Monday, March 9, 2009

Secondhand Daylight #2: T.Rex's Electric Warrior

I've been a fan of T.Rex and Marc Bolan since the last year of high school. My introduction to T.Rex wasn't the most auspicious: I first heard T.Rex songs while sitting in the movie theatre watching Billy Elliot. I remembered the soundtrack long after the film itself. Since then, I had picked up T.Rex tracks here and there and several years ago, I purchased a rather comprehensive compilation album. However, I just never got around to buying any of the T.Rex or Tyrannosaurus Rex albums proper. Then just a few weeks back, while I was browsing in a used music store, I found Electric Warrior. Released in 1971, the Tony Visconti-produced Electric Warrior was the second album under the re-vamped T.Rex name and it's the one that took Marc Bolan into the mainstream with hits like Bang a Gong (Get It On) and Jeepster.

It's no secret that Marc Bolan wasn't the most original musician or songwriter in the world; he essentially adapted old rock 'n roll for a new audience and had the ability to create snappy pop songs rather quickly. In fact, he ambitiously managed to adapt and reinvent himself through several subcultures including mod and folk-psychedelia. However, this doesn't take into account the other side of Bolan's music. While I enjoy the energy, sexy swagger and fun of songs like Jeepster, Bang a Gong (Get It On) and The Motivator, my favourite song on Electric Warrior is Cosmic Dancer, a song that has haunted me ever since I first heard it over the opening credits of Billy Elliot.

There is something beautifully sad about it with its mournful, yet soaring, acoustic guitar and string arrangement and the distinctive, magical quaver of Bolan's voice. It's wistful and tragic, but the tragedy remains veiled and not immediately apparent - there's something in the music and Bolan's vocal performance that lead me there without the lyrics being particularly dark. And while I could read Bolan's own untimely death into the sound now, I didn't know anything about that when I first heard it all those years ago, yet I remember shivering with the emotion of the song in the movie theatre. There's something of the lonely outsider in the song as well with the lines "Is it strange to dance so soon?" and "Is it strange to dance so late?" - it's a similar alien, dream-like darkness to that of Bowie's Space Oddity. The womb and tomb become interchangable refuges of void and free-fall.

This inexplicable sadness finds its way into other tracks like Girl, which reads:

O God
High in your fields above earth
Come and be real for us
You with your mind
Oh yes you are
Beautifully fine

O Girl
Electric witch you are
Limp in society's ditch you are
Visually fine
Oh yes you are
But mentally dying

O boy
Just like a boat you are
Sunk but somehow you float you do
Mentally weak
Oh yes you are
But so much you speak

Or on Life's a Gas:

I could have loved you girl
Like a planet
I could have chained your heart
To a star
But it really doesn't matter at all
But it really doesn't matter at all
Life's a gas
I hope it's gonna to last

It seems that these songs, in strong contrast to the jaunty, brash sexuality and hedonistic party attitude of the majority of Bolan's hits, reflect an awareness of transience and deceptive surfaces. In many ways, it seems Bolan was waiting for the other shoe to drop; he had carefully crafted his image his entire life, and there was always a chance it would slip and he would drown in his own reflection. Ultimately, that did happen, but at least Bolan briefly recovered before his death. Maybe the reason Cosmic Dancer crawls into my brain so thoroughly is because of my life-long inherent sense of nothing lasting and the bittersweet romance and regret over that.

Electric Warrior can be seen as the genesis of glam rock, but Bolan's re-imagining of 50s rock 'n roll chord changes, blues and acoustic folk paired with his nonsensical, fantastical lyrics and unparalleled vocal style, and burnished with his flamboyant, glitter-pixie image, did indeed change rock music. As much as I will remember him for the dirty-sweet glamour, I will also feel kinship with his sweet sadness.

Cosmic Dancer - T.Rex

Life's a Gas - T.Rex


JC said...

Thanks to my missus, I have a vinyl copy of this a teenager she was a big Marc Bolan fan.

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