I think my main concerns when I was 16 were the same as they are now. I was very passionate about making music. I was entranced by the universe and wanted to explore it. And I had a strong feeling about animals. A feeling that things weren’t right in terms of the way we treat the other creatures on this planet. And that was a very strong feeling I had from an early age. Which grew, and eventually, much later in my life, I found a way to do something about it. But it took me a very long time.
I would tell my 16-year-old self to be brave. Believe in yourself even when everyone’s telling you that you aren’t capable. A lot of people dent you when you’re growing up and that can take a long time to get over. I was very shy, completely lacking in confidence. I didn’t have a good feeling about the way I looked, very tall and thin and gangly. I felt I stood out so I walked with a stoop.
I went to an all-boys’ school, which I think is a terrible idea. To separate boys from girls at that time in their lives – it scars them forever, and leaves them lacking in the skills they need to make contact with the opposite sex. I think one of the reasons I became a rock musician was because of that. I remember going to a dance and a local rock band were playing. Some boys were asking girls to dance but I didn’t know where to start and I was far too shy to consider it. I thought to myself, if I was on stage I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. I would just be away up there, being fabulous, and maybe girls would come to me.
It would be very romantic to say the moment I met Freddie I felt my future begin to map out in front of me, but I think that path was welded into me long before that. It began when I first heard that clang of Buddy Holly’s guitar listening to Radio Luxembourg, when I heard Little Richard screaming. Something happened inside me and I thought, this expresses what’s inside me, who I need to be. Then I met Roger [Taylor] and he was the first person I’d encountered who had the same feelings. Then of course there was Freddie. He was so convinced that he would be successful, he never doubted it. We were all precocious boys but he was another level. But we all shared this passion. And the energy grew and coalesced into something very powerful.
The first time I felt we were really on our way was when we played The Rainbow, the old Finsbury Park Astoria [in North London]. It had a legendary status and for us it felt like a real pinnacle and one we might not be able to climb. I remember our promoter telling us, you can do this. It was our first UK tour, and he said, you can cap it all at the end by headlining The Rainbow. And we looked at him with doubt. But we sold it out and it was a triumph. That was a very strong moment in starting to believe that we could really make it.
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If I wanted to really impress the 16-year-old Brian I’d show him a film of me playing guitar on the top of Buckingham Palace [May performed a guitar solo of God Save the Queen on the roof of the palace as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002]. Alone and terrified but facing the fear and pulling it off. That was probably the most challenging moment of my musical life. And it was
also life-changing. I’d prepared everything I could but a million things could have gone wrong and I’d have looked a fool, standing away up there, getting it wrong.
So there was a moment of letting go – I had to abandon the situation to a higher power. I’m not normally a very religious person but that’s what happened. And when it finished, and the last note was drifting over the air, I just put my hand up to the sky and said, thank you god. You had to recognise that there was this element. It was a real voyage of the mind, to go through with that and not run away. It was an extraordinary feeling and I remember afterwards thinking, I will never feel nervous about anything ever again. Though I was wrong about that.
When you’ve got through severe depression you feel it should be a real learning curve [May suffered depression in the early Nineties while dealing with Freddie Mercury’s death, the collapse of his first marriage and the death of his father]. And you should be able to give good advice to other people. But I haven’t found that to be the case. I think the only thing I could say is, focus on that tiny light at the end of the tunnel. OK, this day is going to be shit, end of story. But there will be another day which will be better. That’s the only advice which is of any use.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my dad. Because it was unfinished business. I never got the chance to wrap things up. What would I ask him? I can’t tell you. I was very close with him growing up. He encouraged me in many ways, including helping me build my guitar, despite the fact that later on he thought I was throwing my life away by becoming what he regarded as a pop star rather than a scientist. Yeah… I should probably write a whole book about my dad because there’s a lot of stuff there. When I went back to my PhD [May completed his thesis A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud in 2007, 37 years after he began] I had this very strong feeling of making my dad proud. We never stop wanting to please our parents.
I still catch myself feeling like the shy schoolboy of many years ago. If I go into a room of people I’ve never met before I have exactly the same feelings of smallness as I did when I was 16; nobody knows me, everyone’s going to think I’m a bit strange. I don’t know how to start a conversation. It’s a complete shock to me when people treat me like someone they look up to or might be excited about meeting. People say oh, you’re very humble, but that’s not it. It’s actually that I haven’t reprogrammed myself from those days.
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If I could go back to any moment in my life it would be
waking up on my ninth birthday and finding a guitar at the end of the bed. That was a magical, magical moment. I remember the look of it, the colour of it, the smell of it, the feel of it. I immediately put my fingers around it and started trying to
make the extended chords my dad had taught me on the ukulele. It was an acoustic guitar and it was expensive and I knew my mum and dad had stretched to buy it. That guitar stayed with me for a long time. I learned to play on it. And I still have it now.
This interview originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Pick up a copy from your local vendor or the Big Issue Shop.
Image: Armando Gallo