Friday, March 9, 2007

Tyrannosaurus Rex

in the head of a man is a woman
in the head of woman is a man
but what wonders roam
in the head of a child

Before there was T. Rex, Marc Bolan and his bongo-playing friend, Steve Peregrine Took, played in the acoustic psych-folk band known as Tyrannosaurus Rex. Bolan had recently left John's Children (which cut the smoking track--one of the greatest rock songs of all time--"Desdemona"), and now that his curious wail of a voice was in the foreground, letting his freak hang out for the world to see. Or, at least, London. It may have been that Tyrannosaurus Rex would have vanished quickly--or at least not cut more than a single record--if it weren't for infamous DJ John Peel, who embraced the mysterious mythologies and cryptic folk-poetry of Bolan. The first two albums were a mouthful, and the lyrics just as impenetrable, but as evocative as the music and Bolan's one-of-a-kind voice which echoes off the corners of your brain. My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair...But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows almost takes as long to say as it does to hear the entire album. But it's an astonishing debut, notable for how it transforms be-bop rock (as on "Mustang Ford") and blues ("Chateau in Virginia Waters") into something distinctly--Bolan. The lyrics are distinctly medieval, and the album, which features a dedication by John Peel, is dedicated to "Aslan and the Old Narnians." I don't know what C.S. Lewis would have made of the album, but he might have liked the Wind in the Willows-inspired prose fitted into the middle of "Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love)," which closes the album, and is read by a game Peel. It's an indulgent album you'll want to indulge, and stands tall above most of the 60's psych bands, who could never be this original.

The following year the band returned with Prophets, Seers, & Sages, the Angels of the Ages. The album opened with the band's single, "Debora," but glued to the end was the entire song played backward. Indeed, the album is a bit more experimental, as Bolan loosens his belt. The highlight of his weird excess is "Scenescof Dynasty," Scenescof being a recurring hero in Bolan's private myths--at just over four minutes, it feels like ten. Like much of this album, the sensation is of being locked with Bolan in a small room lit by candles, while he reads you a notebook of his poems and stories. If you don't run away, you're initiated into his cult--you're a true friend, engaging with his fantasy. It's difficult to conceive, forty years later, that this was released as an album. But around this time he released the notable briefer, and more raucous, "One Inch Rock," as a single, a hasty jab at commercialdom.

When I asked Elf Power's Andrew Rieger--a big T. Rex and Marc Bolan enthusiast--to recommend me a Tyrannosaurus Rex album, he immediately praised Unicorn as the best. He suggested that it had a little bit of everything, and I agree. By now, Bolan's confidence was now matched by his songwriting craft, and while his work with Tyrannosaurus Rex is much less accessible than his T. Rex rockers, Unicorn presents a truly vivid immersion in his imagination. Songs like "Chariots of Silk," "Stones for Avalon," and "She Was Born to Be My Unicorn" present gorgeous glimpses of his psychedelic idyll. And there's even another story read by John Peel, which climaxes with "Romany Soup," a chant which manages to be both playful and Satanically hypnotic. The single released around this time, "King of the Rumbling Spires," pointed a new direction for Tyrannosaurus Rex. It's driven by electric guitar, an instrument which Bolan will soon take up with all the gravity of Dylan going electric.

The result of this new experimentation was the last of the Tyrannosaurus Rex albums, A Beard of Stars. It's my personal favorite. Steve Peregrine Took was kicked out of the band, and with him went some of his collaborations with Bolan--alas! because this meant losing the extraordinary "Once Upon the Seas of Abyssinia," which would be buried until a Bolan box set surfaced just a few years ago. But the album itself has that track's elusive quality. Beginning with the all-too-brief instrumental "Prelude," Beard of Stars is one last trip through the familiar world of dragon's ears and magical moons, but this time infused with a strangely powerful emotion. The band has lost a bit of the eerie quality of the earlier albums, and replaced it with feelings of desire, loss, and exhilaration. It climaxes with "Elemental Child," in which Bolan shows off his electric guitar with the dexterity of a Hendrix. T. Rex had to be next.