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The vital gender-fluid song that David Bowie wrote about Marc Bolan

The two pioneering forefathers of glam rock, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, not only had a huge impact on the brilliant but short-lived scene of glitter-covered musicians but also on the development of rock music and, dare I say it, punk as well. 

Famously, Bowie and Bolan were great friends, and although their relationship could sometimes be characterised by green envy that was most likely exacerbated by mountains of cocaine, the two remained great friends until Bolan tragically passed away in 1977. As Tony Visconti, Bowie’s sometime collaborator and producer, once said: “David always adored him”.

The pair first met back in 1964, a time when the young David Jones was under the same management of Leslie Conn as the young Mark Field. This momentous encounter arrived when the pair of fresh-faced newcomers were due to take up a manual labour job, painting an office for Conn as a means of getting repayment for the expensive Carnaby Street suits he’d decked the pair out in.

Bowie and Bolan’s friendship ran so deep that the Starman actually penned the classic track ‘Lady Stardust’ about Bolan. The song famously opened the second side of Bowie’s iconic fifth album, 1972’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Aside from the track’s music making it one of the most enduring and underrated moments on the record, it was also the song’s themes that contributed to its endearing sentiment.

At this point in his career, Bowie had already been toying with the concept of gender roles and can be seen wearing a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World. This was a significant moment for the time when gay rights were only just coming to mainstream attention, and homosexual acts had only been decriminalised in England and Wales three years prior, in 1967. In 1972, Bowie even told Melody Maker: “I’m gay, and always have been, even when I was David Jones.”

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‘Lady Stardust’ has always been taken as a strong statement regarding gender fluidity, something that the burgeoning glam scene was centred around. From the song’s inception, the protagonist has a female title yet is described with the pronoun ‘he’. Again, for the time, this was a pioneering step in a new direction. 

In the song, Lady Stardust starts her career as a figure that draws mockery from some and intrigues others. Very telling of the time, he is laughed at for having long hair and “animal grace”. Walking the street, he is stared at for wearing make-up. However, once he starts singing, people of all genders are drawn to him. 

Many of these descriptions in the song can be attributed directly to Marc Bolan, and it is as if Bowie was explicitly describing his friend’s androgynous and transgressive allure. Furthermore, the section about people listening when he sings could be taken as an allusion to the success of T. Rex’s hugely popular album, Electric Warrior, which came out in September 1971, two months before ‘Lady Stardust’ was recorded. 

The song was so tied to Bolan that although Bowie rarely played it live, when he did, the connection was made clear to fans. He used it as the opening song for his August 1972 shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre, and during the song, Bolan’s likeness was projected onto the backdrop of the stage.

One of the most intriguing and essential friendships in the history of rock, it’s moments like these that help the magic of Marc Bolan to live on.