Shortly after lockdown, which brought Queen’s sell-out international tour to a juddering halt just before the European leg, May suffered a heart attack from which he nearly died – and is still recovering. His fragile condition – he may yet need more surgery – means that even when lockdown was lifted he and his wife, actress Anita Dobson, did not leave their Surrey home. “Coronavirus is scary. I am being ultra careful, me and Anita both, I’ve hardly been anywhere and I’m still treating myself as if I’m shielding,” says May, 73.
Father-of-three May is proof that all the fame and fortune in the world – he is worth an estimated £135million – don’t protect you from a pandemic or its ramifications, as he reveals here that he believes that catching Covid caused his heart attack.
“Strangely enough I was the fittest person on that last Queen tour we did,” he says. “I did biking every morning and I’m not a person who has ever smoked. I don’t drink that much. I don’t eat fatty foods so I didn’t tick any of the boxes to get a heart attack so it is still a bit of a mystery.
“I have one theory, which is: I’m conscious that I had a pretty bad cough most of the way through that tour. And some of the time I felt pretty grim and I thought I was just feeling tired.
“I think it’s possible that I had the Covid virus early on in the tour of Korea, Japan and Australia in January, and got through it, but it’s thickened the blood, which apparently it does, and that could have been the trigger that gave me the heart attack.
Brian May credits wife Anita Dobson with saving his life
“I thought it was too early to get it (Covid) but the evidence now seems to be that the virus was around.”
May has had a coronavirus test, which came back negative but, as he says, it was so long after he believes he was infected, it was unlikely to produce a result.
In early May he suffered what he described on social media as a “small” heart attack after initially thinking the pain in his chest was due to tearing a muscle during a gardening accident.
May was subsequently fitted with three stents – tiny tubes that hold open blocked arteries – and announced he was back in full health, joking with his 2.6 million followers on Instagram that he knew one day the title of Queen’s 1974 album, Sheer Heart Attack, would come back to haunt him.
But having been discharged from the specialist heart hospital, the Harefield, the rock star’s condition suddenly deteriorated dramatically and he nearly died.
Brian May performing in Queen with Adam Lambert
She was incredible. She totally saved my life because I couldn’t do anything
“I was very, very poorly and it was the hardest thing,” he says now of that period. “It was the worst thing, the complications that came on afterwards from the drugs that you have to take actually nearly killed me – much more than the heart attack. For about a month I could hardly crawl across the floor, I was really, really bad.”
The guitarist says he is only here today because of Anita.
“She was incredible. She totally saved my life because I couldn’t do anything and she just kind of nursed me, so I will forever be in her debt, she did an incredible job on me.”
And his wife of 20 years is still watching him like a hawk as he completes a new daily exercise regime.
“She’ll always tell me if she thinks I’m doing things wrong. And the Harefield has been wonderful. I’ve had amazing aftercare.
“I have a new religion, which is fitness. I am on this heart cardio rehab program every day of the week. I do about an hour and a half of various kinds of exercises to recondition the heart.
“I need another couple of months to get back up to full strength but I’m doing pretty well. I got a gold star from my physio man the other day,” he says with a proud laugh.
But his upbeat tone falters as he reveals that despite his progress he might need one more procedure.
“I have the choice because my heart is like 95 percent great now but there is a 5 percent piece of it which might need attention, so we’ll see. I’m going to take a view in three months’ time.”
And like many of us since the pandemic first engulfed our lives, May admits to feeling overwhelmed by sadness and helplessness at times. But, he says, exercising helps his mood as well as his heart.
“Sometimes if I’ve been depressed about things – and one does get depressed about the present situation – just that thing of getting on the bike every morning is a real positive thread for me, it’s a moment for me to get in tune with my body and it’s good for the brain, it’s good for the soul. It just focuses you all together and makes you feel like a whole person.”
Brian May with Freddie Mercury and the rest of Queen
Not that one would have the faintest idea looking at May’s prodigious output that he was perilously ill. As he says, he likes to stay busy and is really delighted to finally complete a project which was first mooted years ago.
May has produced, and plays on, a new cover of the single I’m a Woman with female group WOMAN – four singers who starred in Queen’s West End musical, We Will Rock You – for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in support of Target Ovarian Cancer and The Caron Keating Foundation.
The release is in memory of their friend, the actress Rebekah Gibbs who died of cancer in 2014. The former ‘Casualty’ and The Bill actress who appeared on stage in A Chorus Line, Grease and Starlight Express, was given the five-year all clear in April 2013 but was diagnosed with two brain tumours three months later.
“Rebekah was the trigger that propelled us,” he says. “It was a very sad case, you know, when you have to watch (her suffering) and you feel so powerless. So yes, we’ve dedicated the single to her and it’s being streamed and everybody’s giving their services for nothing.
“At the moment the video is on my YouTube channel and I can monetise it without any deductions, so all the money that we make on this record can go into the charities.”
WOMAN founder and Rebekah’s close friend Mazz Murray says she’s optimistic about the advances in cancer diagnosis which Rebekah was denied.
“Now when I think of her pain and anger turns into physical joy because we feel like we’re doing something rather than just sitting there,” says the singer who also starred in Mama Mia! and Chicago.
“We felt such joy that we were able to do something in her name and if you’re saving one person’s daughter, one person’s mother, one person’s sister, one best friend it is amazing. Brian’s thrown himself into it, like he does with all his charities, he is bombarded with demands on his time every day.”
Judging by his various websites, reflecting his passion for the environment, astronomy and music, he squeezes a heck of a lot out of 24 hours.
“You could call it work but for me it’s never really been work – it’s stuff I love to do.”
His calling at the moment is around the loss of wildlife habitats, something he considers to be more of a threat to the human race than global warming.
“It starts with habitat and of course global warming is there as well but I would give preference to it because it’s less reversible; every square mile of rainforest that we cut down can never come back, it will never have the diversity that it has now and the animals will never come back. We have to stop being so greedy.”
May has relied on Zoom to launch a book during lockdown and release the WOMAN single, and hopes lockdown has taught people to stop making unnecessary long-haul flights.
So will he go back on the road with Queen?
“I think things should change, yeah,” he says somewhat hesitantly, “but that’s a more long term thing. I think at the moment, we’d like to fulfill the (gig) commitment that we made.
“But I think after that we’ll look at things and see if we can change and see if we can do it in a more environmentally-friendly way. But it’s not easy, if people want to be there in person and see you. You can’t do that by Zoom. And it doesn’t just come down to us. It’s a problem that humanity has to solve if it wants live entertainment.”
Brian May says he fears he had coronavirus
For now, Queen and Adam Lambert, the American singer who has been their lead vocalist since 2011 including on all their recent worldwide tours, are still grappling with how to honour the rescheduled London O2 gigs – something which May says makes him feel for the fans.
“I do feel bad about it and I don’t know if we’ll be able to put that together. So those dates are still there, and people are all holding the tickets, which is a wonderful gesture of belief but whether we will be able to do it or not, I don’t think anyone knows. Putting 15,000 people in a space, even if it’s a big space, in May 2021, I think has a question mark over it.”
At this difficult time in particular, he says, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury is always in his thoughts. What would be his attitude towards the pandemic?
“It would be unprintable!” says May, laughing. “I think of him every day. He would be sort of smiling wickedly, making little cracks. He had a very fatalistic attitude, he’d be saying, ‘Well, darling, we can only do what we can do’.
“Freddie was spared a lot of bad stuff wasn’t he? The world’s a very difficult place to live in at the moment.”
• I’m A Woman featuring Brian May & WOMAN is available to download from Friday 23 October from backl.ink/ImAWoman. For CD and vinyl: Queenonlinestore.com