Had Marc Bolan lived past age 29, he too might have become an elder statesman of rock like David Bowie.
David Bowie may have outshone Marc Bolan (1947 – 1977) in the glam rock world – Bowie charted more singles at home in the U.K. and overseas, sustained his career longer, became a household name in a way that Bolan never did – but don’t write Bolan and his band T. Rex off. Had Bolan lived beyond age 29, he too might have become an elder statesman of rock like Bowie.
Or perhaps Bolan would have faded into obscurity, releasing pedestrian, phone-it-in songs that couldn’t hold a candle to the swirling, swaggering music he made as the glittery glam rocker in a top hat and feather boa.
Rock God or Has Been? We can’t say what trajectory Bolan’s career would have taken had he lived to a riper old age. As it is, Bolan is one of those gone-too-soon icons like Buddy Holly or Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, whose music and image are canonized upon their early deaths. There’s a lot of rocker cred in saying your music is influenced by T. Rex, as have greats from Blondie and Joan Jett to Smashing Pumpkins, The Smiths, and Oasis. Or by name-checking them in one of your songs:
“I drunk myself blind to the sound of old T. Rex”
“Oh man, I need TV when I got T. Rex”
–David Bowie (via Mott the Hoople, who made “All the Young Dudes” famous)
“Will you remember Jerry Lee, John Lennon, T. Rex and OI Moulty?”
“Glimmer like Bolan in the morning sun”
–My Chemical Romance
And yet, if you say you love T. Rex in a room full of average folks – not the ones who camp out in front of the record store for the latest shipment of remasters – they might blink at you blankly. You might have to remind them, “You know, they sang ‘Bang a Gong (Get it On).'”
That’s more likely to jog their memories, though depending on their age, your listeners might think the song was written by The Power Station in 1985, thanks to their hot cover (which charted higher than the original). Even if they know it was by T. Rex, they might think it was pretty much the only thing Bolan and crew did – after all, glam rock never really took hold in the U.S. like it did in Europe. “Bang a Gong” was the only T. Rex song to make it out of the depths of the charts here. And the band keeps showing up on compilation CDs of one-hit wonders.
Even if your listeners have heard of T. Rex, they probably don’t know about the psychedelic acoustic tunes Bolan made with T. Rex-prototype band Tyrannosaurus Rex.
A few of them might have some idea that T. Rex wrote other songs – maybe they have a British friend who loved U.K. hits like “Jeepster,” “Telegram Sam” or “Metal Guru.”
There might be one person in the room – the one who was in a band in college, or the guy with the impressive record collection – who nods along with you as you talk about T. Rex. That person probably has a favorite album cut (mine is “Chariot Choogle”) – not one of the U.K. singles.
If you’re like me – or the guy with the record collection or one of the rock stars mentioned above – you probably try to get that room full of average folks to sit down and listen to a few T. Rex songs, the ones they don’t know. You try to show them how Bolan was a poet as much as he was a rocker, how there was substance underneath all that glitter… and how the world became less when he died Sept. 16, 1977.