My advice is this: if you want to learn about Brian May, put on News of the World.
Brian May: The Definitive BiographyPublisher: Piatkus
Length: 256 pages
Author: Laura Jackson
Publication date: 2009-04
Laura Jackson’s writing credits include 13 other books besides this latest, all celebrity biographies. Some are “definitive”, others not. The illustrious list of celebs damaged by this woman’s pen include Kiefer Sutherland, Sean Bean, Ewan MacGregor, Jon Bon Jovi, and Daniel Day-Lewis, all rather young for biographies.
While Brian May keeps company (though arguably not good company) with older gents (Jackson evidently doesn’t cover ladies) like the Eagles, Mick Jagger, and Paul Simon, he is the only star to have three Jackson books about or involving him: Queen: The Definitive Biography, Mercury: The King of Queen, and Queen and I: The Brain May Story.
Why a fourth book about May? I can only assume his status as Rock God ensures great sales in Britain, no matter how poor the book.
Rock biographies have always suffered as a genre. With the exception of Buried Alive, Myra Friedman’s biography of Janis Joplin, I cannot think of one rock bio where the writing stood up to the subject. Slash’s recent autobiography, co-written with Anthony Bozza, is no literary masterpiece, but Bozza skillfully helped Slash present the book, crummy grammar and all, in the first person. And because Slash is smart, funny, and lives a fast, unusual life, the result is an immensely entertaining read.
The Michael Azzerad cult of Cobain books are okay, though it’s difficult at this point to mine much more out of that poor soul’s short life. Books like Danny Sugarman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive (about Jim Morrison) or Jimmy McDonough’s abysmal Neil Young bio Shakey are more indicative of the norm: one endures the awful writing because the subject is sufficiently engaging. And in all these cases, the authors knew their subjects personally and are passionate about them.
Laura Jackson knows Brian May, but the two are hardly friends, and her knowledge of Queen isn’t that of a friend, fellow musician, or even impassioned sycophant. She’s a writer (sort of) casting about for a profitable tale -- so she locates a popular subject and writes a book. And Brian May, who is clearly an extremely nice man, must have been too worn down to say no. Hence Brian May, take four.
Born in 1947, Brian May is the only child of Harold and Ruth May. Queen fans are familiar with Harold and Brian’s infamous tinkering, which lead to the construction of May’s guitar, the Red Special. May’s high intelligence manifested early. An excellent student, he had an affinity for math and was an avid amateur astronomer.
As a young man he quickly rose to prominence in the local English music scene, dividing his energies between music and University, where he studied astronomy at the post baccalaureate level. Queen came together as all bands do: a friend knows a friend who sings or somebody responds to what is here called an advert, and everything falls into place.
May met Roger Taylor, who left his studies at Dental College to pursue drumming. Then, through a friend of a friend, he met one Farookh Bulsara, a flamboyantly loud fellow set on strong-arming his way into Brian’s band. When bassist John Deacon joined the band in 1971, Queen’s career rapidly took off.
Queen’s growing success forced May to choose between two demanding fields, and just shy of submitting his doctoral dissertation, he left University for a full-time musical career. By now his work with Queen was garnering national attention, with a couple of singles and the requisite unfair recording contract, wherein the record company cleans up while their musicians live in squalor.
From here the book becomes a whirlwind of movement: the band went here, recorded that, went there and performed. Bulsara, now Freddie Mercury, is an outsized, outrageous personage, given to tantrums, lavish costumes, and far too much cocaine. Meanwhile, May a is mild-mannered perfectionist, working endlessly on the guitar riffs that mark his unmistakable sound.
Jackson quotes extensively from other musicians about Queen’s unique spot in rock music. Bruce Dickinson, Tony Iommi, Joe Elliott, Richie Sambora, and ABBA’s hard-rockin’ Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus all weigh in with complimentary commentary; May’s talent, generosity, gentleness, and lack of ego are made clear. But little is devoted to how the music was made. Here is Jackson on “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
The grandiose pomp of the song squares with Mercury’s love of drama and passion, but it is worth considering if perhaps there were other forces at work ... his (Mercury’s) horizons had broadened through travelling and meeting new people on tour. His exposure to drugs and drug-taking had also increased ... Is it possible that his early experiments with cocaine coincided with writing this song?
Is it possible Jackson has no idea what she’s talking about?
She also misses -- or can’t be bothered to mention -- that records “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races” are titles borrowed from Marx Brothers films.
Though Jackson duly notes the timeline, this single, that manager, the inexorable climb toward world fame, the writing is so wordy and topical that a fascinating man and his equally interesting bandmates are flattened into dullness. May is a private person, and his personal life, though covered, is given short shrift. We are told of his first marriage to the “elfin” Chrissy Mullen and his delight at the births of his children.
But nothing plumbs below the surface: as the band’s fame grows and May spends more time on the road, the marriage falters. We’re told Brian is devastated (understandably). The situation only worsens when Harold May dies. During this time the despondent Brian meets his second wife, actress Anita Dobson (also described as elfin). The relationship is a volatile one. By 1991, everything is coming apart -- his marriage dissolving, his relationship with Dobson unstable, and his bandmate stalwartly refusing to admit he is dying from AIDS. Jackson writes: “Before the year ended, he (May) flew to Los Angeles to give himself a chance to get well, to regain control of his emotions and mend his broken life.”
Where? A hospital? A resort? The desert? Nothing more is said; the next chapter opens with a 1992 awards ceremony. The book is rife with these sorts of jumps, forcing the reader to abandon any sense of continuity beyond concerts, benefits, and recordings. An early bout of gangrene, acquired when May was immunized before touring, is glossed over. So is a broken arm.
When severe depression leads May to check into an Arizona clinic, we’re told he hated anti-depressants and conquered his illness through “that iron will that his friends talk of”. And though much is made of Harold May’s death, Ruth’s merits no mention; we learn of it when May is awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire: “The first thing that comes into your head is you wish your mum and dad were there to enjoy it, but I am happy that my wife and kids will be able to enjoy it.”
Then there are the other band members. A fair amount of writing is devoted to Mercury, a tormented, lonely man who treated some people atrociously, ultimately had few close friends, and died a horrible death. Again, we’re told how upset the rest of the band is, but it only hits home when Jackson quotes Tony Iommi, who describes Brian as "in bits".
Roger Taylor, who, like May, has stayed active in furthering Queen’s legacy, is a presence throughout, but John Deacon, apart from his entrance into the band, is completely absent. After Mercury’s death, Deacon "preferred to keep a very low private profile".
For those of us who vividly recall Queen’s great years and had to watch, heartbroken, as the formerly handsome, muscular Mercury grew sicker and sicker, finally announcing what we all already knew, only to die the next day, this book is just detritus. Those of us who sat in front of MTV crying through the 1991 American Thanksgiving Holiday (Mercury died on November 24th) don’t need this book. We have the music. We also have Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s hilariously funny sing-along to "Rhapsody" in Wayne’s World,, an enormous tribute which helped us laugh through our tears.
My advice is this: if you want to learn about Brian May, put on News of the World. That fucked up vinyl copy you’ve had since sixth grade. You will understand the man just fine, and incidentally, be in, and hear, Good Company.