Yesterday was Brian May’s birthday. He turned 70. How does a stately, freshly-minted septuagenarian British astrophysicist celebrate this milestone birthday? In the middle of a North American tour with Queen + Adam Lambert, of course. May’s birthday fell on an off day between gigs. He just played Toronto, now on his way to Detroit.
I saw Queen + AL about three years ago when they rolled through Las Vegas. They crammed their monstrous arena show rig—well, a portion of it, at least—into the 3,000-seat Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. My buddy Brit and I went to their second of two shows at The Joint.
You’ve heard me talk about this show more times than you care to remember, I’m sure. But it was a pretty big deal for me. I’ve been listening to Queen for as long as I can remember. No, really.
“…and everything I had to know, I heard it on my radio…”
One of my earliest memories of listening to Queen was sometime in the mid-70s. I was five years old or so. I think my parents were having a party or something. Since Shawn and I were little, we had to go to bed fairly early so the grown-ups could keep the party going. Mom and Dad let me sleep in their room with a radio on.
I distinctly remember Dad asking me if I wanted the radio on. It was a vintage “digital” clock-radio. You know the kind—white, molded plastic with the analog-style digits that would flip over like a Rolodex. With the lights turned off, the clock numbers glowed a hazy, green hue. I was little and afraid of the dark, so Dad left the bedroom light on. I was also a night owl from a very young age. Sleep has never come easily for me at bedtime. So I remember vividly lying awake in bed—wide awake, staring at those numbers on the clock tumble over—trying to focus on the radio to drown out the faint noise of people downstairs. I don’t remember any songs that played that night, but for one. It was a song I’d heard before in bits and pieces. It always caught my attention and I thought I might like it, but I’d never had a chance to really listen to it. Until now. The opening was already familiar to me…
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy…”
In that instant, in that moment, I became a Queen fan. Bohemian Rhapsody is the first song I could identify as a Queen song. What was it that I liked so much about it? Was it the lyrics? Was it the harmonies? The guitars? What was it? Who cares?! No, nothing about that song made a lick of sense to me. None of it. But gimme a break. I was five years old. What did I know about Bismillah and Beelzebub? I didn’t care. I just knew I liked the song, and maybe that’s the real point about music appreciation. You don’t have to quantify it. If you like it, that’s all that matters. And I knew I really liked Bohemian Rhapsody!
“…when I’m holding your wheel, all I hear is your gear…”
Not too long after that, I began going through my dad’s record collection, plundering for Queen albums to play. He had A Night at the Opera and Jazz. I played those records endlessly. He also had a couple songs from Queen I dubbed onto a cassette or 8-track that I’d dig out and play on occasion. I always liked the drum parts on Liar and Keep Yourself Alive (still do). One song Dad played quite a bit back then was I’m In Love With My Car, a Roger Taylor cut from A Night at the Opera. Of all the Queen songs I listened to in my youth, I tend to associate that one with Dad more than any other. Was he a car nut? Yes and no. I think he just liked the song a lot.
Mom has her favorite Queen song, too, I should mention: Don’t Stop Me Now. She’s always said it’s a great driving song. She’s right, but be forewarned: playing Don’t Stop Me Now while driving may lead to a lead foot and a speeding ticket (you’ve been warned).
If you’re wondering why in the hell our dad would let Shawn and I monkey around with his precious stereo system, it’s a good question. Truth is, we had to work our way up to it. We got our own record player when we were six or seven years old. And we were taught very early on that albums are to be treated delicately; especially Dad’s albums! Many times, he’d cue up the records. Over time, he eased us into using his system. And whenever Dad upgraded his hi-fi, he bequeathed the old system to us. If you knew our dad, then it doesn’t shock you at all that Shawn and I are audiophiles. Anyway…
“…that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit, travelin’ at the speed of light…”
The next Queen record I got was Live Killers (it was for my brother Shawn and I, actually). Our parents bought it for us at a family outing to the mall (Hampton Mall, I’m pretty sure; not Fashion Square Mall in Saginaw). I remember coming home from the mall and we put the record on the turntable and gave it a listen as a family. I don’t really think Mom and Dad originally intended on sitting there and listening with us, but they did anyway. I was maybe nine or ten years old at the time and this was my first experience with a live album.
Another year or two later, my parents bought me A Day at the Races for my birthday. They went to Detroit for the night and I think they bought it during a mall excursion down there. I think it was Christmas 1980 when Dave Wade (a family friend) got me The Game. At the time, this was a very popular album; probably the height of Queen’s popularity in the States while Freddie was still with us.
“…he spends his evenings alone, in his hotel room…”
Throughout 80s, I rounded out my Queen collection with my paper route money. I remember, to this day, buying News of the World, taking it home and playing it for the first time. My ritual with new album purchases was pretty much the same. I’d drop the needle, sit on the floor in our spare room (that’s what we called our “play” room) and listen with the album sleeve in my lap. I can still feel that semi-shaggy white carpeting and see the dark brown woodwork all along the baseboards in that room.
Over the next three decades, I swapped my Queen vinyl for Queen CDs. Lately, I’ve been buying Queen on vinyl again. Go figure. I guess I’ve gone full circle.
Somewhere in the middle of all that on a Sunday night in early/mid 1992, my buddy Mike and I go to movies to see Wayne’s World. And what greets us in one of the opening scenes?
“Mama…just killed a man. Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead.”
“…I’ve been with you such a long time…”
Hearing Bohemian Rhapsody while Wayne, Garth & crew were riding in Garth’s Pacer was like an unexpected visit from an old friend…and a pure joy to watch. Freddie had already died by the time the movie was released so he never got to see it, but Brian always said Freddie would’ve loved Mike Myers’ and Dana Carvey’s tribute.
Anyway, Brian May’s birthday this week got me to reflecting on that earliest of Queen memories (and a few others). If you ever wondered—and I’m sure you didn’t—my lifelong love of Queen started with an old clock-radio in my parents’ bedroom, thanks to Mom and Dad having a party.
Happy Birthday, Brian May. May you live forever.