Although reluctant to subscribe to anything former NME punk rock hack turned cultural pundit and bestselling romantic novelist Tony 'Bigmouth' Parsons has to say, I recently found myself defending his observation that Queen are the most overrated band in rock history (alongside U2). Parsons was once coerced by an editor to attend a Queen concert at Wembley and described the event as being like 'a pantomime for thick adults'. I wouldn't go that far in my condemnation but it did set me thinking about one specific conjunction of pantomime and myth recently gravitating around the Centrepoint end of Tottenham Court Road.
But first, a short digression on that versatile deity Mercury, the fleet-footed God of magic and illusion adapted by the Romans from Hermes. Like Andre 3000 or a Swiss army knife, Mercury fulfils a number of roles and functions. For those forgetful of the occasionally intricate genealogy of ancient mythology, it should be noted that in this supremely nepotistic regime Mercury's father was none other than Jupiter (or Zeus if you're channel-surfing in Athens). Mercury's celebrated performance as the quicksilver messenger service between the gods, mortals, and the realm of the dead, is intimately linked to his lesser-known gig as the god of crossroads and thresholds. He watches over a collection of boundary-traversing characters that range from lonesome cowboys and sheep-shagging shepherds to gypsies, tramps and thieves. His metier and medium is passage. As the embodiment of crossing and communication between worlds, Mercury is identified with transformation, transgression, translation, and transition. He is the patron of travellers and the bringer of dreams, silently mediating between day and night, waking and sleep. Also incorporated into the pantheon as both the god of traders and the god of weights and measures, he materializes in the exchanges of the marketplace, etymologically insinuating his presence into the mercantile vocabulary of merchants and merchandise. Moonlighting in the capacity of Psychopomp, Mercury uses his abilities to cross a multiplicity of ontological boundaries to conduct the souls of the dead into the labyrinth of the underworld.
In London, in a typically camp version of psychogeography, all of these mythic tributaries have retroactively funnelled into Dame Freddie's choice of Mercury as a stage name. Travellers resurfacing from the London underground network via the northern exits of Tottenham Court Road station have in recent years immediately encountered a titanic figure balanced on the canopy of the Dominion Theatre. 'We will, we will . . . rock you'. If you fail to register that the statue is supposed to be Mercury the accompanying music might help to jog your memory. 'We will, we will . . . rock you.' Queen songs are repeatedly blasted from a foyer stacked with spin-off merchandise (except on Sundays, when scattered sections of the congregation of an evangelical Christian church, assembling near the mouth of the adjacent tube station entrance, begin filtering through the threshold underneath Freddie's feet to access the capacious auditorium for their weekly services). One arm raised aloft, Mercury looks like the bastard offspring of the Statue of Liberty and the infamous replica of Saddam Hussein formerly located in Bagdhad that was pulled down by seemingly jubilant locals and a just-in-the-neighbourhood American tank crew (an event immediately suspected to have been strategically staged to get that liberation message across to distant audiences as simplistically as possible).
Mercury was elevated into position in the summer of 2003 to celebrate the first anniversary of the critically derided smash hit musical We Will Rock You. Eight metres high, the resin and fibre-glass icon of the singer is a clumsily enlarged replica of an existing sculpture by London-based Czech artist Irena Sedlecka that currently overlooks the shore of Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. Erected in memory of Mercury shortly after his death, this earlier work's status as an unofficial pilgrimage site has been usurped by the concomitant attractions of the copy in London. A glut of photographs on fan websites illustrate Queen fans coming from all corners of the globe to pose outside of the Dominion Theatre, mimetically recreating Mercury's stance as he salutes the passing commuters and consumers, head bowed, as if in awe of his own auratic presence, left hand gripping the phallic end of his caduceus-like microphone stand. In an ideal world I would actually go and see We Will Rock You before considering classifying that particular pantomime as being targeted for thick adults. Fortunately for me, while writing this article I was under the misleading impression that the show had nearly finished its record-breaking run. But it now seems that the show has received yet another extension. So Mercury will not be coming down before Christmas and I can't sign off by lamely saying another one bites the dust.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London
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