The Meaning of Malcolm McLaren

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April 28, 2010

The recently departed can usually count on a week or two of absolution. Whether because of a superstitious belief that speaking ill of the dead can lead to disaster or a self-interested impulse to heed the Golden Rule, even controversial figures like Michael Jackson saw public opinion tilt sharply in their favor when they died.

That’s why the response to Malcolm McLaren’s passing has stood out. Examining the responses to his death, from the daily newspapers to the blogosphere, it’s clear that even those who thought highly of McLaren felt the need to acknowledge his detractors. And many commentators found it difficult to give him his due.

Rob Wohl’s piece The Wesleyan Argus is typical in its ambivalence, though possessed of considerably more panache than most reflections on McLaren’s legacy. “If you asked me a few weeks ago what I thought of Malcolm McLaren, it would have taken me all of a second to call him an asshole,” he writes, going on to confess that he now feels trepidation at impugning the dead. “This is, of course, something I will have to get over – denying Malcolm McLaren the title of ‘asshole,’ would be to deprive him of something he worked for all his life. McLaren would have wanted to be called an asshole. He was a magnificent, fearless, gaping asshole whose accomplishments may never be equaled.”

To be sure, even those who found the man distasteful have dutifully ticked off those accomplishments: popularizing extreme fashion at his King’s Road boutique; making the Sex Pistols headline news; bringing hip-hop scratching to Britain with the single “Buffalo Girls”; and, most impressively, turning popular culture into something worth philosophizing about. Before McLaren, it used to be difficult to get the mainstream press to acknowledge that the practice of rock and roll could be abetted by the application of theory. But he proved that the visceral, Dionysian quality of the best shows could be the product of careful planning.

Writing the obituary for the The New York Times, William Grimes wrote that “McLaren was a keen student of the French Situationists, who believed in staging absurdist or provocative incidents as a spur to social change. He arranged for the Sex Pistols to sign their contract with A&M Records outside Buckingham Palace and organized a performance of “God Save the Queen” on the Thames, outside the Houses of Parliament, on a boat named the Queen Elizabeth. The police quickly intervened, ratifying the group’s incendiary reputation.” Such accounts, echoed throughout the media in the wake of McLaren’s death, testify to his influence on not just music and fashion, but the media more generally.

As noteworthy as such a feat may be, however, it is also a major factor in the negative opinions of McLaren. The idea that there a mastermind behind the scenes, pulling the strings of both his charges and their audience, sits poorly with those who believe that pre-meditation is the enemy of freedom. For many, the promise of anarchy can only be sustained so long as it seems to arise from spontaneous – and therefore authentic – political expression. A planned riot, in other words, is no riot at all.

Although this view is contradicted by most of the major thinkers who championed anarchism – Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Rocker, among others – it has permeated the post-60s Left to such a degree that even those who advocate an orderly approach to resistance, from postmodern Marxists to labor movement progressives, still believe in this fantasy enough to value seat-of-the-pants actions like the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle more highly than the long march through the institutions towards which they are supposedly working.

In other words, McLaren takes heat for having been what we might call a “cultural Leninist,” someone who thinks that movements are more successful with a leader in the vanguard. Such sentiments are easiest to discern in the comments readers submitted to his obituaries, which were not subject to editorial smoothing. “Another degenerate bites the dust,” wrote one person in The Telegraph, implicitly indicting not only McLaren’s investment in fashion, but his retrograde conviction that people must be manipulated for their own good.

Most of the personal and professional cataclysms in his life stemmed from his failure to distinguish between the People, in the abstract, and the people who were closest to him. As filmmaker Julian Temple, who directed The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, wrote in The Guardian, the film was “conceived at the height of the Pistols’ fame as a deliberate provocation, designed to incense and confuse all those Sex Pistols fans who had begun to kneel down beneath posters of the band on their bedroom walls.” The problem was that McLaren began to confuse the screenplay with his own past.

“We made Malcolm the ultimate Svengali figure and turned the band into his willing puppets,” Temple explained. “Increasingly, though, Malcolm began to believe in the myths of his own creation. His insistence on seeing the Pistols as no more than the urinal to his Duchamp became more pronounced over the years and in the end was offensive.”

Yet however justified the accusation of megalomania may be, the impulse to correct the historical record has often led to overreactions. As his son Joe Corre told The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagen, “I know John Lydon was pissed off with the notion that Malcolm somehow created him, and that’s fair enough; no one created John but John. But Malcolm did create the name, the look and the big adventure that was the Sex Pistols. He was the catalyst.” Or, as one of the people who commented on The Telegraph’s obituary put it “If you liked him or not facts do not lie. The man had done it all.”

Facts or no facts, though, the antipathy felt by many readers was to strong to suppress. “A showman, with a talent for self-promotion. Whether he had a talent for anything else is debatable,” opined one person in The Times, echoing a perception that had dogged McLaren since the 1970s.

Some commenters seemed almost perverse in their desire to make him look bad. “My wife and I were sitting in a Richmond restaurant in the late 1990s,” wrote another commenter in The Daily Telegraph, “when the only other customers were McLaren and his son. 
Watching him hold a cigarette in mid-air as the smoke swirled around him, you could not mistake his self possession. It was almost nauseous and I felt sorry for his son.” When the way someone holds a cigarette can provoke this kind of disgust, finding a neutral perspective on his legacy is a serious challenge.

Indeed, like that reader who felt the need to acknowledge McLaren’s detractors before stating that the “facts do not lie,” those who seek to celebrate the man’s achievements are practically forced to start in a defensive posture. This was even evident in the newspaper obituaries, which are by definition supposed to be free of bias.

Writing in The Guardian, Dave Simpson tried to counter negative assessments by portraying McLaren as a slightly daft eccentric of a peculiarly national stamp. “But those who knew him described a polite, dapper English gentleman who loved art, music and clothes with a passion – he was fond of tweed suits and Doctor Who-style scarves – and had an almost childlike enthusiasm for his projects and pranks.” And Dave Itzkoff, breaking newsof the death in The New York Times, prefaced a recitation of McLaren’s deeds by calling him “the impresario, promoter and self-promoter who once claimed to have invented punk rock,” as if he were afraid to give him too much credit.

Considering the treatment meted out to other departed celebrities, it’s hard to understand why so many people have found it necessary to distance themselves from Malcom McLaren’s legacy. He didn’t behave badly around children. He didn’t resort to physical violence. And he certainly wasn’t in a position to do the sort of damage that even mild-mannered politicians are destined to provoke. Aside from having an inflated conception of his own worth – a vice that goes hand in hand with celebrity – and a commensurate tendency to condescend to others, what did he do wrong?

Were McLaren here to answer that question, he would surely be pleased that it is still necessary to pose. Not many celebrities have remained controversial so long after instigating their last major controversy. For someone of his persuasion, a bad reputation was not a problem to be fixed but a reason to be happy. Or at least that’s the impression he conveyed in public appearances and interviews. But there is more to the story than the tributes in the mainstream press have been willing or able to communicate.

In a fascinating 2007 piece for The Telegraph, Nigel Farndale asked the still-healthy icon how his legacy would be perceived. “When I ask McLaren what words he thinks will appear in the opening paragraphs of his obituaries, he doesn’t say ‘manager’ and ‘Sex Pistols’, although this is clearly what he has in mind. ‘I would have thought “skullduggery”, “charlatan”, “svengali”. Or maybe: “The man responsible for turning British culture into a cheap marketing gimmick.”’

But after Farndale countered that this shameless promoter was also likely to be described as “a man obsessed by his own self-image,” the conversation took an intriguing turn. “‘Completely,’” McLaren replied, “‘I have always loved the idea of being someone who can disappear, of never having an identity.’” While it was no surprise to hear McLaren express his approval for this kind of shape-shifting, the way he went on to connect it with his personal history gave it a different spin. Explaining again that he had largely been raised by his grandmother, the daughter of wealthy Portuguese Sephardic Jews in the diamond trade, he linked the appeal of not having an identity to his ethnic heritage. “‘She lived for chaos and discomfort,’” he noted, adding that she tried to keep him way from the opposite sex, but otherwise encouraged him to be rebellious. “‘If I was causing mayhem at school, that was OK.’”

Jody Rosen closed his excellent posthumous tribute in Slate with a quote from an Australian television show in which McLaren repeated a story he had often told about this unusual upbringing. “‘My grandmother taught me from a very early age to disrespect anybody with any air of authority. … She said, “To be bad is good.”’ As creation stories go, it’s pretty delicious: A little old Jewish grandmother as the progenitor of punk rock. Is it true? Or is it another McLaren fish tale, more great copy from a man determined at all costs to keep things lively?”

In a way, though, it not’s that important whether his grandmother gave this startling advice or not. What matters is that McLaren, always acutely conscious of his public appearance, wanted people to believe that his spectacular provocations were rooted in a cultural tradition outside the British mainstream. Although he expressed the desire to free himself from the limitations of a fixed identity – one shared by self-styled con men the world over – he also took pains to articulate the relationship between this impulse and the experience of being raised as part of a persecuted minority. In other words, he provided the tools for commentators to place his media profile in a different historical context from the radical ideas with which he has most commonly been linked.

It’s an invitation that the Jewish press was happy to take up in the wake of his passing. The most interesting example, a short, collectively authored piece, appeared in Jewcy. “From the countless RIP Malcolm McLaren tweets to the hastily put together tributes across the web, one thing people aren’t pointing out is that Malcolm McLaren was one of the last great Jewish dealers of schlock. He found trash that he turned into treasure, and changed the face of pop culture forever. While we can’t vouch for his questionable character, it’s safe to say we’ve lost one of the last great Jewish salesmen from a time that seems very far away.” Interestingly, the same ambivalence detected in mainstream commentary on his passing surfaced here, despite the move to claim him for the Tribe.

While it is assuredly the case that McLaren welcomed being perceived as a man of “questionable character” to the extent that it would make his projects more intriguing, there is something troubling about the casual way in which Jewcy deploys the term. Because to be Jewish in the Britain of his grandmother was to have one’s character questioned from the get-go. No matter what people did, their actions would be judged on the basis of who they were believed to be. In such an environment, identity becomes a prison more than a shelter.

From this perspective, McLaren’s most impressive achievement may have been to transform himself into a person whose character was usually questioned without reference to his ethnic heritage. For all the withering assaults made on his reputation over the years, few made overt reference to his Jewishness. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten may have called his former manager “the most evil man alive,” but didn’t resort to ethnic stereotyping. Nor have his other prominent detractors.

This shouldn’t be noteworthy. But the prominence of Jewish personalities in the music business has stirred up plenty of Anti-Semitism, particularly when management and artists are in conflict. Given the fact that McLaren was a manager notorious for not paying his charges what they felt they deserved, it’s not hard to imagine his ethnic heritage being deployed as a verb. After all, many of his American counterparts were forced to deal with such slurs on a regular basis.

Yet because of his Scottish last name – his father left when he was a toddler and played no role in his upbringing – that concealed his mother’s family background, not to mention British Jewry’s lack of public visibility, McLaren seems to have avoided overt discrimination of this sort. Indeed, the fact that none of his obituaries in the mainstream press even mentioned his ethnic heritage suggests that it never really factored in his reception outside the Jewish community. He may have been the target of vicious personal attacks, but they were based on what he had done.

In light of this circumstance, McLaren’s decision to foreground his grandmother when telling his life story takes on a distinctly political aspect. The con man who reveals his origins is bound to compromise his persuasive powers. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an act of self-sabotage. In opting for roots over rootlessness, he performs a radical revaluation of the past. Instead of being regarded as an impediment, something to transcend, it becomes a resource.

Was this what the Malcolm McLaren of the twenty-first century, largely in retreat from the public eye, wanted to communicate? And if it was, would this interest in highlighting his ethnic heritage retroactively change the significance of what he achieved in the 1970s and 1980s?

While the megalomania that former associates detected in McLaren indicates that he had an inflated conception of himself, it may have derived from more than selfishness. The impulse to present oneself as a mastermind can also be rooted in a fear that the world is being drained of meaning. There is a dark side to celebrating spontaneity. If no one is in control, it is difficult to assign responsibility for success and failure. The longer such disorder persists, the harder it gets to discern intentions. When people do things without having figured out a reason to do them, life can seem disturbingly devoid of purpose.

The thread connecting the statements McLaren made about his work in the 1970s with his more recent attempts at autobiography is that, for all their wit, both are decidedly earnest. He may have extolled the virtues of pulling pranks on the public, but the extolling itself was no prank. This is a point Joe Corre insists upon when discussing his father’s legacy in The Guardian. “He was a revolutionary really. People say: ‘Oh, it was all about the music, the band.” No it wasn’t. It was about a revolutionary idea.”

Like the infamous “King Mob,” a Situationist group that dressed as Santa Clauses at Christmas time and started giving away merchandise at a department store so that children could then watch them being arrested by police for shoplifting, McLaren specialized in planning events that inspired the nervous laughter of recognition. They were meant to be consciousness-raising without becoming too dour. But humor was at best a means to an end, never an end itself.

Nor was McLaren particularly invested in the financial aspect of his managerial duties. Although his charges felt that he had taken advantage of them, the truth is that his sins were more likely those of omission rather than commission. That’s what makes Jewcy’s statement that he was one “of the last great Jewish salesmen” so problematic.

Sure, his publicity stunts helped to increase revenue. But the selling that interested him most was metaphoric. Explaining why he booked the Sex Pistols for art schools instead of the more lucrative club circuit, McLaren told John Robb in Punk Rock: An Oral History, “I just hated beer. And that’s all you got in those stinking pubs in Anglo-Saxon land. Art school preached a noble pursuit of failure. It was part of the legacy laid down by William Morris: art for art’s sake, which we attempted to create and indeed succeeded at one level. We made ugliness beautiful.”

That they also made it marketable can be attested by the fashion available for purchase at shopping malls and open-air markets around the world. Yet this fact does not make McLaren’s statement disingenuous. He may have found “trash that he turned into treasure,” but the product of this alchemy has to be measured by its impact on the mind more than the marketplace. The argument he once made about his King’s Road shop applies as readily to the Sex Pistols or his projects of the 1980s: “The store, Sex, had a definite ideology, it wasn’t about selling anything, it was about creating attitude.”

Decades later, the true importance of that counter-intuitive approach can better be discerned. Since we now live in a world where the cultural marketplace has eroded to a startling degree – it turns out that most people prefer to get their compensatory pleasures for free – the kind of metaphoric selling McLaren undertook has become increasingly prominent. A dizzying array of purveyors market attitude and a correspondingly diverse pool of consumers decide whether they want to buy it or not, all without any direct financial transactions.

McLaren was a hardly a Marxist, at least in any traditional sense. But his unwavering conviction that what mattered most could not be measured in pounds and pence placed him with leftist thinkers who were desperately trying to make sense of an economy where excess played as big a role as scarcity. And his attack on postwar identity’s foundations in commodity fetishism opened up discussions of the relationship between taste and politics that paved the way for a new understanding of how the hegemony of the prevailing social order is legitimated.

Maybe that, in the end, is what made him an “asshole.” In forcing people to confront the limits of their tolerance, in refusing to let pleasure function as an anesthetic, in having the temerity to demonstrate that devotion to a commodity is a denigration of self, he made it hard for his audience – one that includes those who read of his exploits in the media as well as fans of extreme fashion and punk rock – to go through the motions. In short, he did more than almost anyone to make consumer culture a problem rather than a solution.

Many commentators on his death have acknowledged his role in destabilizing a society grown stale. What has been lacking is insight into the relationship between these efforts and the outsider status that informed his actions. In his later years, he made it a point to let the world know that his provocations were rooted in a minority perspective, not only because he wanted to confound those who thought they had him figured out – though that was surely one of his goals – but because he saw that his legacy was in danger of being reduced to the empty barking of a salesman or the self-promotion of a narcissist. Ultimately, that savagely sarcastic line from the Sex Pistols’ most notorious song “God Save the Queen” turns out to be the most sincere representation of McLaren’s message: “We mean it, man.”

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