February 15, 2006

T. Rex on Glam Rock

Much like a kid watching their Thomas The Tank Engine tape 5 times in a row, I can’t stop watching Glam Rock.

There are Must-See clips: 2 top-notch performances by the always-amazing Roxy Music, and one apiece for the great-for-a-long-moment Alice Cooper Band, and never-great-but-so-what Suzi Quatro.

There are bizarre clips: Lulu stands frozen as she rocks a 1930s gangster look while covering a Bowie tune. Showaddywaddy’s front man had tube socks down his trousers. Literally, you could see the ribbing, I swear.

There are “What The Hell? They Ain’t Glam!” clips: Nazareth, Dave Edmunds, Rod Stewart and the Tom Robinson Band. Hypocrisy comes into play for the David Cassidy clip of “Rock Me Baby”. No, he wasn’t glam, he was simply fabulously cute, and he did sport a pair of silver glitter platform boots for this live clip. He gets in on a technicality.

But there are 2.5 clips that I keep repeating. The Sweet mimed a performance of “Teenage Rampage,” and it doesn’t matter that it’s canned because they look like Crayola tin foil and carry on like it’s last call at the corner tavern. Not having previously seen footage of them performing, this was a surprising delight.

At age 6, the very first 45 that I bought was Sweet’s “Little Willy.” I didn’t know who the band was, had not even seen a picture of them. I simply adored the song, and was powerless to resist. I played that infectious slice of romper-stomper pop so often that I was told to “give it a rest.” Which meant I flipped over to the B-Side, “Man from Mecca,” and absolutely loathed it. In retrospect, that would be because the boys in the band wrote it, rather than Chinn & Chapman.

But that Sweet moment in time still registers as a musical regret. Even though the more bubblegum aspects of glam rock were supposedly targeted to 8-year-old British girls, this American grade-schooler didn’t have a clue as to what was going on across the pond. If I’d been several years older during the Glam heyday, it would be a different tale to tell. But essentially, I missed it all, and that’s the regret.

I would have been the ultimate American glam freak, embarrassing my family and non-Glam friends with an overload of glitter and feathers, and naked alien Bowie posters on the bedroom wall. Upon first viewing of the movie Velvet Goldmine (paid to see it 2 days in a row at the theater), I had the strange sensation of vividly recalling something I never did, while my friend – who was the exact right age at that time – chuckled over how accurately the movie depicted that era. I was so jealous.

But the most revelatory item on
Glam Rock is the opening clip of T. Rex performing “Jeepster.” It’s an absolutely live and utterly perfect performance, so simple yet so energetic, with an underplayed charisma from Marc Bolan that had my nose pressed up to the TV screen.

“Underplayed” is a word seldom associated with Bolan, but on this particular Musikladen moment, it’s an accurate description. He is wearing a simple blue, button down dress shirt and black bell bottom trousers. His magnificent head of curly dark hair is shiny immaculate. His singing is calm and focused, his guitar playing spot-on and propulsive. No makeup or spangles, no primping and preening; Bolan is merely rock star cool. The other 3 members of the band are in the zone with him, especially the strikingly handsome Mickey Finn, elevating conga-playing to the ranks of cool.

“Jeepster” is an achingly basic blues shuffle, but as with all solid rock, it’s the tone and energy that creates an arresting tune. This song left plenty of open air for spontaneous moments, which included Bolan forgetting the words of the 4th verse, so he makes some up on the spot. But it’s done so casually, so naturally that it’s a testament to how perfect Bolan was at that moment in time.

Music history remembers Bolan and T. Rex in a precise way. This single performance shows that he/they were actually much more than their outrageous, bubblegum fairy dusters label reveals. They had the look, the sound, the chops, the magic, and that’s rock & roll.

But then comes the 2nd T. Rex clip, and the magic spell is broken. It’s only a span of about 18 months between these 2 Musikladen appearances, but the difference is Grand Canyon wide. T. Rex does a lackluster live reading of “20th Century Boy” that never stood a chance of matching the crunchy metal energy of the record. But the truly disarming aspect is Bolan.

He’s now decidedly puffy and orange, his hair a dry, dull mess of static electricity. He’s either wrestling his mouth free of a ginormous white feather boa, or primping and posing like a poncy peacock, and both these activities cause him to miss cues and remain generally distracted. Now, this represents the lingering impression of Bolan, as the larger-than-life, egotistical pop brat. Whereas that image was perfectly fine to me for all these years, in light of the “Jeepster” moment, it suddenly became unacceptable. If I’d been a viable participant of that era, his upward trajectory would have made smooth sense. Taken out of context, and based solely on musical merit, it’s just sad.

So, my thumb crashes down on the remote’s back button, returning to the first T. Rex, the one who didn’t need glitter to sparkle, or a large studio budget to slay an audience. Much like a kid watching their Thomas The Tank Engine tape 10 times in a row, I can’t stop watching Glam Rock.