Friday, March 26, 2010

To Take a Place Near You

“Thank you, goodbye, from David and the boys in the band, the cats, you know who they are.”

Marc Bolan’s fey, wispy voice contradicted his arrogance. He was an out of focus image, a strutting cock and a fairy, a leader and a slave. Under permed mop, his pasty face and mascara lined eyes were a masquerade. Was he king or knave?

David Bowie stood supremely confident, his eyes focused on the neck of his guitar as Bolan said his goodbyes to the studio audience. Masterfully in control behind oversized tinted frames and an opened blue dress shirt, Bowie projected corporate smug. He was carefully coiffed, but it hadn’t been that long since he had his own mass of flowing curls, when he was at the bottom and wished to be Marc Bolan.

When Marc shouted “Go!” to the band and T. Rex began to churn out a bluesy riff, he glared at David with the fire of competition, but Bowie had left that all behind. There was no rivalry anymore from where he stood. He’d been the clear and decisive winner. David turned his back on Marc and didn’t see Bolan fall drunkenly off the stage. When he turned and saw what had happened, Bowie laughed at Bolan, crumpled in a spot beneath his feet, and kept strumming. The directors of the show cut to the multicolored “Marc” graphic they had used during the six show run.

The television program on Granada TV was a smash for Bolan, desperately trying to reclaim his popularity. It was a tea time program, waiting there for the kiddies when they returned from school. Besides playing his own songs, Bolan was introducing new groups like The Jam and Generation X, latching on to the younger generation. Quick to hitch himself to a fresh scene, Bolan had toured the UK with The Damned earlier in the year and shouted to all who would listen that he was “The Godfather of Punk.” David claimed the same title, but to packed arenas and millions of record buyers.

Bowie turned to the band, signaled that they stop playing, and the pedestrian chords they’d been hammering came to a halt. Bowie leapt from the stage and bent over to give Bolan a helping hand. As Bolan got to his feet, the smell of alcohol permeated the area. Bowie put his arm around Marc and helped him to his dressing room. It was a struggle, as Bowie towered over his tiny friend.

The dressing room was a tousled mess of outfits and props from the previous shows; a leopard skin jumpsuit here, a wilting pink carnation there. David thought back to when the two first met, when was it, oh yes, in 1964.

“Do you remember when we used to go dustbin shopping?”

“Uh, mmm, yes, yes,” Marc muttered almost incoherently.

David pressed on, trying to connect. “Those were good times, what were we 16? Carnaby Street, late at night around 10, combing through the dustbins looking for the days rejects. We built our wardrobe on that.” Bowie laughed.

Marc sat up a bit straighter. “I showed you that. That was my idea, as you recall.”

“You were brilliant. I remember when we met, and I asked if you were a Mod. Do you remember what you told me?”

“I believe I do,” Marc’s memory brought him to the time when he was on top, when David Bowie was nearly big enough to give him a run for it. “I believe I said ‘I’m King Mod.’”

“Yes, that’s it. That and, ‘Your shoes are crap.’” They both laughed.

“Well, you told me I was short!” Giggles filled the room.

“You were,” David paused theatrically. “And you still are!”

Bolan pulled his knees up in a paroxysm of hilarity, clapping his hands.

“Still prettier than you, though, still prettier,” Marc countered as David winced.

It was the nature of their relationship to teeter back and forth from camaraderie to cutthroat. Ever since they were two nothing kids with the same manager, it had always been that way. They were already close when Marc and Tyrannosaurus Rex hit big with “The Wizard” in 1965. Sensing that Bolan had found the key to stardom, David adopted Bolan’s warbly vocal style, as well as his hair. Bowie used his Bolan imitation when he cut “The Prettiest Star” four years later with Marc on guitar. Bolan, furiously jealous at the recent success of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” came to the studio, spoke to no one and stormed out without even a goodbye.

Then it was Marc’s turn. When “Ride the White Swan” and “Bang a Gong” covered the airwaves in 1970 and 1971, the “new” glam Bolan was a god of sex and rock and roll, and David desperately wanted that fame. Is it any wonder that Bowie morphed from long haired hippie minstrel to glam superstar? Try as he might, he couldn’t get near him. Bolan was number one.

Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars followed and, like that, David Bowie had conquered the world. As surely as the moon must fade when the sun rises, Bolan began his descent. He would get bigger than Bowie, in one way. The press dubbed Bolan “The Porky Pixie” as his steady diet of drugs and booze caused his weight to balloon.

It was that fat Bolan who found himself staying in the Beverly Wilshire in 1975. Three times Marc tried to break big in America, three times he failed. Bolan sought out his old friend and rival when he was informed that Bowie and his entourage was at the hotel as well.

David was shocked to see the bloated Bolan, trying hard to be like Bowie with dyed blonde hair as he toured to promote his Ziggy rip-off, Zinc Alloy and The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow. He was a pitiable figure, though still full of himself, and David tried to give him some fatherly advice, out of both concern and superiority.

Marc listened, at least enough to get in shape, and attempted a comeback. The “Marc” show gave him a half-hour of redemption and he took it, but, in typical Bolan fashion, he was letting it slip away.

“You are an absolute mess,” David said curtly. “Look at you, drinking between takes, stumbling off the stage.” Bowie clucked his tongue with dramatic disapproval.

Marc waved his right arm like a butterfly, trying to shoo away the barb. “Best thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You better watch out!” But he was clearly a bit shaky. Bowie sat coldly, solid as a stalagmite.

“Watch out? Me? You’re going to die if you keep on this way. Look at me. This is a business, and there are ways to succeed in a business. A sloppy drunk with a penchant for pills won’t make it.”

Marc couldn’t argue. Though it was his show, clearly David Bowie was the bigger hit. Surrounded by a teeming mass of secretaries, publicists and press, Bolan might have been the star of his little after school program, but David Bowie was king. Even drunk, Marc could see that, and he wanted it, desperately.

In a tone combining courtesy and condescension, David made an offer. “I’ve just finished a new album, Heroes, and have to leave on a press tour. Paris, Amsterdam, the States. Come with me. We’ll have a ball” Perhaps getting Marc out of London would calm him down.

Bowie’s offer struck Bolan with a mixture of pain and love. Sobering up to the bitter pill he was about to swallow, Marc admitted, at least to himself, that he needed David Bowie to get what he wanted. Well, no harm there, David Bowie had used him when their roles were reversed. With a sense of doubt, he plunged ahead.

“What the hell, life’s a gas. When would we go?”

Bowie rose from his throne. “Tomorrow morning, I’ll send a car for you.”

Bolan, still seated, reached up and grabbed David’s hand in supplication.

Marc Bolan (born Feld) met David Bowie (born Jones) as they painted their manager’s office in 1964. For the next 13 years they would be friends and enemies both. Their fortunes would never coincide, resulting in envy, anger and slavish replication of each other’s styles. By 1977, David Bowie was an international superstar and among a select few at the top of the rock pyramid. That same year, Bolan began a comeback that culminated in his television triumph.

On September 16, one week after David Bowie appeared on the final installment, Marc Bolan was killed when the purple Mini driven by his girlfriend smashed into a sycamore tree after drinking the night away at various London clubs. He died instantly, two weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

Four days later, David Bowie returned to London from Switzerland, a stop on his Heroes press tour. He attended the funeral at a Golders Green synagogue and announced he would set up a trust fund for Marc’s son Rolan Bolan (named in the fashion of David’s own child Zowie Bowie).

Friday, March 12, 2010

I Didn’t Know What I Would Find There

Safely on Duke Street outside the Indica Gallery, John couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha,” he cackled, starting in a jokey low voice and ending with a maniacal shriek, his legs swinging wildly under him in a paroxysm of hysterics.

“Didn’t like it, eh?” Paul remarked coolly with a bit of smug. He liked the show very much. He’d been a supporter of the Indica from its inception – he was the first customer, helped draw the flyers advertising the opening in September of ’65, designed the wrapping paper. He even transported the lumber for the book shelves in his Aston Martin, and like a good working lad wasn’t above putting saw to wood. Deep into Stockhausen, musique concrete and the works of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, nobody in the London rock scene was more curious about the avant-garde than Paul McCartney. As he often said, “People are saying things and painting things and I must know what people are doing.”

Far from the cutting edge, John spent his days in his suburban Weybridge home with stock brokers for neighbors. As the suited men with briefcase hands made their way to The City for the market opening, Lennon sat watching the telly and smoking pot, both for hours on end. When Paul called to invite him to come to the opening of a new exhibit at the Indica, John was in no way interested.

"Ah, that’s a lot of phony bullshit.” John snapped.

“It’s not really,” Paul protested. “That’s what you thought when I brought you the tape loop idea, you were a bit put off, but you ended up quite keen on it. Come on down to London and we’ll make a night of it.”

Better than sitting here all day watching spy programs and eating acid, I suppose, thought John and, after first fighting the urge, he cozied up to the idea. He wanted to talk to Paul anyway about a new thing he was working on, knowing Paul would have something bright to add. He was nervous at the thought of cutting demos of “Strawberry Fields” in a few days without Paul’s input.

John arrived at Paul’s townhouse out of his mind after three days of tripping. They drove together in Paul’s car, windows rolled down. It had been unusually cold that first week of November, but by the 9th it had warmed up considerably and John needed the air.

“What’s this about then?” He had never asked what they were seeing.

“It’s called Unfinished Paintings and Objects. Weird pieces by this Japanese artist from New York, Yoko Ono.”

John snickered. “That’s his name? You’re having me on.”

“I know, I know, but really, Yoko Ono. She’s a her and very big in New York. John Dunbar was telling me about some of the items - sky T.V., eternal time clock, crying machine, and he…”

Peals of laughter from John. “That’s daft! It’s a con. I think you’ve been taken in, mate, but, I’m bored and I’m here so let’s see the show.” Paul parked and John joyfully leapt from the car, sensing the thrill of taunting another “artist” who would no doubt look down her nose at him. “Come on.”

Entering the gallery through the olive green door, the two Beatles were enthusiastically greeted by John Dunbar, one of the co-founders of the gallery. It was important to Dunbar, a coup really, to have them here the night before the official opening of the show, the gallery’s first big show of the fall of 1966. If they liked it, if they bought something, word would spread fast. The Beatles taste became everyone’s and fast.

Dunbar grabbed each gently by the elbow and walked them to a figure facing a blank canvas, a slim, small form in a black leotard.

“John Lennon, Paul McCartney, I’d like you to meet Yoko Ono.”

Yoko turned to face them and handed each of them a card. It said BREATHE.

"No thanks,” sneered John, “I already had some at home.”

Paul was quite abashed, but went with it. “Don’t mind if I do,” and he slowly inhaled. Yoko smiled.

The three strolled through the exhibit.

“Is this an apple, then?” asked John.

“Yes, it’s an apple,” Yoko answered, sensing scorn.

“For sale? How much?” It was hard for John to hold in his rising laughter.

“200 pounds.”

“Is that for real?” John scoffed, but Paul jumped in.

“I get it. It’s a joke, isn’t it? For a couple of hundred quid I can watch it rot. I like it.” Paul was quite chuffed.

They moved on, towards a step ladder. On the ceiling above was a black canvas, next to it a magnifying glass hanging from a chain. John climbed up first, grabbed the handle and placed it in front of the small word affixed on the canvas. He descended, head shaking.

“What’s it say?” asked Paul.

“’Yes’, it says ‘Yes’.” He turned on Yoko, “What’s the point of all this? It’s too weird. Outrageous really, a fraud.”

Paul climbed up and looked at the word. It was simple and positive and he felt warm and peaceful. Back on the floor, he leaned over to Yoko and whispered, “I love it.” Her stoic face broke into a wide smile, expectant. Now Paul and Yoko walked together, talking about Buddhism. Paul had recently bought a book on Gandhi and non-violence and their talk became more animated as they discussed peace and protest. John lagged behind. Spotting the giant white canvas, he asked, “What’s this?”

Yoko explained it was a pure white space, and when the exhibit opened each person could hammer one nail into it.

“Can I do one now?” John asked eagerly.

Yoko shook her head. “No, it must remain untouched until the show opens tomorrow.”

“Right, right. That makes perfect sense,” John spat, his anger evident.

“Hey Paul,” John called. Paul walked over. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah, OK. I’m enjoying this, though.” Paul wasn’t going to argue.

Safely on Duke Street outside the Indica Gallery, John couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha,” he cackled, starting in a jokey low voice and ending with a maniacal shriek, his legs swinging wildly under him in a paroxysm of hysterics.

“Didn’t like it, eh?” Paul remarked coolly with a bit of smug. “Well, I did. It was clever and interesting. What did you think of her?”

“She’s a beast, isn’t she? I wouldn’t be caught dead with the likes of her.”

Paul stopped. “I think I’ll go back for a little.” He handed John the keys to his car. “Stay at my place tonight. You don’t have to head back to the suburbs.”

A bit stunned at Paul’s desertion, John took the keys. “I may head over to Bag O’ Nails and see who’s there tonight. I think Georgie Fame is playing. Meet me there if you want.”

Paul headed back to the Indica. He was intrigued by this Yoko Ono. Not his type, really, but he was interested for sure.

When he opened the door to the Indica, Paul expected another cheerful greeting from John Dunbar. Probably assumes I’ll buy something, Paul thought. Instead, the place was in chaos, Yoko sobbing as Dunbar held her tightly. John had hammered a nail right in the middle of the clean white canvas.

John Lennon attended Yoko Ono’s show Unfinished Paintings and Objects on November 9, 1966, the day before it opened. After three straight days of taking LSD, he arrived, skeptical. He was won over by Yoko’s positive message and, when he offered an imaginary five shillings to pound an imaginary nail into the canvas, sparks flew. The only Beatle living in London, Paul McCartney was heavily into the avant-garde scene and the most interested of the group in counterculture art and literature. Rumors of an affair between Paul and Yoko have surfaced. Yoko met Paul first and did visit him at his townhouse sometime in 1966, where they were spotted being quite affectionate.