Review: Biography: 40 Years Of Queen by Harry Doherty, Roger Taylor and Brian May
Goodman, £30, hardback
He reaches into the breast pocket of his black, open-neck shirt and puts on neat, frameless glasses -- even rock stars get old -- but still can't locate Freddie Mercury, Queen's lead singer.
"He must be in the wings," May concludes, and pushes the open book to one side.
We are sitting on either side of a white-clothed dining table in a private room at his favourite restaurant in London's Notting Hill.
Though May's image as Queen's guitarist was flamboyant -- big, bouffant black (now grey) curls down to his shoulders, glittery jackets and customised guitars -- in this sober setting, 64-year-old May is a master of reserve. He rarely gives interviews and guards his privacy fiercely when he does.
I have been warned in advance not to ask him about his second wife, the former EastEnders actress Anita Dobson, who is now appearing in the new series of Strictly Come Dancing. The questions he really dreads, though, are those about Mercury, whose death from AIDS in 1991 brought down the curtain on Queen's career as one of the world's most successful recording bands.
"Sometimes," May admits, "I do feel I can't do any more retrospectives or I will be sick. The question, 'what was it like working with Freddie?' starts to be the bomb that you see coming at your head."
In life, Mercury could eclipse May and the other members of Queen (Roger Taylor on drums and John Deacon on bass). But in death, Mercury's shadow has grown bigger still. "People who had made fun of him, derided him, suddenly began to regard him as a great seer, with godlike status after he died," May says.
"I find it very funny. Once they were queuing up to put him down, and now he's a great prophet. It is a curious thing when people who didn't know him start telling you about your friend. Freddie was an exceptional human being, but he was a human being."
Two decades on, May is happy enough to celebrate Mercury's genius. Earlier this month, as part of 'Freddie Mercury Day' -- a fund-raiser for AIDS research that took place on what would have been the singer's 65th birthday -- May and Taylor hosted a party at London's Savoy Hotel attended by a new generation of stars.
But, alongside such tributes, May quite reasonably expects credit for his part in Queen's phenomenal success. He for instance wrote many of their best-known songs, including 'We Will Rock You', 'Fat-Bottomed Girls' and 'I Want It All'.
And finally, this essentially modest man is also keen to make clear that he is still a creative force at the top of his game. Does he ever have moments when he wants to put the past completely behind him?
"I've been through periods like that, yes, notably straight after Freddie went. There were a couple of years or more when I didn't want to be in Queen. I wanted to be me, to reclaim myself. That is the way it felt, at least. But there came a point where it became apparent to me that what I was doing was going through a grieving process by refusing to look at the past. And. . . well, I got over it."
While he says that headlines about him being suicidal in the aftermath of Mercury's death are overblown, May is candid about his struggle with depression.
"It is something I've lived with in my life and at certain periods I got it bad. Then, about 15 years ago, I decided I had to get treatment."
May took himself to Cottonwood Clinic in Tucson, Arizona, "and threw away the key. All that mattered was getting better because otherwise I was no good to anyone. And so slowly I rebuilt my life and re-emerged as a different person".
In 2008-2009, he went on tour with Taylor and the former lead singer of Free, in an act billed as Queen + Paul Rodgers.
"What happened came about naturally, organically. There was coalescence for a while, but it was not an attempt to make Paul into Freddie. I don't particularly enjoy having other people sing our songs."
Queen's Greatest Hits remains the biggest-selling UK album ever. Current projects are the hit "Queen musical" We Will Rock You, now in its 10th year, a planned movie (starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury) and re-releasing old recordings on a new label.
And what about May's own recent output? There have been successful solo albums post-Queen. He produces and tours with the singer Kerry Ellis, and has just finished working with Lady Gaga and My Chemical Romance.
Many in his shoes might consider that they had now proved themselves capable of being successful with and without Queen and would therefore rest on their laurels, spend time with the family -- May has three grown-up children from his first marriage, to Chrissie Mullen, which ended in 1988 -- and enjoy an estimated fortune of £85m at the rock star mansion in Surrey he shares with Dobson.
As well as music, he has picked up his abandoned academic career. In 2007, he returned to Imperial College, London, to finish his doctoral thesis in astrophysics and get his PhD.
Will the new book, I wonder, only appeal to diehard fans? "Our fans have always been very important to us," May concedes. "So for the people who have followed us, this will be like recapturing their youth. But," -- and here there is a note of genuine excitement in his voice -- "there's a whole new generation of young people now fascinated by what we did."
Queen, he seems to be saying, isn't only about revisiting the past.