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Interviews > Brian May Interviews > 04-02-1993 - Sacramento Bee (CA)


"I feel great now," says guitarist Brian May, midway through his first tour as a solo artist. "I never thought I'd be saying that."

Just as Queen, the group he co-founded in 1971 and helped take to the top of the pop heap, was seeing a rebirth of popularity, the group's lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died of AIDS in November 1991.

And the timing couldn't have been worse: Mercury died in the midst of an aggressive campaign by the group's new label to release a new album ("Innuendo") and the group's entire 18-album catalog on compact disc.

And soon after Mercury's death, that catalog was given invaluable exposure via a segment in the blockbuster movie "Wayne's World," in which five headbangers sing along to Queen's operatic 1974 hit "Bohemian Rhapsody," thus introducing the group to a whole new audience.

But Mercury's death was just the latest in a string of disasters for May.

"Without going too deeply into it, my dad died about five years ago, which I found very difficult because I never got to say goodbye properly," he says by phone from Fargo, N. D., where he is on tour as opening act for Guns N' Roses. May will open the Gunners' sold-out Arco Arena show Saturday night.

"Then the group stopped touring (in 1986) and that tore away a layer of security," he adds. "Then I split from my wife and kids (ages 14, 11 and 6), which was the worst of all, because my whole image of myself was based on being a husband and father."

The result, the 45-year-old guitarist says, was emotional collapse. "I fell apart," he says in his soft English accent. "I became very depressed, incapable of doing almost anything - getting out of bed was hard."

His way out of that depression was working - for five years - on the tracks that would become his recently released album, "Back to the Light."

"I was making the album in tandem with rebuilding my life," he says. "When I began on the album, it was a therapy attempt. I'd play a bit, sing a bit, many times nothing would come, then sometimes I'd get a bit of inspiration."

The breakthrough was the title song, which May describes as "a game plan in a way, a plan to find some optimism. It was a long process, but eventually, I felt that things could be helped - I was no longer trying to drive off the bridge after seeing the kids.

"And watching Freddie suffer so much put things in some perspective."

May and his bandmates (Roger Taylor and John Deacon) had known that Queen's flamboyant lead singer, whose lifestyle is a thing of rock legend, had been ill. But May says that the band members were actually told that Mercury had AIDS only a short time before the singer died.

"Well, it was a terrible blow, a tragedy - what can I say?" May says quietly. "Working and living with him, and seeing him suffer, was awful. But in some ways, we were the closest we ever were in those last years."

"(Mercury's condition) became a part of our lives," he says. "Although we didn't know exactly what was going on, it was apparent that he was very ill."

That awareness was reflected in some of the band's songs on the last album "Innuendo," notably "The Show Must Go On" and "These Are the Days of Our Lives," which appeared to concern Mercury's imminent demise.

"I suppose they did," May concedes. "Freddie was still looking outward, but we were writing things that he might be feeling, but not able to voice. He just said, "You don't have to tell me what it means - I will give it my all.'

And according to May, Mercury did just that. Even though the wasting effects of AIDS had left Mercury too weak to record for long periods of time, the singer worked hard. "It was very precious, working with that intensity. He even extended his (vocal) range toward the end."

But while May's own emotional range was extended - his own process of songwriting for his solo album was producing titles like "I'm Scared" - it was clear that Queen, besides losing its front man, wasn't the venue for the more personal songs he'd been creating. He needed to strike out on his own.

Although the songs are more overtly personal, May's album offers few surprises musically. The songs - including hard rockers such as "Love Token" and folksy sing-alongs like "Let Your Heart Rule Your Head" - rest, as Queen's usually did, on May's stunning, complex layers of processed guitars and dense multitracked vocal harmonies. At times, May's voice sounds like Mercury's.

"Well, a lot of Queen was me, and I won't pretend that it didn't exist," he says, not at all defensively. "This is an extension, a way of moving on. It's more personal, and it goes further down and further up."

As for the final step of taking his new music to the arenas of America, and singing his songs himself in front of a six-member band that includes drummer Cozy Powell, May is both philosophical and excited.

"My role is now to be me - I've gotten used to (being a front man) very quickly," he says. "I'll never be Freddie - he was the ultimate stadium rock singer. But a few years ago, I don't think I would have even tried to front a band. It would have been too intimidating.

"But having been through this grief, I feel differently about problems," he says. "I treat them as challenges and use them to get to a new place."