This week I spent my create-date with Freddie Mercury, or rather, his reincarnation by Rami Malek in the new movie, named for his most famous song. And it led me to write this post, my answer to the question people are always asking: What do the words of Bohemian Rhapsody mean?
The film Bohemian Rhapsody 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 their 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.
Aside from that, the critics have been lukewarm, but I loved the film. Brilliant nostalgic fun, dancing down memory lane with all the old hits, recalling where I was, when. More meaningfully, a brilliant reminder of why I was attracted to Freddie Mercury and Queen (they were not cool back in the day, any more than now). And completely confirming my personal answer to the puzzle that never seemed very puzzling to me: what do the lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody” actually mean?
For me, the answer has always seemed screamingly obvious. The rhapsody 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 operatic grand jester, the queen of Queen.
Creative Coming Out
Freddie's story has resonance for all creatives. Until I saw Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, I never understood why I've always been 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 in the scene where Ben Hardy, playing drummer Roger Taylor, describing to record executives the type of fan who liked the band.
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!
It has taken a lifetime as a writer to fully understand how following your creative impulses makes you a misfit. Breaking through boundaries, dissolving limits, disrupting the status quo, challenging established conventions, expanding, experimenting, being more you: none of this lends itself to fitting in.
The creative paradox is: beneath that impulse to breach the barricades runs an equally strong longing to belong. To be safe. To be liked. To be approved of. To be loved.
People handle the conflict between these two polarities in different ways, but nobody ever lived it louder and prouder than Freddy Mercury. And no artwork ever explained it in more depth than the highly biographical “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Bohemian Rhapsody: The Background
Freddie always refused to say what his song was about. “Just about relationships,” he would declare. “With a bit of nonsense in the middle.” If a journalist probed more deeply, he'd fend them off with interesting words: “Bad timing, darling”.
The most he put on record was this:
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 song appeared on the album A Night at the Opera, released on 31st October, 1975. Freddie was still in his long-term relationship with Mary Austin, a love affair that had begun when they were both art students at Ealing college in London. By this time, though, he had begun to cheat on her with men.
Finally, in December 1976, he worked up the courage to tell her he thought he was bisexual.
“Freddie,” she replied. “You're gay.” (A realization that had dropped for her, if the film is to be believed, when she first saw him with one of the few openly gay men in Britain back then, DJ, Kenny Everett.)
Part of Freddie's, and Queen's, silence about the meaning of the song was reasonable artistic response. A work of art is its own explanation. The other motive was the wish to protect Freddie's parents. Even as he grew ever more flamboyant for the rest of the world, Freddie remained in the closet with his family.
Twenty years after his death, his mother reported to The Daily Telegraph how, at home, he would always deflect conversation about his life choices.
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”.
Freddie Mercury and Farrokh Bulsara
The Bulsara family had come to the UK from India, via Zanzibar, where Freddie was born Farrokh, the eldest of two children. Bomi and Jer Bulsara raised Farrokh and. his sister
The Bulsaras were Zoroastrians, followers of the prophet Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who founded the Parsi religion in Persia.
Zoroastrians believe in cosmic strife between the God of Light (Ahura Mazda), and the principle of evil (Ahriman). “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 Bulsara didn't want to be gay, so he invented Freddie Mercury.
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“, another song on the album, Night At the Opera.
In “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which he worked on for years, that expressed it all: the confusion, the guilt, the anger, the fear but, above all of that, the refusal to judged, the insistence that he would find an authentic way to live.
Bohemian Rhapsody: Composition and Structure
Freddie worked on this song that “didn't come out of nowhere” for many years. 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.
It is in six 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 the song has been played so many millions of times, to imagine how revolutionary it was when first heard. 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 / fantasy?
- just a poor boy / who needs no sympathy?
- easy come / easy go?
- little high / little low?
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 they expected of him and Freddie Mercury, the raunchy, flamboyant frontman, who refused to be defined or confined.
Now, in the second and third part, both of them will 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, I think Farrokh speaks first, that it is Farrokh who sets out to kill the man that nobody wants, that even a mother cannot love. He puts a gun against Freddie's head, pulls the trigger, shoots him dead.
But even as he does, Freddie is rising.
Farrokh doesn't want to make his mother cry, but warns her that if he doesn't come back tomorrow, she is to:
Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.
The music moves into a gentle piano solo.
Bohemian Rhapsody 3: Too late, My Time Has Come
Throughout the song repetition and ambivalence emerge, submerge, re-emerge, here as: Mama, oooh, I didn't mean to make you cry. Mama, ooh, I don't wanna die…
But the shivers down his spine, the aches of the body must have their way. “Goodbye, everybody, I've got to go,” says Farrokh.
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth. In concerts, (and in the official video of the song) this was the moment when Freddie used to stand up from the piano and move to the front of the stage, to say: Mama, (As the wind blows) I don't want to die….
And then that terrible line: I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.
Enter the guitar solo, which builds to increasing intensity and then the even more powerful cut to silence.
Bohemian Rhapsody 4: I See a Little Silhouetto of a Man
This is the part that Freddie dubbed the “bit of nonsense in the middle” but of course, it's the opposite, the very heart and soul of the song. And where we see his “bit of research” (what an understatement) come in.
Firstly: Silhouetto. That “o” is genius. In this section, the contrast between the litte silhouetto, the doubly diminutive Scaramouche, Scaramouche, and the harsh, judging mind who seeks to dominate him is lyrically and musically frightening, even overwhelming.
The o also hints to the Italian references we need to know to truly appreciate the complexity of this composition. You can appreciate the power of this segment without knowing it was inspired by 16th-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, but the knowledge certainly deepened my understanding of the song and its artistic aims.
In the Commedia dell’arte performance tradition Scaramouche is one of the stock clown characters and in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Scaramouche is asked to do the fandango, a Spanish song-and-dance form, performed by couples, that surfaces often in Italian opera.
The thought sets off “thunderbolts and lightning”, is “very, very frightening”. Then comes a list of names, beginning with Me. Gallilleo. Figaro. Magnifico.
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 “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Commedia dell’art often sees Figaro dressed as the Harlequin, like Scaramouche, 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 for the forbidden.
The other name on the list is Gallileo, the 16th-century scientist who discovered the truth about the relationship between the sun and the earth. The Roman Inquisition forced him to forswear this truth under penalty of death.
Before their own inquisition in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Freddie, just a poor boy, nobody loves me and Faroukh, just a poor boy, from a poor family, play out the psychic drama of their painfully divided selves, begging for understanding. Spare him his life from this monstrosity.
A crowd voice joins in the plea but it's thumbs down from The Inquisitors. Bismillah!
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– as the pleading grows ever more heartfelt, ending in a cry of shame and religious terror:
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. For me.For me. For meeeeeeeeeeee………
Bohemian Rhapsody 5: So You Think You Can Stone me and Spit in my Eye?
Music and song now implode into the full rock treatment, with drums and instruments blazing through ascending guitar runs as Freddie bursts out, shouting, frenzied and defiant. He won't be judged. He addresses his angry lyrics to an unspecified “you”, plural, and one in particular, accusing them of giving him love in a way that would leave him to die.
Can't do this to me, baby. He has to get out: gotta get right out of here.
Oh yeah, oh yeah. Then it's back to the piano, as things slow again, taking us back to where we started.
Bohemian Rhapsody 6: Coda
Finally, peace, circling back round to the theme outlined by all four voices at the end, as at the beginning.
Nothing really matters, anyone can see
Nothing really matters to me.
What Are the Words of Bohemian Rhapsody About?
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.
In these days of Ru Paul drag race and increased tolerance that message has won more hearts and minds. Back when Freddie sang it, his was an almost lone voice.
He knew what he was doing and it was a conflict he knew had 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.
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, the Irish hairdresser Jim Hutton, and settled down with him in London. Soon, he knew he had contracted the AIDS virus. Mary and Jim and his many friends cared for him and he carried on making music.
Offstage, he remained private, 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 died. He'd returned to the room to find he was gone. Jim told Mary, Mary told Freddie's parents.
Bohemian Rhapsody: Critical Response
Many critics, journalistic and academic, have speculated over the meaning behind the song's lyrics. The song tell of a suicidal murderer haunted by demons, depicts events just preceding an execution, describes a young man who's sold his soul to the devil. Others say Freddie wrote the lyrics to fit with the music, and had no intended meaning. His great friend, Kenny Everett, who played an influential role in popularising the single on his radio show famously quoted Mercury as claiming the lyrics were simply “random rhyming nonsense”, but that was all part of the coverup of the complex boy who was simultaneously in and flamboyantly out of the closet.
The film's critics are against the film Bohemian Rhapsody for exactly the same reasons that music critics want to reduce the gloriously complex human experience expressed in the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” to a one-dimensional response. Just like the journalists who want more detail about the parties, the sex, the drugs, the slow death, and the queer activists who want songs and movies about Freddie's life to be emblematic, they want to make it fit. To make him fit.
All ye critics, sensation seekers, and fact fetishists, forget your search for unseemly order. Ask yourselves instead the question Freddy asked: what part do 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–can feel what Freddie and the band meant us to feel.
We sing along. And if we don't quite understand what we're saying, or seeing: it doesn't really matter.
Anyway, the wind blows.