Monday, October 01, 2012

Marc Bolan

September 30th, 2012, was Marc Bolan's birthday; he would have been 65. 

Like most Americans, I was under the impression that Marc Bolan was responsible for only two great songs: Get It On (Bang A Gong) and Jeepster. But I had hints along the way that more was going on: Bauhaus covering Telegram Sam and The Bongos covering Mambo Sun, for example. And there was that strange and wonderful record I found in my brother's room called A Beard Of Stars, featuring Bolan's earlier incarnation, Tyrannosaurus Rex. When I asked him about it, he told me it was .99 cents in the remainder bin so he picked it up, but he didn't listen to it much. I dug the Hendrixian guitar and the way it contrasted with the airy-fairy lyrics and wacky vocals. 

My brother also had Electric Warrior, the album with the two American hits, and it turned out to be terrific. The final song Rip Off was a staggeringly concise indictment of the curdled end of the 60's: "Rockin' in the nude, feelin' such a dude, it's a rip off!" Clearly the guy had unexplored depths, but I didn't go much further at the time. I found a single with the two big songs and was satisfied with that for a while. In any case, much of his work was out of print.

The CD era changed everything and I took note when  the BMG club offered T.Rex's Greatest Hits A's & B's in their catalog. "They had more hits?" I thought as I copied the number on the little card and mailed it off. Indeed - I soon learned about Trextasy and the massive success he and the band had in Britain in the early 70's, during which time he was anointed by none other than Ringo Starr, who directed a film about him.

The singles disc was a revelation. He had a formula, some of the time, but what a great sound. (I had a friend who once said, "Bo Diddley only wrote one song, but it was a good song.") Bold, yet charmingly tossed off riffs, glistening melodic guitar solos, a sizzling rhythm section, gorgeous strings, and those vocals - alternately fey, masculine, sexy and childlike, and sometimes all those things at once. I was lucky to get into Bolan and T.Rex just when a series of beautiful deluxe reissues were coming out - more revelations. Even when the hits slowed down, he was still making fascinating music and, while there were certainly misfires, more often than not the music was great. The home demos proved that his songs were solid as hell and that no one rocked harder with just an out of tune acoustic guitar for accompaniment.

When my son was being treated for cancer, I was grateful to have a ton of Bolan on my iPod. He lifted my spirits, and my connection to him grew deeper. I gained access to his own sadness, and felt I understood how it motivated him to meet it head on, with shouted backing vocals, manic bongos, and a beat to drive your lizard leather boot heel right through the floorboards. Bolan got me through a lot of tough times, something I discussed on WNYC's Soundcheck in 2005.

About those boots - his outrageous attire and the whole glam rock element is certainly part of his appeal, but tended to pigeonhole him. So I take it with a grain of salt - fun, but far from the whole story. When glam faded he did a little time in the wilderness. Two years before Bowie's Young Americans, the world wasn't ready for his soulful new direction, nor his relationship with the extravagant singer Gloria Jones (the original singer of Tainted Love in 1965), who inspired it.

But in 1977, the year of his death, he was resurgent. He delivered two great singles, Dandy In The Underworld and Celebrate Summer, and a decent album. Lionized by the early punk bands, he proved to be a great spotter of new talent, writing excellent record reviews and including up-and-coming bands on his TV show, simply called MARC. That show was also the site of one of the most frustrating and tantalizing performances of the 70's, when he and his old friend and rival David Bowie collaborated on a song. It started off so well, a sleek boogie that really is exactly halfway between their styles. About a minute into the song, Bolan slipped off the stage, ruining the take. Because Bowie had taken so long perfecting his performance of "Heroes" earlier in the show, the union workers on the crew wouldn't tolerate spending any more time on it. Like Bolan's career, the song was left unfinished when he died in a car accident nine days later. He was two weeks from his 30th birthday.

Fortunately, his reputation has stabilized after those years of out-of-print ignominy. Each year brings more movies and TV shows that use Bolan's music and he is recognized for being one of the most influential artists in rock history. While he remains out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he'll always be in my personal pantheon of the greats. [Update: The classic line up of T. Rex, including Marc Bolan, Mickey Finn, Steve Currie, and Bill Legend, was inducted into the RRHOF in 2020.]

Tony Visconti, who produced much of Bolan's work (and a good bit of Bowie's) called him the most charismatic performer he ever worked with:

A great song that should have been a single:

Bowie & Bolan on MARC:

A bit of mythologized autobiography:

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