Who, or what, was Malcolm McLaren? A pioneering, pop-culture genius? Or a monstrous spoiled brat who spent a lifetime acting out some deeply rooted, unattractive emotional-psychological issues? Either way, he was a macher.
McLaren’s productions gave quintessential expression to assorted postmodern “strategies” even as he sometimes cruelly angered or hurt his friends and associates. While these are not the explicit, driving themes of Paul Gorman’s new biography, The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren (Little Brown, U.K.), they certainly are some of the inescapable takeaways from this detailed chronicle of the life and ever-evolving ideas of a legendary, style-crafting impresario and provocateur.
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Gorman is a well-known British journalist who has covered music and entertainment, and written extensively about contemporary fashion. His research and curatorial projects have focused on music, fashion, graphic design, and innovative pop-cultural trends. Among his books: The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture (2017) and, with Boy George, Straight (2005), the Culture Club singer’s second memoir.
Gorman writes that McLaren, unlike Andy Warhol, who, he notes, also traversed the worlds of art, celebrity, and media, “remains a spiky figure in the cultural landscape, unassimilated into the mainstream.” He will forever remain best known for his role in shaping punk’s definitive look and attitude, especially through its most emblematic musical messengers, the Sex Pistols, whose very existence he conjured up. (Gorman suggests that McLaren’s promotion of his image as that of “The Embezzler,” especially during the punk years of the latter 1970s, probably did not help his lasting reputation.)
To date, rivers of ink have been spilled on tales of the punk era, and about McLaren’s creation and management — or mismanagement — of the Sex Pistols and his partnership with the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Interestingly, for this biography, Gorman did not interview Westwood or Joe Corré, the son McLaren had with her, who became successful and wealthy on his own in the fashion biz. He also did not speak with Malcolm’s surviving older brother, Stuart McLaren.
As Gorman observes, he did not need to, given the abundance of their already published statements about Malcolm. He also notes that, by obtaining fresh interview material from other, less well-documented sources, he has been able to offer a deeper, broader, more textured telling of his subject’s life story. It helps that Gorman got to know McLaren during his lifetime; they met on several occasions, and the author vividly evokes the artist-businessman’s personality, inquisitiveness, and unmistakable craftiness.
The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren is especially rich and revealing in its recounting of McLaren’s formative childhood, his long period of study — eight years — at various London art schools, and, of course, the roller coaster ride of the Sex Pistols adventure, from the band’s emergence in 1975 to its burnout-breakup in 1978, after having released only one album.
McLaren was born at home in London in January 1946, the second son of Peter and Emily McLaren. Peter was an Englishman of Scottish ancestry who had served in World War II with Britain’s Royal Engineers. Emily was the daughter of fairly well-to-do Jewish parents (her father was a tailor’s cutter). Peter ended up delivering Malcolm himself, since harsh winter weather prevented a bicycle-riding midwife from showing up. (Peter later recalled that his mother-in-law, Rose Corré Isaacs, who claimed to have been descended from Portuguese aristocracy, “was supposed to be helping, [but] spent the entire time having hysterics.”)
From that point on, Peter noted in later reminiscences (Gorman had access to the elder McLaren’s personal papers), “The marriage, already strained, now deteriorated very fast.”
“Cash is chaos,” would become one of Malcolm’s signature pronouncements. In fact, he grew up in a whirlwind of emotional-psychological turbulence. His mother, Emily, whose in-your-face infidelities caused Peter to leave the family, was self-centered and not very interested in her children. As a result, Malcolm was brought up in the bosom of his manipulative, possessive maternal grandmother Rose, who pampered him, played him and other family members off against each other, and fostered in her grandson an appreciation of discord in personal relationships and, well, just about everything.
“To be bad is good, because to be good is to be boring,” she famously advised. As a teenager, Malcolm still often slept in the same bed with Rose. Apparently, even the Sex Pistols’ drug-fueled antics could not compare with the convulsive, dysfunctional meshuggaas of the Isaacs-McLaren gang.
Gorman points out that, when Peter McLaren “walked out of the family home,” leaving his two toddler sons “in the Isaacs’ care,” he had “agreed to a Dickensian stricture imposed by the Isaacs: that he would never make contact with the two boys during Emily’s lifetime.” And he didn’t. Peter did not see his sons again until 1989.
Rose home-schooled Malcolm until the age of seven before packing him off to a Jewish school, where he was scolded for his “wild behavior.” Gorman writes that, years later, McLaren admitted, “I was an obstreperous little shit.” In his teens, he explored London’s Soho district looking for music and kicks; with money from Rose, he bought clothes, including Italian jackets and a pair of winklepickers (sharp-pointed boots favored by British rock’n’roll fans of the 1950s).
McLaren drifted in and out of various art schools, and almost completed an undergraduate degree at Goldsmiths’ College (now Goldsmiths, University of London). He became interested in the Situationist International, a group of avant-gardists, intellectuals, and political theorists who were active from the late 1950s through the early 1970s; their ideas proposed artistic, media-savvy ways for radical social change.
Sowing the seeds for later postmodernist appropriationist “strategies,” the Situationists regarded many aspects of capitalist society as “spectacle” and celebrated their Letterist precursors’ technique of détournement, or the juxtaposing of appropriated texts and images in ways that turned capitalism against itself. Therein lay the seeds of McLaren’s later, smash-the-system punk attitude.
While he was still at art school, to McLaren’s great displeasure, Vivienne Westwood, who was a few years older, with an infant son from an earlier marriage, moved into the group house he shared with other male friends. Eventually, though, he and Westwood became a couple.
However, judging from Gorman’s description of their evolving relationship, it was not exactly a sweet romance. Later, McLaren recalled that he had “hated and loathed” Vivienne’s little boy and “brought him to tears as well.”
Still, McLaren and Westwood went on to open a clothing shop on King’s Road, in London’s Chelsea district. Over the years, it went through various incarnations, bearing different names — Let It Rock, Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, SEX, and Seditionaries. From revisited styles catering to fans of 1950s Teddy Boys (postwar Britain’s first youth-culture movement), to radical reworkings of bondage gear and T-shirts featuring McLaren’s mash-ups of subversive slogans, nude photos, and other images, the two designer-entrepreneurs specialized in a kind of aggressive anti-fashion.
Their shop became a laboratory for McLaren’s provocations and the launchpad for the Sex Pistols, a band whose members famously could not play their instruments well, and whose singer, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) got the gig after lip-synching to an old Alice Cooper record while using a shower attachment as a mock microphone.
Gorman tracks every stage of the Pistols’ 29-month-long rise and demise, and the money that band manager McLaren successfully obtained from record companies after they felt compelled to terminate contracts in the face of the band’s brewing controversies — even before it had recorded any album. McLaren did not properly distribute such funds among the band’s members, leading to later lawsuits.
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The book’s recounting of heroin-addicted Sex Pistol Sid Vicious’s tawdry decline and death is dispiriting, but, on brighter notes, Gorman goes on to cover McLaren’s post-Pistols productions as a music-maker, creating such innovative, pomo-pastiche albums as Duck Rock (1983) and Waltz Darling (1989), and as a visual artist, along with his film, television, and radio projects, and his quixotic campaign to become London’s mayor in 2000.
McLaren died of abdominal cancer in 2010. At his funeral in London — another spectacle, of course — he was buried to the strains of Sid Vicious’s recording of “My Way.”
Gorman writes that “[o]ne way of understanding McLaren’s life” is to consider his embrace of the Situationists’ “aim of replacing the making of art with the creation of public interventions to transform the daily grind” into exciting, unexpected, ecstatic experiences.
For a man who boasted about “causing chaos across the land,” there was a moment in the maelstrom of McLaren’s life when silence temporarily reigned. That was on the evening in 1989 when he and his brother arrived late, in a chauffeur-driven Daimler, to meet their father after some two decades without him in their lives. Asked if he had any questions regarding the veracity of the older man’s stated identity, Malcolm replied, “No. I’m quite satisfied he is who he says he is.”
Gorman’s book shows how Malcolm McLaren became the man he was perhaps fated to be. It’s a fascinating portrait, as complex and compelling as its subject.
The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren (2020) by Paul Gorman (Little Brown, U.K.), has been published in the United Kingdom but is available from US retailers. Its American edition will be published in August.