When David Bowie Opened For T. Rex (As a Mime)

David Bowie in 1983 // Getty Images
David Bowie in 1983 // Getty Images / David Bowie in 1983 // Getty Images

When David Bowie met Marc Bolan in 1964, the two were teenaged pop hopefuls, years away from full-fledged rock stardom. They met through their manager after he offered the boys some cash in exchange for painting his London office. The two traded fashion tips ("I’m King Mod. Your shoes are crap," Bolan said, as Bowie later recalled in Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie), and they became friends.

“Bolan was slightly younger but much less introverted than David, giving him the influence of an older sibling,” wrote Marc Spitz in Bowie: A Biography. Bowie neurotically applied Bolan’s suggestions to his early songs. While Bowie shuffled in and out of unsuccessful bands, Bolan established a career with John’s Children and later T. Rex, booking gigs across the UK and getting airplay from famed BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

Bolan invited Bowie to open for T. Rex on the band's 1969 tour. At Bolan’s insistence, Bowie performed his one-man mime routine depicting China’s invasion of Tibet. Bowie was an experienced mime, having trained under choreographer (and Marcel Marceau protégé) Lindsay Kemp.

Throughout the tour, Bowie got a negative reception (even for a mime). The audiences for T. Rex’s psychedelic folk-rock tended to be sympathetic to Chinese Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. Many nights, Bowie’s routine was “ruined by heckles of left-wing students and hippies irate over his damning portrayal of China’s Red Guard,” wrote Simon Goddard in Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust. Bolan “couldn’t help but laugh.”

While the mime routine was a failure, Bowie's big break was just around the corner. “Space Oddity” was released in the summer of 1969 (coinciding with the Apollo 11 mission), and it became an instant hit.

For a 1999 tribute to John Peel, David Bowie recalled his time opening for T. Rex, and the advice he received from the BBC DJ:

Dear John. When you worked with me on the T-Rex tour, and I was doing a mime piece based on the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese, you were somewhat non-plussed that the audience didn't like the piece where the back row of the audience lifted their hands up with Chairman Mao's little red book, and there was a whole feud going on between me and the audience. You decided that the problem was that I was doing mime. You didn't like mime. And until I came here to America, I never realized that you were right. Nobody in the world likes mime. Thanks for the advice about the songs. I'm glad I stayed with the songwriting.

As their careers progressed, Bowie and Bolan's friendship strained and, for a period, the two became rivals. "I don’t consider David to be even remotely near big enough to give me any competition," Bolan told Cameron Crowe in a 1973 interview for Creem.

Bowie and Bolan were able to move past the animosity, and the two rebuilt their friendship. Nine days prior to Bolan's death in a car crash in 1977, Bowie performed on Bolan's TV show, Marc. He did not perform as a mime.