(I’ve always been fascinated by the occult overtones of Rock and Roll and Heavy Metal. Generally, the occult trappings in rock are nothing more than window dressing, but they can still be worth exploring. Strange Days is a series chronicling the truth about the occult and Paganism in rock. Future articles will include looks at The Doors and Jethro Tull.)
Long ago in the far far away known as the 1980’s there used to be music videos on cable (and satellite) television. At first there was just MTV (Music Television), but it later added the sister channel VH-1 (Video Hits One). VH-1 was designed as the “baby boomer” alternative to MTV, though it rarely lived up to its design. This sister of Music Television was mostly content to play nothing but disposable pop music and bland R&B, though occasionally it would play a video or two that actually appealed to its desired demographic.
The two actual “baby boomer” videos the channel bothered to play were night and day different. One of them was The Doors performance of Light My Fire from The Ed Sullivan Show. By junior high school I was already hyper-aware of The Doors, my Dad owned their records and they were a staple of music magazines (twenty years after Morrison’s death) and classic rock radio. I was rather ambivalent about Light My Fire, it was OK, but mostly left me cold. The VH-1 video that going me back then was T. Rex’s Bang A Gong (Get It On).
From Top of the Pops in 1971, the video I was watching in the late 80’s.
Bang A Gong grooved, and grooved hard. To this day there are few songs that make me want to dance more. It’s a song that just sounds cool. T. Rex also looked like a Los Angeles Hair Metal Band, which was what rock and roll looked like to me in junior and senior high school. In short, I thought T. Rex was the coolest thing since my KISS lunchbox in kindergarden, but no one knew a damned thing about them.
Despite the success of Get It On in 1971, T. Rex never really broke through in North America. Marc Bolan (lead singer, guitar player, and the man who was T. Rex) was a super-star in England, someone on the level of a David Bowie, but not across the pond in the States. As I grew up I began to forget about those magickal moments watching T. Rex on the TV and instead embraced other bands, and then T. Rex slipped off my radar entirely for a decade and a half.
I rediscovered T. Rex in 2007, when I decided to go back through some of the music from the 60’s and 70’s*. The first band I started listening to during this phase was T. Rex, and when I really started listening to Marc Bolan I was floored by just how good it was. That there were a few Pagan twists and turns in there too cemented the deal. The music of Marc Bolan is full of references to witches, Beltane walks, Pan, magickal moons, and a whole host of other esoteric elements. Instead of the dark and brooding hidden Paganisms of bands like The Doors, or the murky occult influenced sounds of Black Sabbath, T. Rex was the Pagan soundtrack to spring. Bubbly, effervescent, a joyous escape from the mundane world and one full of white swans, sexy ladies, and smiles.
Before forming Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bolan played in John’s Children. Desdemona is one of their failed singles.
The magickal and mystical are with Bolan on nearly every step of his musical journey. They are there when he bills himself as “Toby Tyler,” (a folk singer in the mold of Donovan and Bob Dylan) and crop up periodically in the music of John’s Children, and then fully form themselves in the music of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the forerunner to T. Rex. The differences between T. Rex and Tyrannosaurus Rex were more about philosophy than sound. T. Rex was Bolan as pop superstar, backed by a full band, and propped up with giant hooks. Tyrannosaurus Rex was originally Bolan stripped down, acoustic guitar, warbly voice, with often just bongos in the background, but as he grew as a song writer Tyrannosaurus Rex became nearly indistinguishable from T. Rex.
There’s no proof out there that Marc Bolan was a Pagan, or that he ever met a real Witch, but his music bubbles with the references. One of his earliest tunes, long before there was a T. Rex, told the story of a chance meeting with a magickal wizard who taught young Marc about magick. That song, The Wizard, would be re-recorded by Bolan over the years, and was a staple of his live shows, eventually morphing from a 1:45 slice of Herman Hermits pop into an eight minute exercise in psychedelic feedback rock. “He walked the woods without a single sound . . . bats and cats play on the floor . . . .silver sunlight in his eyes” it’s all pretty generic and rather lame sounding to modern ears, but it was important to Marc and allegedly based on a true story.
Bolan had an unsuccessful solo carrer before T. Rex, The Wizard was his first single.
In the grand tradition of Pagan bullshi**ers like Alex Sanders and Aleister Crowley, Marc conjured up his own tale of a mystic mentor. He loved to tell the press of how he spent five months in Paris with a mysterious fellow he only called “The Wizard” who not only taught him magick, but taught him how to levitate. While Bolan’s friends never took the story seriously, it was repeated for years in the press, adding to Marc’s myth in later years.
Though the levitation and magic were absolute bunk, Marc did visit Paris for a weekend with an older American actor when he was 18 years old. “The Wizard” in question was described as “just a gay conjurer who could toss a few balls in the air and fell in love with Marc for the weekend,” by one of Bolan’s later (and perhaps disgruntled) managers. Though Marc was known to have dalliances with men in his teen years, the Paris Wizard denies that happening on this particular trip. While Marc probably didn’t learn to levitate in Paris, his friend The Wizard (real name Riggs O’Hara) did do something that would contribute to Marc’s spiritual journey, he bought Bolan a statue of Pan while they were in Paris. Bolan wold later rename that statue “Poon.”
The original album sleeve from Beard of Stars featuring Poon.
Marc’s devotion to Pan has generally been overlooked by his biographers. Perhaps it’s due to them being uncomfortable with pagan deity, or simply being unable to notice what obviously looks like devotion. Bolan so cherished Poon that he had pictures of the statue put on the sleeve of Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Beard of Stars album. Poon occupied the center of the mantle in many of Marc’s early apartments/houses, and friends recall seeing written notes to Poon placed around the statue, written in Bolan’s hand. Those notes were also written in a runic script, so no one can be sure what they actually said, but I doubt they were grocery lists.
When I first read about Bolan placing what were (in my opinion) petitions to deity near his Pan statue I nearly fell out my chair. While his biographers have refused to spend much ink on this development (instead commenting on what they see as an interest in Buddhism), I see an expression of Pagan spirituality. Devotion or interest in Pan does not necessarily make one a practicing Pagan, but it’s certainly intriguing. Bolan was a well-known fan of 19th Century Romantic poetry, poets that regularly wrote about Pan in mythic and grand verse. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that his love of those poems could have inspired something close to worship.
Bolan’s love of Pan was even immortalized in song. The tune Puckish Pan is mostly nonsense, and the lyrics nearly unintelligible, but it is an overt reference to the god. Many of Marc’s other songs hint at Pan between the cracks. It’s easy to see Pan tapping his
foot hoof along to songs like Woodland Bop or Lunacy’s Back. During a performance on the BBC Bolan and the band were backed up by some female dancers that he called “Pan’s Children.” Bolan certainly wasn’t ashamed to name-check Old Horny.
Puckish Pan, and despite the title, far from my favorite Bolan song.
Even though Bolan achieved mega-stardom in the 70’s, he was a child of the 60’s. He loved Tolkien (Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for those of you who have missed the last three decades) and C.S. Lewis’ tales of Narnia. Love of those two fantasy lands inspired Bolan to create his own magickal land which he called “Beltane” and references to Beltane in his own music (like the song Beltane Walk) could be about our high holy holiday, or a land cloaked in perpetual sunshine and peppered with maypoles. An entire album dedicated to Marc’s fantasy world was even in the works for a while, but was shelved in favor of more traditional pop pursuits.
T. Rex goes for a bit of a Beltane Walk.
Back in the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s it was easier to get away with alternative ideas. Bolan’s interviews were littered with references not only to the mysterious Wizard in Paris, but also to ideas like reincarnation. In a 1972 television interview Bolan offered this take on the inspiration for lyrics “I don’t know really. I personally believe that I was . . . a previous life or something . . . a previous reincarnation, a bard of some sort, because most of the things I write about are descriptions of places I’ve never been to.” Such answers are either the reflections of a man with alternative ideas about spirituality, or LSD-inspired hallucinations. One has to discount the latter because psychedelics were never a part of the Bolan lifestyle.
Ride A White Swan is my favorite magickal sounding T. Rex tune.
Bolan, who died in a tragic car accident in 1977, never quite achieved the level of immortality he probably deserved. Generally when a rock star dies young (and Bolan was 29) they become a bigger star in death than they did in life. Perhaps it was because his music never fit comfortably into the classic rock radio format (too poppy), or maybe it was too British for American ears, whatever the reason Bolan never reached the Mount Rushmore of Classic Rock. I’ve seen his legacy name-checked a bit more in the last ten years, and it’s not hard to find pop with a bit of T. Rex influenced groove, but he’s never been treated like a Joplin or Syd Barret.
Try playing By the Light of a Magical Moon before your next esbat and see how it goes.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated most about T. Rex and Bolan are how the songs make me feel Pagan. I’ve never been concerned if the content is actually Pagan or not, it’s all about the emotion the music inspires. While I doubt the glam-rock styles (before Bowie) of T. Rex ever caused anyone to convert to Paganism, the music contains a magickal quality none the less. Every time I’m at a festival and see a group of young ladies dripping in glitter I like to think they too were influenced in some way by Marc Bolan and T. Rex.
ESPN used T. Rex’s 20th Century Boy in a recent commercial featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terrible Towel. This is my favorite commercial EVER.
*For the record, I don’t think “classic rock” is somehow superior to modern music, I just tend to find more things in it that I enjoy. I still listen to new music, hell I like Lady Gaga, music is music whether it’s new or old.