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

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