I’d be damn interesting. Hell, I’d be happy if I were one tenth as cool as Brian May. (But maybe I’d also be a little full of myself, knowing I was so awesome.)
I listened to this interview with Dr. May several months ago, and it only served to make me respect the man even more than I already did. He just seems like a really smart, really talented, down-to-earth guy. And he’s accomplished in both the arts and the sciences to an extent that’s quite rare these days. A modern day Renaissance Man, is Brian May.
For a long time I knew of Brian May strictly through Queen. I happen to think he’s a very talented musician, which alone gets my deep respect. (You know how sometimes people say that anybody who understands math can become a musician? LIES. Nobody has ever explained sheet music to me in a way I can understand. I am completely incapable of understanding even the simplest concepts in music theory.) I had an officemate years ago who treated me to a live recording of May playing his Brighton Rock solo. This was my first exposure to the concept of a single musician using echoes and reverb to play a multi-part harmony with himself. It impressed me.
It was also during grad school, very late at night while grading a mountain of homework assignments and listening to music at an ear-ruining volume in order to stay awake, that I finally noticed the lyrics to ’39. How many bands write love songs around the theory of relativity and the Twin Paradox?
This puzzled and delighted me for a long time. What a strange and wonderful topic for a rock ballad. (And a lovely, touching song besides.)
Only later did somebody clue me in to the rest of the story. I hadn’t known that Brian May had originally been working on his doctoral degree in astrophysics when he decided to put the research on hiatus in order to spend some time indulging his “hobby”. The hobby, of course, eventually becoming the band Queen.
I’m pretty sure that if I had dropped my studies in the middle of grad school I wouldn’t have become a world-famous rock and roll star. I’d be living on a steam grate right now.
But my favorite part of the story is the fact that May—er, Dr. May— eventually went back and finished his thesis a few years ago.
It’s a pretty safe bet that if I had dropped my studies in the middle of grad school to become a world-famous rock and roll star, I wouldn’t have bothered to return to my thesis work after a couple decades spent touring the world.
And then it turns out that while he was touring the world with Queen, he was also becoming an expert on an obscure branch of 19th century photography. You know, as a hobby.
I would have liked to hear more about his interest in stereoscopic photography; I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the interview for this reason. I used to listen to Fresh Air quite a bit when I lived in a place where it was easy to catch the show. For years, I’ve considered Terry Gross a strong and effective interviewer. This episode let me down a bit, though, because the interview focused so much on Brian May’s time with Queen and so little on his newer efforts. I’d imagine that May is tired of answering questions about the band after all these years. You can hear it in his voice a couple of times during the interview. But he’s polite about it.
I’d like to imagine that if I ever had a chance to hang out with Brian May, he’d appreciate the fact that I didn’t turn into a squeeing fanboy. I’d ask him about his thesis work, we’d swap war stories about school, and later we’d call up Batman and go out for tacos. (He has Batman on speed dial. Count on it.)