Let me apologise in advance for breaking many female hearts with the following revelation.
Brian May, rock ‘n’ roll super nova, Renaissance man and consort of Anita Dobson can’t dance. And emphatically won’t dance. When I ask him if he will be helping his vivacious Mrs to polish her dancing steps for Strictly Come Dancing, it is the only point in the interview when he becomes visibly uncomfortable. “Not a chance! There is not a remote possibility of that. I feel rhythm; but I don’t feel it in my feet. That’s the way most guitarists are. Watch Jeff Beck’s feet. We feel rhythm in the top line; we’re aware of what’s underneath; but we don’t move with it. A lot would have to happen before I could dance; but I am very proud of Anita.”
It is late afternoon on a day when summer briefly makes an appearance, and in true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, Brian May, Queen’s celebrated lead guitarist and now Dr May, Ph D in Astrophysics, with an special interest in ‘reflected light in dust particles in the solar system,’ is relaxing in a corner of his favourite Italian, dressed in a flowing, D’Artagnan, black and white shirt, though he protests vehemently that he hates fashion.
“My pa, Claire bought this shirt. I do one shopping trip a year, Anita is too busy, and I don’t like the idea of having to slavishly follow anything; I have never been fashionable.” Though he begins to soften at the suggestion that Queen set the fashion agenda, rather than followed it, with their vibrant, theatrical and beautifully crafted stage clothes by the original enfant terrible of fashion, Zandra Rhodes, and he thanks me for the compliment. And then he returns to grazing on delicious gelato, and all the while telling funny, intimate, affecting stories about Freddie Mercury, the greatest showman, in the greatest rock and roll band on earth.
Throughout the extraordinary reign of Queen, Brian and Freddie were close, and in recent weeks May has been giving interviews to celebrate what would have been Freddie’s sixty-fifth birthday. Not surprisingly, May the scholarly, multi-faceted man of rock and roll is in a contemplative mood. “ Freddie was living the persona of a rock star long before he became one,” he says, recalling the early days of the band, when they couldn’t get arrested, and dreamt of playing the famous Marquee Club in Soho. “Freddie was a strange combination, because he was very shy. But he cloaked it in this very flamboyant way of dressing, and way of behaving. He was funny. As you suggest, he was a dandy.”
Perhaps May the grammar school boy and Mercury, the whiz kid from Zanzibar with the perfect, crystalline voice got along because they shared the painful, rights of passage growing pains of adolescence. “I think that is why a lot of us do this. It’s to find a way of being confident,” suggests May. “The strange thing is that I found it less terrifying to be on stage than to be in an audience at a concert, because I didn’t know what to do. It was all about dances in those days. You used to play a dance. All the boys would stand around, not knowing what to do, because they were scared of girls. I went to an all boys’ school, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I couldn’t face rejection, and I thought it would be a lot easier if I was on that stage.”
How smart of May. The moment he became the attraction on stage, every girl would want to be with him! “That’s right,” he says looking pleased, “ and they couldn’t because I was on stage.”
How the male mind works!
Before this interview, many people who have met or worked with May told me that he is a laid-back, lovely, down to earth sort of man. For once it’s true. I don’t think I have ever come across a more mellow rock star.
Forty years ago, May disappointed his father when he chose the itinerant life of rock ‘n’ roll over a promising career in science. The gamble would of course pay of spectacularly, and May eventually healed the rift with his father who he describes as ‘ a very talented man, in so many ways.’ It was his father who helped to design and build the extraordinary – Red Special, the unique, homemade guitar that Brian always plays and describes as ‘part of me, it has the sound that I need.’ Today, Brian could easily just put in an appearance at the odd glittering charity event and reunion concert and sit back and enjoy the fruits of twenty extraordinary years on the road with Queen.
Instead, he has returned to his early love of science and become something of a latterday Renaissance man and high profile patron of the arts exploring his many interests from physics and astronomy to collecting rare 19th century daguerreotypes. These days he is just as likely to pop up on The Sky at Night with his great friend and childhood hero, Sir Patrick Moore as at a gig with his rock star friends at The Royal Albert Hall. Though he does that too, and has also been touring with the West End star, Kerry Ellis.
“It’s true,” says Brian, laughing with obvious delight. “I am very busy, but it is all fun. Next week I am seeing Patrick. We stay quite close; he is a lovely man. We are writing our next book together with Chris Lintott. It’s just the three of us, and it’s a follow up to our last book Bang. This time we are writing an everyday guide to the universe, it’s called The Cosmic Tourist.”
Brian says his love of astronomy took off when he was a small boy. “ I was just awestruck by the night sky. I used to look up at the stars and wonder what it was all about. I would plead with my mum and dad to be allowed to stay up and Watch the Sky at Night, and Patrick on the telly. I was just glued to the screen.”
When May’s wasn’t looking stargazing, or dreaming of emulating his heroes Tommy Steele – the first British rock star or Buddy Holly, he was nurturing another life long passion for photography, and in particular – 3D stereo photography. Throughout the Queen years, he carried a stereo camera around with him and he is known for his collection of rare images by the Victorian photographer T R Williams, which resulted in a critically acclaimed exhibition and book – A Village Lost and Found, which offers a stunning, Alice-in-Wonderland window into a world of real people and lost, rural way of life. He hopes it will one day find a home in the V&A. Now he tells me he has been ‘wrenched into another domain’, and he is ‘completely immersed’ in French stereo cards from the 1860s, known as Diablery. “They are clay sculptures or tableaux, which depict scenes of devils and skeletons having fun in hell, and they are extraordinary in their realism.”
May has been collecting Diablery cards for thirty years. “They were incredibly popular in the reign of Napoleon the third, because the regime was so repressive. Most of the cards are wickedly jolly; but they are also coded comments and a form of satire on the political situation of the time. There hasn’t been a definitive book on them, so that will be the next book project.”
Brian is happiest and at his most eloquent and charming when he is talking about his hobbies and interests and not being asked the same questions about Queen and Freddie for the umpteenth time or about his life with Anita Dobson, his second wife. He looks utterly bewildered when I ask him if he can cook, but then let’s slip, rather boyishly, that he is “lucky to live with an excellent cook,” and adds that he doesn’t know “how Anita does it, when she is so busy.”
He also reveals that he and Anita recently slipped over to the Isle of Wight, for a ‘pilgrimage’ come whirlwind, proper British seaside holiday in homage to an earlier childhood holiday with his parents in Sandown when he was three years old. “I was invited to give a talk at the Dimbola Photographic Museum in Freshwater, which has been showing my exhibition – A Village Lost and Found. We had a fantastic day. The ladies in the tearoom baked me a chocolate cake for my birthday, and then we spent the rest our holiday exploring the west and south coast of the island and making a special trip to Sandown. The island is a great place; I would love to go back. It feels more tranquil and meditative, and no one seems to lock their doors.” There were his and hers Mr Whippy ice creams on the beach at Sandown and fish and chips at the Beach Hut Diner Ventnor, which he enjoyed so much, he sent the proprietor, a Ms Carole Parks a signed album to say thank you.
Does he face difficulties trying to blend in with the hoardes of visitors, who must be wondering if they have just spotted a Brian May lookalike?
“Ha, ha, the trick is to keep moving. We did look at The Royal Hotel in Ventnor for lunch, which looked lovely, but it was very busy, and that is the point when Anita and I become tourist attractions, which is not great, and weren’t hungry enough, so we kept going.”
Did he do any stargazing? As the island, is quite renowned for its dark skies. “No, not this time, but the island would be one of the best places to view the stars in the British Isles. Sadly, the places where you can look at the night sky are dwindling. The best places are Las Palmas or the Teide Observatory in Tenerife. I’ve seen quite a few total eclipses of the sun, and that is a great thing to do. It’s a nice social event; but it is also a truly awesome experience to see a total eclipse. It’s amazing. I love it. You feel you are seeing the universe in a different way. Suddenly, you are very aware of being on a piece of rock that is going around the sun. You get to see the sun’s corona, the stars come out, the planets look really bright – I would recommend it to anyone.”
Now it is time for this shooting star of rock ‘n’ roll to head home, and no he won’t be doing a cha cha cha, a slow waltz or even Hank Marvin’ s famous shuffle anytime soon. What he will be doing is hanging out with Patrick Moore when an extremely rare transit of Venus happens next year. And remember, not all rock gods can dance.
INTERVIEW UPDATE Talking to Brian this week, he tells me that he is working on some new material with Kerry Ellis for The Born Free Foundation, made famous by Virginia McKenna. Brian is also working very hard to overturn the proposed, mass cull of badgers by the coalition government. For more on Brian go to www.brianmay.com
Copyright Alison Jane Reid – September 2011
Download PDF of this Brian May article 1st Published in The Lady Magazine October 2011