Friday, 28 September 2012

EAGLE IN A SUNBEAM


Long before I embarked on the career path which would fling me on the road with rock stars for two decades, I discovered Marc Bolan. I encountered him in Kent, in a pub in Beckenham High Street one Sunday afternoon, where I had been taken to a sitar workshop by a classmate's Indian mother.
I was only a child, and he left little impression, despite the fact that folksy, magic-carpet-y Tyrannosaurus Rex had been making albums for years. It was not until 'Ride a White Swan' that I cottoned on. Marc's debut single as the electrified T. Rex transformed him, early in 1971, into the idol of millions of young schoolgirls. 'Our' music was suddenly loaded with sex. As if driven by a national surge of oestrogen and progesterone, he was the perfect teenaged virgin's fantasy. While big, scary rock stars were a bit much for us at that point – raw, dirty-denimed, for one night only - it was to sweet, diminutive, tiny-toed Marc that we dreamed of losing it. Bring on the roaring log fire and the sheepskin rug, the Champagne spilling, the universe reclining in our hair. Sweet memories.


When I was invited, all these moons later, to write a book about him to mark his thirty fifth  anniversary and what would have been his sixty fifth birthday – on 16th and 30th September respectively – it seemed a no-brainer. Three and a half decades on, there remained many unanswered questions. Where facts are meagre, mythology rules. I started asking around, and was surprised. There were plenty of people left who had been close to Marc. Why had they not told all? As Marc's oldest, closest friend Jeff Dexter, 'The Man Who Taught Britain to Twist' and who styled The Beatles, puts it, 'nobody had ever asked.'


Despite the fact that so many T.Rex hits are oversewn into popular culture, and, thanks to constant exposure through film soundtracks, television commercials and radio playlists, are as familiar to our children as they were to us, relatively little was known about what made Marc tick. The many books about him, some of them excellent studies of and homages to the classic 20th Century Boy and his music, left me wondering about the little boy born Mark Feld in London's deprived post-war East End, who had metamorphosed into Bolan. There was someone still in there, the tiniest tot in the nest of Russian dolls. I'd better find him.


It's a common theme, and one we know too well: the lowly-born loser with an eye on the big-time. Sport and entertainment remain classic escape routes from the ghetto. While Marc probably never kicked a football in his life, he had been obsessed with rock'n'roll since he was small. He got his first guitar for his ninth birthday in 1956. He emulated a string of idols – Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan – before he found his true voice. Even that was an invention, a phlegmy gurgle crossed with a kid-goat's bleat, punctuated with the splutterings, groans and hiccups of carnal ecstasy. That he managed to deliver this with butter-mouth innocence was his USP. Having realised he was onto a winner, he worked it to the hilt.


America never really got Marc Bolan. T. Rex scored only one Top Ten hit in the States. Theories abound as to why, but I believe it was no more complicated than Marc having been ahead of his time. We're talking the Seventies, when cowboy country liked its rockers ruder, when 'rouge'n'roll' and glam androgyny offended. Times have changed. Take Queen: no career to speak of stateside at the time of Freddie Mercury's awful death in 1991. Look at them now. We're still talking about his impact during the closing ceremony of London 2012. When the crowd joined in with his classic 'Eyyyy-Ohhhs!', it was as if Freddie were there, larger than life – which of course he is. Whether thanks to the global success of their stage musical 'We Will Rock You', or to the popularity of some of their best crashing numbers as sports-event anthems– 'We Are The Champions', 'Another One Bites the Dust' - America gets Queen as never before. My definitive biography of Freddie, called 'Mercury' in the US, was published there recently. I have been humbled by the universally favourable reception. Queen's career was much longer and their catalogue greater, granted. Marc left a modest body of work, compared. Gone at twenty nine, he simply didn't live long enough. Then again, there's 'Billy Elliot'. The soundtrack of this very English, enduring and much-loved movie, which millions of American movie-goers embraced and remain enchanted by, featured 'Cosmic Dancer', 'Get it On (Bang A Gong)', 'I Love To Boogie', 'Children of the Revolution' and 'Ride a White Swan' – all Bolan's. I sense that America and Marc are not done yet.

Happy 65th Birthday this Sunday, Marc.
R.I.P.


'Ride a White Swan: The lives and death of Marc Bolan', published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now, available wherever books are sold.




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