Bolan was complicated! A Rolls Royce owner who couldn’t drive. A dyslexic who never read the books which inspired his early hippie lyrics. (Instead, his wife read the books to him.)
A man who wrote the most stoned-sounding ramblings, but disliked dope and acid. (Yet, later cocaine abuse would dilute his talent.) An arrogant egotist who was nevertheless loved by those who knew him.
David Bowie and Marc Bolan had much in common, including the year of their birth, 1947. In the Sixties, they were both mods and then, later, hippies making folk-based music before turning to more electric sounds. They both at times were produced by Tony Visconti, who met Marc only six weeks before he met David. Both Bowie and Bolan would change their names. Both became stars with a fondness for cocaine. In a weird coincidence, they married just two months apart, both to strong women who exerted an influence on their careers.
In earlier times, they even (very briefly) shared the same manager, Les Conn, while they were still unsuccessful. So unsuccessful that they had to ‘repay’ their manager by whitewashing his office at 23 Denmark Street. That’s how Bowie and Bolan met one day in June 1964.
Bowie was seventeen years old; Bolan would turn seventeen a few months later.
David and Marc became friends and then career rivals. Despite mutual jealousy and periodic lapses and even Marc’s sometime bitterness, there remained a genuinely warm friendship until Marc’s tragic accidental death in 1977.
“David always adored him.”
Photographer Ray Stevenson:
“they were like brothers”
Bolan in 1967 formed an psychedelic duo, Tyrannosaurus Rex, just acoustic guitar and bongos, with lyrics inspired by Tolkien and vocals inspired by Donovan. The songs were whimsical and utterly charming.
John Peel, prominent English radio and stage DJ and arbiter of cool across different eras of music including hippie, punk and hip-hop, keenly promoted Marc’s music. Although he later would turn against Marc, the exposure he gave him in the late Sixties propelled the band to moderate success in the album charts and even a #28 single. Bolan’s modest success was far more than Bowie could achieve at that time.
Yet it was Bolan who behaved in a conflicted way towards Bowie. He offered Bowie a support slot on a Tyrannosaurus Rex gig, but then instructed David that he could not sing. Bowie instead performed a mime based on China’s invasion of Tibet.
When Bowie had a top 5 hit with ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969, Bolan was very jealous. After Bolan played guitar on the follow up single ‘The Prettiest Star’, Marc and his wife, June, stormed out of the studio, with June complaining to Bowie, “The only good thing about this record is Marc’s guitar.”
A few months later, David, with Mick Ronson, Visconti on bass and John Cambridge on drums performed at the Roundhouse, then hippie headquarters, as the Hype. The band were dressed in flamboyant outfits, with Bowie outfitted in lurex and eyeliner.
Some date the start of Glam to this performance. That is likely an overstatement. But it is curious that Marc claimed that he didn’t attend, while photos show clearly that he was there. Visconti reported that he was paying close attention.
It was Bowie’s turn to be jealous at the end of 1970, when Bolan had an even bigger hit, ‘Ride A White Swan’, which went to #2 in Britain.
Bolan had changed it up. He shortened the name of the group to T. Rex and adopted a full electric band sound of Fifties-inspired riffs borrowed from Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Howling Wolf and others. The records were brilliantly arranged and produced by Visconti.
“Boley struck it big, and we were all green with envy… we fell out for about six months. But we got over that.”
Marc, who had previously sat cross-legged on stage playing acoustic guitar, now stood up on stage with his electric guitar to rock out and became known as the Bopping Elf. (In some accounts, Marc’s height was given as five foot one, sometimes as five foot four.)
Three more elements would complete the T. Rex phenomenon, magazines, clothes and … glitter.
Chelita Secunda, fashion journalist, editor of Nova and sometime Bolan publicist, gave Marc a makeover in her own image, dressing him in the colorful clothes, embroidered jackets and, later, even feather boas, that she favored.
As Marc’s stylist, Chelita would make an even bigger contribution than his clothes makeover. While Bolan was preparing for a TV appearance to promote the ‘Hot Love’ single (a #1 hit), Chelita applied glitter to his cheek and truly invented Glam Rock.
Marc’s iconic good looks and chart success made him the first pop idol of the Seventies in Britain. Nina Myscow, editor of the biggest British tween magazine, Jackie, has said that after Sixties fan hysteria had faded, “there was a gap in the market”. Her audience wanted “non-threatening not overtly sexual boys”. Jackie “went to inordinate lengths to print three page pin up photographs of” Marc.
T. Rex had a remarkable run of eleven consecutive top ten hits in the UK in a little over three years. The intensity of the fans was incredible. Bolan’s publicist B.P. Fallon invented the term ‘T.Rextasy’ to describe the fan response of the time.
The underground press, who had previously championed Tyrannosaurus Rex, now abandoned Marc, labelling him a sellout. John Peel publicly dismissed Bolan’s new music. Fans of the ‘heavier’ rock bands sneered at the T. Rex sound, which they considered too pop. They said the audience consisted of “little girls”.
But some of the ‘heavier’ bands considered so highly back then may not have fans today while Bolan’s post-1971 recordings and publishing catalogue were sold for something in excess of twelve million dollars in 2007.
As bluesman Willie Dixon noted in his classic Fifties song, ‘Back Door Man’,
“The men don’t know, but the little girls understand”.
Among the men who did understand was David Bowie, who watched the development of the T. Rex phenomenon with interest.
Bolan was not a musical influence on Bowie. Despite recent attempts to prove otherwise (on dubious lyrical evidence), it is obvious that their music was dis-similar in compositional techniques.
Some of these musical references are ambiguous. Bowie’s vocal on his 1970 song, ‘Black Country Rock’ is clearly a (very good) outright parody of Bolan’s singing style, although also clearly not meant as a diss.
Some speculate that ‘Lady Stardust’ was inspired by Marc and originally subtitled ‘Song For Marc’, although this is unconfirmed. The music and the lyric don’t seem to relate to Marc Bolan, who certainly did not sing “songs of darkness and disgrace”. Marc’s material was joyous and celebratory.
Still, the only time (August 1972) that Bowie performed the song live, he had an image of Bolan projected onto a screen onstage. (Apparently, this was interpreted negatively by some Bolan fans.)
Again ambiguously, Bowie references Marc’s ‘Get It On’ at the end of the Ziggy Stardust track, ‘Star’, but he closes the song by saying. “Just watch me now” (my emphasis).
Bowie also referenced ‘Get It On’ in the televised version of ‘Starman’. One Bowie researcher calls this “cheeky” (i.e. British slang for flippant, mischievous). In other words, some saw it as taunting Bolan.
Most clearly, Bowie name-checked T. Rex in one of his greatest songs ‘All The Young Dudes’, which thrilled Marc, “… it’s just great. David really outdid himself on that one.”
“David never saw him as a rival as much as Marc saw him as a rival”
Meanwhile, Marc had developed a surprising cocaine habit. In his 1967 ad to recruit band members for the original Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bolan had referred to “that which never grows in window boxes”. But Bolan himself was not into dope or acid. He would respond to offers of drugs by tapping his head and saying, “Man, I’ve got enough going on up there.”
However, when he became a star, he discovered a taste for cocaine, which would ultimately undermine his songwriting talent and drive away June Bolan.
Coke would also stimulate further Bolan’s already displayed brash and arrogant style. Marc had earned a public reputation for false boasts, such as his claim to be writing a screenplay for a Fellini movie.
He took to saying that his new single was selling 100,000 a day. According to Visconti, the correct figure was 25,000. Visconti also points out that at one stage, he claimed that T. Rex had sold 18 million records when the truth was 3 million.
In interviews he would argue about how his success was greater than various rivals such as Rod Stewart. When it was pointed out that Rod had reached number one in the States, Marc would feebly retort that he sold more posters than Rod.
That paled next to his quote that:
“If God were to appear in my room, obviously I would be in awe, but I don’t think I would be humble. I might cry, but I think he would dig me like crazy.”
Then, as Bowie’s star ascended, Bolan trashed David in interviews. In 1973, he told future film director Cameron Crowe (Jerry McGuire, Almost Famous) that:
“I don’t consider David to be even remotely near big enough to give me any competition. I don’t think that David has anywhere near the charisma or balls that I have. He’s not gonna make it, in any sort of way.”
Bolan’s remarks were astonishingly mean (and inaccurate as Bowie had already made it). You have to see it in the context of Bowie having done considerably better than him in the States. Bolan was insecure and scared not merely about Bowie’s success, but about his own possible decline.
T. Rex was described as the biggest act in Britain, but while they were very big indeed, that claim was false. Bolan’s peak was being big enough to play two Wembley Empire Pool concerts (an audience of roughly 10,000 each) in March 1972, as filmed by Ringo Starr for the movie, Born To Boogie. However, a year later David Cassidy would play six concerts there, with the same scenes of audience frenzy.
More to the point of the rivalry between David and Marc, Bowie’s 1973 tour of Britain was far bigger than any T. Rex tour and, moreover, Bowie had succeeded in the States while T. Rex was received poorly by American audiences.
T. Rex had one US hit, the #10 ‘Bang A Gong’ a retitling of ‘Get It On’ to avoid confusion with the hit of almost that name by now-forgotten jazz-rock band, Chase. However, Bolan was unable to follow it up and, humiliatingly, was dropped by his US record label.
On T. Rex’s failure in the States, band member Mickey Finn said: “It was a great disappointment to Marc. He took it quite hard, though he’d never admit it in a million years.”
Despite Marc’s bravado, he came to see David perform at Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, in September 1974, at one of a triumphant series of gigs there with a total audience of 43,000 (including Michael Jackson, attending with his brothers and Diana Ross).
David had already made it in the States, but this was in effect Marc’s admission that David’s success had eclipsed that of T. Rex. Former Warhol acolyte and Bowie associate Tony Zanetta was with David and Marc at the Beverly Wilshire hotel and later told a biographer, “David did not gloat at all, he was very kind.”
Visconti considers that Bolan was totally obsessed by his rivalry with Bowie. Marc recorded an album Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, taken as a reference to Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.
Unhappy with its poor chart performance, Bolan never used Tony Visconti again. That was a mistake. Visconti was an essential element of T. Rex. The chart results of the subsequent albums were even worse.
Marc’s success had largely disappeared after a little over three years. After March 1974, he would never again reach the top ten on the singles chart.
Marc’s supposed return to form towards the end of his career is simply latter day revisionism. In fact, T. Rex’s last album spent just three weeks on the British charts and the single from that album didn’t chart at all.
In 1977, Bolan had his own TV series of six episodes called Marc, but it was a miserably low budget daytime slot with, unbelievably, a cheesy animated cartoon of an audience applauding at the end of each song.
Surprisingly, the new T. Rex single, ‘Celebrate Summer’, missed the charts entirely despite being promoted heavily on Marc.
It is claimed that Bolan personally chose the guest acts. However, these were overwhelmingly dire, like the Bay City Rollers, Showaddywaddy and Mud, introduced by Marc alongside a bored looking twelve year old boy with ‘MUD’ written across the boy’s bare chest.
Earlier that year, Bolan had chosen punk band, The Damned, as support on a T. Rex tour, in order to draw their followers to his concerts. As his friend and fellow pop star Steve Harley said, “He was as cynical as any marketing man.”
Similarly, on Marc, he chose a few punk and new wave acts like Generation X and The Rods (who, offscreen, described the show as “Mickey Mouse”).
Did he really choose all the acts? Marc peered slowly at The Jam’s name without any recognition and incorrectly announced them as “Jam”. (Fantastic performance, BTW.)
Bolan and this incarnation of T. Rex performed well on Marc and, except for the last show, Bolan was relaxed and confident in his role.
For the final show in the series, Marc had scored a coup. He would have David Bowie appear with the first televised performance of his new single, ‘Heroes’ and then jam with him to close the show.
Unfortunately, this did not go as well as planned. Bowie took control of the backing track, which as usual was recorded before the filming of the visuals. As the song was unsuited to Bolan’s style of guitar playing, David played guitar himself.
Marc, feeling insulted, retreated to his dressing room, where he drank to excess. At the end of the show, David and Marc jammed on a new song, “Standing Next To You”. Marc drunkenly stumbled off the low stage, laughing with embarrassment. At the playback later, David said to Marc, “Oh that’s really Polaroid! You’ve gotta keep the ending!”
There was no choice as to keeping it. The film crew had refused to reshoot the song, having been alienated by a confrontation with Bowie’s entourage.
Marc’s TV career ended ignominiously, with Marc not even in the final frame, as the credits were displayed over footage of David Bowie first surprised at Marc’s fall, then grinning as Marc laughed. Not shown on camera was David’s immediate joke, “A wooden box for Marc please!”. Grim indeed in the light of later events. A truly undignified end.
David and Marc went to a restaurant that evening and resolved whatever problems they had during the day. Marc was to speak excitedly about an album that apparently they would record together in the future. Earlier that year, Bowie had stayed with Bolan and they wrote a song, ‘Madman’ which they never recorded, but which became an indie chart hit in the Eighties for The Cuddly Toys.
Returning home, at about 5 in the morning of 16 September, Gloria lost control of her car and veered off the road. New research indicates that the car hit a steel fence post, and not the sycamore tree that is currently a shrine for Marc’s fans.
Marc had never learned to drive despite his numerous lyrics celebrating cars and boasting of driving a Rolls Royce – a Rolls Royce which had been rented that night to another band, Hawkwind.
Instead, they were in a small car which offered little protection in the event of an accident.
Gloria was hospitalized, with very severe injuries.
Marc died on impact. Marc’s side of the car was crushed horrifically, killing him immediately, two weeks before his 30th birthday.
He would never have the chance to return to great success. Had he lived, I believe that he would eventually have achieved a true career revival.
David paid for Rolan’s private schooling and apparently made some other undisclosed financial contributions to the family.
“David’s generosity helped my mother and me to survive.”
Bowie attended the funeral visibly upset both by the circumstances and by the unwanted attention of fans, who harassed him.
At the funeral, David wept. This was uncomplicated. He had lost a great friend.
David Bowie: “He was fabulous, one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. We would be on the floor rolling with laughter most of the time. I really miss him. He was stellar.”