Meditations on the death of Marc Bolan

Posted: September 16, 2016 in 70s, marcbolan, Uncategorized

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A first musical crush is an intense experience.

Mine, as most people on here know, was Marc Bolan. He caught me at a time in my young life when I just on the cusp of becoming a teenager. His image and music totally gripped me and I became a big fan. He seemed unstoppable for about three years and then sadly and perhaps inevitably (where else is there to go when you are that huge?) went into a swift decline. Like a lot of that early 70s generation, I went on to David Bowie and Roxy Music , with T.Rex becoming a sideline interest; the odd single getting my attention, but not interested in the albums as such, after ‘Tanx’ in 1973.

In only five short years after his peak of popularity in 1972 with ‘Metal Guru’, Marc Bolan was no longer with us. Killed in a purple mini. Not a Cadillac or a glamorous American car that often inhabited his lyrics, but a humble and very English mini. There is something very Marc Bolan about that though, because he was prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, when in fact, he didn’t ‘drive a Rolls Royce ‘cos it’s good for my voice’ (Marc couldn’t actually drive)

As is often the way with pop stars that die young, we tend to think of only the good times and ignore or make excuses for the not-so good times. The emotional connection is so strong; the jukebox of the mind keeps playing those songs over and over.

The truth is, Marc was creatively lost –or at best at an impasse – when he died and had been for the last three years. He had struggled to find a new and credible direction and came across as increasingly ridiculous on tacky pop shows like ‘Supersonic’ and ‘Get it together’, where he stumbled through smoke machines, looking like a relic of another pop age by 1975.

I remember hearing ‘Zip Gun Boogie’ on the radio only once and thinking it was awful – because it was. Bolan by that point had boogied himself into a stubborn cocaine denial and had a bunker mentality when he should have taken some time out to re-think his direction.

I believe he was certainly capable of doing this. He had, after all, transformed himself from a fey hippy cosmic-folk troubadour, into a fabulous Glam rock peacock pop star in the early 70s. Why couldn’t he change one more time?

I can only speculate of course. I suspect that fame – that hall of mirrors that claims the souls and senses of so many who enter it – went to his head and cocaine made him ego deaf, refusing to listen to those around him such as producer Tony Visconti, who tried to persuade Bolan to re-invent himself and his music. He threw in the producer towel after the album ‘Zinc Alloy’, sometime in early 1974.

Tellingly, Marc’s fortunes took a dive. Visconti had been so important to the success of T.Rex and by now, Marc was running on hubris and a smaller but loyal fan base barely kept his profile above obscurity.

He tried to give his music more of a funky soul flavour for the next year or so– largely with the help of his girlfriend Gloria Jones, now in T.Rex on keyboards and backing vocals. But it all sounded so incongruous and didn’t go far enough to convince as a change of direction. Bolan going soul just didn’t suit him either – his voice was too idiosyncratic and his lyrics too surreal to fit soul music’s more direct lyrics and emotional rawness.

A single, ‘Dreamy Lady’, billed as ‘disco T.Rex’ was actually more of the old doo-wop structure than soul.

Then, in 1976, Marc was suddenly back in the charts with a new single: ‘I love to boogie’.

It was Bolan doing what he did best. Toe tapping, upbeat fun pop rock n roll. The delusional period of trying to go soul was over and Bolan was up for the pop rock game again. He even had his hair cut, as if shedding the baggage of the past.

Marc had recently aligned himself with the emerging Punk scene in London and put his money where his mouth was by having the Damned as his support act in early 1977, when a new slimmed down Bolan, took to the road for a T.Rex tour to promote the album ‘Dandy in the underworld’.

The album had been trailered by a single, ‘Soul of my suit’, which I liked and felt hopeful that Marc was on a creative up.

I got the ‘Dandy’ album and to be honest, didn’t think it was the ‘return to form’ as it had been feted as in some quarters. However, it was a lot better than the previous two albums and Marc seemed to have got his mojo back, sparked by the Punk movement.

He got his own TV show on which he showcased Punk bands that nobody would go near. But the show itself was awful – typical 70s late afternoon tasteless tack, with Marc being flanked by dancers as he ran through old hits with a band that consisted of session musicians. It was great to see Marc back on TV but a lot of it made me cringe. I just wasn’t that star-struck 13 year old anymore I guess and had more sophisticated tastes by then.

An exclusive was announced: that David Bowie was going to be on Marc’s show. I couldn’t wait – two old Mod friends and rivals in Glam together at last.

Marc’s latest single was ‘Celebrate Summer’, a disposable piece of 60s surf-pop with glib lyrics that rhymed ‘punk’ with ‘junk’ and with a slightly punky edge. Maybe if the Ramones had covered it…it might have made sense?

‘Celebrate Summer’ didn’t chart but for now, it didn’t matter.

With a new buzz around Marc, and a new-found credibility among the Punk generation, I decided to forgive and forget the kitsch naffness of the ‘Marc’ show and looked forward to Bowie appearing on it.

Then, on the morning of Friday, September 16th, I turned on the radio and caught the back end of ‘Ride a white swan’. The DJ said ‘I hope that’s of comfort to fans of Marc Bolan’.

I turned on the TV and waited for the news, an agonising half hour or so away. ‘Pop star Marc Bolan has been killed in a car crash in the early hours of this morning. He was 29’.

I suddenly felt guilty for having negative thoughts on Marc. I also felt a strange hollow numbness come over me. Marc figured so highly in my early teenage years, it was like a part of me died with him.

I went upstairs and played ‘Electric Warrior’, an album of Marc at his creative peak (one he managed to sustain for ‘The Slider’ and most of the ‘Tanx’ album)

All the memories flashed back at me: Marc on Top of the Pops, loving every moment of his fame, Marc bizarrely on the Cilla Black show duetting on ‘Life’s a Gas’, Marc in interviews with headlines like ‘T.Rextacy!’ and ‘Bolan’s Triumph’. Marc Bolan posters in the Jackie magazine that you had to collect for three weeks to get the three parts of them. Hearing ‘20th century boy’ on Radio Luxembourg for the first time and thinking it sounded fantastic and thrilling.

The final episode of ‘Marc’ – with Bowie appearing and jamming with Marc, was transmitted a week or so after his death. It was great to see them together but also a sad, shambolic finale, as Marc slipped and fell over before the song hardly got started. The camera crew had pulled the plug on them too, over a union dispute. Two legends, stopped in their tracks by officious union men. Didn’t they know that his was a unique event? Or were they secretly Carpenters fans who just hated strange exotic pop stars?

Then suddenly, as if time quickly forward-wound itself to a horrible present – there was a photograph in the papers of Marc’s funeral, with Rod Stewart’s head bowed in grief and David Bowie, visibly upset. A white swan made of flowers spelling his name. It was all too surreal for a fan like me to take in.

Marc Bolan’s death felt like the end of an era, and maybe it was. It was after all, the death of a Proper Pop Star – the kind of star that does not apologise for who they are, a star who is pathologically individual and could never be anything else other than a Pop star. You could never ever imagine Marc Bolan going to a 9 to 5 job, or living a normal life. He really did seem to be someone who was born to do what he did.

When I think about it now, it was Marc Bolan who first showed me the possibility of another world beyond the factory lined horizon of Teesside. A world where it was ok to not fit in, to feel different, to celebrate your strangeness and to meet others who felt the same. It’s weird when I meet other fans of Marc; there is an instant connection, an unspoken understanding.

I still play his music and a lot of it I never tire of.

The elegant and funky simplicity of ‘Hot Love’ and ‘Get it on’ still amaze me. Marc took three or four chords and made them into something magic and enduring. His words were mostly a mixture of beat poetry and playful nonsense, like a child discovering the sound of language for the first time. He was a master of the pop hook too and for catchy as hell evidence, listen to ‘Telegram Sam’.

The acoustic and very English whimsical Marc was another side to him. Listen to ‘Cosmic Dancer’ or ‘Mystic Lady’ and be charmed.

Marc could merge Syd Barrett and Chuck Berry too: try ‘The Slider’ to hear this cosmic fusion.

In retrospect, Marc Bolan didn’t really need to change musical direction. He just needed to keep making good Marc Bolan music.

I have his latest album in my head right now, but you can’t hear it, because it’s personal to me.

Boogie on in peace, Marc Bolan: the original cosmic Punk.

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