King Mob

“For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you.”

Johnny Rotten, April 2010

I was sad to hear that Malcolm Maclaren had died last week but I wasn’t surprised that some people weren’t. Villified for his mis-management and perceived exploitation of the Sex Pistols, McLaren was one of those tolerated eccentric celebs that the media keeps giving us hoping we’ll scorn them. McLaren had, in recent years, been reduced to good incidental copy, scams like standing for Mayor of London because “Ken wouldn’t stand” (Ken Livingstone, former Miners’ Union leader & Mayor of London) had McLaren back on the front pages.

His mayoral campaign was funded by Alan McGee of Creation Records –McGee got twenty thousand pounds from Sony Music by telling them the campaign was an ‘art statement’. Maclaren appeared on British TV and had 6% of the vote with a manifesto proposing legalizing brothels and allowing alcohol in libraries. This is classic McLaren, a self-confessed Situationist, he lived well beyond the despised ‘artistic specialization’ noted at the Situationist International inaugural conference in 1957 and succeeded in creating art out of ‘instances of a transformed everyday life’, which, in a nutshell, was the movement’s intention. McLaren also adhered to the First Pop Law of Andrew Loog Oldham,

“I believe that if you lie enough it becomes a reality.”

He also changed the nature of the English music industry as Jon Savage tells so well in his excellent book about the Sex Pistols and punk rock, “England’s Dreaming”.

Clearly McLaren is one of those celebs that I profess to “like” by virtue of his singular achievements, though all accounts of his personality leads me to believe he would have been a problematic friend. Nevertheless, it was the idea of  McLaren as a living breathing creature, not a huge cultural icon or pariah that started me on this piece.

After all celebrities are real life people too, sometimes people will tell you stuff; in West Marin there are waitresses that gossip that George Lucas is a bad tipper, if you read the pulp mags they’ll tell you umpteen starlets are bitches to their staff and aloof with their kids. Somewhere in the desire to create entertainment, celebrities themselves and their real lives have become the preferred main course. Many many people are concerned about Lindsey Lohan’s drug taking and many others would like to see Brad back with Jen.

I care less about the Desperate Housewives actors but I will read People, InStyle! or any other dross that’s on the stand when I’m in line at Safers and form my opinions: Britney needs medical marijuana, Oprah is a man. The dis/information is designed to color your perceptions. I had a patch when I really hated McLaren: it was after I first saw The Filth and the Fury, where John Lydon compellingly blames Malc for abandoning Sid in the States, which, as we know, didn’t end well. Interesting that a decade after the Filth, Lydon is eulogizing his old manager, even re-assuming his Johnny Rotten identity for his press release. I liked that, because it was a major nod, and I do agree, McLaren was a huge entertainer, he changed things in the way that only true daredevils and artists can. The idea that actually meeting somebody of this stature can intelligently inform an opinion is moot. Take for example the night I met Iggy Pop: backstage at a gig in New York that my husband was playing, I’d just read Please Kill Me and recognized the icon hovering by the complimentary buffet, I introduced myself and gushed about how I enjoyed the book ( hes in it & given lots of love)  Igs didn’t even acknowledge me, his fish eyes never made contact, it was brutal celeb behavior. Consequently this is the arsehole story I tell about him, though  sometimes I mention how I met Blake Baxter moments after & told him the whole embarrassing story: he responded like a dude and a gentleman by doing one of those hissing and head-shaking protracted laughs while pouring me a v & t for my pains.

In 1990 McLaren came to the opening of Gambler, an art show that I co-curated at Building One, a warehouse gallery we’d opened in South London.  Gambler, was a group show of those as-yet-unidentified-as-YBAs and a couple of Americans imported extravagantly from New York. Malcolm turned up wearing a flamboyant  pink argyle golfing sweater which clashed with his overwhelmingly big and red hair. Somewhere there are black and white photos of me with ten thousand pounds worth of borrowed diamond earrings and the most incredible British impresario of our times. He was a charmer, he said that he’d just arrived in London from New York and he’d been sitting in a pub in Soho and everybody had been talking about Gambler, so naturally he’d come down to see what was going on. He was a chancer, he’d just met Dom Denis, one of the artists in the show and now he was very excited to meet me.

Of course he was, I was one of the upstarts who had finageled this gallery space into existence, it had more square footage than the Royal Academy and was hosting huge sculptures featuring charred cow skulls and maggot farms. McLaren was clearly titillated by our initiative, he knew that Damien’s drugs cabinets were named after tracks on ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ and his approval was intoxicating. We’ve got to talk he said, clocking those borrowed diamonds.

My partners were less than enthusiastic, McLaren was voracious by reputation and despite the punk stance we were offering up to the art world it wasn’t part of our plan to be discovered by the dastardly likes of the great rock n’ roll swindler. I didn’t demur, he was as overwhelming as his hair and we were all about our own thing, which presented pretty situationist but wasn’t really. Still, I was massively encouraged and felt his attention was a sign that in some cool way we’d arrived. Funnily enough, those twenty minutes, twenty years ago,  live on in my clutch of treasured memories.

Later, one of the boys from Leeds drunkenly hurled a wine glass at one of the walls. The wall was free-standing – basically a timber frame clad with plasterboard, the wine glass sliced through the white-painted surface and lodged, it looked surreal, wine dripped down and the glass stem stuck out awkwardly intact.  Purple red splatters from the impact had landed dangerously close to a pair of Dom’s diptych series ( all of which I’d sold that night.)

I was furious and followed the culprit to the pub over the road where the uptown art crowd and the whole uproar had migrated. The landlord, thrilled to have a full house of thirsty nobs, got wind of my upset, and offered to have the offending lad taken outside for a good beating. This I declined and found rather sobering, I certainly didn’t want anybody’s head kicked in for a perceived slight to art. And that wasn’t the real deal either, the insult was directly to us; Carl, Damien & I and what we were doing, the glass-thrower knew us and he was a hater.

I remember going back to the gallery later, unlocking the yard gate, unlocking the double doors, switching the industrial fluorescent lights on and standing, swaying, smoking in the space. It was an old biscuit factory with an ornate iron-framed glass roof,  the show looked amazing, the faint smell of rotting cow flesh and sour wine was not upsetting. I remember feeling this weird restlessness, I was thinking; I know this is good but I know there is something more. I didn’t know what — more art or more satisfaction?

‘Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing.’

College Notes, Winter 1967/68  Malcolm McLaren

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3 Responses to King Mob

  1. fallen woman says:

    “he was as overwhelming as his hair…” 🙂 i enjoyed taking this journey with you, Billie, as if flowing along the dérive of your perceptions of Macl the celeb, rather than the man. i think we all feel drawn to the outlaws, artists and flamboyant characters who challenge us to think and dream in new ways…and those who dare to tell a good story on or about them. of course, when we talk about someone else, it is our story we are telling~ and we have little choice in the matter, for always, the stories reveal what is deepest in us…and it’s a story that demands to be told.

  2. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin said something very similar recently, but he has the additional frustration of actually being able to play an instrument.

  3. Richard Weiss says:

    Wild Billee! What a great reminiscences!

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