The other day, my friend Rex Guinn dropped by the office with his service dog. His arrival was "most opportune," as Professor McGonagall said to Mr. Filch in the final "Harry Potter" movie; we needed a photo of a service dog to go with a story Keri Thornton was doing for Friday's paper.
While in my office, Rex noticed the Queen Platinum CD set on my desk. He had seen it the previous weekend at the house he shares in Tulsa with his girlfriend, Tammy Latta. He nodded toward the box and asked, "You carry that everywhere you go now?" Keri chuckled; though centuries younger than I am, she, too, is a Queen fan. Rex confessed, "It's my fault" – meaning my current obsession with Queen. A month or two ago, Chris and I were at their place for dinner, and afterward, Rex put "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the flatscreen. It was fascinating – especially the actors' lip-synched rendition of the performance at Live Aid in 1985. Queen's 20-minute set is considered the highlight of the concert, if not the best live performance in rock history.
Almost every list puts Queen among the top 10 rock acts, and Freddie Mercury among the top five front men. My friends and I discussed this on Facebook, and I asked them to name their top three, after I stated my preferences: Mercury, Robert Plant and Mick Jagger. Several agreed, but others picked people I'd never heard of. Then the conversation turned to what constitutes a "front man." Musicians in the bunch agreed a solo artist wasn't a front man, and neither was a fellow who just stood there and delivered the goods. A front man has to be dynamic, charismatic, and able to engage his audience. Mercury did that probably better than anyone, though a few David Lee Roth fans swore by his limber physique. The topic again shifted when Cathy Cott mentioned front WOMEN. Stacy Pratt – a former TDP staffer and "front woman" for Reliquario – admitted she didn't like that label, or "front person." I suggested "frontist" for a less awkward moniker, but had no takers.
The impetus for the post was the fixation on Queen, which may be bordering on unhealthy. Seeing "Bohemian Rhapsody" brought back memories from my youth. I was 15 and my sister Lisa was 13 when she discovered that classic piece and said, "Listen to this!" Queen had several unique features, with Mercury's voice and stage presence just the most obvious. All four band members have university degrees, some of them advanced. Mercury earned a degree in graphic arts, and he designed the band's logo. Drummer Roger Taylor studied to be a dentist but wound up with a degree in biology. Bassist John Deacon graduated near the top of his class with a degree in electronics – no surprise, since he designed the "Deacy amp" Queen used for its innovative sound. More auditory ingenuity came via Brian May's guitar, the Red Special, which he built with his father, and which he plays not with a pick, but with a sixpence coin. May has a doctorate in astrophysics, and was involved with NASA's New Horizon project. He's also a vegetarian and animal rights activist, and says he hopes he'll be remembered more for that than his musical or scientific achievements (fat chance!).
Queen produced a delicious riot of sound, thanks to individual talents that are unprecedented collectively. Taylor and Deacon formed seamless tapestry as the rhythm section; listen to Deacon using every fret on the neck of his bass, and Taylor working the high-hat and shells in "Fat-Bottomed Girls," as well as harmonies a dozen layers deep, and you'll get it. I've owned Bose speakers since I was 20, because for me, a band's rhythm section is its most critical element – sometimes more so than lead guitar. I like a robust bass line and a heavy hand on the kit – a deep, throbbing beat that shakes the entire room and that Led Zeppelin's John Bonham and John Paul Jones were so famous for, as in the epochal "When the Levee Breaks." As far as May's guitar, even the untutored ear would recognize that distinctive buzzy wail. He's right up there with Jimmy Page; both play aggressively and with intelligence, and both can produce an eclectic array of sound.
Queen and a few other legendary groups explored almost every genre. And even though Mercury is no longer on the planet and Deacon is a recluse, Taylor and May have eschewed geezerdom and are still on the tour circuit. They're also media-friendly, which would earn them my respect if nothing else did. I've tried but I can't yet fully appreciate the merits of Adam Lambert, although given Mercury's robust delivery and four-octave range, he may be the nearest facsimile. But Lambert's tremolo vibrato contrasts markedly with Mercury's even-handed yet impassioned pulse, and though Lambert does have a certain stage presence, he's not Freddie. This is hard to explain, and I'm going to offend someone, but although Mercury is now acknowledged as being gay, he had a quality that appealed to both women and men. Some would say he was androgynous, but not compared to Bowie; Mercury's aura was outrageous and magnetic, virile and sensual, and far more masculine. Despite the prominent overbite, his countenance was captivating, in an almost disconcerting way; check out the compelling "Don't Stop Me Now" video. Lambert is effeminate, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it means he can't channel Mercury without play-acting. He did that convincingly in the movie, by the way, as a trucker who was positively macho.
I was surprised by a gay friend who agreed with critics peeved by the whitewashing of Mercury's life. They wanted the movie to depict his voracious sexual appetite, which – if British tabloids are to be believed – would include multiple trysts in one evening, or parties with midgets carrying platters of cocaine on their heads. But "Bohemian Rhapsody" isn't a documentary; it's a biopic, which means it is based on the band's story, not Mercury's. Plenty of elements are out of place, just as when books are turned into movies. It's not even a case of artistic license; it's more that the movie is about the music, and introducing it to a new generation of people. That can't be done with an NC-17 (or X) rating. Anyway, what has Mercury's private life – which even his bandmates deemed over the top – got to do with Queen's genius and the unimpeachable mark it made on rock 'n' roll?
These thoughts have given me what seems to be a permanent, if revolving, earworm of the Queen repertoire. It's why I bought the CD set, although I already owned several platters. It also reminded me what most musically trained people first noticed about that band. During a conversation with Joe Mack, I complained that Roth couldn't hold a candle to Mercury. For that matter, the Van Halens can't touch May and Taylor. I also said I considered Van Halen's "harmonies" atonal, a mish-mash of off-key yelling to my ears. Joe, himself a musician, said it really wasn't fair to compare Van Halen or anyone else with Queen, because there has never been a band that could perform such stunning, perfectly melodic harmonies, and there probably never will be. And he's right.
I don't know whether fat-bottomed girls make the rock 'n' world go 'round, but Queen's music did – and still does.