Singer/Guitarist/Songwriter/Glam Rock Pioneer
September 30, 1947-September 16, 1977
Marc Bolan (birth name Mark Feld) was born on September 30, 1947. He grew up at 25 Stoke Newington Common, Stoke Newington, Hackney, London, UK—and there’s a plaque on the house to prove it.
From an early age, Bolan believed he was destined for greatness, so he set about creating a persona with which he could make that greatness happen. He was barely out of short pants when he taught himself guitar and put together a schoolyard band, Susie and the Hula Hoops, in which he played backup for classmate Helen Shapiro. Even before he was a teenager, he was decking himself out in expensive three-piece suits and other lavish outfits, producing an attention-getting look—and attention he got.
His first break came in 1962 when he was selected to model for a youth-themed edition of Town magazine. That led to some modeling jobs, including a stint as a “John Temple Boy,” where he posed for brochure ads for the menswear retailer. His image was also used on life-sized cardboard cutouts that were incorporated into some of the store’s window displays. Yes, he was that pretty.
For a while, Bolan continued modeling and even snagged a bit part or two on television programs. At that point in his life he had plenty of time to work on his career—by the time he was 16, his school’s administrators had decided that if he wasn’t interested in getting himself an education, they were no longer interested in trying to give him one, so he and they parted company.
Not long after that, Bolan decided that the modeling life was not where it was at, so he switched to actively pursuing a music career. Over the next several years he went through several managers, made several (unreleased at the time) recordings, and changed his name several times (Toby Tyler to Marc Bowland to Marc Bolan). In mid-1965, the manager/recording/name combo finally stuck, and he made a single that actually got on the air: “The Wizard,” released in November 1965. Although it was a perfect fit with the newly emerging psychedelic music era—and Bolan was doing his best Bob Dylan impersonation—the song went nowhere on the charts. If it had been released just a few months later, it might have taken off.
[If you are wondering where the name Bolan came from, there are two theories floating around. One report claims it was an homage to a friend with a similar last name. Another report says it was the shortening of “Bob Dylan.” I tend to lean toward believing the Dylan story, if only because Dylan was known to have been one of Bolan’s inspirations, and the “friend” is never mentioned anywhere else in relation to Bolan’s life or career. I’m not even sure he really exists (they other guy, not Dylan). However, I have no real evidence as to which one is true. Maybe it’s a little of both.]
In June of 1966, Bolan released another single, this one even more Dylanesque. Again, he failed to grab the public’s attention. Annoyed by all the false starts on his journey to celebrity, Bolan made a bold career move. He marched up to famed music manager Simon Napier-Bell’s door, guitar in hand, and introduced himself as the best thing to come along since sliced bread, and that Bell was the man he had chosen to propel him to stardom. Napier-Bell let him in (what?!) and had Bolan play and sing for him. After listening to him, etc., Napier-Bell agreed to record some of Bolan’s stuff. That happened, but only one song was actually released: “Hippy Gumbo,” an interesting little ditty about murder. Bolan was still in his Dylan-channeling stage, and the song sounds about as good as it…sounds.
At the time, Napier-Bell was managing two bands, The Yardbirds, who most people have heard of, and John’s Children, who most people haven’t. There is a good reason why John’s Children never made it big: by Napier-Bell’s own admission, their music was dreadful. He claimed he named the band after their bassist, John Hewlett, because Hewlett was the worst musician in the group. Napier-Bell figured that if the band was named after the guy, the others wouldn’t be able to fire him.
Napier-Bell was going to add Bolan to the Yardbirds lineup (I have to wonder how that would have changed the course of musical history), but instead put him in John’s Children because they were lacking a member who could write decent songs. Much to Napier-Bell’s surprise, a few of the band’s singles made it onto the UK and US top-100 lists.
John’s Children was selected to be the opening act for an April 1967 tour of Germany by The Who. Napier-Bell had previously encouraged John’s Children to act outrageously on stage to attract attention (because obviously he thought their music wasn’t going to) and they complied by smashing instruments, fake-fighting on stage, using whips on any handy inanimate object, and crowd-surfing. They once caused a riot. Mid-tour, they were unceremoniously fired by The Who for their bad behavior. Yes, they had out-Who’d The Who.
Bolan’s tenure with John’s Children lasted only about four months. Apparently, the manager he had hand-picked for himself did not see the same vision for his future that he did.
Temporarily stepping away from music, he tried his hand at writing fantasy novels. (Some people say he completed a few, but to date, none of them have shown up on any bookstore shelves.) That phase didn’t last long and he was soon giving the music scene another try. By then he had honed his image as a laid-back “peace and love” variety of folk guitarist/singer. In 1967, he teamed up with a multi-instrumentalist/singer named Steve Peregrin Took (Stephen Ross Porter until he liberated the name Peregrin Took from The Lord of the Rings when he was about 17), and together they took to the stages of England (most often sitting on the floor), performing Bolan-penned folk songs. Took provided a bongo beat (and a few other percussive sounds as well) and background vocals. Bolan provided everything else—songs with pleasing melodies (and lyrics that were designed more to evoke extravagant imagery than to make sense), simple yet effective guitar playing, and thin but on-key lead vocals that were punctuated with noises that can only be described as trills, sighs, grunts, and moans. Somehow, it all worked. The newly named duo of Tyrannosaurus Rex amassed a large enough audience to be deemed a cult favorite.
In the early part of 1968, Bolan met a woman named June Child, who worked as a secretary/gofer/chauffeur for Pink Floyd’s management group (for the uninitiated, Pink Floyd is a band, not a florid individual). Apparently, one of Bolan’s music idols was Floyd’s singer/songwriter/guitarist Syd Barrett, and Bolan liked to hang out in the management offices, immersing himself in the Pink Floyd experience while sitting on the floor cross-legged and playing his guitar (as one does). Anyway, Bolan and Child hit it off, and soon they were living together. Child was four years older than Bolan, and had considerably more experience with the business side of the music industry than he did. Her guidance and input was invaluable to his career—almost everybody says so. Child also provided chauffeur services for Bolan, who did not drive. He refused to learn because he was terrified he would crash the vehicle and be killed. Guess he misinterpreted that particular premonition.
One fateful day, record producer Tony Visconti was scouting for new talent and heard Tyrannosaurus Rex in a club’s basement, playing in front of a mesmerized crowd of 200. He invited them to record a few songs at his home studio, and they took him up on the offer.
Not too long after that, Tyrannosaurus Rex taped some tracks, and 1968 saw the release of their first album: My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. It rhymes a little better if you say it with an English accent.
In October of 1968 their second album dropped (as the kids say), titled Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of the Ages. 1969 saw their third LP, Unicorn, released. Tyrannosaurus Rex was picking up steam, and a few of their albums and singles charted.
That should have made both members of the band happy, but it didn’t. Took was thoroughly embracing the hippie lifestyle, complete with transiency and drug use, and wasn’t interested in scrambling to get to the top of the heap. Bolan, still with his eyes on the prize, wanted his working partner to straighten up. They had a strained relationship because of this, but the last straw for Bolan was when Took suggested they incorporate some of his (Took’s) music into the their records and performances in lieu of some of Bolan’s. Bolan fired Took, but the two couldn’t part company until after they completed a US concert tour to which they were both contractually bound. It went about as well as a newly divorced couple being forced to share a stateroom on the Titanic.
Almost the second that Bolan’s feet touched British soil again, he started searching for a suitable replacement for Took. Was Bolan’s idea of the perfect band mate someone who was a skilled instrumentalist, talented singer, and of the same mindset as he was concerning the band’s future? Nope. He was looking for someone who was good looking, had at least seen a set of bongos before, and would obediently go along with all of Bolan’s decisions. He found the perfect foil in Mickey Finn (that was his real name, believe it or not). Bolan’s girlfriend said that Finn was so similar to Took, most of the fans wouldn’t even realize that the percussionist was a different person, She might have been right.
On January 30, 1970, Bolan married Child, and by all accounts it was one of the wisest things he ever did. (In later interviews, Child claimed they were very, very, very happy during those days. Very happy.)
In March of that year, Bolan and Finn put forth a fourth Tyrannosaurus Rex album, A Beard of Stars. Bolan had decided to eschew his acoustic guitar in favor of an electric one for this album, and he incorporated some Hendrix-like solos (I said Hendrix-like, not as good as Hendrix—please don’t bombard me with angry emails.) Beard didn’t do as well as Unicorn or Mypeoplewerefairandhadskyintheirhairbutnowthey’recontenttowearstarsontheirbrows, but fortunately Bolan didn’t give up. Instead, he changed the name of the band to T. Rex (very smart move—many people don’t know how to spell tyrannosaurus, and there was no Spell-check in those days), and wrote a tune called “Ride a White Swan” (an even smarter move). “Swan” was released as a single in October of 1970, and while it didn’t immediately soar to the top of the charts, it slowly glided into the top five in January 1971. “Swan” was followed up by “Hot Love,” which did make it to the number one spot. “Hot Love” was T. Rex’s first single to feature the band as a quartet, which included a newly hired bassist, Steve Currie, and drummer, Bill Legend. (Fun note: Legend was not a full-time band member when he was first brought in to the group, so when T. Rex performed “Hot Love” on British “top 40”-type program Top of the Pops (which virtually always required their guests to mime to their recordings), mediocre bongoist Finn was called upon to substitute for Legend and deliver a drum “fakeout” in order to account for the drumming the audience heard. (I am not sure why they felt the need to do this, because there are plenty of TOTP videos that have mystery horns and strings in them.)
Right around the “Hot Love” time, Bolan whimsically dabbed some glitter on his face right below his eyes just before he got on stage for a concert. Badda bing, badda boom: glam rock was born. Expanding on the look, Bolan soon started donning flashier outfits—shiny silk jackets with color-coordinated velvet trousers, feather boas, and occasionally t-shirts with his own likeness on them (they were for sale all over London and beyond). Topping all that off was a mop of self-described “corkscrew hair.” (It looked natural, but only his hairdresser knew for sure.) His on-stage antics included a lot of prancing, hip-thrusting, and mugging. His audiences loved it.
T. Rex was soon playing to sold-out crowds and selling huge amounts of records. Reports estimate that for a period of time, their records were selling at 60,00-100,00 a day. This Fab Four seemed to fill the void left by the Beatles’ breakup just few months before. T. Rex picked up where the Beatles left off—cute, nonthreatening boys singing sweet little love songs, with just a whiff of naughtiness in some of the lyrics. The average Bolan fans were 15-year-old females (according to Bolan), and he knew what his audience wanted.
More hits followed. In July of 1971, “Get It On” [called “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” in the US to avoid confusion with another contemporary song with the same name] not only made it to #1 on the UK charts, it also reached a respectable #10 in the US. Then came “Jeepster,” which only made it to #2. In 1972, they released four singles—two #1’s and two #2’s. (Nope, not even gonna go there.) At the end of 1972, Born to Boogie, a quirky Ringo Starr-made documentary about T. Rex (heavily featuring Bolan) hit the theaters. Fans adored it, quirks and all.
Things began to slide a bit for the band in 1973. Their first single of the year reached the #3 spot on the charts. The second reached #4. The third only made it to #12. Ouch. You didn’t have to be Miss Cleo to have seen where things were headed. In true “chicken or egg” fashion, it was hard to tell whether the decline in popularity caused Bolan’s increased drug and alcohol use or whether it was the other way around, but between 1973 and 1975, T. Rex began to self-destruct. The band saw the loss of its drummer (quit), its producer (fired), and its bongo boy (who knows?).
Around this time, Bolan’s personal life started to bottom out, as well. Because he was involved in a heated affair with an American singer, Gloria Jones, his wife left him (although they never divorced). It was not Bolan’s first (or second) extramarital fling, but it was certainly his most intense. Jones ended up traveling and singing with him in a disastrous tour of the US. (You can find some videos online of a few performances he did on that tour, but I give you fair warning: they ain’t pretty.)
Then, just when it seemed he was on a downward spiral too strong to pull himself out from—he did. It did not happen overnight, but slowly he worked his way back into fighting form. It might have happened on its own, but the likely motivation for his transformation was the September 1975 birth of his son, Rolan. Yes, Rolan Bolan. The name could have been worse—ask Zowie Bowie.
Bolan seemed to revel in fatherhood. He worked hard to get back into shape, quit his drinking and druggery, and put renewed zeal into his career. Apparently humbled, he seemed willing to do almost anything asked of him career-wise, including riding on a huge man-made white swan, riding on a huge moon cutout, and emerging singing from a shaky looking rocket replica. (Around this time there was also a regrettable fashion phase nicknamed “Bolantino,” but that could have been his own idea.) In 1977, he was rewarded for his hard work in the form of his own 6-episode summer television series, aptly named Marc. It was a showcase for some up-and-coming (and some up-and-not-going-anywhere) musical acts, as well as the latest incarnation of T. Rex (Bolan Dino Dines, Herbie Flowers, and Tony Newman). Most of the show’s episodes can be found online, and they are shining examples of how low the production values of the late ‘70’s could go.
The sixth and last episode of Marc (an episode notable for two things: it featured Bolan friend Bowie and a last-minute tumble off the stage by Bolan) was taped on September 7, 1977. Apparently, those-in-charge were pleased with the ratings, because Bolan received an offer of a second season, to be filmed in the summer of 1978.
On September 15, Bolan and Jones had a mommy-and-daddy’s night out at a party thrown by Rod Stewart and held in a London restaurant/“drinking establishment.” In the early hours of the 16th (exactly a fortnight before what woulda/coulda/shoulda been his 30th birthday), they headed home in their mini Mini (Bolan’s Rolls-Royce had been lent out to a friend’s band for the evening). Less than a mile away from their mansion, driver Jones lost control of the vehicle and, according to an eye witness, slammed it into a steel-reinforced fence post (not a tree, as had long been believed by most). Jones broke several bones; Bolan received a head injury and was killed instantly. According to Jones, blame is to be apportioned thusly: 30% to the road, 30% to the car, 40% to fate, and 0% to the driver.
Four days later, Bolan’s cremains were interred at the Golders Green Crematorium in London. In attendance at the service were a slew of mourners, including David Bowie, Rod Stewart, and Les Paul. Someone sent a floral arrangement in the shape of a white swan. Touching? Tacky? You decide.
Also in the “touching or tacky?” department: the area on the side of the road where the car crashed instantly became a must-see attraction for Bolan-philes and is now a full-blown shrine, complete with photos, plaques, and a bronze bust. The tree that everyone had initially thought was the car-stopper is lovingly cared for by an action group set up for just that purpose. I wonder what Bolan would have thought of his fans worshipping the object they believed was a major contributing factor to his demise?
By Taylor Mac
posted on September 16, 2017