“We were just two nothing kids with huge ambitions.” That’s how David Bowie described his early relationship with glam-rock icon Marc Bolan. It was a complicated relationship, riddled with insecurities, instances of extreme jealousy, and a whole lot of substance abuse. But few people know about their early, pre-fame years. It was a time in which the two would-be stars were in embryo, still experimenting with their wardrobes and musical styles, developing their songwriting and the public personas that would come to define them.
Bowie and Bolan had a lot in common. They were both born in 1947, for one thing. Both were desperate to escape the mundanity of suburban life, and they both possessed a striking androgynous beauty and lust for the world of fashion. Marc Bolan had always been something of a dandy in his school years, customising his uniform with velvet jackets and anything else he could pick up at the thrift stores dotted around London. So when he was expelled from school for bad behaviour, he was quickly spotted and signed by a modelling agency, going on to become a “John Temple Boy”. He appeared in a clothing catalogue for the menswear store and modelled for the suits in their catalogues as well as for cardboard cut-outs to be displayed in shop windows. As a result, Town magazine featured him as an early example of the mod movement in one of their photo spreads.
At that time in the early ’60s, Bowie was also deep into the mod culture. So, when the pair met for the first time, they quickly bonded over their shared passion. At a concert in the early ’00s, Bowie shared the story of that first meeting: “We actually met very early on in the 1960s, before either of us were even a tad known. We were nothing. We were just two nothing kids with big ambitions, and we both had the same manager at the time. And we first met each other painting the wall of our then manager’s office,” Bowie said.
Locked into the groove of sweeping their paintbrushes up and down the whitewashed office walls, Bowie and Bolan introduced themselves on another, with Marc describing himself as a mod first and a singer second. “Marc took me dustbin shopping,” Bowie continued. “At that time, Carnaby Street, the fashion district, was going through a period of incredible wealth. And rather than replace buttons on their shirts or zippers on their trousers, they’d just throw it all away in the dustbins. So we used to go up and down Carnaby Street and go through all the dustbins, around nine, ten o’clock, and get our wardrobes together.”
It was the pair’s lack of success in the music industry which had brought them together. They’d had to whitewash their manager’s office to repay him, after all. Tony Visconti, who would go on to produce Bowie’s Heroes album, once described how Bowie would have done anything for Bolan: “David always adored him”. The two were like brothers. But, as their friendship blossomed, so did their separate careers, and it was here that the tensions started to arise.
In 1967, Bolan formed the psychedelic duo, Tyrannosaurus Rex. The band’s output was the pinnacle of hippie chic, with Bolan on vocals and guitar and his friend Steve ‘Peregrine’ Took on bongos. The pair sang blissed-out songs which blended the imagery of Tolkien with the lyrical folk melodies of Donavon. John Peel, the famous radio DJ and arbiter of all things cool, was an avid fan and promoted Marc’s music, giving him his first taste of success and a single which reached number 28 in the charts.
Bowie, on the other hand, was still in the gutter, looking up at the stars.
In a bid to help his friend, Bolan offered Bowie a support slot on a Tyrannosaurus Rex gig. It should have been a gesture of goodwill, but Bolan, who had always been something of an egotist, was afraid that his friend might outshine him, so he commanded David not to sing. Not knowing what else he could offer, Bowie turned to his work with Lindsey Kemp, a dancer and teacher with whom David had studied mime. Instead of performing some of his early, more Dylan-esque songs, he decided to perform a mime based on China’s invasion of Tibet. The performance was a complete misfire, and the crowd booed Bowie off the stage, leaving him embarrassed and furious.
But later, Bowie would get his own back with his first hit song ‘Space Oddity’, in 1969. The track heralded the birth of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona and the start of his incredibly varied musical career. But Bolan couldn’t bring himself to feel happy for his friend. Instead, all he could muster was jealousy and resentment. So after Marc was asked to lay down some guitar tracks for Bowie’s follow-up single ‘ The Prettiest Star’, Marc and his wife June stormed out of the studio. “The only good thing about this record is Marc’s guitar,” June said, staring Bowie dead in the eye. And yet, somehow, the pair managed to re-kindle their friendship. Of course, there would be more moments when the pair’s jealousy of one another reared its ugly head, but they always managed to remember where they had come from. Because, at one time, they had both been little more than “nothing kids” with big ambitions.