40 Years Ago: Marc Bolan Dies in Car Crash
By the mid-‘70s, nearly everyone knew the name of Marc Bolan of T. Rex. Despite never quite breaking the U.S. his flamboyant, glamorous image and impish good looks had propelled him to fame and fortune, to say nothing of his adept pop songwriting. And after several years in the doldrums, it looked as if 1978 was going to be the year he’d soar higher than he ever had before. Sadly, he didn’t survive long enough to make it happen.
Born two years after the end of World War II, Mark Feld became a teenager soon after the rock ’n’ roll movement took off. Like the Beatles and other groundbreaking British bands, he started off playing skiffle music, inspired by the work of Lonnie Donegan, before seeking something a little more intriguing. By the age of 17 he’d recorded his first single – although opinions differ on whether it was “Mrs Jones,” produced by Joe Meek in 1963, or “All At Once” the following year. He signed his first record deal in 1965 and nearly joined the Yardbirds in 1966, before his management decided he’d be better off as a member of John’s Children. That lasted a year, and then Bolan created Tyrannosaurus Rex, the psychedelic folk duo (along with drummer Steve Peregrin Took) that brought him his first taste of fame.
By 1970 he’d begun to move towards a rockier sound, with help from producer Tony Visconti, and “Ride a White Swan” was the vehicle that presented T. Rex to the world. It took several months before it reached No.2 in the U.K. chart, by which time the increasingly flamboyant Bolan had taken to adding glitter to his stage makeup, thus launching the glitter-fueled glam rock era. As the ‘70s continued T. Rex became leaders of the genre with fully-electric hit singles including “Hot Love,” “Get It On,” “Jeepster,” “Telegram Sam,” “Metal Guru,” “Children of the Revolution” and “Solid Gold Easy Action.”
“I don't contrive my success in the sense of going into a studio to make hit singles,” he told the Record Mirror in 1971 (via the Guardian). "I've no idea what makes a hit single anyway. I go in and do what I like – just the funkiest thing I have goes into a single. I get a few people in the business come up and give me a nudge and say, 'Go on, Bole, you've got it made – you're a sly one,' but I really don't have any kind of secret formula. I just don't think like that.”
But it wasn’t a smooth journey. “It can’t last,” Bolan told the Guardian of his following in 1972. “They’ll grow up soon and change, or find some other hero. It’s all cycles – but this one’s mine.”
He was right. By 1975 Bolan had lost all but one of the bandmates who’d helped propel him forward, and his marriage had ended as a result of his affair with backing singer Gloria Jones. Heavy use of cocaine and alcohol had caused him to gain weight, destroying his ethereal faerie looks, and his working pace, along with the quality of his output, had diminished. But Jones told the Express in 2007, “Drugs and alcohol were not the problem. His problem was that he had been a major, major superstar and all of a sudden people were saying he didn’t have what it takes any more. That’s what messed things up.”
The birth of Rolan, his son with Jones, seemed to help him stop the spinning in later 1975. He refocused his energies, and returned to the U.K., which he’d left as a tax exile. Within 18 months he released T. Rex album Dandy in the Underworld, toured Britain with the Damned as support act to attract a new generation of fans, and began presenting an early-evening TV show on the ITV network, with a full season recorded and a second one planned. (The final episode, clip below, featured his friend and rival David Bowie, who was seen to be amused when Bolan fell off stage while they duetted on “Heroes.”)
Captain Sensible of the Damned told Classic Rock of their tour with T. Rex: “Marc was firing on all cylinders. He’d got rid of his drug habit, he’d gone through his arrogant stage, he was almost humble. He was getting fit, the cheekbones were coming back, he was excited, he had a great band, and the songs were getting better.” Visconti added: “Marc was grateful to have a second chance. Marc was back on form. He was the cosmic punk again.”
The journey was to come to a tragic and sudden end. Around 5AM on the morning of Sept. 16, 1977, after a night in a London club, Bolan was in the passenger seat of a purple Austin Mini driven by Jones. (He’d never learned to drive, telling friends that he had strong premonitions of an early death, and felt a car might be involved.) She lost control on a humpback bridge and the car was thrown into a steel fence before stopping against a tree. The passenger side had born the brunt of the impact, and Bolan was sent through 180 degrees and ended up in the rear seat.
Bolan’s friends Vicky Aram and Richard Jones were following the Mini to the rock star’s home just over a mile away, and was on the scene moments after the accident. Aram said in 2012: “I can still in my mind see, so clearly, a purple car which looked like a little beetle. It was upright and it was smoking and there was a tiny glimmer of light from the moon, the night was so still. I said, ‘We've got to get them out – this car might blow up.’ I took my mother's rug from the back of my car and put it on the ground. Some of the fans are comforted by the fact he was laid on a nice lady's rug. I don't think Richard thought Marc was dead, but I knew he was.”
Bolan had died instantly, while Jones was hospitalized with serious injuries, and was only told of her partner’s passing at age 29 four days later – the day of his funeral. She was accused from some quarters of having been drunk at the wheel, but friends and witnesses defended her, saying she’d only ever been a moderate drinker. “We had been driving for 45 minutes with no problem before the crash,” she told the Express. “But really, I don’t remember much. I was very badly injured.”
The funeral ceremony, at London’s Golders Green, was attended by Bowie, Rod Stewart and Steve Harley among others. Bowie told Rolling Stone at the time: “I’m terribly broken by it. He was my mate. The only tribute I can give Marc is that he was the greatest little giant in the world." The crash scene, now known as Bolan’s Rock Shrine, became a centre of pilgrimage as soon as the news of his death rolled off the presses, and it’s maintained to this day by the T. Rex Action Group.
He left a legacy that included 23 hit singles and took fans beyond the horizon of glam rock – “20th Century Boy” and “Children of the Revolution” are among his tracks to have been covered in other genres, including versions of the former by Def Leppard, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Replacements and Adam Ant, and the latter by Bono of U2, the Violent Femmes and ex Iron Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno.
“He’d be doing his own music, he’d be doing film, he’d be enjoying time with his son, and we’d possibly be living in Malibu,” Jones told Classic Rock when asked what might have happened if Bolan had lived. “That was the plan. He’d be good-looking and still sharp.” She told the Express of his regular predictions of an early death: “I don’t know why he said those things. He was a dramatic, sensationalist sort of person when he wanted to be. But in reality he was always looking for something new, always forward thinking. He was a family-oriented person. There was Marc Bolan the star, and Marc the down-to-earth person, the doting father, the ordinary London boy.”
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