me not to worry about it.”
Would he ever cut it off?
“If it would achieve world peace, I’d do it tomorrow. If it would stop the badger cull, I’d probably do it tomorrow. Because the badger cull is a worthless, senseless operation, it’s not working and sooner or later our government has to realise …”
The images in May’s new book are not just any photos, but 3D pictures, taken on one of the Queen guitarist’s prized “stereoscopic” cameras.
Alongside music, astronomy and badgers, May is deliriously passionate about 3D photography. He first became hooked, aged 12, when Weetabix gave away free stereoscopic picture cards. He petitioned his parents to send off 1s 6d for the photo viewer so he could see them properly in 3D. “It’s probably about £2.50 by today’s money. But we were poor in those days — £2.50 was a lot of heating and lighting.”
“Stereoscopic” photography was originally a Victorian phenomenon and May’s book is published through the London Stereoscopic Company, a 19th-century business he brought back to life in 2008. He has also designed and prototyped his own stereoscopic photo viewer, the Owl, to see the images in their full, 3D majesty; it comes with the book. “It’s just magic to me,” he says, “when you see a picture of Freddie in the viewer and he springs to life.”