Book Review: Brian May’s Red Special, The

By Ernest Barteldes

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Although not essentially a guitarist (my main instruments are the electric bass and the ukulele), for many years I have been a huge fan of Queen’s Brian May – not only his songwriting, which contrasts strongly with the style of his bandmates but also for the signature sound of his homemade Red Special guitar, which can be recognized immediately even if it is not on one of the band’s or his solo albums – for instance, its tone is distinctive on Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends” at Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 even though there were other guitarists on hand.

Other examples include Brazil’s Os Paralamas do Sucesso’s “El Vampiro Bajo El Sol, and Lady Gaga’s “You and I,” where May was prominently featured – even if some fans were not aware of it.

His guitar has always intrigued me – built with hand tools because he couldn’t afford his much-desired Gibsons or Fenders, the Red Special is an essential part of Queen’s sound so much that when it is not present (in tunes like “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which featured a Fender Telecaster) you can actually hear the difference in sound and texture.

Many stories have been told about how the guitar was built, but until recently it hadn’t been the whole story from the beginning – which finally happened with Brian May’s Red Special: The Story Of The Home-Made Guitar That Rocked Queen And The World (Hal Leonard, Hardcover – $ 22.40 on Amazon), which brings the whole story together with rich illustrations of every piece of the guitar, which was painstakingly taken apart and photographed for this project.

Written by Brian May with the assistance of co-writer Simon Bradley, we follow May’s initial days learning the ukulele and then transitioning to the guitar – which brought the necessity of going electric as rock music invaded the airwaves of Great Britain via Radio Luxembourg – the same station that inspired The Beatles in the days before there was any kind of young music on the BBC.

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A young Brian May with his guitar (from Brianmay.com)

The writing style is quite conversational, but this being a musician who also happens to be an astrophysicist, things get a bit puzzling for the layman when he goes into the physics of acoustic resonance or when he describes the formula of calculating the distance between the guitar’s frets, which he sorted out using a computer at EMI’s laboratories while he interned there as a teenager.

In spite of those few moments that might go over one’s head a bit, it is a highly pleasurable read, and the illustrations  – which include early pictures of a short-haired Brian May playing with some of his early bands prior to his career with Queen and his signature (now gray) mane.

There is also a section with the different copies made of the Red Special over the years, and a description of his historic performance on the rooftop at Buckingham Palace, which was clearly much harder to put together than it sounds like.

The book is recommended not only for Queen fans but also for guitar enthusiasts in general – it’s rich enough in detail that one might want to build your own Red Special someday.

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Book Review: Joe Biden’s ” “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose”

by Ernest Barteldes 

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I am not a big fan of political autobiographies – I have never read Bill Clinton’s “My Life” or any of his wife’s books. The one time I did read one was when I happened to find late New York mayor Ed Koch’s “Citizen Koch” at a discount store and enjoyed reading it as an introduction to life in the city I’ve called home for the last 18 years (oh my, has it been that long?), but I have steered clear of them ever since because they are basically self-aggrandizing books about how well they did while they were in office or what they hope to achieve during the next election cycle. I have read a few but avoided them until I happened to come across former vice president Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” which is not a political book per se but a glimpse into a period of Biden’s life as he dealt with the burdens of his job while also having to face his son’s ultimately fatal disease.  

Those who expect Biden to bring forth a backstage view of his time in the White House under Barack Obama will be disappointed. This is not at all a political memoir – sure, there are some comments about long career as a senator and his role as vice president, but we only see glimpses of those as we go along. Instead, it is an intimate look at a painful period of his family’s life as they fought a losing battle to brain cancer. 

Of course this being a lifelong politician, the issues that he faced as he did his job are not completely absent: he talks about the situation in Ukraine and Putin’s blatant disregard to international law, the rise of ISIS and the spiritual and political journey that led him to decide not to run for president in 2016 even when everyone around him – except Obama and most of the DNC – encouraged him to do so, mostly because they saw that the middle class was looking for a “plain-speaking American” that could talk to their needs and not some regular “elitist” who would talk down to them.  

Reading the part on the 2016 election with the hindsight of what we know today, one must realize it must have taken a lot of guts for Biden not to have jumped into the race back in 2016 – and what a thrill it might have been with him going on debates against Clinton and Bernie Sanders – and had he won the nomination, it would have been incredible so see him scream “malarkey” as he did when he faced off Paul Ryan during the 2012 VP debate.  

Back to the story – Beau, who was an Iraq war veteran and a former attorney general, took the fight head on, and is described as someone extremely brave under pressure. At one point, doctors suggest an experimental treatment that could simply fail and shorten his life, and his reply is loud and clear: “It’s all good,” he says as every obstacle comes against him and every alternative fail. The family’s pain is palpable, and as you turn the pages you root for Beau even if, as someone who follows the news, knows that the outcome was not what anyone wanted. But Biden, ever the sensible populist, has a way with words, and as that final moment comes, the reader feels as if they’re in a cliffhanger moment in fiction – not something that actually happened.  

“Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” is a great read no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. There is not a single moment in which Biden attacks the other side, there isn’t even a personal analysis of the election’s eventual outcome. It’s just a great family story intertwined with moments of a man’s job – which in this case just happened to be the vice-presidency of the United States.