December 27, 2005

Mama mia, Galileo, magnifico.

The story of "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Perhaps the song's most distinct feature is the fatalistic lyrics: "Mama, just killed a man," "Nothing really matters" and "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all." Mr. Mercury, who died in 1991, always refused to explain his composition other than saying it was about relationships. (He never officially admitted his bisexuality.) Some interpreted it as a way of dealing with his personal issues. To this day the band is still protective of the song's secret.

"I have a perfectly clear idea of what was in Freddie's mind," Mr. May said. "But it was unwritten law among us in those days that the real core of a song lyric was a private matter for the composer, whoever that might be. So I still respect that."

Mr. Baker said, with a hearty laugh, "If I tell you, I would have to kill you."

The idea that springs most readily to mind is that he actually did kill a man!


nypundit said...

That is one of my favorite songs of all time. I have always thought that Mr. Mercury was brilliant when it came to composing and arranging music. I can honestly say that I never gave a thought to the lyrics of Bohemian Rhaposody. I always give thought to Suzanne Vega's or Dar Williams's lyrics, but never Queen's.

Ron said...

Oh no, I can see it coming: "The Mercury Code!" Thought backwards lyrics were bad? There's a whole Phillip Marlowe novel in "Bohemian Rhapsody!"


jult52 said...

I've never thought of the lyrics to "Bohemian Rhapsody" was confusing. The subject is a young man facing his imminent execution. What is obscure?

Gahrie said...

I always figured that the man he "killed" was himself, and the song was about the emergence of his homosexuality.

bill said...

I've always found it interesting how heavily listeners emotionally invest in lead singers and songwriters. Why is the assumption nearly always that the singer/songwriter is singing about himself? We don't get so presumptious with our favorite authors. Well, sometimes we do, but for the most part we recognize there's a story to be told and different voices to tell it.

Is music so much more personal we expect to hear personal and intimate details whenever we hit play?

additional: I don't know much about American Idol, but "Bohemian Rhapsody" was successfully covered twice on "Rockstar: INXS." Don't know if they'll be able to recreate this show, but for my viewing had much better music and singers than Idol.

nypundit said...

jult52 that is exactly what I thought as well. Then again I am the type of person who sees a cigar in a dream and thinks it's just a cigar.

Palladian said...

I guess for the narrator of "Bohemian Rhapsody", happiness wasn't a warm gun.

Timothy said...

I've always found it interesting how heavily listeners emotionally invest in lead singers and songwriters. Why is the assumption nearly always that the singer/songwriter is singing about himself?

Ben Folds is a modern songwriter whose songs are often deeply touching, but often obviously not about himself. Of course, "Brick" was quite explicitly about his own life, but many others certainly aren't.

Charlie Eklund said...

I don't know if Freddie Mercury actually killed a man but given Mr. Mercury's cause of death, I think it's safe to say that a man killed him.

ntodd said...

I always figured that the man he "killed" was himself, and the song was about the emergence of his homosexuality.

As have I. I'm also sure Great King Rat and the Black Queen aren't meant entirely to be taken literally, either.

Apropos of nothing, I recorded a Freddie tribute podcast last month on the anniversary of his death. It does not include Bohemian Rhapsody.

sonicfrog said...

As a song writer / lyricist, I can tell you that, in my experience, a lot of the lyrics I write are either about fictional characters (if they have a character at all), or if they are about myself, they often project myself into hypothetical sitiations. "Rhapsody" was definitely NOT about his AIDS affliction, as AIDS was not known when the song was written in 1976.

Michael Farris said...

I always thought the story in the lyrics to BR was pretty clear (to the extent that I thought about it, which was not very much).

Before the song: Young man kills someone
Opening section: After the killing he's confronting his mother with what he did
Whacked out vocal part: His trial (the gallileo etc is legal mumbo jumbo)
Rock section: Prison
Final slow section: awaiting his execution (or the whole thing is told as he awaits his execution and the scene with his mother, the trial and intro to prison life are all flashbacks).

I don't think the lyrics bear much analysis, young confused killers weren't so uncommon in British pop of the time. Elton John had a similar song Ticking a couple of years before and I Don't Like Mondays was a very large hit there a few years afterwards and I think there were some others too.

bill said...

Just had a thought (and also left this at Throwing Things):

Freddie Mercury was a fan of Godfather (1972) and Godfather II (1974), and Bohemian Rhapsody is the story of Michael Corleone.

Factor in artistic license and this makes as much sense as anything else being mentioned.

bill said...

I don't think the lyrics bear much analysis, young confused killers weren't so uncommon in British pop of the time....I Don't Like Mondays was a very large hit there a few years afterwards...

Hey, I like to blame the British as much as the next guy, but to be fair, I Don't Like Mondays was inspired by a California teenager who shot her principal.

jult52 said...

Michael Farris: interesting interpretation. Thanks.

Slac said...

I thought it was about suicide from existential angst.

Homosexuality? Psh. Everyone's just got to think it all has to do with sex. I don't know how you can get that from the lyrics anyways. It's a bit of a stretch. And, besides, it trivializes the message big time.

What made it different from the other existential angst at the time was that it was very, very well-written existential angst.

I mean, the first two lines are:

Is this the real life-
Is this just fantasy-

Right away, very simply and quickly, we know that everything we're about to hear is connected to life and death, and then to dreams, hallucinations or spirit, if only in the sense of questioning existence.

Caught in a landslide-
No escape from reality-

The landslide here is the overpowering force of nature. And it's going to mean essentially the same as the "thunderbolt and lightning" and the wind, as in, "every way the wind blows" later on, except in that case it will show that the force of nature over us is just as effective even when its magnitude is very low. Landslide or gentle breeze, it doesn't really matter, we're at the whims of nature. All the time. Everywhere. This is existential angst that provokes one to question life, personal existence, personal worth, and suicide.

But there's no escape. Existence cannot be transcended. Our lives cannot be understood from an outside perspective. No escape from reality. Not even in our dreams. And especially not from suicide. These are all existentialist claims.

Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see-
I’m just a poor boy,i need no sympathy-

This should tell us the song is not about an actual homicide. The listener is being told to look at speaker in the sky! Sure, the voice changes to a solo starting with, "I'm just a poor boy..." but, nonetheless, our attention is directed toward the sky when the speaker starts.

And here is the conflict - before we ever hear that anyone was shot or killed. We find that the speaker is a boy in the sky - and he can't escape from his reality. Not because he's a ghost or something, but because their is no escape from reality. Period. That's his trouble.

No escaping consequences. The greatest example of that, the one given in the song, is killing yourself. (That's what makes mothers really cry). And the message is that nothing ascends. He may be in the sky but that doesn't matter. That's just where the wind is blowing him.

He's dying. And he's not growing into a new being. Everything was just all thrown away. He's a boy. He killed the man he was going to be.

This is supported later, but there are other lines that appear to go against the suicide interpretation. Those lines expose the existential angst element, though.

For example "my body's aching all the time," because how could you feel your body aching if you're dead? But that's just it. The angst of existence. Whatever body you have or do not have, if you exist, it's is going to hurt, because you cannot know yourself from an outside perspective. And there's no escape from that. Not even suicide.

He talks about, "goodbye" how it's "too late" because his "time" came, and how he's not going to be back, because he's already dead. And we don't hear his mother's reply. We just know that she's crying. It's a one-sided conversation.

Most important are these lines, which also appear to against the suicide interpretation, but really do not:

Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth-
Mama ooo- (any way the wind blows)
I don’t want to die,
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all-

He's leaving everyone, all of the living behind, and he's going to be exposed to the "truth" of existence. The deepest mysteries, of life and death, are going to be exposed to him.

But, like every suicide, at his core he didn't really want to die. He just wishes that he had never existed. He wishes for nonexistence. But that's not possible.

These lines are important because what happens next is the famous shift into the "Wayne's World" sequence. It's an incredibly deep and tremendously sad song, and then it gets crazy in a really invigorating way! When he fully and completely dies and attempts to leave existence, seeing what it really is. What he really is. He goes before a kind of trial, but it's not real trial, just a wild mind explosion.

He does not see himself, but a "little silhouette of a man" that he never was. This man does not exist. He didn't kill that man. He just didn't exist! The man was never "born." In this sense he got his wish - and it is terribly frightening all of sudden. Like thunderbolts and lightning. Nature's violent presence.

People yell at him, as if from a universal subconscious, calling him a "Scaramouche," a coward, for committing suicide, who thinks he has done something useful. They mock him, tell him to do a "fandango," a dance, which also means something foolish or useless.

Galileo. The speaker is not the center of the existence, has no divine throne looking over. But Galileo was a "magnifico" an eminent, powerful, or illustrious person, because he sought this unbiased truth, at the start of the scientific revolution, when such searching would be punished. The truth is, such searching is always punished. Galileo is a magnifico in all times, because he seeks unbiased truth when it's impossible at the highest scale. Just like in Camus' The Myth Of Sisyphus, where a god is punished to roll a stone up a hill for eternity, only to have it fall back down once he approaches the top.

There is pity for the boy. Because he exists, he cannot know the truth. Spare him from the "monstrosity" that is existence. But this is only self-pity.

"Let me go.. I'm just a poor boy..."

" Bismillah!" The first word of the Koran, and used often by Muslims, ("In the name of Allah!") "No! We will not let you go!"

Mama mia, your mother, mother nature, will not let you go. Mother nature will not save you! And she will not let you go! Suffering awaits.

The last stanza has more contradictions, of the speaker wondering about the absurdity of nature, "So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye-" An ancient cure for blindness involved saliva and was used by Jesus. People were also stoned back then for believing Jesus was the son of god. What gives?

"So you think you can love me and leave me to die-" God loves us, but why does he condemn people? Why does mother nature hold on to his existence, but leave him in an existence of suffering and loneliness, with the memory of his death?

He struggles madly, "Oh baby-can’t do this to me baby- ...Just gotta get out-just gotta get right outta here-" But he can't.

He resigns. Nothing really matters anyways! Anyone can see that. Just let the wind blow...

And you thought it was about anal sex. Shame on you.

P.S. Sorry for the long post and if there are any typos... just got a little carried away! ;)

pb said...

You, Slac, rock beyond all! But, to your most excellent critique, please note:

(chorus cont.) Look up to the sky and see...
(solo) I'm just a poor boy,
I need no sympathy
(chorus re-enters) Because I'm easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low.
Anyway the wind blows
Doesn't really matter to me,
To me.

(solo) Momma, just killed a man,
Put my gun against his head
Pulled my trigger now he's dead.

Note the changes from solo to chorus. One might just as easily say that the (momma's) boy has been killed by the man, who must now make his way by his own lights.

In fact, I think the song thrives on the twin tension between the maturing pressure of young manhood and the reverse (but still rebellious) pressure of homosexuality: on the one hand, the young man is growing apart from mother's control: on the other, he will never grow up to marry a girl (like the one who married dear old dad) like dear old Mom expected. So we've lost the carefree, obedient boy and the mature man for a third party, the narrator.

Wow. I love the Internet. I've never thought about Bohemian Rhapsody this deeply before.

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