As you probably are aware, David Bowie died this year. How could you have missed it? Everyone you know and everyone they know, apparently, were in-the-closet die-hard David Bowie aficionados. Flash back a few days to January 8, 2016, however, and hardly a soul is paying attention to the fact that Bowie has, that day, released a pretty badass album. Two days later, however, finds everyone and their postman recalling fondly how Bowie saved their lives in some fashion. In fact, if we are to believe at face value the outpouring of grief, the deluge of proclamations of lifelong loyalty to the Starman by all and sundry, then we have to also believe that a good many of these people were actually spinning their copies of Ziggy Stardust (or, if you really want to prove your Bowie’s worth, Pinups) loudly and proudly somewhere in the vicinity of January 9, 2016—the day before his death.
No. They weren’t.
So, you know, all of that Bowie woe? I call bullshit.
Of a kind.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t doubt that many, many people were sad as hell to hear of Bowie’s passing—I was one of them. And, listen, true story: I’ve been a fan since I was nine years old, when I bought my first Bowie record, that orange-labelled RCA 45-rpm of Space Oddity in 1973 that I absolutely played the shit out of. I own all of Bowie’s catalogue up through the early ‘70s. After that, he started to feel, even to my young ears, too geared towards European dance clubs. (Hey, I’m no snob; I just don’t dance). Anyway, that’s a lot of albums, and I have to confess that I might have listened to one of those, maybe, once a month, on average. Further, it’s not that I don’t listen to that kind of music any longer; I have a deep catalogue of early 1970s glam rock that would make your head spin and that does, surely, annoy my neighbours on a regular basis (come over for some Slade or The Sweet and a beer sometime). Predictably, my contemporaries are musically like-minded. Sad to say, they weren’t listening to Bowie either. Not really. Not actually. I mean, I hate to be honest—and blunt—but all this “Bowie was my idol!” stuff is yet another example of grief-bandwagoning. A celebrity dies and, all of a sudden, this person was everyone’s hero and was part and parcel of everyone’s daily lives. It’s a “Me too!” epidemic—everyone wanting to be part of the hive-mind of shared grief, as if co-opting the movements of genuine mourning gets you closer, somehow, to greatness, as if by proclaiming that _________ changed your life, you too can, somehow, brush the hem of their garment, touch the face of God.
Not me. Here’s who I was listening to the day before Bowie died. And the week after, the month before, this morning, yesterday…
Who’s that? Well, if you grew up in North America in the 1970s, you might have no idea. But if you spent those years in the UK or Europe, you know exactly who that is: Marc Bolan, of the band T. Rex. Bolan was a contemporary of Bowie’s (click here for a primer on their relationship) and in the early 1970s they went toe-to-toe, in full battle for the hearts and minds of record-buying acolytes all over the UK and Europe.
Marc Bolan won. By a landslide.
I know; I was there. I contributed to that critical mass. I was one of those devotees. The fact is, Bowie didn’t have a chance; the popularity of T. Rex was a phenomenon that couldn’t be stopped. Hell, there was even a name for it: T. Rextasy. It was the biggest thing since Beatlemania—and the record sales prove it. (T. Rex, for a time, actually outsold Beatles’ sales, at their height, by a wide margin.) It’s simple, if you were a kid living anywhere near the British Isles that listened to music (and what kid didn’t back then?) anywhere between 1970 and 1977, T. Rex was, plain and simple, part of the soundtrack of your life. And your life? At the very least, your life grooved…
This is why I was listening to T. Rex on January 8. And the days before and after. Because it grooves. Because it still holds up as strongly today as it did back then.
And, also, because it is just plain a lot of fun.
As corny as this surely will sound, Marc Bolan’s music was a pure celebration of life—it was the sound of a man loving life itself. Here was a small guy (he is generously listed as 5’7”) with skills on the guitar that can only be considered, at best, serviceable, and who was equipped with what can only be described as a warbling voice, but performed his music with such obvious glee and abandon that you can’t help but be completely won over when you hear it. In every nearly-got-it-right-that-time guitar riff, you can almost hear the confidence and swagger of someone who realizes that he’s in a dream and that he can do whatever he wants.
And so he does.
It’s this joy that keeps me coming back to my T. Rex albums. It is this that keeps me keeping T. Rextasy alive and well, in my slight, aging way. As the old cheesy-as-hell saying went back in T. Rextasy’s apex, Keep a little Marc in your heart. I do. Still.
During the height of T. Rextasy (say 1972), I was a young boy living in a British expat community in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. I attended private school with British and other kids from Commonwealth countries—all of us children of expat parents who worked for international industry or, like my father, for NATO. The school was situated downtown, in the middle of the old city and whilst I was driven to school every morning by my father, I was left to my own devices (my feet) to make my way home every day. It was a walk of probably a kilometer and half through the centre of the city to, finally, a large park that bordered the steep incline that was the edge of a large valley—on the side of which our flat was built into. In this park was located the United States embassy. A small mansion housed the ambassador and a small garrison of U.S. Marines.
I would look forward to walking past the embassy every day after school, not just because it heralded, finally, my approaching home, it being the last landmark of several on the long walk home—our flat was just below the embassy, down a long flight of medieval-looking stone steps along the side of a large stone outcropping. No, I looked forward to the chance that I might see Albert.
Who was Albert? Albert was the ambassador’s chauffeur. And when you think of the word ‘chauffeur’, in your mind you are unknowingly conjuring an image of Albert. Seriously, he looked as if he had just come from central casting; he wore a black uniform that looked to be tailored just for him, topped off by a perfect chauffeur’s hat. As far as what his face looked like, he reminded me of Peter Cushing in a good mood. (You know, not like he is, as Professor Van Helsing, always grumpy, always trying to kill Dracula in those awesome Hammer horror movies.) He was, probably, in his late forties, but he seemed—as people did in the 1970s and how they just naturally do to children—to be much older.
He was friendly and kind and spoke with a mischievous lilt to his very British accent. (I never found out how or why a British man was a chauffeur for an American ambassador, nor did I wonder—everyone, it seemed, was British in our community. A revolving door of possibilities for his background played in my imagination, each more interesting and exotic than the last.) If I was lucky, I would be walking home at the same day and time that he would be washing and waxing the limousine—an item that was especially anomalous in Europe’s smallest country and appropriately populated with very small cars. This was something I always looked forward to because I would stop and talk with him. Also, he would always give me sweets. But there was one time, one day on my walk home, that was better than all the rest…
“Hiya, Steven! Alright?” Albert said, his smile lighting up his face.
“Hiya, Albert!” I returned. “Wot you doin’?” (I sported a decent English accent in those days, due to, ostensibly, being raised among British folks. Sadly, I’ve long since lost it.)
“Waxin’ up the machine, you know. You’ve skipped out on all the hard work,” Albert said with mock indignation. He thrust out his chamois cloth towards me. “Give a hand then?”
I dropped my book bag and greedily snatched the cloth from his hands. Albert always played a portable radio whilst he cleaned the limo and, at that moment, The Hollies’ Long Cool Woman was coming from the small speaker. I took the cloth and lightly buffed the ebony finish to the bouncy rhythm of the song, happily moving to the beat.
I waxed the limo for a few more minutes whilst I listened to Albert whinge about his beloved Manchester United’s continued slide down the table and, more specifically, his worries for his—and my—favourite footballer, George Best. (Albert’s misgivings where, it would turn out, not unfounded, as this old article from December 1972 illustrates.) Finally, Albert said, “I think that’s got her, Steven. The outside of her, that is.” He then walked over and did something he had never done before: he opened the limo’s door. “Its inside that could use a going over—fancy giving me a hand?”
I just stood there, silent as a shadow. Albert smiled and gestured for me to get in. “C’mon, it’s not going to clean itself.”
I peered into the interior of the gigantic car like I was looking into Aladdin’s cave.
“I’ll make you a wager, then. I clean the cab, up front here, and you clean that lot back there. Whoever’s finished first is the winner, alright then?”
I just nodded wordlessly and gingerly–and cautiously–climbed into the limousine, as if my 65 lbs. frame might damage the interior. Suddenly, I was startled by a barrage of sound. Music abruptly filled the large interior. “Let’s whistle whist we work, yeah? What you say?” yelled Albert over the sound of the limo’s stereo system. The music, previously coming out of the anemic speaker of the radio outside, filled the car like a quadrophonic symphony.
I gently pulled the cloth over the black interior to the beat of Badfinger’s Day After Day booming through the cab, the smell of the leather and old cigars wafting up with each pass of my hand and wondered about the song’s lyrics.
I remember finding out about you…
I sat on the opposite bench seat, facing the seat that, presumably, the ambassador and his wife sat on during trips out to who knows where. The limo was, surely, small compared to what even your average private school kid rents for the prom these days, but to my eyes, it was a cavernous carriage for royalty. (I thought this even though the ambassador’s wife had actually been to my house on two occasions. My mum had hosted coffee get-togethers for the wives of my father’s contemporaries. My father, like I said, worked for NATO and that, to this day, is all the explanation I have for these visits.)
I was in the middle of imagining some important trip that the ambassador had taken as I was wiping an armrest when Albert barked out behind me, “That’s me done!” He peered over the front seat, his face triumphant—and it was here, in the muted light of the interior of the limousine that I noticed the lines on Albert’s face, particularly around his eyes, and especially when he smiled—which was often. He looked old, serious, there in that light. “I win!” he bellowed like a giddy schoolboy.
“That’s not fair; I had twice the work you had, Albert!” I said.
“No whinging, my boy. You’ve lost, fair and square. And to the winner goes the spoils.”
“Right. What do I have to do—hoover the car?” I joked.
“Hmmm… not a bad idea. Not bad at all,” Albert mused with a grin. But then, abruptly, Albert’s kind face turned serious. He turned to me and said, “Steven, I’m going to ask you one question and I won’t ask it again—I promise. Answer it however you want to,” he paused for a moment to look at me. “But that’s what you have to do for losing.”
In that moment, I felt the familiar punch to the gut feeling that I often got whenever I was in trouble—which was often. I seemed to naturally do the wrong thing, no matter my efforts towards the opposite.
“Are you ready?” Albert asked.
I nodded that I was, but I’m sure that I wasn’t.
Albert looked at me as if he knew that this was as good as it was going to get with me. “Right,” he said and took a breath. “Steven, is everything all right at home? Do you…” Albert paused, seemingly fumbling for what to say, “Are you… hurt? At home?”
I knew what he was asking. I knew before he asked me anything that he would, eventually, ask. I had a bruise on my face. It happened on Friday evening, after my father had been drinking and fighting with my mum. I thought that it would have faded by now, they usually did by this time, but it didn’t. In fact, it only seemed to have gotten worse.
“Rugby. Scrum,” is what I said. And it was plausible. I played and being of only average size and not the most aggressive of players on the pitch, I often endured minor injuries. I gestured to my cheekbone. “My mate, Declan. Hard-headed, he is,” I said with a laugh.
“Right. Good. Good to know,” Albert said. His face changed back into its usual smiling visage that I knew so well and he said, “Well, I must repay your services, young man—that all looks a treat back there. A good lesson for you; never let your good work go unpaid. How ‘bout I settle our accounts with a drive home, then?”
“But, Albert, I live just down the steps!” I said, relieved to be talking about something—anything—else.
“Well, we’ll have to stretch the trip out a bit then, then.”
Just then, over the radio, came the unmistakable opening chords of Telegram Sam, by T. Rex. Its thumping backbeat groove, sparkling chords, and nonsensical lyrics bouncing all over the spacious interior.
“Oi! That’s T. Rex!” exclaimed Albert! “Love that Bolan character—don’t you? Now get comfortable back there, sir! We’re going to see what the old girl’s made of!” bubbled Albert, his ‘of’ coming off more like ‘uhv’, his northern roots showing.
T. Rex blasted through the radio, Marc Bolan’s nonsensical yet deliciously devilish lyrics filled the car with a celebratory air:
Bobby’s alright Bobby’s alright
He’s a natural born poet
He’s just outa sight
Jungle faced Jake
Jungle faced Jake
I say make no mistake
About Jungle faced Jake
Albert drove me all over Luxembourg City, driving past the town square where my parents would take me at least once a week after dinners to listen to live music performed by various travelling guest performers; we drove over the bridge that spanned the city’s famous valley; he even drove me past my school but, sadly, all of my friends were already long home. I can remember feeling, in that car, being driven by my own chauffeur, that everything was different from the view of the limousine’s window.
“Now, that was so nice, we’re going to do it twice. Here, once again, is Marc Bolan and T. Rex!” came the radio announcer’s voice right into the booming opening of Metal Guru. The limo’s speakers strained while Albert smiled and proudly drove, his head bopping to the beat.
Metal Guru, is it you? Metal Guru, is it you?
Sitting there in your armour plated chair, oh yeah…
And that’s what I felt like: strong, sitting in my armour plated chair, looking out at the world outside the limo’s window, everything at once so familiar as the town I lived in, the school I attended, and yet it looked so different here, from this window. I can remember realizing, perhaps for the first time, that things are not necessarily the way you see them. And that things can—and will—always change.
Soon—too soon—the ride was over. The radio switched over to America’s, Horse With No Name, which appropriately brought the mood in the cab down just as Albert pulled up to my parents’ flat.
“There you are, governor—home at last!” said Albert with a smile, looking back at me in a way that I’m sure he must have looked at the ambassador hundreds of times.
I didn’t know what to say to him at that moment so I just smiled and reached for the door.
“Steven?” he said.
“Yes?” I said—I had already opened the door.
“You know where I am. If you ever need… if you ever want to talk football, our man Bestie, I’m right up those steps. Go to the gate and ring the bell—you’ll be welcome. Any time. Day. Night. You’ll be let in like a proper dignitary, you will.”
I just nodded. And I think that we both knew that I understood.
I closed the door and watched the large, black vessel drive off into darkness, its red taillights carving a path into the night until, finally, I couldn’t see those lights, those beacons, any longer.
And, now, whenever I hear T. Rex—which is, as you know, is always—I remember, for the length of the song, that time in the limo. I remember being strong, I remember being safe. During those songs, those fleeting and precious three minute gifts, I am reminded of the joy of being alive—of living.
The Bolan Boogie Continues…
I should provide, I suppose, a post-script to this. As you may or may not know, Marc Bolan died in a car crash on September 16, 1977. I was living in the U.S. at this time and, being that this was the U.S. and not the UK or Europe, I don’t think I finally heard about it until I read it in a magazine, days, maybe weeks, after the fact. At that time, a local TV affiliate that ran shows from England in syndication–Space 1999, UFO, The Prisoner, and the like–also ran Marc Bolan’s then current show Marc. (Click here for an episode featuring David Bowie–Bowie and Bolan jam together at the end and Marc, portentously, falls off the stage. He would die only days after the taping of this episode.) I remember watching this last episode (the one listed here) with genuine sadness. There would be no more T. Rex records. I felt like I lost a friend.
Marc stayed in my life ever since those days as a boy living in that British expat community in Luxembourg. I bought and re-bought his records. I’ve played his songs in a variety of bands. I even got into a real deal dust up with someone in a NYC bar after they had called Bolan a ‘twee homo’ and some other unsavoury names that I won’t repeat here in response to my playing “Get it On” on the jukebox. (Hey, I was in my twenties, I was living on the Lower East Side, in the Village, and this was the late 1980s, a pretty raucous time for the city–and I had, maybe, one or two beverages. And it was 4am. A fairly combustible combination, all in all.) Finally, Marc Bolan actually prompted the end of a serious relationship (well, as serious as you can be at 23) thanks, in part, to my loyalty to T. Rex in the eternal David Bowie vs T. Rex debate.
Upon driving for hours to see David Bowie perform in Vancouver, BC, in 1987, my long-term girlfriend had finally had it with me when she turned to ask me, during the show, how much I loved it. I repaid her kindness for arranging the tickets, the long drive, the actual car, the food, and the love by saying that it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. She was moved and appreciative–until I explained that it was because I was in the same room as someone who knew Marc Bolan personally. That was it, man. That was the last fucking straw after a long line of straws. (She was a Bowie fanatic and I was… well, we know what I was.) Within the month, we broke up in pretty spectacular fashion. Needless to say, I got my T. Rex records back–in what can only be charitably described as fair-to-middling condition.
And, finally, Marc Bolan has made a more recent ‘dent’ in my life–in my pocketbook. The Gibson guitar company somehow knew that Marc Bolan freaks still exist out in the world, here and there, and that some of those freaks are serious guitar players. So, in their infinite wisdom, they decided to make 100 EXACT replicas of his old Gibson Les Paul workhorse–right down to every single dent, scratch, and, oftentimes, extreme modifications he performed on his instrument. (For example, he refinished it himself and called the colour Bolan Chablis. Then, after breaking the original neck in a rage on stage, he replaced it with, of course, the wrong neck for the guitar.) Naturally, I had to have one. And, consequently, it’s been Marc Bolan impressions up in here for weeks now–my neighbours love me. (SEE BELOW FOR A PICTURE. There’s Marc and his guitar on the top and bottom–my middle-age weapon of geekery is in the middle.) I hate to admit it, but every time–EVERY TIME–I strap that sucker on, I feel like I’m about to take the stage at Wembley in 1972.
As ever, thanks for reading.
And keep a little Marc in your heart.