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).

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