I don’t how long Inox Porvorim has been around, but I was never tempted to visit until a few days ago, to see the much-anticipated ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the 2018 biographical film about the British rock band Queen, whose flamboyant poster-boy was, of course, Freddie Mercury (1946-1991).
I wasn’t surprised to find so many familiar faces, young and old, in the auditorium. Queen’s music speaks across generations. And the big draw, on-screen as in real life, was Freddie Mercury.
The film didn’t disappoint, and the karaoke-style lyric texts certainly helped. I found the narrative a little disorienting, but I guess one does have to leap across time to cover such a vast career. I’m not sure how critical Bulsara Sr. (Freddie’s father) was of his son in real life. I’ve not come across explicit references, but I’m sure the film was well-researched.
The moments that truly moved me (to tears sometimes) were his awareness of his sexual orientation, the press hounding him about his lifestyle, and his devastating loneliness.
This is a Queen biopic, of course, so the songs from Mercury’s “break” period from the band don’t get screen-time. But the lyrics of Mercury’s solo song “Living on my Own” were certainly autobiographical: “Sometimes I feel I’m gonna break down and cry”; “I’m always walking too fast”; “Nowhere to go, nothing to do with my time”; “Everything is coming down on me”; “I go crazy”; “I don’t have no time for no monkey business”; I get so lonely”; “Got to be some good times ahead.”
What amazes me about Mercury’s music is his impressive pianistic skill and his remarkable grasp of harmony, chord progression, polyphony, counterpoint and so many aspects of music that elude others with even a conservatory education.
The film and so many Mercury biographies just gloss over this crucial incubation period in his life. But apparently the headmaster at St. Peter’s English boarding school Panchgani realized little Bulsara had a gift for music, and persuaded his parents to pay for piano lessons (an instrument his parents had started him on a year before, age seven) in addition to his school fees. This early encouragement and endorsement from such an authority figure must have been such a confidence-builder to the eight-year old. How different would Mercury’s life have been if this headmaster had not been so perceptive, or been indifferent? What if his parents had brushed away the advice and dismissed music as a frivolity?
The unsung heroes in Mercury’s life are this headmaster, his piano teacher(s), the director of the school choir and theatre company who gave him his first taste of music, of the stage and acquiring a stage presence. Sadly we don’t know their names. At Panchgani, he got to Grade IV level in both piano and theory. The lessons spanned just a few years, but must have given him a good musical foundation.
He and four school-friends formed a band, the Hectics, with him at the piano. Right then, a friend recalls he had “an uncanny ability to listen to the radio and replay what he heard on piano”.
London of course would have been a huge eye-opener in 1964 when the Bulsaras fled there from Zanzibar. They probably had a piano at home, and Mercury taught himself guitar. Much of the music he admired was guitar-oriented: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Beatles, David Bowie and Led Zepellin.
How did he attain such phenomenal heights as songwriter, instrumentalist and singer with no real formal training? He was self-deprecating about his pianistic skills, to a fault. I know comparisons are odious, but in terms of sheer complexity, inventiveness, the colour and textural richness of his compositions, the poetry and wit in his lyrics, his pianism, his staggering vocal range (bass low F (F2) to soprano high F (F6)) and control, he far surpasses the likes of someone like Elton John for example, who did have the benefit of studying at the Royal Academy of Music and from private tutors. Take as exhibit A just the Queen Greatest Hits album, where 10 of the 17 tracks were his: besides ‘Bohemian Rhapsody, there’s ‘Killer Queen’, ‘Somebody to Love’, ‘We Are The Champions’, ‘Bicycle Race’, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love.’ One doesn’t need to dissect or analyse any of them to know they’re pure gold, but they are, each in their own different way.
I think the secret was his deep passion for music. This meant that he would have spent hours at his instrument, whether voice, piano or guitar, practicing, experimenting, pushing boundaries all the time. He was constantly thinking in musical terms. The inspiration for ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ came to him while soaking in the bath-tub of a Munich hotel; he asked for the piano to be brought to the tub, and wrote it all down in ten minutes!
The other aspect is a spin-off on that same love for music: no genre was out of bounds or uninteresting for him. He probably listened to all kinds of music, on the radio and television, on his player, and live at pubs, theatres and concert halls. Too many musicians become ‘specialists’ too soon, and their growth is stunted precisely because they shut themselves off from such richness from those quarters. All genres, from opera to rockabilly, progressive rock, heavy metal, gospel and disco bled into his work. Music for him was not compartmentalized, but one great continuum.
I always thought Mercury was buck-toothed (his nickname in school was ‘Bucky’!); the film enlightened me about his supernumerary incisors: While most of us have four (two each in each jaw), he apparently had twice as many, certainly in his upper jaw! Whether this really widens the vocal range or not, I can’t say. But he never got any corrective dental work, precisely because he didn’t want to take even the slightest chance it could adversely affect his vocal range.
In an earlier column, we saw how impressed operatic soprano Montserrat Caballé was with his voice. The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey called Mercury “the best virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll singer of all time. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line and, God, that’s an art. And he was brilliant at it.” David Bowie praised Mercury’s performance style, saying: “Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest… he took it over the edge… I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”
Over a quarter-century after his tragically premature death, Freddie Mercury still holds us all in thrall. It’s A Kind of Magic!
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 November 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)