Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Freddie Mercury: What I Owe Queen's Fantastic Lead Singer-Composer

September 5 is the birthday of Queen singer Freddie Mercury, and in anticipation of the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, the film biopic about Freddie and the band, the promotional Twitter account asked what fans owe to Mercury, and my answer, of course, is, "Quite a lot, darling!"

My sixth novel, Now I'm Here, (now available on ebook editions and in paperback September 20) fictionalizes some pivotal moments in my own life. 

 Since I was a child, I'd wanted to learn to play piano. But it wasn't until my dad's construction company, set to demolish some homes in northern Ohio for senior apartments, found a funky old upright piano in one of the houses, and my dad had it hauled to our home, where we dragged it into our dining room. Several keys were broken, and I had to strip its layers of paint to get to the deep wood color. How my family endured my hours of after-school playing I'll never know.

The piano at my home in 1977, with beloved cat Rachel.

While my early skills included learning basic classical pieces, I frequently surprised my piano teacher with songbooks of rock albums, Queen in particular. My junior high piano recital was a performance of "Melancholy Blues," an understated performance of a bluesy song. 

But for my senior recital in 1979, my ambition drew me to arrange a piano solo version of "Bohemian Rhapsody." I recall doing okay with the very complicated song (explained section by section on Wikipedia). Sadly, no one, myself included, thought to record my performance, nor any of my clumsy piano efforts of many rock songs.

But I do have a score, including this handwritten choral arrangement I wrote for my high school Music Theory class. My aspirations to have it performed never came to fruition.

Perhaps my failure to capture this great moment in my teenage days led me to later exploit that experience, and expand it to greater fictional glory. In my novel, Joshua, a shy budding piano prodigy, gains local, then national, brief fame for his performances of "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Along the way, he falls in love with David, who lives and works on a pumpkin farm in southern Ohio. The two attend a Queen concert at Richfield Coliseum in November 1978, and share their first kiss in a van on the way.

While I did see Queen perform in 1978, I did not fall in love, except to become even more enamored of Freddie and his daring performances style. Years before cell phones, somehow I managed to sneak in my SLR Canon camera and a zoom lens. From far off, I was able to capture images of the band performing, like this one:

Like millions of fans, my love for Queen's music never faded. Even through their early 1980s fall from grace, to their triumphant Live Aid performance in 1985, the band's music stuck with me. I still have songbooks for the albums  A Night at the Opera and News of the World.

Now I'm Here began as a short story set in that van en route to a Queen concert. I later wrote a short story (which became a long story) about my time between college at Kent State and Ohio State University, where I worked for a season on a pumpkin farm.

Through the early 1990s, I developed several novels, but kept putting the 'piano prodigy-farm boy love story' aside in favor of easier works, specifically my short story collection Forty Wild Crushes, which includes "Tractor Pull," an earlier version of what became several chapters in Now I'm Here, those experiences given to my pumpkin farmer character David Koenig.

Pouring that story into the novel gave it the breadth I'd hoped for. The two young men become separated and have their own separate journeys before being reunited. From the beginning, I knew this should be a serious and poetic tribute to that era, to rural young men, AIDS, and Queen.

Skip ahead to 2017. With the ideas for other novels having upstaged my rural epic, I was resting on my Lambda Literary laurels for Every Time I Think of You and Message of Love (2012 winner and 2015 finalist in Gay Romance).

Still futzing with the manuscript and enduring a bit of writer's block, I had a problem with the timeline. I'd wanted to include some pivotal events, including San Francisco's White Night Riots. I'd even interviewed the late Hank Wilson, who participated in the riots. I scrapped several chapters as other ones spontaneously emerged.

And then came news of the film project about Queen. It gave me the kick in the pants I needed to finish the novel. I arranged printouts of the chapters all over the floor of my apartment, once restricted by my concept of structuring the book chapter by chapter like a double album. I'd even thought to call the two sections 'Side A' and 'Side B.'

But like the genius Mercury (in my small way), I took apart sections and started over. Mercury was interviewed several times about the classic song, saying "Bohemian Rhapsody" had originally been three different songs laced together. Why not do the same for my novel?

As casting changes and directorial problems delayed the biopic's production, I sometimes felt relieved. I knew I had to finish the novel before the film was released, to piggyback on its popularity, and yet another deserved Queen resurgence.

Having done the self-publishing task for each of my previous novels (see earlier posts for those tales), I decided to pitch the novel to Beautiful Dreamer Press after a fun experience whipping out a short-short story for the sexy gogo-boy-inspired anthology Not Just Another Pretty Face. Publisher Louis Flint-Ceci saw something in my incomplete book, and after months of helpful rewrite suggestions, edits and yet more edits, plus a fun book cover and video shoot in May, now I'm here.

Watching the trailers and advance promotional clips and interviews for the film Bohemian Rhapsody has been inspiring and exciting. Of course, I've spent hours and hours enjoying Queen concerts online, as well as documentaries and interviews with the band about their music. I feel justified in having written a novel that weaves Queen's music with a serious novel that's already received some nice advance reviews.

Please join me on this journey, as I read at bookstores with a few talented musicians playing Queen songs, and as I share various chapter excerpts and musical inspirations, not only from Queen, but a little Pink Floyd as well. 

I'll share interesting covers of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and other songs. A new favorite includes the marching band for my alma mater, Ohio State University, performing a Queen tribute only a day before Freddie's birthday!

And, of course, I hope you'll buy a copy of Now I'm Here and follow my comments and essays here and on social media. You can click on the links on my website's footer and on this blog. Reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Goodreads are appreciated. If you dislike the online megastores, buy from the publisher directly or ask for it at your local independent bookstore.

Happy Birthday, Freddie. What did you give me? Quite a lot, darling, quite a lot.

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