“Wait until you hear this.”
It was my cousin talking, when we were just kids. He was a couple years older than me, and a couple years wiser in the ways of the world, I think. He certainly knew a little bit more about good rock music.
“You’ve never heard anything like this before,” he told me.
And he was right, I had not. And I haven’t heard anything like it since.
It was Queen. And of course, I’d heard several Queen songs before, on FM radio, but my cousin insisted that I’d never really heard Queen. I hadn’t heard their deeper album cuts, I hadn’t heard their songs that radio stations were afraid to play. My cousin was giving me a proper introduction.
It was different. It was strange. It was remarkable. And, most importantly, it was fun. I liked it.
This wasn’t just music. This wasn’t art, either. I wasn’t just listening to songs, I was joining a club. I now belonged to a group of misfits who had nothing in common, as individuals, other than the fact that we all were aware that these sounds existed.
Before they became Queen, they were a struggling blues-rock band called “Smile.” Singer Freddie Mercury, guitar player Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor were all expert practitioners of creative sound, fluid pharmacists of a musical medicine that could temporarily cure all which ailed a teenaged hungered heart, an angered adolescent mind, the collective soul of the young and conflicted masses.
It was an eclectic, collusive collision of hard-charging guitar rock, pop piano ballads, mini-symphonies, instrumental jams, vocal exercises, lyric poetry, metal anthems, disco ditties — with a dash of self-deprecating silliness — all rolled into one. Sometimes all rolled into one song.
Many critics hated them, always, but the critics weren’t in the club. The fans understood — to the tune of about 300 million album sales.
When I walked into the movie theatre with my wife a couple weeks back, about 40 years after my initiation into the club, I was full of interest and anticipation. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was going to tell me the story of Queen — a story I already knew, but needed to see acted out.
Hollywood took a few liberties with the story, as Hollywood tends to do. I’m OK with that. We aren’t building nuclear plants here, we’re capturing the essence of a rock band.
It’s a lovely movie. If you’re in the club, you’ll think it’s great. The critics, of course, hate it — and are woefully unable to see the irony of their derision. History is repeating itself. Most critics hated Queen’s music then, but the fans were crazy about it. Most critics hate the Queen movie now, but judging by how packed the theaters have been, the fans are crazy about it.
It’s just a movie about four regular guys, each with rare musical talent. They’re portrayed as misfits, like many of their fans, who didn’t really fit in anywhere else. And it tries to show us how much they loved their fans, how much their fans loved them, and how much they loved each other. And it’s packed full of good music.
I thought it was great, despite the fact that I never heard my favorite Queen song in the movie. The song is a piano ballad called “Too Much Love Will Kill You.” It got my heart through many breakups and makeups with my high school girlfriend. When I listened to Freddie sing it way back then, I felt like he was the only one who understood what my girlfriend and I were going through. I had no idea at the time that there are perpetually about 100 million other teenagers going through the same thing.
Once in high school, my friend Scotty — a wanna-be singer — was singing it to himself when I walked into the chorus room.
“You can sing Queen?” I asked him.
“No one can sing Queen, except Queen,” he laughed.
Still, Scotty tried to sing the chorus for me, and actually hit all the notes, but he didn’t hit them with quite the gravitas you hear in a Queen song.
When I was in seventh grade, the varsity football team in my town went undefeated. It was a very exciting time. After every win, the players would crank up the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust” on their ghetto-blasters. I looked up to those guys, and thought that was pretty cool. I had no idea that there were probably a thousand teams across the country doing the same thing after every win.
The point of all this is, the boys from Queen knew how to put together a song that everyone could relate to. Freddie Mercury and Queen came closer than anyone in music history to achieving the status of “rock gods.”
But gods are immortal, and Freddie Mercury was not a god. He died of complications from AIDS in 1991.
A few years later, my old friend Scotty, the wanna-be singer, died of leukemia.
“Too much love will kill you,” they sang. “Just as sure as none at all.”
That undefeated high school football team, which celebrated each victory to the sounds of Queen all those years ago? That team’s best player died of cancer when he was just 30 years old.
That high school girlfriend died a couple of years ago. I’m sure I’ll never understand why that happened.
My cousin, who introduced me to the music of Queen — and so much more — died at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland of injuries sustained on August 2, 2005 in Baghdad, Iraq, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device struck his convoy.
“And another one’s gone, and another one’s gone — another one bites the dust.”
All of them were members of the club. A group of misfits who had nothing in common, other than the fact that all were aware that the music of Queen existed. Also, all of them bit the dust too young.
I miss all these people, but unlike old friends, good music is immortal. There’s a different Queen song out there to remind me of each of those people, and when I hear that song, my memories of them are happy and hopeful. No tears, I feel myself smiling — all over, I’m smiling.
And when I watched the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I was reminded that before they were called “Queen,” they were a struggling little college band named “Smile.”
That’s not a name, that’s advice. That’s a record collection full of life instructions, edited down to one word.
That’s appropriate, I think. Hell, that’s more than appropriate.
That’s just about perfect.