Category Archives: Music

The Coronavirus Rhapsody as Music Therapy

alex atkins bookshelf musicThis is a challenging time for most Americans, especially if you have been watching many hours of news each day while sheltering in place. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults say that the pandemic has affected their mental health; 19% of respondents indicated that the pandemic has a “major impact.” Mixing social isolation with unemployment with the fear of getting ill and possibly dying makes a toxic mental health cocktail. Consequently, millions of people in America — and all around the globe — are experiencing the same conditions: anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Interviewed for The Washington Post, Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster notes the importance of staying connected: “It’s also important to remember that the vast majority of people, including all of us who are experiencing difficulties along the way, will ultimately do well. Finding and sharing creative solutions to the problems people are facing, taking care of ourselves and our families in the best way we are able, and staying connected to one another will remind us we are in this together and help us get through this difficult time.”

And many people are doing just that — with the luxury of time afforded by being self-quarantined, people are finding very creative ways to deal with current climate of stress and anxiety. And what is one of the most therapeutic tools? That’s right — music. Extensive research has been done with music as a therapeutic tool to increase relaxation, reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, promote optimism, induce meditative states, reduce loneliness, relieve boredom, and so forth. There is another powerful tool… ever heard the adage “laughter is the best medicine”? Many of the most successful comedians use their personal difficulties as fodder for their humor; and by baring them and making fun of them, they disarm feelings of despair and anxiety. It is a cathartic experience for the comedian and a therapeutic experience for the audience.

So what happens when you mix these two tools, music and comedy? You get the incredibly delightful and therapeutic tool of the music parody. To that end, singer Adrian Grimes and comedian Dana Jay Bein recorded the delightful Coronavirus Rhapsody, a parody of Queen’s hit song, Bohemian Rhapsody, from the album A Night at the Opera (1975). Here are the clever lyrics.

Coronavirus Rhapsody

Is this a fever?
Is this just allergies?
Caught in a lockdown
No escape from the family
Don’t touch your eyes
Just hand sanitize quickly
I’m just a poor boy
No job security
Because of easy spread
Even though
I washed my hands
Laying low
I look out the window
The curve doesn’t look flatter
To me… to me

Mama, I just killed a man
I didn’t stay inside in bed
I walked past him, now he’s dead
Mama, life was so much fun
But now I’ve got this unforgiving plague
Mama, oooooh
I didn’t mean to make them die
If I’m not back to work this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on
As if people didn’t matter

Too late, my time has come
Send shivers down my spine
Social isolation time
Goodbye everybody
I hope its just the flu
I’ve got to leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama (Chorus: just look out your window)
I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I never went out at all

I see a little silhouette of a man
(What a douche, what a douche
Did he even wash his hands though
No toilet paper frightening
Very very frightening me
Gotta lay low, gotta lay low, gotta lay low, gotta lay low
wait… what did he say?)

I’m just a poor boy, facing mortality
(He’s just a poor boy facing mortality
Spare him his life from this monstrosity

(Touch your face, wash your hands;
Will you wash your hands?
Bismillah! No! We will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Bismillah! We will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Bismillah! We will not wash our hands
Will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Never, never wash our hands
Never no — no! no! no! no! no! no! no!
Oh Mama mia, Mama mia,
Mama mia, wash your hands)
COVID-19 has a sickness put aside for me, for me, for me

So you think you can stop me and just shake my hand?
So you think we can hang out and not break our plans?
Oh baby! Can’t do this with me baby
Just gotta stay home
I hope I don’t run out of beer

(Oooooooh…. ooh yeah! ooh yeah!)
The curve could get much flatter
Anyone can see
The curve could get much flatter
You know it’s your responsibility
Just look out your window

Like COVID-19, the song has gone um… viral. As of this writing the music video has been viewed more than 4.1 million times. But not everyone is a fan of the parody. In an interview, Grimes elaborates, “I’ve had a few comments suggesting that this is ‘insensitive.’ I want to emphasize that I know where these people are coming from. My wife works in healthcare and I have two young kids. I know very well how this virus could impact my family. Every day that my wife goes to work, I hope it is another ‘bonus’ day we get together before the wave hits and I don’t have to quarantine her and stop our children from hugging her. However, I hope that even in those circumstances, should they occur, I will still be able to maintain a sense of humor, and a lot of comments from people already affected by coronavirus have told me how much they appreciate this. I thank you for your understanding in these unprecedented times.”

Listen to the song here: youtube.com/watch?v=8KPbJ0-DxTc

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Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?
What is the Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream?

For further reading: http://www.washingtonpost.com/health/coronavirus-is-harming-the-mental-health-of-tens-of-millions-of-people-in-us-new-poll-finds/2020/04/02/565e6744-74ee-11ea-85cb-8670579b863d_story.html
http://www.vulture.com/2012/09/comedy-as-therapy-how-some-comedians-self-treat-depression-and-social-anxiety-with-standup.html
http://www.kerrang.com/the-news/coronavirus-rhapsody-is-the-parody-song-we-all-need-right-now/


The Story Behind Dan Fogelberg’s Same Old Lang Syne

atkins-bookshelf-musicUnlike the traditional song “Auld Lang Syne” that everybody sings (often in a state of inebriation) and nobody really understands (inebriated or sober), “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg (1951-2007) is a very relatable and understandable bittersweet song. It was released as a single in 1980 and included on his seventh album, The Innocent Age, in 1981. The song, a melancholy ballad, is about a chance encounter between two former lovers and how they are transported back to the innocence of youth; they reminisce, they discuss their current lives, they toast the present. After their nostalgic visit, they part; the songs ends as the narrator watches the first love of his life disappear into the snow, as it turns into rain — a reminder of his broken heart from years ago, and a mature, realistic acceptance of why each of them had to pursue their own dreams apart from one another.

The ballad, as most fans have always suspected, is autobiographical. Fogelberg explained, “In 1975… I was home in Peoria, Illinois visiting my family for Christmas. I went to a convenience store to pick up some whipping cream to make Irish coffees with, and quite unexpectedly ran into an old high school girlfriend. The rest of the song tells the story.”

The “old lover” in that song is Jill Greulich (née Anderson). Wanting to be respectful of Fogelberg’s private life, she did not come forward with her story until after the singer passed away (Fogelberg died from prostrate cancer in 2007). In an interview with the Peoria JournalStar, Greulich shared her on-again/off-again relationship with Fogelberg when they attended Woodruff High School from 1965 to 1969. After graduation, Greulich attended Western Illinois University to major in elementary education, while Fogelberg studied theater at the University of Illinois in Urbana. They dated intermittently during their college years; however they lost touch with one another when Fogelberg moved to Colorado to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. After graduation, Greulich moved to Chicago to work as a teacher and married a physical education teacher. The marriage didn’t not work out, and they were divorced by 1980.

Greulich recalls the details of their chance meeting on December 24, 1975 at the convenience store (located a few blocks north of Woodruff High School), at the top of Abington Hill — the only store open on that cold Christmas Eve. (The store is located at 1302 East Frye Avenue in Peoria; it is now occupied by Short Stop Food Mart; since 2008, the street has an honorary designation: Fogelberg Parkway.) What happened was very similar to the story in the song: unable to find a bar, they drank a six-pack of beer in a car, reminisced, and reflected on their current lives, and parted. And yes, as you can imagine, family and friends worried about where these two were for more than two hours (“How long does it take to find some friggin eggnog or whipping cream during the holidays?”) But remember folks, this was 1975 BC — Before Cellphones).

Five years later, Greulich first heard the song on the radio while driving to work; she was struck by déjà vu — “Oh my gosh! That really happened.” The song is fairly accurate with two exceptions: her eyes are green (not blue), and her husband was a PE teacher (not an architect). The very personal line in the song (“She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn’t like to lie.”) foreshadowed Greulich’s divorce from the PE teacher, before the song came out. Greulich noted, “Somebody said he waited until I was divorced to release the song, but I don’t know if that’s true.” Later in 1980, Greulich married her second husband, Jim Greulich, and the couple moved to St. Louis, where she teaches second grade at a local elementary school. Even without the ritual playing of the song during the holidays, Greulich treasures her memories of Fogelberg: “I’ll always have a place in my heart for Dan… Dan would be a very special person to me, even without the song.”

PS: Ultimately, the eggnog and whipping cream made it to their respective destinations, where it was appreciated and consumed with merriment and good cheer.

Lyrics to “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg:

Met my old lover in the grocery store
The snow was falling Christmas Eve
I stood behind her in the frozen foods
And I touched her on the sleeve

She didn’t recognize the face at first
But then her eyes flew open wide
She went to hug me and she spilled her purse
And we laughed until we cried

We took her groceries to the check out stand
The food was totaled up and bagged
We stood there lost in our embarrassment
As the conversation lagged

We went to have ourselves a drink or two
But couldn’t find an open bar
We bought a six-pack at the liquor store
And we drank it in her car

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to now
We tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how

She said she’s married her an architect
Who kept her warm and safe and dry
She would have liked to say she loved the man
But she didn’t like to lie

I said the years had been a friend to her
And that her eyes were still as blue
But in those eyes I wasn’t sure if I saw
Doubt or gratitude

She said she saw me in the record stores
And that I must be doing well
I said the audience was heavenly
But the traveling was Hell

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to now
We tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to time
Reliving, in our eloquence
Another “Auld Lang Syne”

The beer was empty and our tongues were tired
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out
And I watched her drive away

Just for a moment I was back at school
And felt that old familiar pain
And, as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Auld Lang Syne?
The Story Behind Cats and the Cradle by Harry Chapin
The Story Behind Father and Son by Cat Stevens
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
The Paradox of the American Dream

For further reading: www.pjstar.com/x1101623574/Luciano-Its-a-memory-that-I-cherish
http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=3506
http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMJ587_Food_Mart_Liquor_Store_Same_Old_Lang_Syne_Peoria_IL
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same_Old_Lang_Syne


How Bands Got Their Names: 5

atkins-bookshelf-musicSome band names are very clever, and some are just plain odd. Regardless of how they sound, all were inspired by some random or carefully-considered connection. For this set of band names the inspiration came from a magazine article or ad, toy, nickname, or book title. Below are a few interesting band names and their origins:

Dishwalla: The name comes from a word they saw in a Wired magazine article. Dishwalla is an Indian term for a cable satellite pirate.

Goo Goo Dolls: Originally named the Sex Maggots. Because a newspaper would not print that name, the band had to change their name for a gig one night. While looking through an issue of True Detective magazine, they came across an ad for a toy called the “Goo Goo Doll” and they ran with it. Guitarist Johnny Rzeznik said in an interview: “We were young and we were a garage band not trying to get a deal. We had a gig that night and needed a name. It’s the best we came up with, and for some reason it stuck. If I had five more minutes, I definitely would have picked a better name.”

Hoobastank: The brother of the singer lives in Germany, close to a street Hooba Street. Hoobastank is simply a phonetic variation of that name, that has no particular meaning. In an interview, Chris Hesse elaborated, “When we were looking for band names it’s almost impossible to find a band name that hasn’t been taken. Anything remotely normal has been taken already. I don’t remember how it came up but someone said it and we were like yeah.”

Hootie and the Blowfish: The name comes from nicknames of the singer’s two friends, who used to sing together in choir: “Hootie” had a round, owlish face; “Blowfish” had large, puffy cheeks.

Imagine Dragons: The band is an anagram from different words that all members of the band agreed on. Exactly which words may never be known, since the band decided to keep them a secret.

Limp Bizkit: The name came from a roadie who once observed that his brain felt like a “limp biscuit.”

Maroon 5: The band started out playing pop songs under the name Kara’s Flowers, after a high school girl that all the band members had a crush on. How adorable. The band even recorded a few albums under that name. Naturally, when they switched labels and genres, management asked them to change their name. For whatever reason, the band has not been forthcoming about how they came up with the name. Perhaps they have been hanging out with members of Imagine Dragons. One likely explanation is that the band is named for an alma mater and its official color. Two band members, Levine and Carmichael, both briefly attended Five Towns College, a private college focused on the creative arts located in Long Island, New York. The “five” also ties in nicely to the number of members in the band. And guess what is the college’s official color? You guessed it — maroon. So until one of them writes a biography, or gets drunk and inadvertently address this, we’ll have to go with the “academic” theory.

Mott the Hoople: Named after the title of a book, Mott the Hoople by Willard Manus about a man who works in a circus freak show.

Porno for Pyros: The band was named after an ad for fireworks in a porn magazine.

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READ THE BEST BOOKS ON BAND NAME ORIGINS

        

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How Rock Bands Got Their Names 1
How Rock Bands Got Their Names 2
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For further reading: Rock Names: From Abba to ZZ Top by Adam Dolgins, Citadel Press (1998)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_band_name_etymologies


Let It Be: A Musical Tribute to Mothers

alex atkins bookshelf musicAlmost everyone knows the words by heart: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” While some believe Mother Mary refers to the Virgin Mary, Paul McCartney has clarified several times in interviews, that the song was inspired by his mother, Mary McCartney, a midwife, who passed away when Paul was only 14. Paul described his mother’s tremendous work ethic: “She was very hardworking, my mum,” Sir Paul recalled in an interview a few years ago. “She wanted the best for us. We weren’t a well-off  family – we didn’t have a car, we just about had a television – so both my parents went out to work. At night when mum came home she would cook so we didn’t have a lot of time with each other but she was just a very comforting presence in my life.” He recalls how she would cycle to work at three in the morning when the streets of Liverpool were covered in snow.

Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer at 47. The day before she was scheduled for surgery, Mary had cleaned their modest home from top to bottom, and laid out the boys’ school clothes so that they would be ready for the next morning. She confided to her sister-in-law, “Now everything’s ready for them is case I don’t come back.” And sadly, she didn’t. During the operation, she suffered an embolism and died. It was a huge shock to Paul, his younger brother Mike, and his father, Jim, a cotton salesman and a self-taught pianist. Even harder than losing his mother, was witnessing his father’s profound grief: “That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry. You grow up real quick, because you never expect to hear your parents crying. It shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on. I learnt to put a shell around me.”

Paul found comfort in two things: his music and his deep friendship with John Lennon, who had also lost his mother at a young age (John’s mother died when he was 17). This shared loss was a profound bond between them. Over the years, they would be sitting around and recall their mothers and feel the pain of that loss; Paul shared that “we’d have a cry together.”

Fast forward to 1968. The Beatles were an international success and sensation; but their different visions for their music and bitter arguments foreshadowed the inevitable break up of one of the most popular bands in history. It was during these turbulent times, that Mary reached out to her son in a dream; Paul explained: “One night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, I had the most comforting dream about my mother. There was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point  and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try to go with the flow and it will all work out…. So being a musician I went  to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’ The song, released in 1970, quickly climbed the music charts, becoming one of the band’s greatest hits — and their last one, as a band.

In a recent interview, Paul reflected on the personal and universal meaning of the song: “So those words are really very special to me because not only did my mum come to me in a dream and reassure me with them at a very difficult time  but also, in putting them into a song and recording it with the Beatles, it became a comforting, healing statement for other people too.”

Today, Bookshelf honors all the mothers who have stood calmly and resolutely during their children’s times of trouble — when they lost their way — and whispered comforting, healing words of wisdom so they can sail on through life’s tempest-tossed seas.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?
What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?
What is the Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream?

For further reading: http://www.express.co.uk/celebrity-news/380702/Mother-Mary-who-Sir-Paul-McCartney-never-forgets


The Liberating Power of Music

alex atkins bookshelf musicHave you ever wondered what life would be like without music? Undoubtedly, it would be a drab and gray existence, where one monotonous day slowly fades into the next — a week turns into a month, months quickly turn into years. You blink, and a decade has slipped past. And that is exactly what the inmates at the Shawshank State Penitentiary experienced in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, a profound allegory or preserving one’s integrity and self-worth in the face of adversity and hopelessness. But all of that changed for the prisoners on one memorable, transcendent day. That day Andy Dufresne, an innocent man who was framed for murder, locked himself in the warden’s office and played a song on the record player. The song, “Canzonetta sull’aria” (Italian for “A little song on the breeze”) is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous opera, The Marriage of Figaro (1786). As the song was played over the penitentiary’s public address system, all of the prisoners in the yard froze mid-step, staring up at the speakers, mesmerized by the beautiful sound. It’s a remarkably beautiful moment as we listen to the two women singing, their voices both elegiac yet soaring. Dufresne’s friend and mentor, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, in a touching voiceover explains the profound impact that the music had on these weary, worn-down souls: 

“I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin’ about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away… and for the briefest of moments — every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Ah, the liberating power of music that stirs men’s souls. Sadly, Dufresne pays a steep price for liberating the souls of his fellow prisoners — even if for just a fleeting moment — by serving two weeks in solitary confinement. But even in his cell, Dufresne felt the liberating effect of the operatic song. When asked if playing the record was worth it, Dufresne responds: “Easiest time I ever did… I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all… The music was here [pointing at his head] and here [pointing at his heart]. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it.”

Let us return for a moment to Red’s narration. He raises a good question: what were those two Italian ladies singing about? The song, a short duet (known as a “duettino”) occurs in act three of The Marriage of Figaro. The words to the song (known at the “libretto”) were written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian poet and opera librettist who collaborated with Mozart on two other operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutti). In this duet, the Countess Almaviva dictates an invitation to Susanna, her maid. The invite, addressed to Almaviva’s womanizing husband, Count Almaviva, is for a romantic rendezvous in order to expose his infidelity. Almaviva speaks a line and Susanna repeats it while she writes it down. Here are the translated lyrics without the repetition:

On the breeze…
What a gentle little Zephyr
This evening will sign
Under the pines in the little grove
And the rest he’ll understand.

It is only when you understand the context and meaning of the operatic song that you can appreciate the irony of its selection, whether intended or not, by Dufresne: the opera singers are writing a letter to expose an infidelity, while it is the discovered infidelity that indirectly leads to Dufresne being framed for the murder of his wife and her lover and being convicted and sentenced to prison.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Highest Rated Movie in IMDb: The Shawshank Redemption
How Do We Spend Our Time During a Lifetime?

For further reading: The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script by Frank Darabont, New Market Press (1996), Roger Ebert: The Great Movies by Roger Ebert, Broadway Books (2002). 


The Amazing Healing Power of Love and Compassion

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my extraordinary life, it’s the amazing healing power of love and compassion. For example, I played the concert for 9/11 in New York in Madison Square Garden, which was an extremely moving experience because of the audience. Nobody came there worrying about whether the person next to them voted for another party, was a different color, was a different religion, had a different sexuality. They came there en masse, as a group of people to share love. And I I think we need so much more of that in our sick world, at the moment. Sometimes its hard to believe that we’re in 2019 and what I read in the newspapers — and its not just here– it’s all over the world,  cause I go everywhere. So I truly believe that love is the cure for what ails us at the moment. And this next song is all about that… [Begins to sing “Believe” from the 1995 album, Made in England]: I believe in love, it’s all we got / Love has no boundaries, costs nothing to touch / War makes money, cancer sleeps / Curled up in my father and that means something to me / Churches and dictators, politics and papers / Everything crumbles sooner or later / But love, I believe in love…”

Elton John speaking to the crowd at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, on January 19, 2019 during his Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. Remarkably, at the age of 71, John is playing 300 concerts over three years across the globe in this final tour. In his 50 year career, he has played more than 4,000 concerts. As a philanthropist, he established the Elton John Aids Foundation in 1992. To date, the foundation has raised more than $400 million to support innovative HIV prevention, education programs, and care and support services to people living with HIV.


What Is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?

alex atkins bookshelf music“Bohemian Rhapsody,” from Queen’s album A Night at the Opera (1975), is considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Despite its tremendous commercial success and influence, it remains one of the most enigmatic, inscrutable songs in the history of rock. It is like the Finnegan’s Wake of rock music. “Bohemian Rhapsody” joins the ranks of other famous chart-topping hits that are sung but never fully understood like Don Mclean’s “American Pie” (1971), Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971), and just about any song by Yes. So what exactly is the meaning of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody?

The short answer is — we will never know for sure. Freddie Mercury began developing the music and the lyrics in the late 1960s and finished writing it in his home in London in 1975. Although he was very deliberate in its writing, he took all of his secrets to the grave. In an interview, Mercury explains that the song, although very methodically composed, was a bit of a Rorschach test: “Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue-in-cheek and it was a mock opera. Why not?… It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.” 

In an interview promoting Queen Videos Greatest Hits DVD, guitarist Brian May stated: “What is Bohemian Rhapsody about? Well, I don’t think we’ll ever know. And if I knew I probably wouldn’t want to tell you anyway, because I certainly don’t tell people what my songs are about. I find that it destroys them in a way, because the great thing about a great song is that you relate it to your own personal experiences in your own life. I think that Freddie was certainly battling with problems in his personal life, which he might have decided to put [a lot of himself] into the song himself. He was certainly looking at re-creating himself. But I don’t think at that point in time it was the best thing to do so he actually decided to do it later. I think it’s best to leave it with a question mark in the air.”

To that we say: poppycock! A song, like a poem or a novel, should be carefully analyzed to find its true meaning. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined song is not worth listening to. Invariably, critical textual analysis always reveals important clues — whether left consciously or subconsciously — that lead to meaningful interpretations, revealing aspects of the writer’s character, beliefs, and/or life. To find our first clue, let us first turn to Lesley-Ann Jones, the author of Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography (1997). She interviewed him extensively for her authorized biography and got to peer behind the curtain — to fully comprehend the enigmatic musician and his life. She firmly believes that the song represents Mercury’s personal struggle with his sexuality and eventual decision to come out. In 1986, she asked him specifically about this, but he refused to give her a straight answer. However — and one cannot overemphasize the significance of this — Mercury did provide the key to unlock this decades-old musical mystery: he admitted to her that the song was “about relationships.” Bingo! Furthermore, Jones’ belief was also confirmed by Jim Hutton, Mercury’s lover. Soon after Mercury passed away, Hutton told Jones that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about Mercury’s public admission that he was gay.

A close examination of the lyrics will reveal that the song is indeed about relationships — specifically the relationship of Mercury to himself, his spouse, family, and God providing the context for the struggles he faced in deciding to face the music, as it were, to come out. The second clue is that  Mercury “did a bit of research.” The song, like an T. S. Eliot poem, is filled with literary and musical allusions that support the intended meaning of the song.

Let’s begin with the title: Bohemian Rhapsody is a play on composer Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.” A bohemian is a person who has unconventional social habits. A rhapsody is a free instrumental composition played in one extended movement, typically one that is exuberant or full of pathos. So from the very start we have some understanding of both the song and the narrator.

The first stanza introduces us to the narrator, who seems to be living a life that is surreal: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality.” He is not sure if it is real or a dream and it’s all happening so fast. With Queen’s meteoric success, Mercury was catapulted from a rather traditional, quiet life to a flamboyant rockstar’s life (filled with the obligatory sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll). Mercury is living in two worlds simultaneously: living as a straight man while concealing to his family that he is gay. Mercury felt he had to conceal his homosexuality since his parents practiced Zoroastrianism that specifically condemned it. The next lyric employs antithesis: “I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,” reflecting his ambivalence. Here poor is being used in the metaphorical (deserving of pity), not literal sense (not having money); in other words, he is saying “although I am deserving of pity, I really don’t need your sympathy.” He has accepted his truth, his fate, and does not need anyone’s sympathy. Expressed another way, he seems to mean “This is my life, this is who I am — don’t feel sorry for me.” The stanza ends with the line “Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me,” revealing that the narrator embraces nihilism, the belief that the world is meaningless, and he doesn’t care where destiny takes him. C’est la vie.

In the second stanza the narrator is telling his wife (here “Mama,” as in Mother Mary, represents Mercury’s wife, Mary Austin) that he has killed a man: “Mama, just killed a man / Put a gun against his head / Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” But here, the killing is metaphorical, not literal. Mercury is saying that he killed his old self: Farrokh Bulsara (the straight, faithful husband) has been replaced by Freddie Mercury (the flamboyant, gay rockstar). The narrator regrets the pain that he has caused his wife so soon after their marriage had begun (Mercury and Mary had just been married seven years before his first homosexual encounter), fearing that he his thrown all of that part of his life away: “Mama, life had just begun / But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away / Mama, oh oh / Didn’t mean to make you cry.” At the end of the stanza the narrator says “If I’m not back again this time tomorrow / Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters.” The narrator is encouraging his mother (or wife) to embrace his nihilism in order to carry on without him if he continues his life as a gay man.

This is an ideal time to introduce the fascinating parallels between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Albert Camus’s seminal novel, The Stranger, published in 1942. The novel’s protagonist, Meurseult, is a man (like Mercury) who feels like he doesn’t fit in; he is an outcast. Early in the novel, during an argument he kills an Arab man, is convicted and sentenced to death because he feels no remorse for his crime (the prosecutor accuses Meurseult of being a soulless monster). While awaiting execution, a chaplain meets with Meurseult to guide him to repentance and accepting God’s love and forgiveness. However, Meurseult disavows his crime, rejects God, and accepts the absurdity of the human condition. Ultimately, he finds comfort in his indifference toward the world and the meaninglessness of life. The novel ends with Meurseult happily awaiting to meet his inescapable fate at the guillotine: “And I too felt ready to live my life again. As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.” It is very possible that Mercury read this book as a young lad or while he was developing the song.

Let’s return back to the lyrics. The third stanza reflects the narrator’s ambivalence: saying goodbye to his old self (heterosexual), his wife, his family and friends, and his fellow band members, in order to accept the inescapable truth: that he is a gay man: “Goodbye everybody I’ve got to go / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.” The ambivalence he feels tortures him to the point that he regrets being born at all, invoking pathos and using the antithetical construction we say in the first stanza: “I don’t want to die / Sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” This is a very powerful sentiment that echoes one of William Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet questions whether he should exist or not: “To be or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”

We now reach the operetta in the fourth and fifth stanzas that function as a sort of Greek chorus, shedding light on the narrator’s psychic and emotional turmoil. Mercury once described this part of the song as “random rhyming nonsense” to his friend, Kenny Everett, a DJ who worked in London. At first glance, just like many nursery rhymes, the jabberwocky of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or any of James Joyce’s inscrutable stream-of-consciousness ramblings, the text may seem like nonsense, but there is definitely meaning behind the madness. Mercury, who mentioned he “did a bit of research,” on this song, clearly chose his words carefully. Let’s break down this section, focusing on key words and lyrics.

The operetta begins with the narrator seeing the shadow of his former self: “I see a little silhouetto of a man.” The next lines, “Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the Fandango / Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me / Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, figaro, magnifico” suggest that the chorus is challenging the man (calling him “scaramouch,” translated from Italian, means a “boastful and cowardly buffoon;” often featured in Italian comedies, known as commedia dell’arte that flourished from 16th to 18th century) to do something outrageous, thereby shocking the sensibility of his former self, his family and friends, and society at large. The chorus of “Galileo’s” are simply expressions of shock and outrage by others in his circle, as if saying “Oh my God!” Because, the narrator, like Camus’s Meurseult, is a nihilist and absurdist, he doesn’t believe in God. So naturally, he appeals to a man of science, Galileo, a revolutionary (pun intended) who was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church in 1633 for teaching that the Earth is not the center of the universe but actually revolved around the sun. Figaro, of course, is the famous scheming Spanish barber who appears as in two eighteenth-century French plays (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro as well as two operas (The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini and The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). In popular culture, Figaro represents an individual that is irrepressible, clever, and defiant of authority. Magnifico is another character from the aforementioned commedia dell’arte. The name is based on the Latin, magnificus, which means “doing great things.”Not surprisingly, these characters — Galileo, Figaro, Magnifico — that are outcasts on some level, resonate with Mercury — not to mention that they rhyme magnificently.

The next stanza takes us into the struggle inside the narrator’s mind. Here we see the dynamic interplay, a passionate debate, between the narrator and the Greek chorus, as it were, building to a crescendo. What is interesting here, is how the narrator progresses from soliciting pity (stanza five) to expressing outrage and defiance (stanza six). The initial line is the narrator trying to elicit sympathy: “I’m just a poor boy and nobody loves me.” And the chorus (representing God) jumps in and validates this and wants to spare him from he difficult life he will face once he kills his former self: “He’s just a poor boy from a poor family / Spare him his life from this monstrosity.” The narrator appeals to an indifferent God: “Easy come easy go will you let me go.” But God, will have none of that (Bismillah is the Arabic word for god; literally translated it means “in the name of Allah”); the chorus (God) demands the narrator’s soul: “Bismillah [In the name of Allah], no we will not let you go.” This is quickly countered by an opposing chorus: “Let him go.” This goes back and forth several times. Finally, after a final passionate, and very Italian-sounding appeal, “Mama mia, mama mia let me go” the devil makes an appearance in this escalating confrontation: “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.” There are two points to make here. First, is that the narrator uses the word “Beelzebub,” the name that appears in the Old Testament (specifically, 2 Kings 1:2-3), for the devil, alluding to the age-old conflict of good (represented by God) and evil (represented by the devil) found in the Bible. Second, the reference to the devil is a very clever allusion to the legend of Faust, that inspired many operas, plays, films, and novels (the most famous is the play Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). In the classic German legend, Faust, despite his success and wealth, makes a pact with the devil (Mephistopheles) to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and infinite knowledge. (This is where we get the phrase Faustian bargain or Mephistophelian bargain.) Obviously, if he is making a pact with the devil, Faust must abandon God. In popular culture, Faust (or Faustian, the adjectival form) refers to an ambitious person who surrenders moral integrity to achieve tremendous wealth, power, or success. But even more relevant to the song is the concept of a Faustian bargain in the context of psychotherapy. Here, a Faustian bargain is a defense mechanism (or several of them) that sacrifice elements of the self in favor of some form of psychical survival. So in this context, we can interpret this last line as the narrator saying: “I must face my demon and strike my Faustian bargain with him: I must sacrifice my old self in exchange for the survival of my new self (my real self as a gay man) who will be rich, famous, and revel in worldly pleasures.”

The sixth stanza presents the narrator’s shift from pity to outrage. The stanza functions as a diatribe or rant, marked by an angry defiance to those who judge him harshly. Having struck his Faustian (or Mephistophelian) bargain, he seems to be saying: “I had to do this — don’t hate me for it!” It is ironic that this narrator, who has rejected God, speaks of his punishment in almost biblical terms: “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye / So you think you can love me and leave me to die.” Another way to state this is: “How dare you judge me and punish me for who I am and how I must live my life. You can’t just love me and then abandon me.” He makes a final appeal to compassion (and one can assume he is referring to his wife): “Oh baby can’t do this to me baby.” In other words, he asks: How can you do this to me, Mary?” But the narrator knows this is a bad place; he needs to get the hell out of there — to escape a place of harsh judgment and condemnation: “Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.”

The seventh and final stanza (the “outro” in music jargon) begins with the chorus expressing their sympathy for the narrator’s plight: “Oh oh oh yeah, oh oh yeah” as if saying: “yes, of course — you are right, you don’t deserve this, you have no other option to run, to move forward with your life, given who you truly are.” The deliberation — the debate over how to be, how to live — has finally come to its natural conclusion, which the narrator believes should be obvious to everyone. The song comes full circle by returning to the themes introduced in the first stanza: “Nothing really matters / Anyone can see / Nothing really matters / Nothing really matters to me.” The narrator, like Camus’ Meurseult, ultimately finds comfort in the meaninglessness and “the benign indifference of the world” (to borrow Meurseult’s phrase). The stanza ends with quiet resignation: “Anyway the wind blows.” The narrator is resigned to go wherever destiny takes him. 

In short, “Bohemian Rhapsody” reflects Mercury’s personal journey — it is about the personal turmoil he experienced prior to finally coming out. Clearly, he wrote it for himself, as an artistic cathartic exercise. But it was also his gift to the world because the song speaks to so many — and this is why the song endures, resonating so profoundly with succeeding generation. In a larger sense, Bohemian Rhapsody is an inspiring nihilistic anthem about an individual who must accept his truth — to embrace who he is, and live according to who he truly is — regardless of what his family, loved ones, or society want him to be. Indeed, this is not an easy path and, inevitably, it comes with a cost — to the individual (the internal struggles, second-guessing, feelings of isolation, etc.) and to his many relationships (their feelings of pain, betrayal, disappointment, disapproval, etc.). But in an indifferent, meaningless world, Mercury believed, we need to simply discover who we are, accept who we are, and be who we are. So if we had to reduce Bohemian Rhapsody down to its simplest terms, it would be this: live and let live.

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Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?
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For further reading: Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2015/10/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-queens-bohemian-rhapsody
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/11519641/10-songs-nobody-understands.html
https://www.songfacts.com/facts/queen/bohemian-rhapsody


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