PRINT Summer 2010


Malcolm McLaren

TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO Malcolm McLaren and Richard Hell politely faced off over “Who created punk?”—a question Lester Bangs once answered, after citing and dismissing Hell, by naming, among numerous others, himself, Lou Reed, Robert Mitchum (“the look on his face in the photo when he got busted for grass”), Pretty Boy Floyd, Theodore Roosevelt, Billy the Kid, Napoleon, Voltaire, and Lady Godiva. The occasion was a panel on punk and fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, with Hell, McLaren, the designer Stephen Sprouse, the critic Jon Savage, the curator Paul Taylor, and myself. Debbie Harry was in the audience; of course she should have been on the stage. It was the first time I’d met McLaren, who was a hero to me—as the man behind the Sex Pistols, a man whose goal, he once said, was to “create a situation where kids would be less interested in buying records than in speaking for themselves,” he had done things that had made the world a more interesting place. Leading off the event, he talked all about it: how he had devoted his life to reversing the good into bad and the bad into good, with painting, in art school, through pranks, in stores with such names as Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die and SEX, with T-shirts covered in strange slogans and obscene pictures, with teenagers in ugly hair who made horrible music, with anarchy, farce, and stealing, stealing: “a glorious occupation.” Who cared? Thanks to a story that through the 1970s had wound its way through McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s King’s Road boutiques to the top of the British pop charts, much in art and life, in the smallest dimensions and the biggest, that had seemed finished and fixed was now in doubt, and McLaren was still riding the wave.

He was a glamorous figure, there that day with Lauren Hutton on his arm. The suit he wore looked flashy at first glance and traditional at the second; he knew how to wear it. Facing the audience, he was full of glee, full of tall tales, his eyes dancing. “When a band plays more than thirty minutes, I don’t care who they are, I’m absolutely bored to death,” he said at one point. “And the Clash could lecture you for hours.” He was clearly someone who could talk for days.

Hell spoke with dignity and clarity about a moment in 1971 when he and his friend Tom Miller, soon to change his name to Verlaine, tried to do something new. He held up a magazine he’d put out at the time: “You see it has Rimbaud and Artaud on the cover. Does that haircut look familiar?” “My generation grew up with crew cuts,” he went on. “They all got grown out because what eight-year-old likes to go the barber? So that’s how the punk cut originated. We wore ripped-up clothes that we wrote and drew on.” Hell’s story may sound trivial now, a man grasping for his place in history, but it was, in the truest sense, momentous: out of nothing, an idea. And the miracle, for the world at large, and the tragedy, for the one person not noticed by the world, was that the idea traveled. “He is ignoring me,” Hell said at one point, speaking of McLaren; I remember the sound of defeat, of surrender—to history, or just to someone else?—in Hell’s voice a few minutes later, when he recalled how the moment came when he saw “that the Sex Pistols were doing what I wanted to do—what I sort of initiated—better than I could have.” You make revolutions, Hell was arguing. “You don’t,” McLaren said. “Let it start and join it.”

Today, after Malcolm McLaren’s sudden death at sixty-four, from the virulent cancer mesothelioma, in Zurich on April 8, I think of that still astonishing line buried in the Sex Pistols’ 1977 “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten roaring as if he were John Henry, hammering through a mountain: “God save history, God save your mad parade”—yes, history itself as a mad parade, James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 put in a pot and burnt down to those eight words. Once, McLaren stepped out of the crowd and into the parade, led it down the wrong street, then escaped from the head of the procession, leaving history to find its own way as best it could.

He went on to live his own life, with project after project—some impossibly grandiose, such as inveigling the Polish government into coughing up vast sums to market Warsaw as the capital of the twenty-first century, some uncannily quick, like the video piece he completed just months ago, Paris—Capital of the XXIst Century. I see him as an auctioneer, standing on a huge platform at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, selling the concept (“The twenty-first century can be yours!”) to the highest bidder—or, with the hunched Fagin posture he affected all through his tour guide’s role in his heartfelt 1991 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street, to the lowest, always assuming he’d be around to see what happened.

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.