I had just turned 16 a few weeks earlier. I was absolutely 100% in love with Queen (since age 13 when first hearing Killer Queen on the radio) and therefore could hardly believe my sister's friend, who worked with her at the Roy Rogers restaurant at the mall, who said she knew Freddie Mercury's girlfriend, Mary, and that she was going to get a backstage pass and would try to get one for us as well. Well, just before the concert she met my sister at a pre-arranged point (inside the venue) and said that she was unable to get us the backstage passes. You can imagine my disappointment and my thinking at this point that this girl was not telling the truth about knowing Freddie's girlfriend (it seemed too good to be true to me to begin with). Then after the concert, which was great of course, we were depressed (my sister and I - but especially me) at not getting to meet them, so we decided to wait for their limo to come out of the underground parking area at the Capital Centre. When it emerged we got so excited we decided to sprint to our big blue station wagon and follow them. With my learner's permit only, I followed them at probably over 80 miles per hour - I remember it being the fastest I had ever driven but I was determined not to lose them - to a restaurant somewhere in DC. At that age, I didn't have my bearings around the city. We didn't want to freak them out so I think we just watched them go inside from our car. Then we ended up waiting outside in the cold air for I think around 2 hours - anyway - enough to turn my nose red and make my lips and toes numb. We weren't allowed in the restaurant - and there was a bouncer from Liverpool out front that prevented us from even going in the lobby to warm up. At one point Roger came down the stairs into the lobby and I smiled at him and he smiled back and started over to the door - but was stopped by another man who grabbed his arm. So then he just continued downstairs to the bathroom, and ignored us when he went back up the stairs. When they finally emerged from the restaurant, I was frozen in more ways than just the temp. Brian said, "It's a bit cold out here". One of them (I don't know who because I think I was in shock) said, "So, were you at the concert?" And we said yes. My friend who was hardly a Queen fan grabbed the attention for herself by shouting "That was the best concert I've ever seen!" or some such thing. I was so embarrassed not being able to think of anything to say in my stunned condition. Freddie looked at me briefly then looked over at my sister. He nodded at my sister but he never stopped walking to the limo. Brian walked over to me and said something like, "Did you enjoy the concert?" and I think I mumbled something like, "Yes. It was fantastic." Then all I could think to say was "Can I have your autograph?" He said "Sure" and ended up giving me the autograph and his pen. So I had to tap him on the arm to get his attention to give him his pen back. "Here's your pen." Can you imagine - here I am meeting my idols and all I can say is this? This all happened within about 20 or 30 seconds it seemed, and they all got into the limo quickly - they seemed pretty tired. I can't remember if they had one or two limos. All four of the members were there and I think a couple of other men - probably manager and driver(s). Freddie didn't say anything, just acknowledged us without a smile and got into the limo. John did the same. I remember thinking Brian was pretty tall. I stood very close to him. I am almost 5 foot 9 and he towered above me it seemed. Of course the hair probably added several inches! The best part of the story I guess is that my sister's friend, the one who knew Mary, said that when the band got back to the hotel they said there were some "nice working girls" waiting outside the restaurant. I guess they thought we were older - we were only 16 and 17 and still in high school of course. We were dressed very conservatively and with long coats. My sister's co-worker said that she was good friends with Mary, because their families had been neighbors, and so was happy to get to visit with her. Also she said she thought that Freddie was the nicest member of the group, but very shy.
In a new book, writers recall the best gigs they have seen. Here the novelist Tracy Chevalier describes her memorable night with Queen.
It started with a champagne toast and ended with a limo pulling away into the night. In between these two gestures symbolising glamour and sophistication, I lost my virginity. Not in the technical sense (that would take another few years), but in other ways. At my first ever rock concert — going with four friends to see Queen at the Capital Centre in November 1977 — I got an eye-opening peek at elements of the adult world, with its power and its limitations, its glittering artifice and dirty reality, and it demonstrated how little I knew and how much I had yet to learn about life.
I was ripe for it; overdue, really. I had turned 15 the month before the concert, and though people thought I looked older than I was, I was remarkably naive and unworldly at that age. Despite a few character-building events in my childhood — the death of my mother when I was almost 8, the experience of being a minority in DC public schools — I was so unsophisticated, so unaware of the world, that I didn't even realise Queen was an English band until the lead singer Freddie Mercury appeared in a tight white catsuit on stage at the Capital Centre, raised a glass of champagne at 18,000 screaming fans, and toasted us with "Good evening, Washington" in a fruity English accent. I was stunned. Then I started screaming.
I had been a Queen fan for a couple of years by then. A Night at the Opera was the first LP I bought, and I could sing every word of every song. I don't remember how I was introduced to Queen — though I do remember hearing their biggest hit, Bohemian Rhapsody, on the radio and being impressed by its audacity. It sure beat the hell out of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, which had been my older sister's staple music diet. By 14, I was writing Queen lyrics on the desk where I sat for algebra class, swapping them back and forth with a boy I had a crush on, and daydreaming of guitarist Brian May kissing me.
The concert was part of Queen's News of the World tour. While not a great album, especially after the double whammy of A Night at the Opera and its follow-up, A Day at the Races, it did produce two of their best-known songs, We Will Rock You and We are the Champions, which drop-kicked them firmly into stadium anthem territory. Appropriately, the concert began with the lights going down and the primitive, effective, impossible-not-to-join-in-with BOOM-BOOM-CHI, BOOM-BOOM-CHI, BOOM-BOOM-CHI intro to We Will Rock You rolling over the audience. Everyone immediately jumped up out of their seats and began to stomp and clap along. I, too, stood and stomped and clapped, watching in awe as people began flicking their Bic lighters, a gesture I had never seen before. What, were they going to set light to something? I had tried not to act surprised earlier when people nearby started smoking grass in public, but now was there going to be a riot? What other illegal things would go on that night? Then a spotlight picked out Freddie Mercury, who began to sing, "Buddy you're a boy, make a big noise, playin' in the street, gonna be a big man someday..." and I thought, "Jesus H. Christ, that is the loudest noise I've ever heard! Is that legal?" The wall of sound terrified me, and I wanted to cover my ears, but I didn't dare, as it would have been a very uncool thing to do. I think I looked around for the exit, wondering how many people I would have to climb over to escape the sound. It was just so goddamned loud — exhilarating, yes, but painful, too, dangerous and overwhelming. I wavered between loving it and hating it, but knew it would be uncool to hate it, so I'd better try to love it.
Towards the end of the song the single note of an electric guitar began to hum louder and louder under the chorus we were all singing and shouting, and Brian May stepped into the light to add his distinctive sound, ending We Will Rock You with low, long-sustain, three-part harmony chords, overlaid with a high melody he made fuzzy and metallic by using a coin as a guitar pick. I adored Brian May. He was the reserved, straight guy (literally) to Freddie Mercury's camp high jinks — tall, dark, good-looking, with long curly hair and a melancholy pensiveness that made every teenage girl want to comfort him. At this concert he was wearing a silvery white jacket with long, pleated wing sleeves; that combined with his mop of curls should have made him look effeminate, but instead he was deeply sexy.
I loved Freddie, too, for his outrageous antics, his riskiness, his joy at performing and glorious indifference to how ridiculous he looked wearing glittery leotard jumpsuits, eyeliner and a mullet, prancing and strutting and posing, twitching his hips, smacking his lips and otherwise hamming it up. But even without being conscious of Freddie's sexual preference — I hadn't yet met anyone who was openly gay — I instinctively sensed he was not to be lusted after. For all his extrovert, welcoming stage presence, he was clearly playing a part, which served to hold us at arm's length; whereas Brian May's taciturn moodiness was clearly himself served up raw.
Thank God for Freddie, though. Without him, no one would have moved on stage: Brian May was not a dancer, John Deacon, in time-honoured bassist tradition, stood solidly in one place throughout, and Roger Taylor was trapped by his drum kit.
To set us at our ease, after We Will Rock You Freddie toasted us with a glass of champagne — "Moet et Chandon, of course," after the reference in the hit Killer Queen. My friends and I heard this and screamed and clutched one another. He mentioned Moet et Chandon! That was our champagne! He was acknowledging us! I swear he made eye contact with me, 200 yards away and over the heads of thousands.
For we had done what we thought was the most original and extravagant gesture (for 15-year-olds) a fan could make: we had sent a bottle of champagne backstage. We'd pooled our money and gotten an older sister to buy it for us — the same sister who had been obliged to drive us all the way to the Capital Centre, smirking at our overexcited fandom. We'd even made our way to the stage door down a loading dock at the back of the arena and reluctantly handed over the precious bottle to a bored roadie, who said he would take it to the band. We'd had our doubts about his reliability, and his jadedness had dampened our enthusiasm a bit: had we really blown all that money — $20, which in those days meant 20 hours of babysitting — to have some unshaven jerk with a beer belly swill the precious liquid? But clearly the roadie had pulled through for us, for there was our champagne in Freddie Mercury's hand, and he was referring to Moet et Chandon in his pretty cabinet, the lyrics we had so cleverly quoted in the note we sent along with the bottle. We were sure we — among the many thousands — had managed to get through to the band.
If we had bothered to look around rather than feast our eyes on Brian and Freddie (I'm afraid John Deacon and Roger Taylor never got a look-in from me), we probably would have seen other clusters of fans also screaming and clutching one another during Freddie's toast. But we didn't look around or harbour doubts, or we ignored them. It was only much later that I allowed myself to consider the veritable champagne lake that must have existed backstage at every Queen concert. Tip to rock stars: want a free truckload of champagne wherever you go? Sing a song that mentions some — preferably name-checking a more expensive brand to ensure better quality — and watch it pour in backstage every night from adoring fans. There must have been a hundred bottles from fans back there, not counting the stash the band may well have brought with them in case Portland or Houston or Detroit weren't so generous. No wonder that roadie looked so bored — he'd probably been put on champagne duty that night.
Freddie's toast worked its magic, though, giving me the connection I needed to negotiate a place within the strangeness of the concertgoing experience itself: the weird, scary power of a crowd; the mixture of exhilaration and embarrassment at collective participation; the physical discomfort of standing for two hours when there's a perfectly comfortable seat behind you. It is one of those tricky, unresolved tensions at concerts: are we there to listen to the music or actively respond to it, participate as a group or answer our needs as individuals? It's an issue I've never entirely resolved — from Queen onwards I have spent concerts going in and out of myself, losing myself to the music and spectacle one minute, the next minute overly conscious of myself clapping or singing or screaming, and wondering why concerts have to be such an uncomfortable physical ordeal.
I was taken aback by the sound of Queen's music live: not just the volume, but the familiarity and also the strange rawness of the songs. Studio albums have all the mistakes airbrushed out, the layers added in, the balance between players carefully calibrated, like clever dialogue in a play without the awkward pauses and unfinished conversations you get in real life. Queen albums were highly produced, multi-layered affairs. Live, the music was necessarily stripped of a lot of the choral mixing, more raucous, simpler and much messier.
The band wisely didn't dare attempt to reproduce in its entirety the long, baroque confection that is Bohemian Rhapsody. For the infamous operatic middle section, the band members left the stage as the studio recording played. Freddie and Brian then changed costume, and, at the word "Beelzebub", all four men popped out of a door in the stage floor and joined live again for the heavy metal section, fireworks going off, dry ice pouring out, everyone going berserk, me in tears of excitement. It was one of the best live moments I've ever witnessed. Indeed, I was spoiled by seeing Queen play live before anyone else; for sheer exuberant theatricality, no one else has come close.
The concert ended with an instrumental version of God Save the Queen and once more the flicking of the Bics, which, no longer the virgin concertgoer, I understood now as a gesture of tribute. My friends and I weren't finished, though. Emboldened by Freddie's toast, we decided to go to the stage entrance again and say hello. I still choke with embarrassment when I think of it. When we got there, a black limousine was pulling away, our heroes and their entourage inside, and we were left with the detritus: older, dolled-up, hard-bitten groupies who had followed the band around and not made this night's cut. I stared at one, at her long, bleach-blond hair, her miniskirt, her bright red lipstick. She glared at me briefly; then her face went slack as she dismissed the idea of me being any sort of competition. In fact, I had not really taken in that there was a competition, that the girls (and I?) were here to spread our wares and catch the attention of one of the men, and then . . . And then? I hadn't thought it through at all. I wouldn't have known what to do with such a man as Brian May if he even so much as looked at me. All I knew was that I was way, way out of my depth, that even if I had eluded the roadie minding the door, there was no way I was ever going to get past a woman like this.