This issue of Tiny Essays focuses on the mastership of Dr. Brian May, whose birthday we, his fans, are celebrating this week. I always wanted to write more about his tunes, his riffs, his wonderful poetry – and I think, this is a perfect occasion to talk about those songs that I never get tired of. I think that the benefit of knowing this music so well is in savoring little details that usually escape you during the first, tenth, and even fiftieth time. It’s a sparkling, shining tone of Red Special on “Somebody to Love” during live performances; it’s a special tune that Dr. Bri plays before “Love of My Life;” it’s his intonations on “39,” and the concluding “we’ll be rocking in… Toronto!” (at least for the concert I attended). When seeing and hearing these nuances, I smile and rejoice, just like you would when looking at your close friend and admiring their gestures and voice. This is a tiny gift to my hero and to all of my friends that share this love. I also want to thank my friend Hanna (liveforever.today on Instagram) for allowing me to use her beautiful drawings (including the cover art).
VIII. “White Queen” – by Brian May
When I saw this video for the first time, the door into the world of early Queen music swung open. Up until three years ago, I only knew their hits, with the addition of some deep cuts from the band’s 1980s catalog. Finding this excerpt from a 1975 Christmas concert blew my mind and made me fall in love with all of their albums of the 1970s. I see this song, and especially this performance as the essence of Queen’s early era: delicate and refined tunes, Freddie’s powerful vocals, rich orchestration, and above all, mysteriousness and yearning for another world, something that I admire so much in so many artists that originated from this magical island. For me, the lyrics originate from the same experience that Alexander Blok, a Russian Symbolist, conveyed in his “Beautiful Lady” poem in 1904: “In the shadow of a tall pillar / I tremble at the creaking door / While my face beholds her glowing image / Just a dream of her.” But what says much more about this song is a dialogue between Freddie’s piano and Brian’s guitar, when two instruments lead their themes, intertwine, and end up blending in a cathartic finale.
XI. “39” – by Brian May
I heard “39” for the first time many years ago, when my English skills were nonexistent, and therefore, I assumed that the song was about WWII, referring to the year 1939. I lived with this belief for a while until I became a Queen fan again and finally listened to the lyrics properly. As I realized the true essence of this song I loved it even more; because, being also a Doctor Who fan, I felt that in a way it belonged to the same universe. As the song rolls by, we come to its bridge – the journey itself, according to Brian. Sang by the ethereal, almost unreal voice of Roger Taylor, it probably is the only way to convey the unspeakable experience that the heroes of the song went through. The strange chords and harmonies of the section are in such great contrast with the very down-to-earth verses and choruses that I cannot imagine any other interpretation of this song. As Neil Gaiman said when talking about the universe of Doctor Who, “In my head the Time Lords exist, and are unknowable – primal forces who cannot be named, only described: The Master, the Doctor, and so on. All depictions of the home of the Time Lords are, in my head, utterly non-canonical. The place in which they exist cannot be depicted because it is beyond imagining: a cold place that only exists in black and white.” And so I see the monochrome tones, the gleams of a water planet in “Interstellar,” until the unearthly harmonies dissolve again, like a dream, into the real world, where everything has changed forever.
X. “Machines (Back To Humans)” – by Brian May and Roger Taylor
I chose the QAL version of “Machines” because this song will always be associated with a Toronto show that I have attended last year. In a way, I remember it more frequently than other songs from their set (though “In the Lap of the Gods” would probably compete with it), since it marked a unique place and time that made my dreams come true. Classic Queen had never performed it live; and the Rhapsody Tour of 2019 became the first occurrence when “Machines” was played on stage. Despite the dystopian setting of this song, for me, it is bursting with colorful sparkles and lightning, carried by the amazing harmonies initially sang by Freddie and Brian, and later by Adam and Tyler. This firework is outlined by the deep and rich sound of the Red Special. And then, during the live show, there was a moment when we heard the eternal voice of Freddie, singing “Living in a new world / Thinking in the past / Living in a new world / How you gonna last?” Now, these lines are perceived as a call from the past, from beyond the veil.
XI. “Last Horizon” – by Brian May
What do I see when thinking of the “Last Horizon” solo? I see a powerful magician floating in the air, in space, surrounded by asteroids and planets. I see a man sitting in his living room, consoling us with the fiery sounds of his beloved guitar. I hear grief and hope, loss and gain, and above all, I experience a huge wave of freedom. Because that is what Queen music and Brian’s tunes are about – liberating, breaking free, reaching for another world. Once, while talking about his solo album, Brian said that his dream was to find “another world” that would stop people from suffering, and then leading others there. I think these moments when we witness Dr. May playing his solos – and especially, “Last Horizon” – are giving us glimpses into that blessed realm where everyone is happy and free. And this is probably one of the most important things that I’ve learned from being his fan.
Happy Birthday, Dr. May!
With warmest wishes,
Katya Neklyudova, July 2020