Queen guitarist Brian May doesn’t have much interest in doing “virtuoso stuff”

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 25, 1993

By Steve Newton

Ever since Wayne’s World came out, I’ve been considering legal action against writer/star Mike Myers. You know that scene where Wayne and Garth are driving around with their buddies in a purple Pinto, singing along and banging their heads to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Well, I think I know where Myers stole that idea, ’cos me and my high-school buddies in Chilliwack used to do the exact same thing! Okay, so we weren’t cruising in a purple Pinto—we had a jacked-up white Valiant with mag wheels—but I still think what they did is pretty close to plagiarism.

So, when I get a chance to interview former Queen guitarist Brian May, I plead my case. “Well, I tell you,” replies the curly-haired musician, “we used to do that, too. That’s the funniest thing. I mean, we had pretty much a sense of humour about that song, and we would do that stuff, too.”

Okay, skip the lawsuit. I guess my formative air-guitar years weren’t so unique after all. If Queen members themselves were doing it, perhaps there were thousands of kids motoring along in 1975, going bonkers to that inimitable song. Maybe there still are, and maybe a bunch of them will be doing it as they drive to B.C. Place to see the Brian May Band and headliners Guns N’ Roses on Tuesday (March 30).

There is little chance May will tackle the incomparable melody of “Bohemian Rhapsody” alone—the song is too closely identified with its creator, Freddie Mercury, who died last year of AIDS-related causes. But there is a possibility that other Queen tunes will be marched out in all their million-selling majesty.

“I wasn’t sure about doing [any Queen songs] in the beginning,” says May, “because I have a strong feeling that I want to move on, and I want to put across what’s on my album. But at the same time, I don’t want to pretend that I’m not that guy who went out and did all that other stuff. So we throw in ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ and a couple of other things occasionally, depending on the mood.”

May’s seven-piece outfit includes drum god Cozy Powell (Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, Rainbow) and former Whitesnake bassist Neil Murray. Most of the band’s 55-minute set is devoted to material from May’s recently released album, Back to the Light, the guitarist’s first full-length post-Queen release (he released a three-song album, Star Fleet Project, in 1983).

The initial shock of performing in front of rabid Guns N’ Roses fans is wearing off. “It was like being fed to the lions the first time I went out,” says May, “or else jumping off a very high cliff, ’cos I didn’t know what to expect. But we’ve gone over surprisingly well, really. The Guns N’ Roses fans are a fairly…what’s the word? I suppose in tune rock ’n’ roll audience—they’re not too extreme.

“You know, I don’t think a Metallica audience would be that easy, but Guns N’ Roses fans seem pretty much into what I’m trying to do. I think there’s a kind of spiritual connection between Guns N’ Roses and Queen, anyway—I feel like there’s a lot of parallels and similarities in the way we approach things. So I feel very at home with those guys. And the crew have been great; we’ve had a lot of help from everybody on this tour.”

The first tracks of May’s cathartic Back to the Light collection were laid down five years ago. Since then, he has had to deal with some of the harshest realities of his life, including an “unthinkable” split from his wife and kids, the loss of his father, and the death of Mercury, who was a friend as well as a bandmate. Between 1988 and the present, May says, “[My] life and feelings underwent a catastrophic change.

“The main battle really was in myself,” he explains. “It was a personal thing. I was really trying to put myself back together, because five years ago I was at a very black point, having had a very spoiled life up to that point, and having achieved everything that I could have hoped for, I suppose. I started looking at things breaking up, and I couldn’t deal with it. I just could not rise above the problems that were in front of me. So really, the album was part of my process of re-evaluating everything and rebuilding.”

Considering the flashy style of May’s previous solo project—which saw him trading speedy licks with Eddie Van Halen in a jam-oriented setting—some fans may have expected Back to the Light to be yet another offering from a guitar virtuoso. But May doesn’t believe his long-time followers are the type to be swayed by preconceived notions.

“My experiences in speaking to them leave me to think not,” he says. “I think we’re very fortunate—and I’m speaking about Queen now, I suppose—to have a following of people who understand that we’ve got to grow, and they’ve always been very supportive of our endeavours to move out in different directions. So on the whole, I think people understand the concept that I was trying to put an album together of songs which meant something, and all other considerations were second to that.

“And I don’t have much interest in doing virtuoso stuff for its own sake, anyway,” he adds. “I don’t think I’m capable, either, but that’s another question.”

Virtuoso or not, there’s no doubting May’s ability to transform himself into a real-life rock hero whenever he plugs in his famous red guitar. May and his father built the instrument when May was just a teen—it’s a unique fusion of 120-year-old mahogany (taken from a family mantelpiece) and innovative hardware—and its vibrant tone has undoubtedly helped brighten the lives of millions of rock lovers. Not to mention the man himself.

“Music is joy to me,” writes May in Back to the Light’s introductory liner notes, “and living in it is sometimes the only safe place to be.”

“Sentimental old bugger, aren’t I?” May says when he hears that line. “Yeah…definitely. I just find it very uplifting when nothing else can do that job. I’ve discovered that that’s where I need to be.”

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To hear the full audio of my 1993 interview with Brian May, subscribe to my Patreon page, where for $5 U.S. you can also hear my interviews with:

Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Mick Ronson, 1988
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
…with hundreds more to come

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