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Mark Paytress's detailed and very well researched biography will tell you all you could ever wish to know about Marc Bolan, glam rock icon. The book charts Bolan's story from his working class Hackney roots, taking us through his early, frustrated attempts to establish a music career to the glory days of T-Rex, the drug & drink fuelled decline that followed and his death at the age of 29, which brought an end to his planned comeback. On the face of it, this sounds like a typical rock star's story. There is nothing new in the tale of humble beginnings, spectacular fame and equally spectacular falls from grace. Nor are premature deaths particularly unusual. What makes Bolan's story stand out, however, is his unique star quality. Only very rarely does an artist come along who breaks the mould. What this book conveys so very well is the conflicting aspects of that stardom. Bolan comes across as an intriguing mass of contradictions and extremes, on the one hand the flamboyant showman, on the other a vulnerable 'innocent abroad.' He was spiritual and introspective yet decadent and bullish, an attention seeker with a lonely, private side. Mark Paytress draws on a huge collection of memoirs from friends, family and colleagues of Bolan to paint a very rounded picture of Bolan the performer and Bolan the man. This is not a gushing, sentimental biography but very much a 'warts and all' portrait.
Born Mark Feld in 1947, Bolan, it seems, was always destined for stardom. In his own words, "I was always a star even if it was only being the star of three streets in Hackney." I was particularly interested in the details of his early childhood. His father describes him as, "sort of different. He had a head full of ideas." The young Bolan was always searching for new ways to express his individuality and was obsessed with his appearance. From an early age Bolan demonstrated a need to escape into fantasy worlds, a trait which remained throughout his life and guided his creativity. He became fascinated by art, poetry and ancient history in a quest to nourish his soul. The author makes clear that Bolan spun a lot of yarns and that much of what he said has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Whether he really did practice the dark arts with a wizard in Paris when he was 17 is one such story, but his obsession with mythology stood him in good stead as a lyricist. I smiled at a reference to Bolan's interview at the labour exchange in 1963. When asked to state his chosen profession, Bolan replied, "poet."
At 352 pages this is a lengthy book. From my point of view, it was perhaps a little too in-depth at times. My main interest was in the glam rock era, the era of my early childhood. However, before I could get to the T-Rex heyday, I had to plough through something like 160 pages dealing with Bolan's earlier life. This included his years as a mod in the 1960s, which I felt evoked the flavour of the period beautifully. I was amused to read that Bolan, despite considering himself a pretty cool mod with all the right outfits, was afraid of scooters. His brother states that Marc was "scared of most mechanical things as he wasn't able to control them." (That also included cars and was why he never learned to drive, somewhat ironic when you consider how he was to meet his end.)
Bolan's early musical career is covered fully, from the skiffle band he set up at school with Helen Shapiro on vocals to his brief period in the 60s rock band, John's Children, followed by the formation of Tyrannosaurus Rex, later abbreviated to T-Rex. As my knowledge of Bolan is limited really to his glam rock years, I did find it quite interesting to learn about what he'd done before, but would have preferred a little less detail. The original Tyrannosaurus Rex was a folk rock group with a following on the underground scene. Gradually Bolan experimented with electric guitars, moving away from the acoustic sound and became more pop-focussed. Whereas Tyrannosaurus Rex had appealed to older rockers and hippies, the new T-Rex targeted a teenage audience.
One thing I never realised is just how much hostility there was towards T-Rex and how big the divide was between rock and pop values in the early 70s. Many felt that Bolan was selling out. In the words of the author, "Bolan possessed the potential to break out of that long haired, long playing market to take on the 3-minute charlatans and reinvent himself as the pop idol he always knew he was." To traditionalists rock was supposed to be a communal thing where each member of the band was valued equally, but Marc Bolan didn't want to just be part of a band. Nor did he want to be an underground cult figure. He wanted to be a star. Bolan was keen to silence his critics by saying - "You can sell all the albums you like, but until you get a hit single, you don't feel successful" but the book reveals that he was incredibly sensitive to criticism and his confidence easily destroyed.
One of the downsides of the book for me is that it does stray into musical jargon now and again. In one such section the author describes the first time Marc played Ride a White Swan in a recording session. "Marc formed an open E shape chord above the capo he'd strapped over the fourth fret and kicked out a clipped rock 'n' roll chord just like James Burton on those old Ricky Nelson B-sides." Not being a guitarist, this didn't make any sense at all to me, but what does come across is how significant that recording session was in 1970 and the excitement that greeted that groovy song, which reached number 2 in the charts and brought T-Rex to the attention of the music world.
I love the way the author describes the glam rock era, including a magical moment in 1971 when publicist, Chelita Secunda, decided it would be a good idea to daub some glitter under Marc's eyes before a performance on Top of the Pops. Soon he was also painting his eyelids silver and wearing satin trousers and feather boas and perfecting his characteristic androgynous look. The author refers to scenes reminiscent of Beatlemania and how the term 'T-Rextasy' was coined. He describes how the band needed a police escort to get in and out of towns on their Electric Warrior UK tour, with some amusing references to screaming girls armed with scissors, desperate for a lock of Bolan's hair and Jackie magazine receiving 800 letters per week from Bolan fans.
What comes across so clearly is how the experience of music changed with glam rock. In the last decade music had been something primarily to be listened to, but now it was about the visual elements too. It was about spectacle and the audience wanted to be part of the show, dressing like the star. Other bands and performers from the glam rock scene are also referred to and the rivalry that existed between them. In one anecdote Slade's drummer, Don Powell, describes how Bolan tried to make a pact with Slade to coordinate their singles with his so that they weren't released at the same time and therefore each had more chance of getting a number 1. The reaction of Slade's manager is unprintable! Bolan's insecurities were most acute in the way he reacted to David Bowie, whose creativity Bolan clearly saw as a big threat. Although the two were good friends when Ziggy Stardust was nominated as pop album of the year by Melody Maker, Bolan dismissed Bowie as a one hit wonder. 20th Century Boy, released in 1973, was something of a fight back and in the author's words, "a powerful restatement of Bolan's pop ingenuity."
As with so many rock stars, fame came with a hefty price. Bolan found himself increasingly reliant on cocaine and alcohol. In spite of a string of number 1 hits, Bolan remained full of self-doubt - "I'm a million pound industry but I'm only a kid really." His cocaine use made him aggressive and egotistical, causing rifts in the band and in his marriage to June Child, a woman who had been something of a stabilising factor in his life, "the rock that instinctively knew how to steady the superstar's cradle." He got fat and bloated, began to lose his looks and was painfully aware of his limited shelf-life in the teen-focussed pop market. It also seems that Bolan was driven by a need to keep expanding his creativity, to try out new, unusual musical ideas, but, as Gloria Jones explains, this put him in a dilemma - "Do you make music to please the fans or do you make music to please your soul? Marc was a soul man."
After a few years in the pop wilderness, by 1977 Bolan seemed to be on his way back with the release of the album, Dandy in the Underworld, and his involvement in a six-part TV series, Marc. He had slimmed down and was looking good again. However, on 16th September 1977 the car driven by his partner, Gloria Jones, struck a tree and Marc died instantly. I remember hearing of his death as clearly as I remember hearing of Elvis's death. It was as if a part of my childhood had died with him, a childhood when I had enjoyed watching Top of the Pops with my teenage cousin and watched her get ready to go out with glitter and gold stars stuck on her face. Reading about it at the end of this very long book moved me all over again. It made me sad to think of all that unique creative energy and passion being stilled forever.
For anyone interested in the glam rock era and for Marc Bolan fans, I recommend this book as a great source of information. I do think you would need to be pretty devoted to get through a book of this size! It is a balanced, perceptive and evocative account and there is an impressive selection of photographs. The comprehensive discography and the 'Whatever happened to?' section at the end, which tells us what became of some of the key people in Bolan's life, are in keeping with the thorough research of the book as a whole. The book is available from Amazon priced at £6.97 for a new copy, For those, like me, who believe Marc Bolan was put on this earth to be a rock star and taken away too soon so that he could become a legend, this book will strike a poignant chord. It certainly made me feel privileged to have grown up during such a colourful, fun and vibrant decade.
I was going to end by saying 'rest in peace', but it seems more appropriate to quote from Ride a White Swan:
Catch a bright star and place it on your forehead
Say a few spells and baby there you go