I am old enough to remember Freddie Mercury’s death. I would have been eight years old at the time and I had no idea what being gay meant or that Freddie Mercury was the Emperor of gay people. All I knew at the time was that the really cool dude who sang “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions” was dead, and it was sad.
It is claimed that Mercury’s death had a powerful effect on record sales, as is often the case with post-mortem success. It has been estimated that Queen’s albums have sold more copies in the past twenty years than they ever did during Freddie’s life, though that could easily be explained by a new generation discovering Queen and global population growth. For me the impact of Freddie’s death meant something more meaningful. I was once in a dialogue with someone about mentally strong people in music and the first person that came to mind for me was Freddie Mercury. Here was this flamboyantly gay man fearlessly leading an eccentric rock band with such supreme confidence that he was able to commanded great respect from everyone, including homophobes. More than that even, he was dying of aids for a long time and he never said anything, he never let on that he was in pain. It takes a very strong person to limp towards death and never utter a complaint or even let it show. He died bravely and I really respect Freddie Mercury for that.
Something else interesting happened around that time. The sudden explosion in Queen’s new found popularity caused a shift in the specifics surrounding Queen’s popularity. What I mean by that last cryptic sentence is that “Bohemian Rhapsody” grew in international appeal more so than any other Queen song. When I was a child the only Queen songs I ever heard on the radio were “Bicycle Race,” “Killer Queen,” “Fat Bottom Girls,” “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions.” “We are the Champions” was always played at the end of every Stanley Cup final winning game, so I was quite familiar with it. So sometime during the nineties “Bohemian Rhapsody” overtook every other Queen song as the general consensus epoch of the group.
I sometimes wonder if this scene from the movie “Wayne’s World” might have something to do with it;
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a six minute wild ride. It is a leaping song of highs, lows and odd turns, both in style and delivery. It is no surprise why everyone loves it so, but what does “Bohemian Rhapsody” mean?
- A native or inhabitant of Bohemia. (The Kingdom of Bohemia currently resides within the borders of the Czech Republic)
- A person who has informal and unconventional social habits (artist or writer)
- An effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling.
- An epic poem; or part of it, of a suitable length for recitation at one time.
- An epic song by Queen, possibly about an unconventional person who may or may not have been Czech?
I think it is safe to say that Freddie Mercury was himself an informal, unconventional person, and I also think it is safe to extend these qualities to the “poor boy” in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Furthermore it is fair to presume the rhapsody part of the song is purely musical pronouncement, however... I wonder if there is a deliberate connection to Franz Liszt “Hungarian Rhapsody.”
What you never heard of Franz Liszt or “Hungarian Rhapsody?” Don’t fret, that’s why the Music In Review exists.
The “Hungarian Rhapsodies” is a nineteen set piano piece of classic music themed around Hungarian folk lore. While many of the songs within the “Hungarian Rhapsodies” were written by upper class Hungarian peoples, Liszt added a strong touch of dance qualities to the piano’s sound and mixed in the flavour of gypsy stylization of the time, which consisted mostly of improvisation that included jumps in tempo from slow to fast. Almost like a poor boy showing up to a rich gala or opera and shaking everything up.
“Hungarian Rhopsody no.2” is the most famous of the nineteen piece set;
Perhaps there is a greater connection between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Hungarian Rhapsody” than I know. I do not know enough about Hungarian folk lore or the stories being represented by Liszt in “Hungarian Rhapsody” so I cannot make a connection in story between the piano concertos and Queen’s rock and roll masterpiece. However I think there is something to the similarity in names, after all the kingdom of Bohemian is not geographically very far from Hungary, and it is not as though there are a great many song titles out there containing the word rhapsody in relation to a central European kingdom. I believe there is a connection between the two pieces of music but it does not really clear up the mystery of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
A lot of my friends on Facebook.com keep posting memes about how great Freddie Mercury, Queen, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” are and rightfully so. Among them was this image;
“...it’s the story of a boy whose girlfriend left him for some other guy. He kills him, now the gang of that guy is looking for him. He goes to say goodbye to his mother before the gang finds him. The ‘opera’ part is the gunfight, where the gang mocks him for being a ‘just a poor boy.’”
“They shot in the air, which is the thunderbolt and lightning. He begs, but they won’t let him go. So he kills them all. ‘So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?’ as he celebrates.”
“But still, he knows he’ll have to spend his life as a fugitive. He needs to ‘get right out of here,’ which explains the melancholy at the end. Even though he came out alive, he’ll never see his mother again.”
That is a good theory about “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but I am not convinced it is altogether accurate. I think we can all agree the catalyst of the story resides within the murder of a man. The narrator is the most likely guilty culprit as he confesses the crime to his mother;
“Mama, just killed a man,
Put a gun against his head,
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead.”
And laments the actions;
“Mama, life had just begun,
But now I've gone and thrown it all away.”
I have always interpreted the main body of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the trial of this young man who has committed murder. The accused is “just a boy poor” and struggles to defend himself because he is overcome with guilt, which he expressed earlier in the song to his mother, and also perhaps because he is “poor” and unable to stand up to the heavy hammer of the law or a legal system that has always favored the rich, and the plaintiff openly mock him;
“I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouch, scaramouch will you do the fandango,
Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me.”
I had always interpreted the “thunderbolt and lighting” as the sound of the judge’s gavel crushing down dramatically spelling the end of the trial and the doom of our protagonist.
First our protagonist pleads for mercy;
“But I'm just a poor boy and nobody loves me.”
And finds some support;
“He's just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity.”
The debate rages on and eventually “the poor boy” loses his temper and shouts at his accusers in one last desperate effort to fight for his freedom,
“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye.
So you think you can love me and leave me to die.
Oh baby can't do this to me baby.
Just gotta get out just gotta get right outta here.”
And at last he accepts his fate, because “nothing really matters.”
That is what I always thought was going on, but I want to know what you think.
We may never know exactly what was going on in Freddie Mercury’s mind when he wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Mercury was a strange animal and part of his mystique was his outlandish style and how it melded with his tremendous imagination and this only adds to the mystery of “Bohemian Rhapsody” because any theory, no matter how informal or unconventional is potentially accurate, as suggested by Mercury and his very deliberate choice of title for this epic poem.
- King of Braves