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It is often said that nothing is permanent except change. Pragmatic and profound at the same time, this quote attributed to the Greek philosopher of the late 6th century BCE, Heraclitus1, has inspired countless people to accept and confront their realities. Now if there is one thing that embodies constant change, it is the element Mercury. Commonly known as quicksilver, it is a metal that is liquid at ordinary temperatures. Mercury gleams silvery and flows rapidly, lending itself well to its common name. The word quicksilver is often used to describe things that can move often and quickly. It is perhaps fitting then that the agile-voiced Farrokh Bulsara, adopted the stage name Freddie Mercury and formed the band Queen with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon.
I first heard Queen on FM radio, in India. After decades of government-run radio programming on AM, the launch of FM radio and its ensuing privatisation was a big change. I remember listening to FM radio in its early days in Mumbai in the mid to late 90s. Despite being started at a time when radio listening in India was declining, the programs that aired on 107.1 FM were amazing. In contrast to AM radio’s Ameen Sayani who was dignified and elderly, FM presenters were casual and just getting out of their teens, like Siddharth Kannan, Fali R. Singara and others. These fellows who basically sounded like cooler versions of myself to me and many teens of the times, laid down the template for what it meant to be an RJ (Radio Jockey) in India, with their effervescence and musical knowledge. Young India lapped it up and radio listening was again alive and well.
I heard a lot of Queen on radio including all the hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Somebody to Love”, “I want to Break Free”, “We will Rock You” and “We are the Champions”. Thanks to the somewhat flaky FM transmission, I can still hear a phantom radio transmission hiss modulated into Freddie Mercury’s voice, every time I listen to “We are the Champions”. During one of those days I heard a song from what was then Queen’s latest album, “Made in Heaven”, a song called “Heaven for Everyone”. The RJ lamented Mercury’s untimely death in 1991 due to AIDS and said that this was going to be Queen’s last studio album with several parts having been recorded and mixed in, after his death. It had never occurred to me to think about whether these musicians I was hearing on radio were alive or dead. Now suddenly confronted with this knowledge, I wanted to buy an album by Queen to hear more of them.
In the meagre Western Music collection of the neighborhood cassette shop, I found only one album of Queen, called Innuendo. None of its songs were familiar to me, but it was the only Queen album available. It had a release date of 1991. I figured it might have been the album prior to Made in Heaven. I bought it and grew to like it quite quickly. In fact, I thought the title track “Innuendo” was not unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its ambitiousness melding hard rock, flamenco and Mercury’s operatic vocals. The song is said to have been inspired by Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir” and Robert Plant returned the favor by performing Innuendo at the Mercury tribute concert in 1992, with the surviving members of Queen. Despite Brian May being a great guitarist himself, Queen roped in Steve Howe of the band Yes to play the flamenco-style guitar solo. Apparently, Howe was recruited with the instructions2, “We want some crazy Spanish guitar flying around over the top. Improvise!” He certainly came good!
The song that really caught my liking on the first listen was “Headlong”. May’s heavy overdriven guitar combines with Mercury’s energetic vocals, riding on top of the pulsing rhythm set by Taylor and Deacon. It’s hard not to feel charged up after listening to it, no matter how many times you may have heard it before. Then there is the achingly soulful “Don’t Try So Hard” and the speed anthem in “Ride the Wild Wind”. But it is the last song “The Show must go on” which is the ultimate song of the album. It really is Mercury’s swan song. Mercury was quite unwell during the making of the album and ended up dying within 10 months of its release. Listening to Mercury sing resolutely, “Ooh, inside my heart is breaking, my make-up may be flaking, but my smile still stays on” followed by May’s searing guitar, it is hard to imagine a braver, more stoic good bye in the face of the inevitable!
For a long time, Queen was the mainstay of my music collection and Mercury was my absolute favourite vocalist — not that there are that many now who can shake him off his perch. Later in college, while talking music with friends, I kept bringing up Queen quite enthusiastically, until someone confronted me asking me how I could like Queen when Freddie Mercury was homosexual. I was stumped. It was too much of a loaded question for me to digest. It had never occurred to me to think about the sexual orientation of any musician I was listening to. So, Freddie Mercury was gay? Was that normal? Is that where the band name “Queen” comes from? What about “Innuendo” — what was the oblique reference there? Was that how he got AIDS? Why did these cool musicians have to be so different and weird? And how come drugs, alcohol and (heterosexual) sex were considered so cool in college and yet being gay was deviant? I cannot really recall any more of how the conversation went subsequently3.
But just like the time when I had learned that Mercury had died, I got a fresh impetus to listen to Queen again. I got out all the tapes of Queen I had, some bought, some dubbed and some recorded from FM programs. Equipped with my own tape player in my college hostel room, crooning along with Mercury in my pyjamas on a late Saturday morning, and being a general nuisance to my tolerant neighbours, I felt like I couldn’t have broken more free. In those moments, everything faded away, into the background, Queen and Mercury’s backstory, my friend’s opinions, anyone’s opinions about anything, the past, the future. Only the moments remained, and the music — mercurial yet everlasting!
Nothing is permanent except change. Music is now so easy to get. I am not a teenager anymore. Drugs are no longer cool, and smartphones are the new drugs. Being gay is a bit more OK than it used to be in the 90s. But the magic of Freddie Mercury’s voice lives on.
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- Innuendo, Queen, 1991. Band members: Freddie Mercury — vocals, Brian May — guitar, Roger Taylor — drums, and John Deacon — bass.
- Greatest Hits, Queen, 1981. Band members: Freddie Mercury - vocals, Brian May - guitar, Roger Taylor - drums, and John Deacon - bass.
- Greatest Hits II, Queen, 1991. Band members: Freddie Mercury - vocals, Brian May - guitar, Roger Taylor - drums, and John Deacon - bass.
Heraclitus was quite the advocate of change. Perhaps the best example of his deep contemplation into the notion of change is his often misquoted statement “You cannot step twice into the same river”. The waters of the river are different every time you step in, since they flow on constantly. Yet, the river is the same. In fact, it is constant flux that makes the river, a river. We are all the same - constantly evolving and still the same person, but it is the life through which we have flown that defines us altogether. I paraphrase, but you can read more here. ↩
Ron Hart at Rolling Stone writes the touching story behind Queen’s last studio album released before Freddie Mercury’s death. Hart narrates how, against the backdrop of Mercury’s steadily declining physical and mental health, the band pitched their creative efforts together and managed to produce a truly signature Queen album. It is definitely worth a read! ↩
College is really the first place I encountered dogma, sometimes served with a side of vehemence. While college is a fun place and time, and we make some of our best memories there, it is also a precursor of the underbelly of our grown-up life to come. Still, we do maintain a grudging sense of tolerance in college, that people are “like that only” or that “they might have a point”. If we could retain this attitude in our grown-up lives, perhaps, the world wouldn’t be so polarised. ↩