Queen for the Hardcore

Published in: September-October 2011 issue.



Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen  by Mark BlakeIs This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen
by Mark Blake
Da Capo Press.  432 pages, $25.


FARROKH BULSARA aka Freddie Mercury was born in 1946 on the African island of Zanzibar into a family that was wealthy enough to afford a domestic staff. Young Farrokh—usually called Freddie—was a popular boy who loved music and adored Jimi Hendrix. He was also very self-conscious of his teeth and had a flair for the dramatic. His friends tolerated his eccentricities, figuring that was “just Fred.”

Brian May didn’t live far from Fred Bulsara once Freddie landed in England, and May later came to realize that they’d been at the same Hendrix concert once. May, who would go on to earn a bachelor of science in astrophysics, loved to improvise on the guitar, just like Hendrix. Roger Taylor remembers banging on his mother’s pans as a child. He joined May in a band after seeing an advert in a local drum shop. And John Deacon, a relative late-comer, had gone to school to be an electrical engineer as a fall-back career in case his musical career didn’t pan out. And while May, Taylor, and Deacon were playing together and with other musicians, getting some valuable experience and honing their talents, they had one very exacting, particular fan: a roadie named Fred who liked to give them advice after their gigs.

Fast forward some two decades: Queen has become a worldwide sensation with a string of hits on both British and American charts. Freddie Mercury, who has “flirted” with the media about his sexual orientation, continues to deny that he’s gay or has AIDS. But on November 25, 1991, the late British tabloid News of the World announced his “anguish” to the world. Mercury succumbed to AIDS at age 45—the very age he’d predicted he would die when discussing death with a young classmate years before.

With so much attention to detail, so many interesting tidbits for Queen fans, and so many memories of good times, it’s really hard to hate Is This the Real Life? On the other hand, it’s also hard to love this book. Author Mark Blake doesn’t seem to have missed a single event in the lives of the men who were Queen. His lengthy biographies reach back to each man’s childhood, and he discusses their early lives as they became interested in music, their rise to rock star status, and their lives in Queen and beyond. Also included are relatively brief mentions of the few women who were peripherally involved with these men, including wives and surprise girlfriends.

Still, while some of these finer points will make this book trivia heaven for hardcore Queen fans, for the vast majority it may seem to plod along. Everyday people that the four band members knew as children and young adults; lengthy and often confusing accounts of concert dates; musicians who came and went through the years; songs that other bands made into hits—all are grist for this ever-churning mill. All the rosters of names and dates concerning the work of a band that hasn’t recorded or performed in several decades would seem consequential only to a highly specialized readership.

If your iPod is filled with Queen’s Greatest Hits and other Queen music from Blake’s discography, and you couldn’t look at this book without singing the title, Is This the Real Life? will be a royal treat. If you’re devotion to Queen is more mercurial, however, this book may not be for you.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is a freelance writer living in Wisconsin.