Marc Bolan was born Mark Feld on 30 September 1947 in the London borough of Hackney; his father was a Jewish lorry driver of Russian and Polish descent, and his mother, as best as I can tell, was your Generic Caucasoid British Christian. He apparently only had the vaguest familiarity with Judaism growing up, as periodically throughout his life, he would identify as Jewish, seemingly oblivious to the tradition of matrilineal descent in Judaism. His childhood home was at 25 Stoke Newington Common in Hackney, and today there exists a plaque marking this.
His active music career began when he was nine. At that age, he was given a guitar and formed his first band, and while still in school, was in other bands, including Susie & the Hoops, which featured Helen Shapiro as their singer. By the age of fifteen, he quit school to focus on music (to Americans: if memory serves me, as I went to school in the States, that’s not as exceptional as an American quitting school at age fifteen, especially in 1962; in England, at least at that time [maybe still?] at age 15, that’s one’s last year of Senior School, prior to College, for sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, which is University preparation/A-levels; the US equivalent would be like quitting High School just before one’s senior year), and also earned money as a model in both catalogues and for cardboard stand-ups for stores, and one of the notable stores he modelled for was John Temple —this is exceptional, as models are typically regarded as tall, which is something Marc never was; his passport claimed 5’7″, but I have reason to believe he was, indeed, shorter, closer to 5’4″ (yes, I’ve analysed photos, tonnes of photos, to bring me to this conclusion —he was tiny for an adult man lacking a condition associated with dwarfism).
Pop Quiz! Marc Bolan first gained notoriety as a Face in the Mod scene, and was one of the last to really make a mark prior the advent of Ready, Steady, Go! commercialising the scene. If I’m correct about his height, which other noteworthy gentleman associated with the Mod scene also stands at about 5’4″?
After leaving school, Mark took on the stage name of Toby Tyler, after the children’s book Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks With a Circus, which had been filmed by Disney as a short live-action engagement and released in 1960. He had also befriended and moved in with juvenile actor Allan Warren. This offered Bolan a gateway into show business, and by 1964, had recorded some demo discs or “acetates” (it’s like the CD-R of the 1960s, kids). He also wrote a lot of poetry and freeform prose. These didn’t get much attention at the time, and his recording contract as Toby Tyler was sold to settle a debt, and eventually, that fell apart because the buyer just wasn’t interested in managing Marc’s career.
Within a couple years, he signed on with Decca Records, changed his stage name to Marc Bolan (citing “Bolan” as a contraction of “Bob Dylan”), and took on Simon Napier-Bell, manager of The Yardbirds and John’s Children, as his manager. Allegedly, Bolan had appeared on Napier-Bell’s doorstep, proclaimed that he was going to be a big star, and that Napier-Bell needed to make the arrangements. Needless to say, he was a gutsy little man, if only to say the least. After listening to Marc’s songs, Napier-Bell arranged for a recording session at a studio. Napier-Bell was originally going to slide Bolan into The Yardbirds (as was common at the time), but for reasons I’ve seen a lot of speculation on, he decided putting Bolan into the lesser-known, and far stranger band, John’s Children, was a better match.
John’s Children was very successful as a live act, but their record sales were crap. Sales weren’t aided at all by the fact that one of the band’s best singles, written by Bolan, “Desdemona”, was banned from BBC radio due to lyrical content. As a fan of John’s Children, even the recordings without Marc, I gotta say this: Everything they did that was good, or even in the vicinity of good, was written by Marc Bolan, and he’d contributed to the recording in some way. See, the thing about John’s Children is they were kind of a prototype for later punk bands that barely knew four chords, but put on such a riotous and bizarre stage show, that kids came to see them, anyway. Marc Bolan was the only member of the band who actually did his own studio recording for the releases, because the rest of the band, when given the opportunity to record, never produced anything usable. The band was definitely strange enough to carry his persona, but he got frustrated with basically carrying the band, musically, and didn’t seem the greatest match for them on stage. He left John’s Children around 1967/early 68, and spent some time in Paris.
The Paris chapter of his life is interesting and very much shrouded in myth and legend, partially of his own making. He took an extended trip to Paris with American actor Riggs O’Hara a couple years prior, but upon returning from Paris in 1968, claimed he’d spent his whole time down there with “a wizard” and learning “secret knowledge”. Eventually, and I have not yet traced the source of this, allegedly this wizard could and may or may not have taught Bolan the secrets of levitation. I’m also pretty certain that it was during, or perhaps just before the Paris chapter that Bolan got really into Tolkein. After John’s Children failed, and Bolan returned from Paris, he formed an acoustic folk-rock band called Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the only other constant member of the band, and I am not making this up, was a drummer who went my Steve Peregrin Took.
Tyrannosaurus Rex was not the most mainstream-ready band. While they had some chart success, and won the support of influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel (who, yes, later in life supported Dubstep, but eh… that was toward the end of his life, I can forgive that), but never a Top Ten hit as an acoustic duo, and only barely into the Top Twenty. A lot of lyrics were even more inspired and influenced by occult and mystic topics than a lot of other bands of the psychedelic era, and this is also the era where we start to see swan imagery enter Bolan’s lyrics. I honestly believe that every pagan folk album that has been recorded since the trio of Tyrannosaurus Rex albums is greatly indebted to these records, even Beard of Stars, Marc’s return to electric instruments, whether they’re directly influenced by them or not.
Upon Marc’s return to electric music with Beard of Stars, was also replacing Steve Perigrin Took with Mickey Finn (another obvious stage name, but one having less to do with Hobbitses) and, after the release of the Beard of Stars record, shortening the band name to T Rex. The 1970 single “Ride a White Swan” made a steady crawl up the UK charts to #2 (and probably the first UK Top Ten single to reference Beltane), and it was also around this time that, it is commonly believed, Marc Bolan invented the glam rock look. There are various versions of this, but apparently of his own idea, Marc took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage that year, and (here’s where it gets conflicting, but I’m going with Marc’s version) one day during a photo shoot at his home, he was just fiddling around, and dabbed some glitter onto his cheeks direct from his wife’s dressing table. Also in 1970s, Bolan was the studio guitarist for David Bowie’s single “The Prettiest Star”, and by the way, the two had been friends since the Mod scene was still somewhat underground —I laugh at anybody who proclaims themselves to be a “huge fan of Bowie”, but who isn’t even familiar with Bolan’s best-known work (I also once knew some-one who made that claim, then admitted they’d never even heard of Marc Bolan or T Rex —very silly person, she was).
Through the first half of the 1970s, Bolan had a string of Top Twenty hits in the UK, including many in the Top Ten. His single “Metal Guru” kept Elton John from breaking #1 in 1972, and that same year, Ringo Starr shot the Bolan-centred documentary/concert film, Born to Boogie.
Completely unrelated, three years later, Ringo Starr would have a role as The Pope in a certain Ken Russell film starring the answer to the above Pop Quiz. Bonus points if you know the name of the film; give yourself another point if I ever made you watch it (I only did so because I genuinely love you).
In spite of the fact that by 1975, some nay-sayers might describe Bolan’s life and career as somewhat of a wreck (the classic line-up of T. Rex had all left the band for other projects, his marriage fell apart because of a long-running affair with Motown singer and T. Rex backing vocalist, Gloria Jones, and he had put on considerable weight, this mattered not to Bolan, and he put out at least a full album every year of he was alive in the 1970s, and had recorded enough material during that time that tapes, once assumed lost, stolen, or apparently made without anybody else’s knowledge, continued to surface for a regular cycle of albums of previously-unreleased material well into the 1990s. Also in 1975, whilst living in “tax exile” in the States, he came out as bisexual in a magazine interview, and according to Napier-Bell, apparentkly unaware of that interview, stated of Bolan what while [Napier-Belle mistakenly believed] Bolan was never out” he was also “never discreet about it in private”.
By 1976, he and lover Jones (they never legally married) returned to the UK, and Marc recorded new music, and for all intents and purposes, was on his way to a comeback in his career. He had planned a tour with The Damned as support, filmed a ITV series called Marc, wherein he introduced new bands and established musicians who remained current, and even performed his own music with some.
On 16 September 1977, Marc Bolan died in a car accident; Gloria Jones was driving, and the road was rendered hazardous due to weather. Marc Bolan never learned to drive, harboring a lifelong fear of dieing in an auto wreck.