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Roll over, Elvis. Another king of rock'n'roll headed for heaven in '77 - Marc Bolan. And 20 years later, his memory lives on

Elvis has his tomb in the Meditation Garden at Gracelands in Memphis. Jim Morrison has a grave in a celebrity cemetery in Paris, where the neighbours include Chopin, Wilde and Piaf. Marc Bolan has a tree on Barnes Common.

It's an unusual memorial, maybe unique. There is nothing formal about it: no inscription, no signposts, no attempt at fencing off. The official one is a few miles away - a plaque at Golders Green Crematorium, in north London. And that has its share of pilgrims. But the tree has more than its share, for it has something that ordinary memorials don't have. This is where Bolan died, in the passenger seat of his purple Mini, at five o'clock one September morning in 1977, when he was three quarters of a mile from home. The thing that killed him has become his shrine and his emblem.

The tree is an institution, mentioned in all the reference books. A picture forms in your mind of something big and solid - an oak, perhaps, festooned with flowers, a major local landmark, in a well-trodden clearing. It's not like that at all.

Irony plays through Bolan's story like his own rhythm guitar, swooping deftly in and out, making a small point here, a larger one there. One of the lesser ironies is that the tree he crashed into is easy to miss. It's in a small, dense wood, on the edge of a road called Queens Ride which is narrow and feels narrower, because the trees press in like fans round a limo. There's no pavement on the westbound side and Bolan's tree is so close to the tarmac that had he not hit it, he could have reached out and touched it.

It doesn't look capable of killing anyone. The trunk is only about 18 inches across: tall and spindly, like a boy in a band - and 20 years ago it would have been spindlier still. As well as the Mini (GT - the sporty kind), Bolan owned a pink Rolls-Royce, although he didn't drive: that night, as usual, the driver was the mother of his son, the soul singer Gloria Jones. If they had gone in the Rolls it might well have been the tree, not the star, whose life was cut short. But they were going to the narrow streets of Soho, to have dinner and see a band, and Minis are so much easier to park.

The tree is ordinary in every way except one: picked out, at random, by the headlights of fame. It is no longer covered with tributes, at least not when the 20th anniversary is still some weeks off, but neither is it bare. There's a white swan on a tin disc that says RIDE ON, MARC, and a string of black beads with a St Christopher's medal, belatedly wishing him a safe journey. There's a book cover in a plastic sleeve and higher up a collage: the fan who brought that must also have brought a stepladder, and a friend to hold it, as the ground slopes steeply down from the road. There are a few black ribbons and some glittery metal leaves, a shoelace and plenty of graffiti (MARC FELD - ROCK'N'ROLL NEVER DIE; MISSING YOU XXXCM97). There's a plastic chrysanthemum and a real red rose, not quite turned to black. Behind the tree, down on the bank, are clumps of florist's cellophane, bedraggled and sad, and a white-ish wooden placard-like object, three or four feet long, which turns out to be the outline of a man holding a guitar. No fans are here tonight; just a snail, at eye level on the trunk, silently feasting on the dead flowers.

It's all a bit spooky, but also endearing, even heartwarming. Much like Bolan's music.

Pop, to borrow a resonant phrase from Giles Smith's book Lost in Music (in which Bolan looms large) is a fabulous democracy. The men who apportion marketing budgets might dispute that, but it holds good in Bolan's case. No one (except himself) decided to make him a star, as they did with David Essex, complete with Bolan curls, a couple of years later. And since he died, no major record company has been shaping and milking his memory. The rights to T.Rex's songs have passed through sundry hands, including those of the fan-club secretary. When the music is repackaged, it tends to be on the most down-to-earth of labels, first Telstar and K-tel, the Woolworth's of record companies, and now Demon, the Mojo reader's favourite.

Remembrance doesn't come much more democratic than Bolan's tree. It has lasted all this time only because people want it to. One day, the last tribute will slide to the ground and the tree will slip back into anonymity.

SOME OF the faithful find the tree morbid and refuse to go there. The next month offers something to both camps. The 20th anniversary of Bolan's death, on 16 September, is followed a fortnight later by the 50th anniversary of his birth.

We have grown used to seeing rock stars reach middle age, but Bolan at 50 is hard to imagine. What would he be doing - playing the small-town circuit, like Roy Wood of Wizzard? Playing the fool, like Gary Glitter? Most crucially, what would his hair be like? The Bolan curls - usually described as corkscrew, but no corkscrew was ever that black and glossy and glamorous - were all or nothing. With his hair, as with his music, only one style suited him.

His early death was a terrible thing, robbing Rolan, then not quite two, of his father and any memories of him; depriving Harry Feld, now a Portsmouth bus controller, of his only brother, and Sid and Phyllis, now dead, of a son; cutting short a happy romance, and leaving Gloria Jones a legacy of grief and guilt (though she bears no blame: the Mini had just gone in for a service and had come out with the wrong pressure in one tyre, and some loose wheelnuts). But it does fit the arc of his career.

He may have been the first pop star who had wanted to be a pop star as a child: he received a guitar, bought for pounds 9 on hire purchase, for his ninth birthday and didn't look back. Son of a Hackney lorry driver of Polish-Russian descent, Mark Feld formed his first band at 10 - a skiffle group featuring Helen Shapiro, among others. He had a mention in the London Evening Standard at 13, and an interview cum modelling assignment for Town magazine at 15, under the headline "The Young Take the Wheel". He cut his first record at 17, appeared on Ready Steady Go! at 18, published a book of poetry (The Warlock of Love) at 21, married at 22, separated at 25. He was a has-been at 26, pasty-faced and overweight at 27, dead at 29. One of the few things he didn't do exceptionally young was make it big: he was 23 when superstardom called, in 1971.

He had often said that he expected to die young. He lived just long enough to hear about the death of Elvis, and to comment on it in the column he had been reduced to writing in Record Mirror. He said it was sad, but at least it meant that Elvis wouldn't end up like Bing Crosby. A few years earlier, in a more grandiose moment, he had said: "At nine years old, I became Elvis Presley." When Bolan himself died, exactly a month after Elvis, Paul Morley wrote in NME: "As Marc would have said, rocking back on his heels, teeth flashing - `What a way to go. Heaven's hot at the moment'."

BOLAN might easily have disappeared from view by now. His popularity was massive but fleeting: his Top 10 hits span a period of less than three years. He was jostling for chart supremacy with bands that the second- hand shops won't give you 50p for today. Who listens to the Osmonds, or David Cassidy, or Mud? Who puts on a Slade record, except at Christmas or to check for similarities with Oasis songs? The cynic might argue that the only thing to distinguish Bolan from his chart peers is his untimely death.

The answer is a simple one. Listen to the music; see if it stands up.

Much of it doesn't. When Bolan was bad, he was very bad (so was Elvis; so was Picasso). Some of his songs are just a scrap of wordplay; others are just a well-trodden groove. Even the hits are uneven: the first, "Debora" (1968), who rhymes with zeb-o-ra, is fun only in a novelty sort of way; one of the last, "London Boys" (1976), is a clumsy bid for street- cred which Bolan didn't need to make, being one of the very few big names to offer a welcome as the punks gathered at the gates. His famous ballad "[Whatever Happened to the] Teenage Dream?", released in 1974 as he began his descent, is a watery thing, more interesting to biographers than ballad- lovers.

Programme the compilation CD with care, however, and you get a quite different picture. Bolan's biggest hits are a string of pearls, yielding nothing to the years. "Ride a White Swan", his breakthrough single, is an irresistibly kinetic record, charming, funny and bristling with electricity. "Hot Love", the follow-up, is an all-time great, a snaky shuffle that combines pop craftsmanship and sexual exuberance as perhaps only Prince has done since. In the lines "She's faster than most/ And she lives on the coast", it has a couplet to rival "I found my thrill/ On Blueberry Hill"; and it ends with, or culminates in, the best fade-out since "Hey Jude" - a string of la-la-la la-luh-luh-las that runs for a full three minutes. There is no homemade tape in the world that is not improved by "Hot Love".

The follow-up, "Get It On", is almost as good: a gutsy blues-pop number with a superb, crunchy riff and an undertone of wooziness. Bolan was often criticised for disembarking from the hippie underground which T.Rex had been a part of in their time as Tyrannosaurus Rex, but the hippie lived on in his imagery and around the edges of his music. It was just that the man whose first album was entitled My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair ... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows had discovered the joys of brevity.

"Hot Love" spent six weeks at No 1, "Get It On" four. Next came "Jeepster" (No 2), which confirmed Bolan as the world's leading purveyor of the delighted yelp. It was swiftly followed by "Telegram Sam" and "Metal Guru", both No 1s. Bolan was the biggest thing in pop when his friend David Bowie was still a one-hit wonder. A phenomenon labelled "T.Rextasy" became the first of the new Beatlemanias. Among Bolan's fans were the Beatles themselves: "I like T.Rex," said Paul McCartney, while Ringo Starr liked them so much he made a feature film about them, Born to Boogie.

History has filed Bolan under glam rock and certainly the glitter on his cheeks, the leopardskin catsuit and the purple satin blouson were part of his allure. At a time when rock wore jeans, preferably with a jean shirt and a jean waistcoat, he was defiantly anti-jean, which made it nicely incongruous that his biggest posthumous hit (a reissue of "20th Century Boy", No 13 in 1991) should have come as a result of a Levi's ad. But you can't hear the glitter in the records. Bolan's music was R&B with a few quirks. The hits have more in common with Creedence Clearwater Revival than with the Sweet. He really loved rock'n'roll and knew how to convert that passion into a sound that was both distinctive and steeped in the brief history of the form. It was significant that he played rhythm guitar - Chuck Berry's instrument, and Keith Richards's. His sound is one you can fall for at the age of nine or 10 and still enjoy in your thirties, untroubled by embarrassment or hilarity. If this is bubblegum, it has kept its flavour for 25 years.

GLORIA JONES will be 50 herself next month and Rolan Bolan will be 22 (Marc liked the fact that all three of them were Librans). Rolan's name was inspired by Zowie Bowie, then aged four; David Bowie repaid the compliment at Bolan's funeral by announcing that he was setting up a trust fund for Rolan. Zowie has long since styled himself as Joe. Rolan hasn't just stuck by his rhyme, he may be about to find it useful: he is a rap artist, with his own band, Rolan Bolan and the Brothers of Bounce. His mother has kept him out of the spotlight for 20 years, but now the reins are loosening. She has moved to Philadelphia, leaving Rolan in Los Angeles. Both have spoken to a Granada TV producer, Len Brown, for a documentary to be screened on 16 September, and Rolan is expected to be here then.

On the Internet, there are more than 40 sites devoted to Bolan, including one with a meter that says you are the 231,000th visitor since it began two years ago. A feature film about glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, is in production, starring Ewan MacGregor as a fictional star named Brian Slade. The title is very Bolan and the soundtrack will include a version of "20th Century Boy" by Placebo. An album of Bolan demos from the last months of his life, coming soon from Demon Records, is reported to be a mixture of ballads and raw guitar licks that reflect his interest in punk. It may reveal that he was more capable of evolution than the name of his band would suggest.

AND THEN there is the tree. It is about to become a little more official. A memorial headstone has been commissioned by the Performing Rights Society, the first in its 83-year history, recognising not just Bolan's music but his generosity: he left a portion of his royalties to the PRS Members' Fund, for songwriters who fall on hard times, and it has received hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result. Planning permission went through without protest from the owners of the large, detached houses at the bottom of the bank, where the stone will stand. It will be unveiled next month in front of a small invited audience of friends and family.

In the cuttings file, the tree is sometimes described as a horse chestnut. It's not - it's a sycamore. They grow fast and die relatively young. And this one, you'll see if you look closely, is infected. It is dying the death of a thousand drawing pins.

! 'Marc Bolan' is on C4 on 16 Sept. On the same day `Born to Boogie' is showing at the Prince Charles, WC2 (0171 437 8181); and there's an anniversary party at the Complex, N1 (8pm-2.30am; pounds 8.50 or pounds 7.50 in advance - send a cheque/PO to Ros Davies, 67d Lancaster Rd, W11).

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