Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: 'Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan'

The Marc Bolan sound is instantly recognizable, whether it is tucked in the arcane folk warble of a Tyrannosaurus Rex record or the slithery electric jab of a T. Rex one. Marc Bolan the man was harder to define. To some, he was an unlikable narcissist. To many others, he was an endlessly generous, eternally lovable fount of positivity.

Writer Lesley-Ann Jones’s Bolan-fan status can’t be questioned, and though her writing style is decidedly personal (she occasionally injects herself into the narrative, but never in an obnoxious way) she still fashions her compelling Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan with reassuring balance. Jones does not whitewash the elfin wordsmith’s less admirable traits— which mostly stem from his massive, Mama-coddled ego—yet it’s still hard to step away from her biography with anything but love for the guy. That’s an impressive feat considering that his most obviously love-generating quality was his ability to make wonderful records, and Jones doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing Marc Bolan’s music in detail. Instead, she digs deeply into his rarely discussed Jewish background, his childhood as a weirdo outcast, his relationships with David Bowie and Gloria Jones, his hippie lifestyle and attitudes about sex and drugs, and most movingly, his incredibly tragic death and the awful aftermath soiled by greedy and clueless opportunists.

What we don’t get is a lot of ink about Marc’s band mates Steve Peregrine Took and Mickey Finn, which is either an oversight on Jones’s part or a comment on their superfluity in her subject’s life and art. And though Jones did an impressive job tapping the brains of many of Marc’s closest associates, including his love Gloria Jones and their son Rolan, I wanted more input from the man, himself. Alas Ride a White Swan is very short on vintage quotes from its main man. Consequently, Marc often seems as though he’s hiding behind a curtain, just slightly out of focus. In a way, this is an apt aspect of Ride a White Swan, since Marc Bolan loved to try on and discard personas, invent new myths for himself, and play the slightly hard-to-get Wizard of Odd while others obsessed over whether or not his unique lyricism was influenced by a learning disability or—most shockingly of all—he never actually read a single Lord of the Rings book! 

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