The evening began at the Speakeasy, a popular London nightclub for musicians, which Marc Bolan had frequented for years, where he knew everyone and everyone knew him. Bolan ordered champagne. It was intended, says Gloria Jones, to be a celebration.
The previous day, along with their baby son Rolan, Jones had flown back from America, where she had been making an album. Bolan had been recording a programme for his television series, Marc, and had then given an interview for a foreign radio journalist. 'In that interview Marc expressed his love for me, and how I'd stayed with him through all of the problems and disappointments.' Jones pauses. We are sitting in the garden of her home in South Africa, where she has lived for the past six years. It is 25 years since Marc Bolan died, in the car which she was driving, but even now Jones finds it difficult to recall the moment without being moved to tears.
'We were celebrating...' she says again. Bolan suggested they go on to Morton's, a nightclub in Berkeley Square, to carry on the party. At Morton's, Gloria sat down at the piano and started to sing. Bolan ordered more champagne. 'He was so happy. I declared my love for him, and he declared his love for me.' It was after 4am when they finally spilt out into the square. Bolan had never learnt to drive. He had a fear of it. Usually, he would be ferried around in a Rolls-Royce. But his driver had the night off. Instead, Gloria was driving them both in Bolan's purple Mini. 'I kept saying, I don't want to drive this car. I should leave it here. But there was no parking, and I didn't want to get a ticket.' Bolan and Jones climbed into the Mini and, in high spirits, set off for home.
Marc Bolan loved to read biographies of the old movie stars. If he and Jones were going to a party or a pop business function he would often choose a role to play, like picking a suit off the rail.
'He might be Cecil B DeMille one evening, or Valentino, or if he wanted to be suave, Errol Flynn,' says Jones. 'Marc could really put it on.' But towards the end of his career, perhaps the star he most began to resemble was Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Bolan's former publicist, Keith Altham, tells a story of setting up an interview for a journalist at Bolan's Fulham home. Beforehand, Bolan explained to Altham that when he reached the house he 'should be careful' because 'the fans are everywhere. There's hundreds of them outside.' But Bolan had a plan. Altham should call from a nearby phone box; Bolan would open the door, and Altham and the journalist could make a dash for it. Altham arrived to find that the street was deserted. He none the less indulged Bolan by going through the charade of phoning from the call box outside. 'But Marc,' he asked, when they had finally been admitted to the house, 'where are all the fans?' Bolan didn't even blink. 'They're hiding behind the wall.'
Marc Bolan was only 5ft 4in but he was possessed of a charisma and a self-determination that always made him seem larger than life, a conviction about his destiny which friends remember as 'truly terrifying'. At the age of 17, at a time when nobody had the faintest idea who he was, Bolan was telling the London Evening Standard that he was destined to be the world's biggest pop star, enthusing that, 'The prospect of being immortal doesn't excite me, but the prospect of being a materialistic idol for four years does appeal.'
In the event, Bolan got just two years. Between 1970 and 1972 his group T.Rex had four number- one singles, three at number two, and for a brief, delirious moment Marc Bolan was, if not the world's, then certainly Britain's biggest pop star. The papers even had a word for it: 'TRexstasy'; a coinage to replace the Beatlemania which had dominated pop music for the preceding 10 years. His fall from grace was equally rapid. By 1974, his songs did not even feature in the lower reaches of the top 40. And yet his death at 29 gave him the immortality which he would no doubt have relished.
For 25 years, the tree on Barnes Common, into which the purple Mini, which Jones was driving, crashed on September 16, 1977, killing Bolan instantly, has been an unlikely shrine, draped with scarves and ribbons. Five years ago the Performing Rights Society erected a plaque there in his memory. This year, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death, there are plans for a bust.
Marc Bolan's real name was Mark Feld. Born in 1947, he grew up in the East End of London. His father was a lorry driver, his mother worked on a fruit stall in Soho's Berwick St market, where Bolan would often help. As a boy, Bolan would loiter at the stage door of the Hackney Empire, touching the hem of the garments of stars such as Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. At the age of 12 he was a member of a local group that included a future star, Helen Shapiro. By 14 he was on the cover of Town magazine, which noted him as a leading specimen of the new species of 'mod'. 'I've got 10 suits, eight sports jackets, 15 pairs of slacks, about 20 jumpers, three leather jackets, two suede jackets, five or six pairs of shoes and 30 exceptionally good ties,' he boasted.
He was a chancer, skulking in music business boozers, telling everybody who would listen that he would one day be 'bigger than Elvis'. His first recordings as Toby Tyler, a Donovan imitator, vanished without trace. His first single as Marc Bolan, The Wizard, was released in 1965. According to his elder brother, Harry, Mark Feld was actually 'very quiet, very introverted'. Becoming Marc Bolan was, 'like Clark Kent going into the telephone box and putting on his swimming trunks and cape'. The transformation was evidently remarkable. Simon Napier-Bell, the veteran impresario who managed Bolan early in his career and went on to discover Wham!, remembers Bolan having 'the biggest ego in the world. When he first came to me he said, "I don't know why we need to make a record. All we need to do is put up posters all over town and I'll be just as big a star." '
Napier-Bell first met Bolan in 1966, shortly after the release of The Wizard. 'The story Marc told everyone was that he'd met this wizard in the Bois de Boulogne who had taken him back to his house where he'd stayed for three months, studying magic, making potions and so on,' says Napier-Bell. 'Actually, he'd gone on a weekend trip to Paris and met a conjuror in a gay club and spent the night with him. But if you faced him with this, he'd just laugh. Marc had the greatest sense of humour in the world. He'd laugh at himself more than anybody else.' Bolan, says Napier-Bell, had a seductive charm and 'an ambivalence' that made him attractive to both men and women. He was 'a hustler. I don't think Marc would do anything, but he'd persuade people that he might. And there were an awful lot of people who helped him on that basis.'
Napier-Bell invited Bolan to join one of his acts, John's Children, as guitarist and singer, and he achieved fleeting notoriety by having his song Desdemona banned by the BBC, who deemed the line 'lift up your skirts and fly' offensive. But he chafed at not being the leader of his own show. So with a Ladbroke Grove hippie, Steve Peregrine Took (named after the character in Lord of the Rings), he formed Tyrannosaurus Rex and began to build a following in London's underground clubs. The band's breakthrough came when an American producer named Tony Visconti walked into a club in the West End called Middle Earth. Bolan was on stage, sitting cross-legged on a carpet, hunched over his guitar, his face half-obscured in a cloud of curls, while an obviously stoned Peregrine Took banged his bongos beside him.
'I didn't see a musician,' remembers Visconti, 'I saw a star. I went up to him and he said, "Oh, you're the eighth producer I've met this week. John Lennon was in here last night, and he wants to produce us." He was totally full of himself.' Bolan took Visconti's card. At 10 the next morning he called from the street outside Visconti's office. 'He made it sound casual. "I'm just passing by, we'd like to come up and audition." They unfurled their carpet on our floor and played their whole set.'
The first album, released in 1968 and produced by Visconti, boasted the longest and most pretentious title in pop history: My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair? But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. Bolan sang in a droning, nasal voice, which critics likened to the bleating of a goat, and wrote lyrics informed by the enthusiasms of the day - psychedelic nursery tales about mystics and magicians that the critic George Melly thought 'rather like Walter de la Mare'. There was, says Keith Altham, 'something of the amateur mystic about Marc, and I don't think even he knew what it was. I think it stemmed from the fact that he was extremely bright intuitively, but not intellectually.' Bolan told people he was the reincarnation of a Celtic bard. To his agent of the time, Peter Jenner, more accustomed to Bolan haranguing him over fees, he was 'a flower child with a knife up his sleeve'.
By now, Bolan had met June Child, a music business fixer whose duties had included 'minding' Pink Floyd's damaged genius, Syd Barrett, who had briefly been her lover. Bolan and June fell, according to one friend, 'madly and totally in love'. June was four years older, smarter and more worldly wise. Bolan was obsessed with Lord of the Rings, but he was dyslexic and had never read it. Lying in bed together, June read the three volumes out loud to Bolan - 'and The Hobbit too,' says Tony Visconti. 'She filled in all the pieces that were missing in his life.' June became his lover, chauffeur, minder, mentor, and eventually, his wife.
Bolan made four albums as Tyrannosaurus Rex, but the acoustic meanderings and whimsical lyrics had limited appeal: none sold more than 25,000 copies. Furthermore, Peregrine Took's escalating drug consumption was now a liability. On the band's first visit to America, he stripped naked on stage and flagellated himself with his belt until he drew blood. Bolan sacked him, replacing him with the more amenable Mickey Finn, switched from acoustic to electric guitar, and changed the group's name to T.Rex. In 1970, Ride a White Swan reached number two. His student following accused him of selling out. But Bolan didn't care. Overnight, he had realised his dream. He was a teen idol.
The story is that it was Chelita Secunda, the wife of Bolan's manager, Tony Secunda, who bought Bolan his first pair of slingbacks and sprinkled glitter round his eyes. Whatever the truth, glam-rock - or as John Lennon put it, 'just f***ing rock'n'roll with lipstick' - was born. Bolan's timing was impeccable. The Beatles's last album, Let It Be, was released in 1970. Jimi Hendrix died the same year. Rock was becoming increasingly self-conscious, burdened with a sense of its own importance.
Bolan took it back to its primal roots of snappy hooks and naggingly memorable choruses. Songs like Get It On, Hot Love, Telegram Sam were love letters to lusting adolescents. Beneath the satin tat, the feather boas and top hats, Bolan had the sultry, pouting look of a corrupt cherub, strutting for a legion of adoring pubescent fans. 'It was like, this is where he belonged all along,' says Visconti. Bolan played the role of pop idol to the hilt. He splashed out on clothes, guitars, a Rolls-Royce (even though he was unable to drive).
Always possessed of a self-belief that could border on the messianic, he now became impossibly self-regarding; his interviews bragging sessions. 'If God were to appear in my room,' he told one journalist, 'obviously I would be in awe, but I don't think I would be humble. I might cry, but I think he would dig me like crazy.' His friend and rival David Bowie was dismissed as 'a one-hit wonder'. Bolan accused Lennon of trying to imitate him, and boasted to Visconti that David Niven wanted to make a film with him. 'It was completely untrue,' says Visconti. No matter how successful he was, it was never enough. 'I used to phone EMI each day for the sales figures,' remembers Visconti, 'and at one point Hot Love was selling more than 25,000 copies a day - an astronomical number. It was number one for seven weeks. Marc would phone me 40 minutes later and say, "Hi Tone, guess what it sold yesterday - 50,000!" '
Bolan now spent much of his time enjoying what Keith Altham calls 'the celebrity rubdown' with new friends such as the singer Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon - 'heavy juicers'. Bolan too became what Altham describes as 'a committed social drinker'. He had always been vegetarian, careful with his diet - 'kosher macroneurotic', as his friend Jeff Dexter puts it. But now he surrendered to his appetites. Visconti remembers opening Bolan's refrigerator to find it was filled with champagne and a huge fried chicken. Bolan put on weight, resembling what one critic described as 'a glittering chipolata'.
He had also started using cocaine. Chelita Secunda, as well as advising Bolan on matters of style, was also his coke dealer. 'Between them, Chelita and [her husband] Tony must have accounted for one quarter of all the cocaine in London,' remembers Visconti. Until then, Bolan had always been abstemious in his drug use, shunning hallucinogens on the grounds that 'I have enough going on in my head already'. He liked to be in control. But cocaine was the ego drug. 'That suited Marc,' says Visconti. 'It made him even bigger in his own mind. That's when the ugliness really started. He'd alienate the band with caustic statements: "You couldn't work with anyone else if you weren't with me." It wasn't nice to watch.'
Jeff Dexter, who had known Bolan since his early days as a mod, and who went on to work for his management team, puts it more pointedly. 'He became obnoxious. People from working-class backgrounds who suddenly become famous often feel they can take liberties with people; and Marc took a lot of liberties. He could be incredibly arrogant. All the sycophants were telling him he was the most wonderful thing in the world and he believed it.'
To his family, Bolan's vaunting fame displayed itself in a curious fashion. Mark Feld had spoken with a broad cockney accent. But Marc Bolan, as his brother Harry puts it, 'spoke posh'. In the company of his family, however, the aitches would drop, and 'he could be himself'. Harry worked as a long-distance lorry driver, but he would see his brother on Bolan's occasional visits to the family home. Bolan, he says, was devoted to their mother. 'He could talk about anything with Mum. Everything he had inside him that he wouldn't tell anybody else would all come out.' Eschewing the Rolls-Royce, he would turn up on a fold-up pushbike, which he used for exercise. 'He'd come round incognito, wearing a track-suit, dark glasses and a hat, and the kids would stand on the corner and say "Hello, Marc". If there was nothing happening he could go into the bedroom and sleep all day. He'd say, "No matter who comes round, I'm not in." One day David Bowie came round to see him, and my mum still said, "He's not in." '
'I don't know if Marc ever thought beyond being a rock star,' says Visconti. But by 1973, Bolan's popularity was on the wane. His trademark three-chord chugging riffs had begun to sound repetitive and tired, the gladrags to look increasingly threadbare, but Bolan had no idea how to revitalise his failing muse. Visconti urged him to take a year off, to develop an ambitious concept album, The Children of Rarn, similar to the Who's Tommy, which Bolan had been working on. 'But he was adamant - "No, no, we have to make one more album for the kids." But the kids had moved on. The truth is I don't think he knew where to go, musically.' In the 10 albums they made together, says Visconti, Bolan used only seven chords, 'and never learned one new one. I remember once playing him a record by John Williams, the classical guitarist. And he said, "I can play like that." I said, "No, Marc, you can't." He said, "I can, I can - well I could in a fortnight if I really studied." But that if was the word.'
According to Visconti, Bolan 'couldn't function without a woman in his life', and if it wasn't his mother, it was June. In the early years of their relationship, Bolan's emotional dependency on her was 'total', and she, in turn, would forgive him almost anything. (When he was conducting a brief affair with the singer Marsha Hunt, June would be in the flat while he telephoned her.) But by 1973, June too was having an affair, and the relationship finally ended. Bolan had a new love in his life.
Gloria Jones first met Bolan in 1969 at a party in LA. Jones was playing the piano when he walked in. Bolan, she remembers, was wearing a cape 'like a pair of wings'. Somebody said he was going to be 'the next Beatles'. She'd never heard of him. 'I went into the kitchen, and a dog was sniffing him. And Marc kicked the dog. I said, "Do you do this to everyone?" And he said, "I'll kick anyone that's smelling my balls." '
The daughter of a Pentacostalist preacher, Jones had enjoyed some success as a soul singer (in 1965 she recorded the original version of Tainted Love - later a million-seller for Soft Cell), and as a writer-producer for Motown records. At the time she met Bolan she was appearing on stage in the musical Hair. Nothing came of the first meeting, but their paths continued to cross, and in 1973 Bolan invited Jones to audition for a job as a backing singer with his band. 'Marc always knew the future - I would call him psychic,' she says. Immediately after her audition, Bolan returned to London and wrote her into his will as his 'secretary'. For a year, their relationship was purely platonic. After five years together, Bolan was in the process of breaking up with June, and Jones's marriage to a baseball coach was also falling apart. Their relationship was finally consummated in Florida, with a typically grandiose gesture. 'He asked me, what would you like for dinner? I said seafood. We jumped into a limo and went down to a seafood restaurant and he ordered everything on the menu: $150 worth of seafood, about 30 boxes. And that was it.'
By the time Jones and Bolan got together, he had begun to live the peripatetic life of the tax exile. For three years they moved between London, Monte Carlo and Los Angeles; years in which Bolan gradually, but inexorably, slid from the top. According to one acquaintance, Jones's arrival changed Bolan's life, 'in that he had someone to believe everything he said'. Jones sees it differently. 'People say I was in awe of Marc, but it wasn't like that. I didn't go into the relationship with him because he was a star. I respected him, and he respected me.' She and Bolan, she says, 'were of the same souls. He was a Libra; I'm a Libra. We understood each other.' The Marc Bolan she knew was 'very serious about life, very sensitive'. She pauses. 'But then there's the other side; the rock'n'roll side?' The drinking and drug-taking, which Jones prefers not to dwell on.
'When you're with your mate, you're with them through it all. You see things happening, but when it comes to the man of the household, what can a wife really say until the man makes a decision to change?' Bolan, she says, loved being a star. 'But he didn't realise the fans could change. And all of a sudden you had the Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter, disco?' Bowie, the 'one hit wonder', whose record sales had long since overtaken Bolan's, had 'gone R&B', and Bolan tried to follow suit. 'And the people said, we don't like it. And that really hurt him, because he cared so much about his music.'
Fame is a capricious mistress. Jones recalls an occasion when she and Bolan were shopping for shoes. Glancing through the window, Bolan happened to see Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac's former guitarist, passing by. Perhaps the most gifted musician of his generation, Green had developed acute psychiatric problems after experimenting with LSD. He had dropped out of the music business and was living as a street person. Bolan had always idolised him.
'Marc said, "That's Peter Green. I want to buy him a pair of shoes." So I went and said, "Pete, Marc Bolan's in the shop and he'd like to buy you some shoes." Peter was looking at me like, who are these people? But he came in. He accepted the shoes, and that evening he came over to the house and ate dinner with us. Then Marc said, "Are you sure you have somewhere to go?" And Peter said, "No, I'm all right." And he left. That was typical of Marc, but people never tell those stories.'
From the moment she and Bolan got together, Jones says, they 'promoted family'. She became close to his parents, and met his aunts and grandmother - 'she looked like the Queen Mother'. Then, in 1975, Jones became pregnant. The change in Bolan was dramatic. It was only recently that he had checked into a health farm and been told that he had 'the heartbeat of a 70-year-old' (he was 25). Now he started to curb his indulgences and to lose weight. Their son, Rolan, was born in September 1975. 'Marc was so happy and so proud. That baby was a cause of so much joy for him. It was, "This is my woman; I'm marrying her; this is our child; we're going to grow." '
Bolan's fortunes seemed to be taking a turn for the better. In 1976 he had his last top-20 hit, I Love to Boogie. And the following year he released an album, Dandy in the Underworld, hailed by critics as his strongest in years. He toured Britain with the Damned in support and, in a gesture which appeared to crown his comeback, he was given his own television show, Marc, with a remit to promote new music. The last programme he recorded featured his old friend and adversary David Bowie as a guest. The pair sang together at the end, on a narrow stage. At the song's conclusion, Bolan stepped back, and accidentally tumbled off the stage, leaving Bowie standing alone.
Perhaps Gloria Jones was right; perhaps Bolan was psychic. 'He was obsessed with James Dean,' remembers Simon Napier-Bell. 'And the most amazing thing he ever said to me was, I think I'd like to die in a car crash just like Dean, only I'm so small it would have to be a Mini." ' 'There was always this idea in Marc's mind of die young and make a good corpse,' says Keith Altham. 'That horrible expression? He once said, "I honestly feel it could all end tomorrow. Not just the band thing, I mean life." And these weren't just flippant remarks; they did seem to come from some weird inner conviction.'
'What I learnt in life,' says Jones, 'is that one is chosen to be there for the good and the bad.' That night, she insists, she had not been drinking, 'until later when Marc wanted to celebrate. And then there are responsibilities. Nobody around us was saying, don't drive; let's put you in a taxi. When you're a star you have your valets and your bodyguards. But that night it was just Marc and me. My point is, if we had been in that bad a state, somebody would have said, you guys can't do this.' And another thing, she says. That same day a tyre on the car had been changed, and the mechanic had failed to replace one of the bolts.
At the point on Barnes Common where the crash occurred, the road curved, the tarmac giving way to gravel. 'And when we made that turn, we weren't on the road, we were on the gravel. We'd been driving for 45 minutes and the wheel came off on that hump.' Jones pauses. 'If we had been in a larger car,' she says, 'Marc would have survived.'
Bolan's brother, Harry, had become a bus-driver in Portsmouth. He was on early-morning duty when he was told that he was needed at home. Driving home, he switched on the 7 o'clock news and learnt of his brother's death. Harry immediately drove to London, collected his mother, stopped at Bolan's house and then went to the hospital to identify his brother's body. Gloria Jones was unconscious, as she would remain for the next three days. Harry returned to Bolan's house. In the hour and a half he had been gone, the house had been stripped. 'All Marc's guitars, his clothes, everything. The big bedroom upstairs was his music room. He had cupboards full of tapes. The whole bloody lot went.' There was no sign of forced entry. Whoever had ransacked the house evidently had a key.
For some months before his death, according to Jones, Bolan had suspected that his financial affairs were in disarray, that he was being taken advantage of. Shortly after his death, his estate was presented with an outstanding tax bill of some £3 million. Bolan had thought that money from his royalties would easily cover the liabilities. But he was wrong. It was the beginning of a tangled and acrimonious battle that would last until the present day. In 1973, Bolan had drawn up a will in which Jones - his 'secretary' - and Mickey Finn, both received £10,000. His wife, June received £5,000 and his parents £20,000. Harry received nothing.
'At that time I was drinking a lot,' Harry now says, 'and he probably thought I'd just piss it up the wall. But I knew if I ever needed anything I could go to him and it would be sorted out.' By the time the tax and the few minor bequests had been settled, Bolan's estate was worth next to nothing.
In the years since his death, the continuing royalties from his early recordings have been made over to two charities, the Performing Rights Society Members Fund, and the Ravenswood Foundation, which cares for people with learning disabilities. But the earnings from Bolan's post-1971 recordings were locked up in an offshore trust, Wizard (Bahamas), which had been set up by Bolan's financial advisers for tax avoidance purposes. Some estimates have placed the value of this trust as high as £20 million, but who benefited from it remains a well-kept secret. For years, representatives of Rolan Bolan have been attempting to claim what he regards as his rightful legacy. Tony Visconti also engaged in a protracted legal fight to acquire his share of outstanding royalties. But it seems that one of the principal beneficiaries was Bolan's wife June. At the time Wizard was being established, the couple were in the throes of an acrimonious separation. Apparently determined to eliminate June from his affairs, Bolan did not include her name among the Wizard trustees.
But the couple never divorced, and June was seemingly able to make a substantial claim on the trust after his death, for herself and for a daughter (not Bolan's). 'It was June's payback in a way,' says Visconti. 'She was penniless when she and Marc split. And she cut off Rolan and Gloria as a result.'
June Bolan died of a heart attack in Turkey in 1996. After 24 years, and 'seven legal teams', Tony Visconti finally settled his case against Wizard out of court last year. Rolan Bolan, too, is in the process of negotiating his own settlement, and says that while he is constrained from discussing the case, 'it's a good situation right now'. Since his father's death, Rolan has lived in LA, where in recent years he has been struggling to establish himself as a songwriter and performer.
Gloria Jones sustained facial injuries, a broken collarbone and a smashed leg and foot in the accident that killed Bolan. The injuries healed, but she says it took her 14 years to 'come out of the shock' of his death. She returned to America - 'We had always spoken of living in Malibu,' she says, 'a little old rock'n'roll couple' - and worked in the music business as a consultant. She married, and in 1995 moved to South Africa with her husband Chris Mitchell to work with local musicians. They are now establishing a charity for HIV children in a Johannesburg township.
She has few mementoes of her life with Bolan. Most of their possessions disappeared in the theft at his house - 'They even took my underwear.' Almost from the moment of his death, a steady flow of Bolan artefacts began to appear at auctions and fairs. Even now, private tapes of his rehearsals and performances change hands for as much as £1,000 apiece. But the most macabre memento did not appear until 10 years after his death.
In 1987, Harry Feld received a call from a Bournemouth newspaper, informing him that a retired funeral director, Larry Mitchell, was auctioning the bloodstained clothes Bolan was wearing when he died. Harry telephoned Mitchell and invited him to his home. When his brother was cremated, Harry had instructed that the clothes should be destroyed. Mitchell claimed he had found them when he retired, in a bag in a store room, and that he was auctioning them on behalf of a hospital charity.
Harry took a metal tray from his shed, placed the clothes on the tray and took it out into his back garden. He poured lighter fuel over the clothes, lit a match and watched them burn to cinders, 'So no bugger got 'em.'
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