Saturday, 27 October 2012

BOLAN, BOWIE & THAT BROOKLYN BOY


As his lightning-bolt image is set for pasting all over London ahead of a forty-year V&A retrospective next spring, David Bowie, the most iconic of all rock stars, could not be more conspicuous by his absence. Having handed over the keys to an obsessively-amassed cornucopia of sound and vision, comprising costumes, lyrics and instruments, videos, stills and artwork, the man who fell to earth follows proceedings remotely from the city he has long called home.
North of Little Italy and Chinatown, a saunter east of SoHo, David Bowie's Manhattan manor is an enclave of cupcake cafes, vintage emporia and hip boutiques. The reclusive musician who turned 65 last January and who has reassumed the name Jones, moves easily among the downtown dawdlers and bustlers. His base is a £5 million penthouse. His routine includes strolls to and from school with his 12 year-old daughter Lexi. He'll browse through volumes on art, photography and architecture in local bookstores en route to an Upper East Side lunch with a friend or colleague, often right-hand ma'am 'Coco' Schwab. Evenings are low-key: a quiet supper in Greenwich Village's Babbo or Indochine on Lafayette Street, say. He'll attend an occasional fundraiser but prefers the odd classical concert, just he and Mrs Jones - the Somalian supermodel Iman.

The couple's woodland retreat in the Catskills has replaced the Balinese temple to hedonism (I say this first-hand, having stayed there myself) that Bowie built on the Caribbean isle of Mustique. Although his private art collection boasts Tintoretto, Rubens and Damien Hirst, he confessed recently that his 'most treasured possessions' are a Sellotaped photograph of rock'n'roller Little Richard that he bought in 1958, and a pressed chrysanthemum that he picked on his Kyoto honeymoon. So nothing grand about 21st Century Bowie. His preferred attire - drab overcoat or hoodie, denims, shades, a working man's cap - is anonymous. There's no hint of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, nor any other rock incarnation in the bloke-ish hair, tidied teeth and soapy cheeks. He invites negligible rubber-necking as he trolls about undisturbed, eschewing limos for desert boots and yellow cabs.
There was a time when he would have given his mis-matched eyes to be recognised. When, as a suburban pop hopeful, he watched helplessly while his East End Mod mate Marc Bolan went stratospheric ahead of him, and seriously considered throwing in the towel.
Brixton-born, Bromley-based Bowie was still Davie Jones in 1964 when he met Bolan, who at the time was plain Mark Feld. The former was nearly 18 years old, the latter not quite 17. Each had been striving since boyhood to make it in the music business, experimenting with sounds and styles. The setting for their first encounter was the DJM offices of talent scout Leslie Conn, who saw nothing in Bolan but agreed to take a chance on his chum. The Bolan-Bowie attraction was instant. They forged a special relationship upon which plenty have poured scorn, but which was real enough to those who watched it unfold.

'There was always a certain rivalry,' admits Keith Altham, who over the years acted as publicist for both artists.

'But they were very close. They had what they had between them, they didn't have to prove it to anybody else. Which is why, I think, David doesn't ever speak about it. There was a real love there. They were very similar, in so many ways. They could have been brothers.'
They took to meeting regularly at La Gioconda, a cafe on Tin Pan Alley. Marc started recording for Decca Records and gained airplay on offshore pirate stations. He hustled – anyone, everyone - proclaiming irresistibly his intention to be 'bigger than the Beatles.'


Marc's first foray into electric pop was with John's Children, a band managed by flamboyant pop guru Simon Napier-Bell. A disastrous tour of Germany, supporting The Who, had the Children breaking for the border and Marc heading home to his acoustic. Tyrannosaurus Rex, the folk duo he founded with bongo-player Steve Peregrin Took, attracted a sizeable following with the support of DJ John Peel. Then along happened Brooklyn boy Tony Visconti, a musician and fledgling producer, who had left his native New York on a mission to find 'the new Beatles'. He wandered into London's Middle Earth club one night and was bewitched by Tyrannosaurus Rex. His partnership with Bolan would generate an incredible ten albums, and embraced Marc's metamorphosis from underground pixie to the undisputed king of glam.

But it was when Tony Visconti was introduced to David Bowie that the real sparks flew. The pair forged a deep rapport, sharing exotic interests – foreign art films, unusual foods,Tibetan Buddhism. There was an inevitability to their eventual creation of some of the most original and enduring rock music ever recorded. Marc Bolan fell second fiddle to Tony's adoration of Bowie. Both artists resented the triangle, and competed, if at times subconsciously, for the cool young American's time and talent.

Although Visconti would describe Bolan as 'the most focused artist I've ever worked with', it was Bowie with whom the producer fell irrevocably in love.

As Tyrannosaurus Rex gained popularity, Bowie couldn't give it away. When Marc and Steve Took played a string of UK dates including the Royal Festival Hall, Bowie opened for them. Marc met his future wife, agency secretary June Child, and the couple dropped in on Visconti once a week for baths and boogie nights.

'There were a few nights when David came over and we all jammed together,' recalls Tony.
'Marc and David on guitars, and me on bass.'

In January 1969, when Tyrannosaurus Rex debuted their new tour at Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank, they were supported by David Bowie. The frustrated musician had given up and become a mime artist. The career-change was happily short-lived. That July saw Apollo 11 deposit Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. The second release of Bowie's 'Space Oddity', about the launch of a fictional astronaut, could not have been better-timed. With the BBC playing the single constantly during their coverage of the lunar landing, David was at last in line for a hit. He and future wife Angela Barnett set up an unthreatening hippie commune in a Gothic mansion in Beckenham, Kent – and invited Tony Visconti and his girlfriend to move in.

Bolan and Bowie recorded together on David's 'The Prettiest Star', produced by Visconti. Marc's tangible envy of David's personal relationship with Tony boiled over in rage and rudeness on the part of June Bolan, who told David he 'wasn't good enough' to play with her husband. The single was lovely, but it flopped. After the success of 'Space Oddity', this was a blow. David would have to wait almost three more years for his next UK hit - 'Starman' - while waving off his bopping-elf friend and rival on the multi-coloured scream ride of fame.

During their brief reign, T. Rex forged and owned the quintessential sound of the Seventies. They came as close as anybody to becoming 'the next Beatles'. Things warmed up when Bolan and Bowie began trading blows in the all-important 'hit parade'. In 1972, David Bowie was on the up with 'Starman' (Number 10), 'John I'm Only Dancing' (12) and 'The Jean Genie' (2). Bolan went higher with two Number Ones – 'Telegram Sam' and 'Metal Guru', and a pair of Number 2s, 'Children of the Revolution' and 'Solid Gold Easy Action.' But by the following year they were neck and neck: Bowie's 'Life On Mars' and 'Sorrow' and Bolan's '20th Century Boy' all made it to Number 3. It was as if they had declared war. When Bowie took off internationally, reinventing himself at every turn and breaking into the American market at a level that Marc could only dream of, it was Visconti who was producing the hits. As the Seventies progressed, Bowie evolved as a complex and multi-faceted artist, exploring heavy themes via concept albums and other disciplines. His hit singles seemed merely an aside. Bolan, meanwhile, was delivering a simpler blend of glitter-bugged Fifties rock'n'roll. Bowie went schitzophrenic and deep on his discerning and more sophisticated rock fans. Bolan, oblivious, carried on serving up teenybop dance tunes for hoards of screaming girls. The Punk interlude barely crossed Bowie's radar. Marc, however, was threatened by and felt he had to get in on it, in order to move with the times.

All comes full circle. Marc flared, followed David into drugs and booze, then faded. He had cleaned up his act and was making a credible comeback when he landed his own show for Granada Television. It was his old pal Bowie, now a drug-addled and emaciated superstar living reclusively in Switzerland, whom he invited to close the series. He did so with 'Heroes.' It was the last time Bowie saw his friend alive.
When Marc was killed, aged 29, on September 16th 1977, it was the twelfth anniversary of the day David Robert Jones changed his name officially to David Bowie.
                                                                    *

'David Bowie is not my godfather', says Rolan Bolan, Marc's only child – who was just a toddler when his mother, American singer Gloria Jones, crashed the Mini 1275 GT in which Marc died.
'A lot of crazy stuff has been written and said down the years. Not true.
'Nor did David pay for me to go to school. I've never even met him.'


What David did, though he's never talked about it, was to invest in a fund for Rolan enabling the child and his mother to survive. Their home had been stripped of everything they owned. Marc's estate was frozen, and his fortune disappeared. When Gloria returned to her family in Los Angeles with Rolan, she was penniless. Bowie coughed up of his own volition, without once having been asked.

Thirty five years since Marc's death, Rolan is still trying to make sense of his father's affairs.

'His company Wizard (Bahamas) no longer exists', he confirms.

'It was acquired by the Spirit Music Group in New York, but rights are still all over the place. I'm still looking for questions to be answered.

'My father was a very proud Englishman. A London Boy. His music was and remains so special. People all over are still discovering him for the first time, which is amazing after all these years.'

To the many who believe he is rolling in Bolan millions and living the high life in LA, Rolan says this:

'I make my own living. There are some royalties (to Rolan and to the PRS for Music Members' Benevolent Fund), but there are no 'Missing Millions'. It has all gone. The people who took the
money know what they did with it. What's left is a great story of music, of love, and of a piece of time when everything stood a little differently. We all need to remember where we came from.

'The most important thing is that my Mom raised me to know that he loved me very much. To the fans, he will always be Marc Bolan. To me, he's just Dad.'
                                                                          *

Acknowledged to this day as the most influential figure in rock, Bowie's rich catalogue of classics assure him a place in the pantheon well into his Golden Years. But he hasn't shaken off his old rival yet.

Marc's music is as familiar to today's young fans as it was to the legions who worshipped him during his lifetime. Much of it is disseminated via commercials and films. The soundtrack of the 2000 movie 'Billy Elliot' featured no fewer than five Bolan hits. Marc's records are played on mainstream radio as frequently as David's. Countless younger acts - Marc Almond, Boy George, Morrissey - not only cite Bolan as their childhood inspiration but pay homage to his sound in their own songwriting. The T.Rex tribute acts, of which Danielz and T. Rextasy are the best, are in popular demand all over the world. Several Bolan pressings remain among the most highly-prized in record-collecting history. Nor have the original teenaged fans who idolised Marc during his lifetime deserted him. At this year's 35th Anniversary Marc Bolan Tribute Concert at the 02 Shepherd's Bush Empire, and at the Official Marc Bolan Fan Club's London Bop at The Castle, London's best rock pub on the Finchley Road, hundreds of glitter-clad, feather-boa'd women in their 50s and 60s danced the night away in platform boots.

According to Marc's and David's loyal old friend Jeff Dexter, the latter's most common lament during their lengthy, regular telephone conversations is that he is 'not 29 anymore' - a sentiment shared fully by Dexter. Perhaps the thing that irks Bowie most is that Bolan still is.
 
Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan' by Lesley-Ann Jones is published by Hodder & Stoughton

Monday, 22 October 2012

THE SOUND OF SILENCE AND THE ALLIES OF EVIL


Three things allowed Jimmy Savile to become one of the most notorious sex offenders of all time: apathy, a blind eye and a mute tongue. Within a culture of indifference, a refusal to acknowledge what they saw or to speak up about what they knew, the DJ, TV presenter and charity fundraiser's friends, colleagues and even family members colluded with a monster. Vile Savile, we now know, used and abused the weak, the vulnerable, the ignorant and the under-age. Many people knew what he was doing. Not only fellow BBC employees, but good, clean record company folk, no strangers to sex and drugs and rocknroll, mind - the likes of an old chum of mine, a former EMI executive,who confesses to me today, 'A lot of us know too much.  We may not have known at the time it was all happening the full depth of his depravities, the alleged necrophilia and so on ... but we knew he was coercing girls and some boys under the age of consent into sexual activity. There was a mutual dislike between him and we industry personnel. He kept his distance from us.'

I bet he did.

Another music business pal responded to my email today to say, 'What investigations have uncovered thus far is but the tip of the iceberg.  I know everything, and I truly wish that I didn't. It disgusts me, and it makes me lose sleep. It has done for years. I always think, what if it had been my own kids? But I'm keeping my distance from any Savile association, sorry.'

Isn't this precisely why and how he was able to get away with it for so long?  And aren't such people, my friends though they are, as guilty as Savile himself?  What about Esther Rantzen, once the most powerful woman at the BBC;  also the wife of Desmond Wilcox, himself a mighty player within the same organisation.  Didn't she admit on camera to collusion recently, simply by knowing what Savile was doing, but doing nothing?  Was the founding of Childline Esther's atonement, then: an offering too late for the zipped lips she kept over all that past?

Simon & Garfunkel wrote 'the Sound of Silence' in February 1964, about the assassination of JFK.  Forty eight years on, can it really be, its lyrics are now haunting me. In the context of Savile, how apt they seem:

'Hello darkness my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain ... still remains ..'

The song pounded in my head as I listened to BBC journalists Liz McKean and Meirion Jones talking about why their Newsnight Savile investigation about Jimmy Savile being a paedophile was dropped. The excuse given - that a Surrey police inquiry had produced a lack of evidence - wasn't even known about at the start of the investigation.

'People who knew the truth, and told the truth, were ignored'. 

How many times has this kind of thing happened over the past fifty odd years at the BBC?  And why don't people speak up about things going on around them which they know to be wrong?  We all know the answer to that: they are afraid of muddying the waters, of ruining reputations, of tarring themselves with the same filthy brushes.  Afraid, ultimately, of losing their own jobs. 

As former Fleet Street journalist turned Paul McCartney's publicist for twenty four years, Geoff Baker, comments on Facebook today,
'If MPs, the police and the media want to discover the extent of celebrity molesting at the BBC (and at ITV), don't interview Director Generals.  They will know bugger-all.  Interview the BBC/ITV press officers, as they would have been the poor sods who had and have to keep What Goes On out of the papers.  Fact.'   

Geoff would know.

In the spirit of glasnost, I have a confession to make.  As a young, virginal graduate doing part-time shifts at a rival station to Radio 1, I was assaulted by and narrowly escaped rape by a BBC DJ every inch, no pun, as famous as Jimmy Savile. This happened in the London apartment of a celebrity agent who represented the DJ.  The packed, wild party was brimming with household names.  Many of those names have resurfaced in the papers since the Savile scandal broke. Every one of them has denied all knowledge. I was saved, literally, by the hair on this brute's head. A sickening story, and one I have not told, for fear of upsetting my children. I must confess, stripping open my heart here, that I thought at the time (I was barely out of my teens) that it might damage my 'reputation'.

'Their words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed ...  in the wells of silence ...'

The sound of my silence has deafened me for years.  What this man did, and tried to do to me, is something he is likely to have done to others.  Could I have prevented futher abuse on his part, by speaking up?  Or would I have been dismissed as a flibbertygibbet, his word against mine?  I am older, wiser and braver these days.  I have three children, two of them daughters, two still under the age of consent.  What I know with complete certainty is that if any such man attempted to harm my children in such a manner, I would be moved to kill. Well I could do it with my pen.

While we're on the subject of confessions:  years ago, when I was a twenty-something trying to break into newspapers, I was taken by a family friend who happened to be a famous cartoonist to see a distinguished Fleet Street newspaper editor. You'd know his name.  I was seeking a break. He agreed to let me write a few pieces, asked me to file some feature ideas, and said that he would be in touch.  In response to the gushing list I posted to him, he telephoned to invite me to dinner. I thought nothing of this ... nor of the fact that he called again on the day in question, to say 'I've been working from home and running late;  rather than meet in the restaurant at the Royal Garden, can you pick me up from my house and we'll go together?'  I was still living at home, and borrowed my dad's car to drive to the given address. The editor answered the door in a towelling robe, and invited me in, saying he'd only take a few moments to get dressed. He showed me into the drawing room, and went to fetch two glasses of Champagne.  Then he excused himself again, returning, somewhat agitated, with a tee towel in his hand, which he thrust in my direction.  It was suddenly all too clear what was expected of me.  Reader, I dropped my glass and fled.  I never did write for him.  Why the sound of silence all these years?  I bet that this scumbag tried it on with plenty of others:  could my speaking up not have prevented similar occurrences?  Two reasons.  One, I knew his wife, a journalist. I did go on to work in Fleet Street, and although I never saw him again, she and I crossed each other's radar for years. Two, he was one of the most powerful figures in the industry.  I was a nobody, on the bottom rung of any kind of  career.  I thought, quite simply, that I would not be believed... and worse, that I would never get a job on a national newspaper. 

'People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
No one dared disturb the sound of silence
Silence like a cancer grows ...'


Labour MP Ben Bradshaw spoke on SKY News this morning about the BBC being 'still robust', pointing out that self-regulation does not work, and that the Beeb should be regulated by OFCOM. He tempered this with his view that the Savile affair is 'not yet the biggest crisis the BBC has ever faced.'  It could, however, be the biggest crisis of conscience we have all ever faced.

Maintaining the sound of silence makes us the allies of evil.  Standing up to be counted - knowing the truth, telling the truth, creating a culture in which the abused, the challenged and the compromised can feel secure about it being 'all right to tell', that someone will listen, that they will not be ignored - is a collective and very serious responsibility. Fall at its fence and we are nothing but abusers ourselves.

Monday, 1 October 2012

A SUM OF PERVERTS


Good song, wasn't it, the 1980 Police hit single 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'.  With its hooky riff and off-the-tongue lyrics, throbbing with the guilt, shame, excitement and self-loathing of a teacher who fancies one of his pupils - a girl 'half his age' - the Grammy-winning song from their album Zenyatta Mondatta hung around forever, and was even re-recorded and re-released in 1986.  It's still played on the radio, thirty two years after its original release.  Remember the line 'Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov'?  Wasn't this Sting confessing to his own 'Lolita' moments from his days teaching English in a school? We did wonder, and some of us asked.  He always and vehemently denied any autobiographical inspiration. Well, he would, wouldn't he.

Poor, misguided Megan Stammers now finds herself cast in some quarters as a latter-day Lolita:  a 21st Century variation on the theme explored so uncomfortably by Vladimir Nabokov in his celebrated 1950s novel. Why was twelve year-old Dolores 'Dolly' Haze, aka Lolita, presumed to be a sexually precocious child for becoming intimately involved with her stepfather Humbert Humbert?  Why was this girl the temptress and Humbert, an ageing professor of French literature, the victim? The man, said to have been inspired in part by the extra-curriculars of Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin, was a child molester. How did this 'funny, charming' novel get away with making it the minor's fault? I read this as a teenager, as many of us did, and still find myself wondering. 

My children will tell you how obsessed I have been by the Megan Stammers/Jeremy Forrest case;  how I sat glued to the news reports, bereft at the sight of both sets of parents speaking in press conferences - an ordeal for even the most seasoned, let alone those who have never before had to face such a thing. How we all, including my fifteen year-old son, found ourselves weeping with relief when Megan turned up. The obvious reason is that I am a mother of two daughters.  One is grown-up enough to live independently and to take care of herself, which of course never stops me worrying myself sick. The other is still a schoolgirl, and just thirteen.  I drive her to school in the mornings because I live in fear of her being snatched off the streets, bundled into a car and murdered like Milly Dowler. On the days that I allow her to walk back with her friends, my heart is in my mouth until I know that she is safely indoors.  All manner of nightmares invade my mind while I am supposed to be working. At least, I think, I know she is safe at school. But is she? 

I cast back to my own final year at secondary school, when a seventeen year-old classmate became involved with a twenty eight year-old drama teacher down the road at the boys' school. Our two establishments were collaborating on a co-production of 'Romanoff and Juliet' - Peter Ustinov's modern take on the Shakespeare tragedy (guess the storyline). Most of the rehearsals took place after hours at the boys' school, where the play was eventually staged. Were the rest of the cast shocked when we saw our friend wander off down the pub with the teacher who was directing the production?  I think we were, actually.  Shocked and impressed. The relationship scandalised two sixth forms.  We knew what they were up to. She wasn't making it up. But no one did anything about it.  Our schools both turned a blind eye.

Married Jeremy Forrest came on like a lovesick mongrel to Megan - at fifteen, half his age  - writing her songs and love notes, getting a tattoo in homage and holding her hand on a plane. What was a pupil doing sitting next to a teacher on a twelve-hour return flight from Los Angeles in the first place?  Not in our day. Her school and the local authorities were aware, yet did nothing. They didn't even inform Megan's parents when they eventually saw fit to investigate Forrest. For this, heads if not Head must roll. Body parts should tumble, too, in the Rochdale sex gang case.  Young girls were deliberately targeted, made to asume the blame, the authorities knew and did nothing, and must now pay.  Well, sure: there's a book in it.

But would a book on the Savile scandal be a book too far?  I think so. Esther Rantzen and others now reckon that the former DJ was clearly a paedophile. Singer Coleen Nolan reports that the fright-haired yodeller was 'all over her' when she was only fourteen. How's about that, then? BBC bigwigs were aware of the rumours, yet did nothing:  perhaps wary of trashing the image of such a high-profile charity do-gooder whose magnanimous reputation reflected so well on the Corporation itself.  Jim fixed it for himself? You have to wonder. At least ten women have now come forward with claims of sexual molestation. At least one has found courage enough to admit that he raped her, and has told the Daily Mail the gut-wrenching tale of her illegal abortion. The mother-fixated, tracksuit-wearing Roller-driving, Gary Glitter-defending nutter got off Scot-free during his lifetime. His 'disgusted' family are now up in arms that such allegations are being made against a  deceased individual no longer in a position to defend himself.  If only the Mail had been more on the ball. Their coverage of the 'Savile scandal' is all too late.