On Saturdays, I write about my create-dates and my current creative doings and musings. This week I spent the date with Freddie Mercury, or rather, his reincarnation by Rami Malek in the new film, named after their most famous song. And got my definitive answer to the question people are always asking: What Are the Words of Bohemian Rhapsody About?
Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, documents the rise of British rock band Queen, from its formation in 1970, when the four band members were at Ealing Art School together, up to the show-stealing appearance at Live Aid in 1986.
Plaudits have rightly been showered on actor Rami Malek for his recreation of the Queen frontman, and this movie has launched a major acting career. Malek captures to perfection the raw, dramatic, sensitive, camp, vulnerable, crazy, self-absorbed personality of the magnificent Mr Mercury.
I just loved the film and it gave me a really rich create-date. Brilliant nostalgic fun, dancing down memory lane with all the old hits, recalling where I was, when.
But, more meaningfully, reminding me of my admiration for Freddie and confirming my answer to the puzzle that never seemed very puzzling to me: the meaning of Queen's instant masterpiece, “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
What has always baffled me, actually, is how people don’t see what for me is screamingly obvious: this is Freddie’s coming-out song.
Coming out not just as a gay man but also as a particular kind of artist: the flamboyant rock frontman, the grand, operatic gay jester, the queen of Queen.
Freddie's story has resonance for all creatives. Until I saw Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, I never understood why I've felt so drawn to people like him. (The character of Richard in my novel Before The Fall is based on a childhood friend who had a personality very like Freddie's, and who also died too young from “complications arising from the AIDS virus”. See here to meet Richard in this extract, posted yesterday.)
Watching this film, I finally understood my attraction. It hit me when Ben Hardy playing drummer Roger Taylor was explaining to record executives who likes Queen, and why.
We're four misfits who don't belong together, we're playing for the other misfits. They're the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We're pretty sure they don't belong either. We belong to them.
I recalled my teenage bedroom back in 1975, in rural Ireland, spinning A Night At The Opera, over and again and thought: Yes! Of course!
So many creatives grow up feeling like that. Back then those feelings utterly confused me, and often overwhelmed me. It has taken a lifetime in creative work, and a nine-book series about creativity, for me to fully understand.
To consciously create anything is always, by definition, to be a misfit. Creating something new means breaking borders, dissolving limits, disrupting the status quo, challenging established conventions (our own and other people's).
The creative paradox is: beneath this impulse to breach the barricades runs an equally strong longing to belong. To be safe. To love and be loved. To be approved of.
As we're all creative, and all creating all the time (whether we know it or not) this complex conflict is constantly playing out in every human life. People handle the conflect between these two polarities in different ways.
Nobody ever lived this conflict louder and prouder than Freddy Mercury. And no artwork ever explained it better than his masterpiece, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Bohemian Rhapsody: Composition: Is This The Real Life?
Freddie always refused to say what his song was about. “Just about relationships,” he would declare, with deliberate vagueness. “With a bit of nonsense in the middle.”
If a journalist probed more deeply, getting close, he'd say “bad timing, darling”.
The most he put on record was this:
It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them. “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research…
The album released on 31st October, 1975. At that time, Freddie was still in his long-term relationship withMary Austin, a love affair that began when they were both students at Ealing college. At this time, though, he'd begun to openly cheat on her with men.
Finally, in December 1976, he told her he thought he was bi-sexual.
“Freddie,” she replied. “You're gay.” (A realization that, if the film is to be believed, dropped for her when she saw him with one of the few openly gay men in Britain at that time, DJ, Kenny Everett).
Part of Freddie's, and Queen's, silence about the meaning of the song was the only proper artistic response. Everything went into the song. It couldn't, still can't, be reduced to a pat answer.
A work of art is its own explanation.
The other motive for silence was a wish by four nice guys to protect Freddie's parents. Even as he came out to Mary and the rest of the world, Freddie remained in the closet with his family.
His mother reported to the Daily Telegraph, twenty years after his death, how he would always deflect talk about his lifestyle at home:
If I ever asked he would say, ‘Mum that is business, and this is family.' He was kind and very respectful both to myself and his father. He protected us by never discussing these matters. It is quite different now, but back then it would have been very hard.
Just how hard can be felt in every line, every note of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
The Bulsara family had come to the UK from India, via Zanzibar, where Freddie was born Farrokh. They were Zoroastrians, followers of the prophet Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who founded the Parsi religion in Persia.
Zoroastrians believe in cosmic strife between Ahura Mazda, the God of Light, and Ahriman, the principle of evil. “Good words, good thoughts and good deeds” are the way to happiness and heaven. The path of evil leads to misery and Hell.
And “the man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind… is a man that is a Daeva [demon]”
You don't need to be a psychologist to imagine the impact of all this on a sensitive, artistic, young gay man.
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.
Farroukh didn't want to be gay. He became Freddie Mercury, a whole other person.
And even after he came out as Freddie, he didn't want Mary to leave him. She was his muse, his soulmate, the person he called “Love of My Life” in one of his songs on the album, Night At the Opera.
But it was into “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which he worked on for years, that he poured it all: the confusion, the guilt, the anger, the fear but, above all, the refusal to judged and the insistence that he would find an authentic way to live.
Bohemian Rhapsody: The Structure
This song that “didn't come out of nowhere”, that was researched and worked on for years, is in five parts of varying style and tempo:
- Is this the real life?
- Mama, just killed a man
- Too late, my time has come
- I see a little silhouetto of a man
- So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?
And then the final coda that circles us back to the beginning.
It's hard now, when BH has been played millions of times, to imagine how completely revolutionary it was when first heard.
It wasn't unusual in prog rock of the early 70s to compose songs characterized by dramatic contrasts, shifts in tempo and in rhythmic character, but the world had never heard anything like this before.
Such an eclectic mix, such a glorious tapestry of musical styles and innovations, from heavy rock guitar solo to mock-operetta. And oh, those lyrics.
Bohemian Rhapsody 1: Is this the real life?
- real life or fantasy?
- just a poor boy or needing no sympathy
- easy come or easy go
- little high or little low
The bass comes in to underline the words: Any way the wind blows, doesn't really matter to me, to me.
I'm always interested in that double-me: “to me, to me”. I read it as applying to both
- Farrokh Bulsara, the good son of Parsi parents, who wanted to do what was expected of him.
- Freddie Mercury, the raunchy, flamboyant frontman, who refused to be defined or confined.
In the second and third part, both of them will now speak to us. How different their voices are.
Bohemian Rhapsody 2: “Mama, Just Killed A Man”
People often read the famous opening line of this section as Freddie speaking of killing Farrokh. I think it's the other way round. Farrokh speaks first.
It is Farrokh who sets out to kill that side of him that nobody wants, that makes his mother cry. He puts a gun against Freddie's head, pulls the trigger, shoots him dead.
Though he knows Freddie is his real life, that it's only just begun, he must throw all that away and be Farrokh.
But can he? He doesn't want to make his mother cry, but even as Farrokh insists he has killed him, Freddie is rising, warning her that if Farrokh doesn't come back, she is to:
Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.
Bohemian Rhapsody 3: Too late, My Time Has Come
Sure enough, Freddie will not die. The shivers and aches of the body must have their way. He must leave his family and face into the truth.
Now we hear Freddie sing of the torment and self-hatred that have left him, at times, not wanting to live. For me, that's the most moving line in the song: I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.
But, as always in Freddie's voice, there's ambivalence. Juxtaposition. Mama, ooh, I don't wanna die,
Enter the guitar solo, which builds to increasing intensity and then cuts to silence.
Bohemian Rhapsody 4: I See a Little Silhouetto of a Man
This the part that Freddie dubbed the “bit of nonsense in the middle”. Of course, it's the opposite. This is the heart and soul of the song. And this is where that “bit of research” (a massive understatement) came in.
That o in “silhouetto” sets the scene. Litte silhouetto Scaramouche, Scaramouche is doubly-diminutive to the harsh, judging mind who will dominate this section.
The o also introduces the Italian references we must understand to know what's being said here. There are so many far-fetched theories but you cannot understand this segment unless you know that it is inspired by 16th-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, a performance tradition which has Scaramouche as one of its stock clown characters.
In “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Scaramouche is asked will he do the fandango, a Spanish song-and-dance form, performed by couples, that surfaced often in Italian opera. The thought sets off “thunderbolts and lightning, is very, very frightening. Me”.
By no coincidence, a fandango is sung in the third-act finale of Mozart's opera Le Nozze (Marriage) di Figaro, who also makes an appearance in BH. Commedia dell’art often sees Figaro dressed as the Harlequin, another physically, agile clown.
Magnifico, by contrast, is an old merchant, often wealthy, esteemed and stately, and ruled by his brain. He moves his body very little when he walks. Magnifico is the sort of man Farroukh was raised to become. had he not had the soul of an artist and a body that was aching, all the time time, for the forbidden.
The other starring role is played by Gallileo, the 16th-century scientist who discovered the truth about the relationship between the sun and the earth, and was brought to the bar of the Inquisition, where he was forced to forswear his truth under penalty of death.
The psychic pain of the divided self is then played out before the judging panel. Gallileo. Figaro. Magnifico.
Bismillah! (In the name of God) No, we will not let you go…
Ah, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
Never, never, no, no.
Mama turns up here too. Mama Mia Mama Mia Mama Mia let me go
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.
Bohemian Rhapsody 5: So You Think You Can Stone me and Spit in my Eye?
The lyrics now implode into ascending guitar runs as Freddie speaks, shouts, the frenzied, defiant words that he won't be judged, he's going to break out.
The angry lyrics are addressed to an unspecified “you”, plural, and one in particular, accusing them of loving him in a way that would leave him to die.
Can't do this to me, baby. Just gotta get out. Just gotta get right out of here.
Finally, peace, circling back round to the theme outlined at the start.
Nothing really matters, anyone can see
Nothing really matters to me.
What Are the Words of Bohemian Rhapsody About?
It's a conflict that Freddie saw as having significance way beyond himself. In another song (“We are the Champions”) he spells it out: I consider it a challenge before the whole human race, and I ain't gonna lose
To win was to keep on living out loud, at the edge of this creative abyss. To play Scarmouche–the wild jester, the flamboyant clown–and to do the fandango, his way.
Freddie went on fighting to the end, letting his brave and brilliant, colorful and crazy, fragmented and fractured life be his message. And expressing it in the complex, brilliant music he created.
His song is for the bohemian in us all: an effusive, emotional, epic rhapsody. Don't let them hold that gun to your head, pull that trigger, see you dead. Go wild, go wicked, go to the depths if you must, but be who you are.
Bohemian Rhapsody: Freddie's Last Years
In his public life, Freddie went on fighting till the end. The film doesn't treat these later years, ending on the high note of Live Aid, just giving us summaries of what happened afterwards in the credits.
Freddie gave up the wild life at the behest of one man, Jim Hutton, and settled down with him in London. Soon he knew he had contracted the AIDS virus.
Offstage, he remained private across those years, giving very few interviews and making a statement about having AIDS only the day before he died, aged 45.
Mary was at his bedside shortly before he died. Jim was in the middle of changing his clothes when he was gone. Jim told Mary, Mary told Freddie's parents.
The film's critics are against this film for exactly the same reasons that the journalists want to take the gloriously complex human experience expressed in Rhapsody and reduce it to salacious headlines. They want more detail about the parties, the sex, the drugs, the slow death.
All ye critics, sensation seekers and fact fetishists, forget your search for unseemly details. ask yourself what part you play in the rhapsody.
Open your eyes,
look up to the sky
It’s all there, in the song our trickster hero refused to spell out for us. And now in this film about the meaning of his life.
Everyone–even if we haven't worked out what it's about, even if we don't even listen to the words–who opens up to this film, to this song, can feel what Freddie meant us to feel.
We sing along. And if we don't quite understand what we're saying: it doesn't really matter.
Anyway, the wind blows.