Friday, September 5, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 248): "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY" (1975) Queen

A little “Bohemian Rhapsody” gentlemen?
Good call.

The scene in Wayne’s World where Wayne, Garth, and their crew rock out to today’s song (here in honor of the birthday of late vocalist Freddie Mercury), reimagined, for the early Nineties, the feel of riding in Mirth Mobiles, or their equivalent, getting stoned and listening to tapes. Nobody does any drugs in Wayne’s World and though one guy is always trashed we don’t really see drinking either. It’s a very clean version of a time when pot went without saying.

And for stoned ears the technical sleight-of-hand—all those multi-tracked vocals!—of Queen’s magnum opus was a thorough delight. To me, it all seemed a bit too premeditated, a bit “too too” by 1975. Prog, y’understand, was on the way out as of 1974. Queen were the last wave, marrying glam and prog and taking it to the top. The song was tremendously successful in England, and made top ten here. It was, as it were, a last sop to the legions for whom “classical trappings”—in this case opéra bouffe—merged with rock could still get a rise. Don’t get me wrong. I really admire the song, but much more as form over substance. It’s flash, but then, that was what Queen did so well. Mercury was extremely charismatic and very flashy—he made all those heavy metal shriekers and berserkers look like clods, and compared to the glam legions, from Bowie to Marc Bolan to David Johanson, he truly looked a sex symbol in his dark-eyed, chiseled chin, deep cheekbones, androgynous bisexual beauty. And Brian May’s guitar was flash all the way, flash with grandeur. And that phrase pretty much sums up my take on the overall sound of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

It begins with a kind of prologue that sets up the perspective of the performer: “nothing really matters to me”—“easy come, easy go, anyway the wind blows.” But the opening line asks if we are dealing with real life or just fantasy. And that’s key to the dramatics of the song, which will enact a fantasy of killing someone and trying to shrug it off or atone. And the flip between those two positions is what makes the song so appealing, at the level of a rendering both dramatic and comic.

All the protestations to “mama”—I killed a man, I didn’t mean to make you cry, I’ve thrown my life away, I’ve got to face the truth—turn on a great “woe-is-me” vocal that Mercury plays to the hilt, never dropping the sense of façade, complete with a great parting line, ending in falsetto, “so long, everybody, I’ve got to go.” Also key to the “sorry to hurt you, mother” pitch is the line apt to inflict more suffering: “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” It’s a great sendup of teenage angst, a kind of Romeo moment when he experiences true grief for killing Tybalt. O I am fortune’s fool!

Then comes the operatic part as an imagining of our hero’s fate via commedia dell’arte, with a reference to Scaramouche, who, like our hero, is known for his skirmishes, and comic opera, with a reference to Figaro, the barber of Seville. The references—and to Galileo after a mention of thunderbolts and lightning (very, very frightening)—don’t amount to much except to characterize the musical segment as comic opera, full of sound and voices, signifying nothing. It’s handled very well, musically, so that we immediately envision the kind of vignette we’re meant to think of. A clownish hero, a dire predicament, and a plea for leniency (“spare him his life for his monstrosity”), with a struggle—and captors calling upon Allah (“Bismillah, we will not let you go”). We could say it’s a worked-up rendition of a struggle of conscience ending with the great shriek (after the operatic “mamma mia, mamma mia”) “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for meeeeeee.”

And that’s the point at which Wayne and company rock out like headbangers. And it’s hard not to because when Queen wants to rock, they really rock.  Mercury comes in to match this hard-rocking bit with his voice in nasty mode, telling off some twat: “so you think you can love me and leave me to die?” If we really want to overthink it, we can see this bit as the real heart of the song, that the scene of pleading with mother and the struggle of conscience is all because of the turn his love has taken. But, really, it just seems like these words go along with the riff of this section, and, yes, that drum fill that Wayne (Mike Myers) so ably mimics. And soon we’re awash with chiming guitar that sounds like someone’s ship has come in—it truly sounds inspiring and rhapsodic, almost like an “and they’re off” clarion at the track, whipping up a fevered “escape” of sorts before we settle back into the very lyrical and serene (and Myers and Dana Carvey—as Garth—parody this segment remarkably well too) “nothing really matters, anyone can see, that nothing really matters . . . to me.”

And just like that we’re absolved of all wrong-doing, that bad chick is behind us, and mama hasn’t really lost her son, though we’re pretty sure she still has her claws in. If you want to “face the truth.”

As a production, the song is amazing. Having heard it once you won’t forget it, and it seems the best of all possible showcases for Mercury’s vocal prowess. Like Mercury in general, it’s all showmanship—I don’t think there’s a single Queen song that actually says anything—and it’s a great ride. Perfect for the Mirth Mobile.

Get drunk and sing along with Queen.

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