Remembering the unruly entrepreneur, artist and self-styled godfather of punk
Remembering the unruly entrepreneur, artist and self-styled godfather of punk
‘And there I was, I’d arrived, swaggering from the art-school gates and gliding down the King’s Road in a sparkling blue lamé suit.’ It’s an hour into ‘An Evening with Malcolm McLaren’, hosted by Creative Time board member Peggy Jacobs, of which I was the partner in ‘provocative exchange’, and we’d only just pulled into 1971, the point in time that Let it Rock, that ‘fraudulent haberdashers’ shop McLaren ran, opened its doors in West London. High up in a Fifth Avenue penthouse overlooking New York’s Central Park, McLaren held court. I’d asked a total of two questions – it didn’t matter. McLaren had no need of inquiry or the suggested framing of his life’s work; just press play and listen as the days and tales crafted like manifestos became years, and the years and ideas became a movement. For those that knew him, McLaren’s real work was his voice, his eloquent turn of a phrase, booming theatrics and potent thoughts infecting all those that came under its spell.
Architect of punk, pirate king of the airwaves and unruly artist, McLaren died last week at the tender age of 64 of the rare cancer mesothelioma. He passed away in a clinic in Switzerland, with his family by his side: Joseph Corré (his son by Vivienne Westwood) and his girlfriend of 12 years Young Kim. The son of a Scottish engineer, McLaren was born in postwar London, in 1946. His father left soon after, leaving McLaren to be raised by his maternal grandmother Rose Corre Isaacs, the formerly wealthy daughter of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish diamond dealers. It was Rose who taught the youthful McLaren ‘to be bad is good … to be good is simply boring’, a creed he was to live by.
A product of the British art-school system of the 1960s, influenced by the ideas of King Mob and the Situationists, McLaren founded – and some would say willfully, though I’d suggest creatively, mis-managed – the riotous ride that was the Sex Pistols. If he couldn’t play an instrument he sure could play musicians, creating the iconic style of first wave British punk with his then partner Vivienne Westwood, and with more than a little assistance in the shape of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten. (If McLaren claimed all else, the poetry and the leer were Lydon’s, but now it just feels petty or irrelevant to argue the toss.) It’s difficult to overestimate the effect of the Pistols; between McLaren and the band they helped cause a seismic cultural earthquake in British cultural history. The resounding aftershocks of punk rock and the Pistols inspired generations, from the post-punk existentialism of Joy Division to the anarcho-punk politicism of Crass. To ask what else is a little like asking Michelangelo if he has plans after painting the roof of the Sistine Chapel. But more there was. Like some latter-day Walter Raleigh, but with the wide-eyed innocence of a schoolboy, McLaren delivered Hip-hop and ‘all that scratching’ to the UK, in the boom-box-vinyl of ‘Duck Rock’ (1983), and continued his solo musical work with the unlikely mix of funk, electronics and opera heard on ‘Madame Butterfly’ (1984) and ‘Waltz Darling’ (1989). His anti-fashion clothing stores on the King’s Road – from Let it Rock, through Sex, to World’s End – deserve equal billing alongside other rebellious venues for anti-social gathering and encounter with the new, from Gustave Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism, to Andy Warhol’s Factory; they were both his canvas and his club.
What didn’t McLaren do? His run for Mayor of London in 1999, bankrolled by fellow rock and roll manager Alan McGee garnered a six percent vote and would, alongside many other glorious mission statements, have seen the serving of alcohol in public libraries. One can only imagine the exuberant drunken chaos of the printed word and the beer pump. Before the Pistols he briefly managed The New York Dolls, dressing them in Soviet-red rubber, and afterwards he was behind Bow Wow Wow. It is our loss that the years he spent in Hollywood as an ideas consultant for Steven Spielberg never garnered the results they deserved, but perhaps with titles such as Heavy Metal Surf Nazis he never took the easy path. The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980), the film he funded with his company Glitterbest and the Sex Pistols cash, and directed by Julian Temple, has touches of malevolent genius. In terms of its implied manipulation of the band, the ‘scene stealing’ role that McLaren penned for himself as ‘The Embezzler’, does, when viewed alongside Temple’s later film The Filth and the Fury (2000) provide an engaging account from which to view the band and its life as a whole. McLaren was known to be in meetings with Hollywood studio execs until the end of his life, the content of his proposed film treatment I shall not disclose for fear of falling foul of legalities and disturbing what might be still in play. But perhaps it can be said that a McLaren-produced adult musical film, bankrolled by Disney, would have been a blast.
The Sex Pistols may well have been his masterwork, providing the blueprint for media spin and outré style statement that we today see as commonplace pop marketing techniques. His thoughts and deeds run through the literature of art about music and music about art, from Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s Art into Pop (1987); Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (1990); Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991) to Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion (1993). In McLaren’s words, his was ‘a story of greed, power, malevolence, subversion and with it heaps of style, to be frank it is the history of pop culture albeit a personal one, written over 50 years.’ He reveled in the public persona of villain but in person he was charming in all regards, at least to those he had time for, or could spin a tale that enlivened the moment.
As to his legacy in the visual arts, his framing and understanding of situation, time and place are evident, in the work of many visual artists practicing today, from Mike Kelley – McLaren was a fan, describing him in a personal e-mail as ‘unquestionably the smartest American artist around’ – to the young British artists, whose work he fathered from a distance but ultimately had little time for, describing them as ‘the worst aspects of the culture of desire’ but that ‘their unbridled energy changed the British art world for the good’. So too, the plethora of subsequent British artists who formed a band, traded in style, turned an elegant phrase and strut the duck walk. In the words of Dan Graham, from an essay in ZG magazine from 1982, there are many artists who could be described as ‘McLaren’s Children’. In the few years that I knew and worked with McLaren – initially with Creative Time, presenting his mesmeric film series ‘Shallow’ on the MTV screen in Times Square in 2007 and then later with Performa, but more precisely those moments spent away from the madding crowd – the experience of spending time with him was to feel the possibility of a life lived urgently. The court of McLaren was never mawkish or sentimental. ‘Nostalgia is dead tissue’, as he put it, and this is what makes remembering him such a compelling task yet one full of pitfalls, since to be tripped up by mourning and melancholy is no trip at all. His last proposed lecture presentation with Performa, sadly thwarted through illness, was titled ‘Jesus Christ is a Sausage’. It suggested no let up in his caustic wit.
A consummate entertainer, no moment spent with Malcolm was anything less than to be presented with glimpses of a possible fantastic future, though as he exaggeratedly put it he was ‘nooo fortune teller’. His last words, as he drifted in and out of lucidity, were: ‘Yeah, right, free Leonard Peltier!’ (Peltier, 65, an American activist, was sentenced in 1977 to two life terms for killing two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout. His supporters consider him a political prisoner.) Wicked devilry has always been the greatest part of the creative spirit, and his legacy is the sense of possibility and pleasure of the exuberant dilettante. I was proud, above all things, to be a small part in the last chapter. Thanks Malcolm. You will be missed. Yeah, right!