- The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren, by Paul Gorman. Hachette. $69.99.
Was Malcolm McLaren a creative savant or a fast-talking spiv masquerading as an avant-gardiste? It's a question you're forced to consider as you negotiate Paul Gorman's sweeping new biography of the man best known for his mismanagement of the Sex Pistols. It's also one that resists easy answers.
A decade after his death and 40-odd years since he unleashed Punk on an unsuspecting British public, Malcolm McLaren is still typically cast as a creative mercenary bent on sowing discord wherever he went. It seems "the most evil man in the world" label, bestowed upon McLaren by John Lydon for the way in which he brought about the Sex Pistols' premature demise, has stuck. But The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren doesn't concern itself with recycling tired facsimiles of the man. In fact, Gorman made a point of not interviewing some of the people most often quoted about McLaren because he wanted to "provide a much more rounded portrait than has hitherto been available". He succeeded.
Gorman's 850-page doorstopper reveals a troubled character whose anarchistic tendencies were being nurtured long before he discovered the Situationist International or the soixante-huitards at Harrow. On his first day at William Pattern Primary School in north London, McLaren disappeared under the desks to sneak a look at the girls' knickers. His grandmother, Rose, was summoned to the school by the head teacher but was unmoved by what he had to say. "Boys will be boys," she said. The episode, which gifted McLaren a line he'd later use to defend the Sex Pistols' boorish behaviour, points to a home life that was far from functional.
If McLaren seemed to live by a malleable moral code, it's not hard to see why. When other kids were out playing, McLaren would be hanging around hotel lobbies waiting for his "man mad" mother to finish with one of her lovers upstairs. Evenings at home were hardly a picture of domestic harmony either. As a boy, McLaren would lie in the bed he'd share with his grandmother well into his teens eavesdropping on her unseemly stories. A particularly lurid tale involved her procurement of handsome boys for Sir Thomas Lipton's enjoyment.
"It was safest for me to live in chaos," McLaren would admit years later. "My life at home was in constant turmoil and that was what I was comfortable with, so I chose to recreate it."
And recreate it he did, first in the world of fashion. After seven years at art school, where he decided that he never wanted to return to "normality" again, McLaren inherited the lease to a shop at 430 King's Road in the World's End area of London and embarked on a chapter, with partner and collaborator Vivienne Westwood, that would change the course of fashion, music and pop culture. The basic plot points of this story will be well known to anyone with a passing interest in either fashion or Punk, but Gorman's social history of the time, which fills in the blanks missing from many other accounts, still makes for fascinating reading.
At a time when many retail experiences don't involve anything more exciting than adding things to baskets, it's hard to imagine the frenetic energy that emanated from the store variously known as Let It Rock, Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, and SEX. From the outset, the King's Road emporium had people banging on the door, desperate to get their hands on the latest Levi's, creepers or customised tees. But unlike the proponents of today's "drop" culture, and the model of false scarcity that underpins it, McLaren wasn't in it for the money.
"It was never about making things successful or commercial or having a career in fashion," said McLaren of his days in the rag trade. "It was about creating a scene."
There's no doubt that McLaren succeeded on that front; 430 King's Road attracted an astonishingly diverse cast of characters, from the last of the Teddy Boys to people like Alice Cooper, David Bowie and Charles Saatchi, AKA "this guy in the Roller". The store also attracted a bunch of teenage misfits that McLaren would mould into one of the most dysfunctional bands in the history of rock 'n' roll.
The Sex Pistols' story is a sorry one, but Gorman's retelling of it is not without its lighter moments. There's a funny passage which sees McLaren cop a serve from Westwood for picking the wrong John to front the embryonic outfit. Westwood had suggested that McLaren talk to John 'Sid Viscous' Ritchie about becoming the band's lead singer, but in a bungle worthy of Basil Fawlty, McLaren got his wires crossed and anointed another King's Road regular, John 'Johnny Rotten' Lydon instead. It's a strangely endearing passage and not the only one in the book that casts doubt on McLaren's Mephistophelean reputation.
When it looked like Steve Jones' "light-fingered ways" would land the guitarist in jail before the Pistols even got going, McLaren intervened on his behalf. Years later, Jones recalled, "He gave the judge such a brilliant line of bullshit about what a bright future I had in front of me and what a great contribution I was going to make to British society that the guy in the wig let me off with a final warning". The Pistols' manager reprised the role when Sid Viscous was charged with the murder of Nancy Spungen. "McLaren moved so quickly that he was in New York the morning after the arrest," writes Gorman. Not long after, McLaren secured the bail money from none other than Richard Branson.
The problem with McLaren, as least when it comes to pinning down his legacy, isn't that he was a complicated cat, but that he was a collaborator in the truest sense of the word. Whether he was steering Vivienne Westwood towards fertile ground and refining her early designs, popularising turntablism and African music, or pitching film ideas to studio execs in Hollywood, McLaren never worked alone, which meant he rarely got the credit he deserved for his creative output. He also made a couple of decisions that make you wonder what might have been.
Vivienne Westwood's biographer, Jane Mulvagh, noted that the end of the McLaren-Westwood partnership hit the designer hard, but ultimately set her up for the success she went on to achieve. The effect on McLaren, according to Mulvagh, "was a decline into comparative professional irrelevance." It's an assessment that squares with the fact that the first third of Gorman's biography of the man is by far the most interesting.
But back to that nagging question, which basically amounts to, Was Malcolm McLaren the real deal, or not? The answer, fittingly perhaps given the contradictions he embodied, is a bit of both. McLaren was undoubtedly a showman who loved the idea of looking like an artist. However, this "figure made entirely out of counterculture" was also a bona fide artist, one whose influences continue to be felt in fashion, design, television and music.
When news of McLaren's death reach London on 8 April 2010, Paul Gorman was standing in an art school, of all places, with Mick Jones, the guitarist from The Clash. Jones' immediate reaction to the news struck the biographer hard. "We'll never hear Malcolm's latest thoughts again," said Jones. "All those brilliant, wild ideas which seemed to pour out of him on a daily basis, that's over. And that's really sad."