Sunday, 25 October 2015

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY AT 40: THIS IS WHAT THE LYRICS ARE REALLY ABOUT!

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Queen fans have been arguing the toss for years.

Although 'Bohemian Rhapsody''s creator, the late Freddie Mercury, never explained the lyrics, declaring vaguely that they were 'just about relationships' with 'a bit of nonsense in the middle', conflicting theories about the song's true meaning are as rife today as they have ever been. While Queen's surviving members - guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and retired bassist John Deacon - have always protected their frontman's most closely-guarded secret, intense speculation persists.

Forty years this month since Queen's soaring, decadent magnum opus was originally released, I can reveal the song's true meaning. The 'baroque'n'roll' classic was not, contrary to popular belief, Freddie Mercury's attempt at writing a song to upstage Led Zeppelin's folk-rock epic 'Stairway to Heaven'. Nor was it merely a fictitious fantasy, describing a random individual confessing a murder to his mother, pleading poverty at his trial, and resigning himself to a tragic fate - never revealing the identity of whom he had killed, nor why. It could not have been, as has been widely reported, Freddie's lament about having become infected with the AIDS virus. He conceived the idea for the song in the late 1960s, and dabbled with it for years, only completing, recording and releasing it with the band in late 1975. He was not diagnosed as HIV positive until ten years later.

It wasn't even a deliberate 'showcase single' of everything this superlative rock band was capable of, not only musically and lyrically, but also collectively and individually - as numerous music scholars around the world believe. The truth, though simply, is infinitely more personal.

The song was recorded originally for Queen's studio LP 'A Night at the Opera'. Realising its chart potential, the band drummed up support among radio DJs such as Kenny Everett and 'Diddy' David Hamilton for the unusually long (5:55 minutes) album track to be released as a single. It was, despite having broken every rule in the pop-hit-writing manual, an instant commercial success. It became the Christmas single of 1975, held its own at the top of the UK singles chart for nine weeks, and had sold more than a million copies by the end of January 1976. The single was accompanied by an avant-garde promotional video directed by Bruce Gowers, which is still considered definitive and ground-breaking, and which kick-started the MTV pop-video boom.
It reigned at number one again in 1991 for five weeks following Mercury's death, eventually becoming the UK's third best-selling single of all time - after Elton John's 'Candle In the Wind/Something About the Way You Look Tonight' (reworked for the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997), and the 1984 Band Aid fund-raiser 'Do they Know it's Christmas'. It was thus the first same-version song ever to reach number one twice in the UK.

It also topped the charts in various foreign territories, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and The Netherlands. In the United States, the song originally peaked at number nine in 1976. It returned at number two in 1992 after getting an airing in the smash-hit movie 'Wayne's World'.

In 2004, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Seven years later, BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs listeners chose it as their all-time favourite pop song. In 2012, it topped an ITV nationwide poll to find "The Nation's Favourite Number One" over 60 years of music. It is reckoned that the song is still played somewhere in the world at least once every hour. Despite Queen having released a total of 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles and ten number one DVDs worldwide, making them one of the planet's best-selling rock acts, not to mention the fact that they are the only group in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, it remains the song that defines them, their most enduring work. Largely because of it, Queen have overtaken The Beatles to become the UK album chart leaders.

Although critical reaction was initially mixed, 'Bo Rap', the name by which it is known affectionately in the music business, frequently makes lists of the greatest songs of all time.

All this, without anyone but Freddie ever knowing what the song really means.

Lead guitarist Dr. Brian May has always acknowledged Freddie's sole authorship of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', saying that when the singer first turned up with it, 'he seemed to have the whole thing worked out in his head.'

It was, Brian said, 'an epic undertaking.' The song comprises an a capella introduction, an instrumental sequence of piano, guitar, bass and drums, a mock-operatic interlude and a loaded monster-rock crescendo, before fading into its contemplative 'nothing really matters' conclusion. To the rest of the band, the piece at first seemed insurmountable.

'We were all a bit mystified as to how he was going to link all these pieces,' admitted Brian.

The song fetched to life a host of obscure classical characters: Scaramouche, a clown from the Commedia dell'arte; 16th Century astronomer and father of modern science Galileo; Figaro, the principal character in Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville, and the Marriage of Figaro, from which operas by Paisiello, Rossini and Mozart had been composed; Beelzebub, identified in the Christian New Testament as Satan, Prince of Demons, and in Arabic as 'Lord of the Flies', or 'Lord of the heavenly dwelling'. Also from Arabic, the word bismillah is drawn: a noun from a phrase in the Qur'an meaning 'in the name of God, most gracious, most merciful'.

In 1986, I found myself in a hotel suite with Freddie Mercury, during Queen's 'A Kind of Magic' world tour. Having his undivided attention for a few moments, I put to him, not for the first time, my theory about these characters. Scaramouche, I ventured, had to be Freddie himself, with a penchant for the 'tears of a clown' motif. Galileo was obviously astronomer, astrophysicist and mathematician Brian May. Beelzebub must be Roger Taylor, the band's wildest party animal, while Figaro was perhaps not the operatic character at all, but the tuxedo kitten in Walt Disney's 1940 animated classic 'Pinocchio' - a dead ringer for 'pussy cat' John Deacon. Well, Freddie did adore his feline friends.

Freddie's face was a picture. He didn't say a word. He looked even more perplexed when I asked him about the song's inspiration. I suggested in so many words that it was, in fact, a thickly-disguised confession about his sexual orientation. Having been raised in a close, intensely religious Parsee community, adherents of the monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism dating back to 6th Century BC Persia (modern-day Iran), Freddie had never been at liberty to live a publicly flamboyant lifestyle. Not only would this have offended his parents, but their religion does not recognise nor tolerate homosexuality. He was never able to live openly as a gay man. He shared his life for seven years with devoted girlfriend Mary Austin, before admitting to her that he thought he might be bisexual.
'No, Freddie,' responded Mary, 'I think you're gay.' From then on, apart from a brief, intense affair with the late German actress Barbara Valentin in Munich in 1984, conducted at the same time as liaisons with two male partners, he had sexual relationships only with men. He did not refuse to discuss all this with me. What he said about these questions was 'bad timing!'

Only after Freddie's death from AIDS-related illness in November 1991, when I went to spend a week with his long-term live-in lover Jim Hutton at Jim's bungalow in County Carlow, south-east Ireland, did the truth about 'Bohemian Rhapsody' emerge.

One evening after supper, we took a stroll in Jim's garden, where he proudly showed me his lilac 'Blue Moon' roses, which Freddie had adored. The conversation turned to his former partner's most famous creation.

'You were right about 'Bohemian Rhapsody',' said Jim.

'Freddie was never going to admit it publicly, of course, because he always had to carry on the charade about being straight, for his family. But we did discuss it on numerous occasions. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' WAS Freddie's confessional. It was about how different his life could have been, and how much happier he might have been, had he just been able to be himself, the whole of his life. The world heard this song as a masterpiece of imagination, a great command of musical styles. It was this remarkable tapestry. It was so intricate and had so many layers, but the message, if hidden, was simple. Just as the management, the band, all of us in his life, never admitted that Freddie was even ill, not until the day before he died - because it was his business - he felt the same about this song.

'Not only that, but you'd have to say that he was a bit bored by the relentless interest in it. He didn't 'reveal' what it was all about because he couldn't be bothered. He had said all that he was ever going to say about it - which wasn't very much. Others have stated over the years that it was better for the song's true meaning never to be made public, because it would last much longer if its aura of mystique was maintained. I disagree. I don't think that matters. The song has proved itself over and over. It has stood the test of time. It isn't going anywhere. Freddie will be known throughout the world forever because of it.'

However convoluted and obscure, said Jim, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was 'Freddie as he truly was.'

Jim died of cancer in 2010.

During the course of my research for my biography of Freddie Mercury, I discussed the song at length with arguably the UK's greatest living lyricist, Sir Tim Rice. Having collaborated with Freddie on songs for the 'Barcelona' album with Montserrat Caballé, the co-creator of 'The Lion King' and 'Evita' knew Freddie better than most.

'It's fairly obvious to me that this was Freddie's coming out song,' Tim told me.
'I've even spoken to Roger Taylor about it. There is a very clear message contained in it. This is Freddie admitting that he is gay.

''Mama, I just killed a man': he's killed the old Freddie he was trying to be. The former image.

''Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he's dead': he's dead, the straight person he was originally. He's destroyed the man he was trying to be, and now this is him, trying to live with the new Freddie.

''I see a little silhouetto of a man'; that's him, still being haunted by what he's done and what he is.

'Every time I hear the record on the radio, I think of him trying to shake off one Freddie and embracing another - even all these years after his death. Do I think he managed it? I think he was in the process of managing it, rather well.

'Freddie was an exceptional lyricist, and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is beyond any doubt one of the great pieces of music of the twentieth century.'

There are further clues in a track from Queen's fifteenth and final studio album, 'Made In Heaven', which was released in 1995, four years after Freddie's death.

'A Winter's Tale' was Freddie's swansong. He wrote and composed the song in his Montreux apartment overlooking Lake Geneva, which he loved. The lyrics, describing all that he could see from his window, celebrate the peace and contentment he found there towards the end. The song's title is an homage to William Shakespeare's romantic play, and alludes to Freddie's early songwriting inspiration. One protagonist of the Shakespeare play is Polixenes, the King of Bohemia: an ancient kingdom which corresponds roughly to the modern-day Czech Republic. As such, it may have germinated 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. If, as presumed by many Bard scholars, this play was an allegory on the demise of Anne Boleyn, its character Perdita was based on the daughter of Anne and King Henry VIII, who would become Elizabeth 1st, England's Queen

The band's original greatest hit laced through Freddie's final offering? It's not impossible.

Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones is published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, and in numerous translations worldwide

Friday, 9 October 2015

JOHN LENNON THE TORTURED GENIUS, ON WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN HIS 75TH BIRTHDAY

I wrote this piece for the Mumbai-based news and culture website The Wire, published today.


'The more I have, the more I see, and the more experience I get, the more confused I become as to who I am, and what the hell life is all about.'
John Lennon, 1965

I never met John Lennon. I came to the party a little too late. I was only just out of college and working for Chrysalis Records in London when the news broke that John had been killed. The ground floor of our West End building housed the production offices of AIR Studios, Beatles producer George Martin's recording business. The entire staff gathered in shock to mark the moment. I will never forget the look on George's face.

George had weathered with dignity, throughout the Seventies, endless public vitriol from his former charge. Lennon belittled George's 'influence' and input, and denied him credit, while McCartney, Harrison and Starr, George revealed, 'were always sweet.' Implacably loyal, George was of course distressed by the news of John's murder. There would not even be a funeral at which to pay his final respects. In the end, he fled to Montserrat, where he had opened his dream residential studio the previous year. He sat for hours, staring at the ocean, he later told me, while listening to Lennon in his head. The recording complex, indeed the whole island, would be flattened by Hurricane Hugo within the decade.

Only after John's death did I begin to cross paths with others who had shared John's life, and who shaped my understanding of him. Paul, George and Ringo. Maureen Starkey, Ringo's first wife, who became a good friend. Linda McCartney, with whom I collaborated briefly on 'Mac the Wife', a memoir which never progressed. Cynthia Lennon, who invited me to discuss a new book. Her first, 'A Twist of Lennon', published in 1978, had left a bitter taste. She had been so frustrated at not being able to communicate with John after he left her that she had written the book as a 'long, open letter to him, pouring it all out.' With hindsight, she said, she would have done it differently. Now that the dust had settled on John's death, she was keen to have another go. But she became immersed in a doomed restaurant venture, and the project was shelved. Years later, in 2005, she published 'John', a second memoir, which was much bolder and more confessional than her first.

As a journalist, I accompanied their son Julian to the Montreux Rock Festival during the mid-Eighties. I met Yoko numerous times in London and New York. Like everyone else, I read Philip Norman's 'Shout!', Peter Brown's and Steven Gaines's 'The Love You Make', that infamous Albert Goldman biography, Hunter Davies's 'The John Lennon Letters', and of course Marc Lewisohn's matchless 'Tune In'. Thus, like everyone else, I formed and borrowed opinions of a man I never knew.

Who can imagine what it was like to be a Beatle? Not even John Lennon, so it seems. All he had, at the height of the band's Sixties fame and significance, was a terrifying awareness of his own inner void. He was dogged by a deep sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction over the material things that fortune had afforded him. Neither recognition nor reward provided the answers to the questions that had tormented him since he had first begun to think about the meaning of life.

Sickened by his fear that 'this is all there is', John considered religion. At one point, he even asked God for a 'sign'. When nothing was forthcoming, he withdrew into his imagination, concluding that 'God' was simply energy that vibrates endlessly throughout the universe, and that it was probably benign. Still, he longed for a theme, a code to live by, that would shape his existence and give it a point. It was through drugs, principally LSD, that he landed on love.

An invitation for the Beatles to perform for the first live international satellite TV broadcast in June 1967, to an audience of four hundred million people around the globe, provided the perfect opportunity to promote his new theme to the world. Having fallen for his own publicity, John embarked on a mega-mission, to 'improve humanity'. This decision, however deluded, inspired the penning of the song they performed for that historic broadcast, 'All You Need is Love'. You want to save the world? Fit your own oxygen mask first. For what else is love but wanting to be loved?

But his stance chimed uncomfortably with the personality trait that had long kept him sane: his inherent cynicism. He clung to it nonetheless, a limpet to a rock, until Yoko Ono arrived and became that rock personified. Despite both the world's and the Beatles' rejection of this curious interloper, she was his constant, his one true thing. Into the sunset they strode, hand in hand, in search of world peace.

They would never get away with it today. But those were different, pre-politically correct times. One could still denounce the self-serving great and good and expose them for corruption, and go unpunished. John the peace-seeking missile hailed the human imagination as the key to salvation both collective and individual. His most famous and best-loved song, 'Imagine', took the three hottest taboo subjects, religion, patriotism and materialism, and coaxed us to consider them from alternative perspectives. In the absence of heaven and hell - it's easy if you try - there would be no fear of repercussion in the afterlife. Without frontiers - it isn't hard to do - we'd become citizens of the world, and could choose to live more harmoniously. As for overcoming our materialism - I wonder if you can - wouldn't the world be a better place if we could do what we were taught to do as children, and simply share?

'Imagine' was the distillation of everything that had hitherto preoccupied John Lennon. It reached for the stars in its attempt to inspire people from all walks of life, all over the world, and to transcend barriers of every kind. It succeeded, to a point, but was idealistic in the extreme. Look at us now.
*

Convicted assassin Mark Chapman aside: who, or what, really killed John Lennon? And when did the 'real' John Lennon die? For what is clear is that the four bullets which penetrated his body that fateful night in New York City on 8th December 1980 were just, so to speak, the final nail.

Was it his tragically dysfunctional upbringing, during which John was deserted by his father Freddie and virtually abandoned by his bohemian mother Julia into the care of her older sister, 'Aunt Mimi' - ? He subsequently lost his head to music, his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe to a brain tumour, his reckless mother in a car crash at the end of his street, and his heart to fellow student Cynthia Powell, who relieved him of his boyhood by getting pregnant and 'having' to marry him, long before he was ready for responsibilities. Consider his sexual dalliances with Beatles Svengali Brian Epstein; his self-damning declaration that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ; his secret true-love affair with British popular singer Alma Cogan, whose early death from cancer rendered him suicidal; how he was hijacked out of his ill-fated marriage by Yoko, a manipulative Japanese artist who decided to become his second wife, virtually giving up her daughter Kyoko in order to ensnare him, and destroying the band that had made her Intended a superstar.

Or was it John's own cruel, collapsible, convoluted personality that had been destroying him since early childhood? Had the women in his life emasculated him, and drained him of all but the will to live? How withered was he in later years by the guilt he felt over first wife Cynthia having to debase herself when her paltry divorce settlement ran dry, penning tawdry tell-alls, opening eateries, designing cheap bed linens, marrying chauffeurs to make ends meet? Was his left-wing activism, all that giving peace a chance, some cynical smokescreen for how little he really cared about mankind? Imagine no possessions, while owning planes and boats, infinite farms and multi-million dollar real estate? Do any of the tangled conspiracy theories that have gained traction down the decades hold water? Could the CIA and the FBI have been to blame?

*

Was music John's salvation? Probably not. He was a rod for his own back, in so many ways. In 'personalising the political, and politicising the personal', he made music too complicated for his own good. Never less than an artist of integrity, he challenged everything, even his own songwriting. He was the first to admit that his early lyrics were sexist, adjusting his approach to reflect his feminist side in later years. He believed fervently in the notion that popular music had a far more important job to do than simply entertain. He took risks, and often fell short, but seemed always true to himself... or as true as he could be. The Beatles excelled because they broke rock'n'roll's rules, both in song structure and in lyric-writing. The icing on their cake was John, whose sharp wit and sardonicism, whose love of riddles and puns and plays-on-words lifted their music into hitherto unheard realms. He experimented with the impossible, cramming mere pop songs with subliminal messages and layering them with clashing sentiments until they were almost too much. Listen to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' for proof. To the psychadelic 'Across the Universe'.

The so-called 'White Album', 'The Beatles', may be John at his most bitter, furious, frustrated, committed, mad, sad, vituperative, political and reflective. Then again, what about the 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono' band album, delivering his devastating denunciation of the Beatles - 'the dream is over' - and featuring the irresistible acoustic ballad 'Working Class Hero', John's gutted acknowledgement of what, thanks to global fame and unimaginable fortune, he was no longer able to be. Finally, from the last LP of his lifetime, 'Double Fantasy', 'Watching the Wheels': admitting why he stopped making music during the 'house-husband' years. Having found his own heaven on earth - domestic bliss, such as it was, with Yoko and his second son, Sean - 'I just had to let it go.'
*

What if he were here today? What sense might the seventy five-year old ex-Beatle have made of what our world has become? Would he have made the peace with McCartney that he denied his childhood friend towards the end? Might there even have been a Beatle reunion before George Harrison's death in 2001? I don't need to answer that one, do I.

John Lennon did the most important thing that a rock star can do: he died young. Instead of becoming a bloated, bitter, self-important old has-been with no new inspiration to share, rehashing the hits, busting a gut to write relevant songs and traipsing out endlessly on last-ever world tours, he was cut off in his prime and became a legend. He is preserved at that age, and for all that he stood for, into eternity.


Much of what we remember him for today may well be little more than an illusion. But from where I'm standing, it is not a bad way to go.  

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

KEYBOARD WIZARD WAKEMAN'S OUTRAGE OVER DROPPING OF MUSIC FROM NATIONAL CURRICULUM

Grumpy Old Rock Star Rick Wakeman, the former Strawbs and Yes keyboardist and globally-acclaimed solo artist whose career spans more than half a century, delivered an impassioned speech about music and the state of the industry at this year's Tom Olsen Lecture at the 'journalists' church' St. Bride's, Fleet Street, London last night. 
Focusing on the 'shameful' dropping of music from our schools' national curriculum, the prog-rocker also worked up a lather over the way our music industry has failed musicians, and blamed 'replacement' for the loss of musical genres and styles which all too often spells the collapse of earnings for its purveyors and performers. He also cited technology as something of a 'curse that at times outweighs its blessings'; called for the internet to be brought under greater control; for a greater range of professional orchestras to be restored; for formatted radio and playlists to be abolished in favour of the return of creative DJs with their own eclectic record collections; and for music to be widely available in proper shops again. In his heyday, he noted, London boasted no fewer than seventeen fully-functional recording studios, all of which he worked in. At the time of writing, there are but two.
The former Royal College of Music student told of his tuneful awakening at the age of five; of the realisation, at the advent of Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle, that anybody could be in a band; charmed his audience back through the 'Baroque & Roll' period of the 17th to mid 18th Centuries, when the first 'show-off musicians' came to the fore: Antonio Vivaldi, the wild-haired priest who performed in his clerical robes; and Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin, who toured to huge crowds, women fainting at their feet. Rick wrote the score for Ken Russell's mad 1975 movie 'Lisztomania' - think the Pope played by Ringo Starr, and priapic, prancing Roger Daltrey as Liszt - describing his mother's delight convoluting to horror as Rick's own role in the piece evolved.
His knowledge of the great classical composers proved to be beyond scholarly. He revealed his personal favourites, and what they mean to him: Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff ... Dawson (Les) ... and performed a hilarious pastiche of nursery rhymes showcasing their disparate styles.
The piece de rĂ©sistance was his recollection of Seventies pop star Cat Stevens - better known, today, as the education philanthropist Yusuf Islam - hiring Rick to compose, arrange and perform the glorious piano part on his rendition of the Christian hymn 'Morning has Broken' in 1971, for his album 'Teaser and the Firecat'. The original hymn being less than a minute long, it was Rick's inspired imaginings, trills, repetitions and key-changes which extended and brought it to life. For this, he was paid no more than the standard session musician's fee of £9 ... which he didn't actually receive for thirty seven years. The track, released as a single, was an international hit. It remains instantly recognisable almost forty five years later. Rick was never credited for his significant contribution, remarkably. He concludes, however, that the song is a beautiful piece of music 'that has helped bring people closer to religious truth', and is 'grateful' to have played a part in it.
As he performed it, eyes wide shut, tuned in to but oblivious of his audience, one could hear an eyelash drop. A most moving and magical event.

THE OLSEN LECTURE
Tom Olsen had a long career in journalism both in London and the provinces. He worked as reporter, leader-writer, editor and author. He had a great love of writing, whether under his own name, or under the nom de plume John Morrell. He was also a devotee of the grape, and spent the last fifteen years of his life as the wine correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.
Tom was an enthusiast for the Church of St Bride, which during his time shared Fleet Street with the nation’s press. When Tom died in 1987, it was felt that his memory should be perpetuated through a trust that bears his name, with the aim of furthering the work of St Bride’s. Over the years, lawyers, writers, politicians and others have given the annual address. Past speakers include David Attenborough, PD James, Peter Hitchens, The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Simpson, Lord Rees-Mogg, Sir Oliver Popplewell, Miss Jane Asher, the Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe, the Hon. George Osborne and Nigel Farage MEP. The lecture is an important sell-out event on the St. Bride's calendar.