Wednesday, 16 September 2015

WE LOVE TO BOOGIE, 38 YEARS ON

Long before I embarked on the path that would take me on the road with rock stars, I discovered Marc Bolan. It happened in the back room of a boozer on Beckenham High Street one Sunday afternoon, where I'd been taken to a sitar workshop by Hy Money, my school friend Lisa Money's Indian photographer mother. We were only kids, and he left little impression, despite the fact that magic-carpet-y Tyrannosaurus Rex had been making albums for years. It was not until 'Ride a White Swan' that we got it. Marc's debut single as the electrified T. Rex transformed him, early in 1971, into a schoolgirl fantasy. Big scary rock stars were a bit much for squeaky little virgins to digest. It was of sweet, diminutive Marc that we dreamed, the universe reclining in our hair.

When I was invited to write a biography to mark his thirty fifth anniversary and what would have been his sixty fifth birthday, I could hardly say no. Three and a half decades on, there remained so many unanswered questions. Where facts are meagre, mythology rules. I started asking around, and was surprised. There were plenty of people left who'd 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 a bit, put it, 'nobody had ever asked.'

T.Rex hits are oversewn into popular culture, thanks to constant exposure through film soundtracks, TV commercials and radio playlists. Despite the fact that these songs are as familiar to our children as they are to us, 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 boy born Mark Feld in London's deprived post-war East End, who had transformed himself into Bolan. There was someone unknown still in there. The tiny tot in the nest of Russian dolls. I went to find him.

It's a common theme, the lowly-born loser with an eye on the big-time. Sport and entertainment are classic escape routes from the ghetto. Marc probably never kicked a football in his life, but 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. That was Marc.

America never really got 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. During the Seventies, cowboy country liked its rockers rude. 'Rouge'n'roll' and glam androgyny offended. Times have changed. Take Queen: they had no career to speak of in the US at the time of Freddie Mercury's death in 1991. Look at them now. We're still talking, three years on, about Freddie's impact during the closing ceremony of London 2012. When the crowd joined in with his classic 'Eyyyy-Ohhhs!', it was as if Freddie himself was 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 most 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, published as 'Mercury' in the US, is still selling around the world. I'll be delivering a lecture about his continuing influence at Chicago Ideas Week on 14th October. Would that I were able to do the same for Marc. Queen's career has lasted much longer, granted. Their catalogue is greater. Bolan left but 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 quintessentially English piece, 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'. I've got a feeling that Marc and America are not done yet.

Remembering him always. Can it really be thirty eight years?

'Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan', published by Hodder & Stoughton


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