By Gus Silber
A few years ago, out of a sense of neighbourly obligation and morbid curiosity, I attended an amateur talent evening at a local church hall.
There was a piano recital, played with an air of studious grace; there was a standup comedian, with some wry and cutting observations on race and suburbia; there was a dancer doing a Jazz routine, with a smile on her face and her feet all over the place.
Then it was the turn of a rock band, a three-piece in the classic format of drums, bass, and guitar. They looked shy and earnest – it must have been their first gig – and as the guitarist leaned back and strummed the opening power chord, there was a squeal and a fritz as the amp cut out, leaving just a shiver of steel strings scratching at the air.
The band convened to analyse the problem, fiddling with the dials and trouble-checking the connections, and the MC rushed on stage and said, this won’t take a minute, and she was right.
She stood there for a while, looking on and smiling as the minutes ticked by, and then, out of nowhere, as if thinking aloud, she opened her mouth and sang: “Is this the real life…”
On the other end of the stage, another member of the church’s youth group answered the call, singing: “Is this just fantasy?”
And someone in the audience, without any prompting, sang, “Caught in a landslide”, and someone else sang “No escape from reality”.
And on and on, the thread of the a cappella rising in surge and volume, until we were all singing, all of us, the kids and the teens and the adults, all the way through the Scaramouch and the Fandango and the Galileo and the Mama Mia to the wistful ache of the fadeout – “Any way the wind blows” – and the rapturous burst of self-applause that followed.
It was further proof, if any were needed, that everyone knows Bohemian Rhapsody, which was recorded by Queen in 1975, and which has since, thanks to its ubiquitous use in movies and ads and football stadium singalongs, become a bridge between the generations, a shared gene implanted in our collective cultural memory.
We all know the words of the song by heart, and yet their meaning remains mysterious, elusive, open to interpretation. But that is part of the beauty of art. Once the artist sets it free, it belongs to us all, and we can weigh it up and peel away its secrets in any way we choose.
So the way I hear it, and I’m hearing it a lot these days, in the hype-up to the release of the biopic of the same name, Bohemian Rhapsody is about, well, six minutes long, during the course of which Freddie Mercury contemplates the most cosmic question of them all, on the mercurial nature of existence itself, the state of being or not being in the everyday world.
It’s about the ancient, perpetual battle between the fates and the furies, between the tempests that rage all around us, and our innate drive to rise up and rage back against them.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the song can be heard as a modern riff on the most famous meditation on mortality in the English language: the fourth soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
When the Prince of Denmark ponders whether to be or not to be, he is foreshadowing the anguish of Mercury’s schizophrenic couplet, “I don’t wanna die”, followed immediately by “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”.
And when Mercury moans “Too late, my time has come, sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time”, he brings to mind Hamlet’s meanderings on the “heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”.
Hamlet, troubled out of his mind by his mom and dad, the latter who is a ghost, the former who married his murderer with unseemly haste, is a tragic figure, bent on revenge and wallowing in self-pity, just as Freddie does when he cries: “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me”.
Over the centuries, Hamlet’s mental state has provided rich pickings for professional and amateur analysts alike: at the very least, he is a melancholic, delusional and paranoid, with moments of crystal clarity and insight: “When the wind is southerly,” he insists, “I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
But it is worth remembering that Hamlet, too, must admit to his Mama at one point that he killed a man, albeit the wrong man, and albeit with a sword thrust through a curtain, rather than a gun against the head.
Alas, poor Polonius, and alas all the others of royal ilk who – spoiler alert – are led to their untimely demise by the time the curtain falls.
Bohemian Rhapsody may have less drama to its plotting, but it has no less melodrama, and Freddie too veers from existential despair – “nothing really matters anymore” – to the mania of the middle section, where he sees a little silhouetto of a man and gets very very frightened by the thunder and lightning.
Then he rages: “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye, so you think you can love me and leave me to die”, perhaps against a treacherous lover, perhaps against the universe, it’s hard to tell and it’s better that we don’t know for sure.
It’s enough that this song, this radical, audacious, format-defying work of pop genius, delves so deeply into a sea of troubles, and then takes arms against them with slings and arrows and drums and guitars, until the music itself becomes reason enough for being.
The lesson that lingers, as the final harmony fades into the ether, is this: in the battle between the fates and the furies, choose the furies.
Choose art, choose beauty, choose truth, choose life, choose to sing along to the words you know by heart, any way the wind blows.
*This first appeared on Gus Silber’s Facebook page.