Arts Desk

“Oi! You’re Malcolm McLaren!” Nick English Remembers the Controversial Punk Icon

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Nick English, the former manager of Bad Brains and D.C. hardcore's link to London punk, encountered Malcolm McLaren in the late '70s when both were living in New York. He recently recounted those events in an e-mail to friends. McLaren, a controversial manager and punk icon, died last week at 66. With English's permission, we've reprinted his account below.

In 1979 I lived on St. Marks Place—heart of the Lower East Side. In those days, the area was still a very traditional amalgam of the ethnic and cultural groupings which had been there for a 100 years or so.  There were Polish food stores, a religious artifacts store selling mostly Catholic and Greek Orthodox priestly garb, a huge restaurant supply store with everything from crockery to huge pieces of kitchen equipment, second hand clothes and used merchandise stores, a Kosher bakery and of course the 2nd Ave. Deli. Further downtown, the Jewish markets and shops on Hester seemed much as they were in 1900.

The Hells Angels had a chapter house around 6th and 2nd Ave.—a dark and lowering place with motorcycles outside—all apparently unguarded and untouched. I was told they had a close relationship with the cops at the station house one block away, and that any unauthorized or unwanted involvement with them was met with an extreme violent response and absolutely no reaction from the cops. People like Allen Ginsburg and Larry Rivers still lived and were seen around the neighborhood. Apart from CBGBs and a couple of record stores, punk was all but invisible.

Over on the West Side, Soho was just beginning to go upmarket. I never ventured much beyond Washington Square, where one could still purchase loose joints for $2 and legit Black Beauty’s for $5 from any number of regularly situated dealers whom I'm sure paid for police protection. I do remember there was a wonderful shoe store which had been there for many years, where serious ballet shoes and Capizio’s and other Italian shoes were sold. An English friend was managing what I believe was the first Agnes B shop over there, and one day I went to look around. She mentioned that her friend ran the Comme des Garçons store a few shops down. I was quite interested in fashion, and as Garçons was completely beyond my means, I had never been inside one, she called her friend and I went for a visit.

The novelty of a locked door opened to the chosen few was equaled only by the sight of a large store with only about 100 pieces of clothing and 20 pairs of women’s shoes. A spiral staircase led to the basement where there were even fewer men’s clothes.  There were no customers.  It all seemed very mysterious and unconnected to the world of commerce.  As I returned up the staircase, a loud and instantly identifiable London voice was heard and confirmed to be Malcolm McLaren. He was screeching at two young teenage girls to "be careful with those fucking things—they cost a fucking fortune."  I stopped for a moment and then, in that "instant friends with any punk" of London days I said:

“Oi! You’re Malcolm McLaren!”

“Right, yeah.  Who are you?”

Even then, in the late stages of London punk, and certainly in a strange land like New York, punk was still a subcultural club, where all with all the right garb and attitude you were at least initially treated as long lost friends. I had spoken to Malcolm once—fleetingly—at the Roxy one night (of course totally unremembered by him), but mention of it brought a fairly genuine show of amusement and interest from him—absolutely no New York cool at all.  I had no knowledge of the circumstances of the breakup of the Sex Pistols at the time and I don’t think many others did either. When Johnny Rotten/Lydon got back to London, he pretty much went to ground. That, along with Sid's death, marked the end of the Pistols and in retrospect punk itself.

I asked what he was doing now and he said living in New York, buying clothes with these two, and working in the studio. This last bit was big news, coming from the svengali of punk. Who with? I inquired. Well, he said, he was working with…Jeff Beck. Now that was a shocker. Beck was a dinosaur, unheard from by anyone for about 10 years. I tried not to openly cringe and told him what I was doing: clearing out what had been garment factories and turning them into lofts which was then in full flow. New York was basically like rehab for me, and the scene was a fucking zero. Since he said he wasn’t doing any live shows (and held a similarly dismissive attitude to CBGBs) that was it. He went back to his two nubile young pals. I have no idea who they were, but they didn’t lack for attitude. I naturally assumed he was plundering teenage rock and roll affections but without any real evidence.

I pretended to survey items of women's apparel whilst fascinated, discretely observing all that they did on the other side of the store. Trying on and discarding clothes at break-neck speed with Malcolm's advice and opinion much in evidence. They were laughing and carrying on like the 16-year-olds they were. Clothes were changed and discarded right there on the floor in the middle of the shop—no dressing room necessary. All this produced absolutely no response from the manager, who just let them get on with it, only talking when asked how much things were. $300 for a blouse didn’t faze McLaren at all—I was in shock. After about 5 minutes I wished him well and left—typical English reserve with a certain degree of London sophistication and awareness—an art which takes years of rigorous self-conscious thought and practice.

A couple of days later, I returned, to learn that McLaren’s party had departed about 20 minutes later, having spent $1,000 which Malcolm paid. They had left behind mountains of clothes strewn about the floor, without a moment’s thought or apology. I was gobsmacked, doubly so when the manager explained that this was a common practice for English bands. McLaren was well aware that such conspicuous consumption would have been vilified and totally unacceptable in the old country, but would be undetected and unremarkable in New York. She mentioned that the Jam had recently done the same thing. I left feeling outraged.

I had never liked the Jam. They were a pop group masquerading as punk, and rumored to be Tory sympathizers—anathema in Thacherite England. All punks were gleefully anarchist or hard left, or at worst they were completely alienated or apathetic about politics. Most punk in England was highly political and Tory was not an option. Fuck the Jubilee badge wearing, and violent confrontation with the National Front was punk. For me, the fact that the Jam spent vast sums on clothing merely confirmed their moral bankruptcy.

London punk was almost universally populated by young working class kids with no money. The dole, student grants, occasional menial work when not being laughed at and abused, parents if you were very lucky, and petty theft were about the only sources of income. The topic of who had any money, or where the next bit was coming from, or who could lend them a couple of quid were ubiquitous. Punks lived, as did I, in squats, or with friends in council flats in run down working class neighborhoods, or at home with their parents. Afterwards I speculated that McLaren had always been a fashion stylist, and this wasn't his money, possibly his bratty rich kid accomplices or from an already begun long term relationship with Lauren Hutton who would certainly have had large scale modeling money. Renting studio time in New York with Jeff Beck meant he had it from somewhere—a record contract perhaps. By whatever means, it was completely alien to the London punk ethos, and Jeff Beck didn’t compute at all.

Malcolm McLaren was at this time still thought of as an icon of punk creativity and skillful manipulation. His management of the Pistols through the dangerous shoals of the English media was deft, and the Pistols' signing of no less than three big recording contracts for what seemed like huge sums with only one record to show for it (and a mighty one it was) seemed almost magical. The horrific public suicide of Sid and Nancy, and the Pistols’ implosion, seemed at the time to be a function of incomprehensible massive pressures having nothing to do with him. To me, the New York events described above were a perplexing, unexplainable mystery. Malcolm McLaren simply disappeared. No record, no news, no nothing. I left New York soon after and came to DC.  Punk became a historic artifact—a mythology used and abused by all and sundry for whatever spurious personal agenda suited.

Three years later, the appalling facts about his abysmal treatment of the Pistols were known. His contemptuous and contemptible dereliction of any responsibility for their welfare, complete indifference and contribution to Sid's terrible demise, mismanagement and theft of their earnings—all were revealed during John's two-year court battle and eventual success in recouping at least some of it. He was an ogre whose disappearance was easily explained by his criminal conduct.

Then, in 1983, seemingly out of nowhere, came Duck Rock. A revelatory headlong charge, utilizing the choral brilliance of traditional Zulu singing, the ringing propulsive township beats of Soweto, black American skip rope chants and nursery rhymes, a New York radio DJing duo dubbed the World's Famous Supreme Team and the soaring guitar runs of one Jeff Beck—all intercut and blended into a joyous, irresistible gumbo by the seamless production genius of Steve Hodge and with occasional narration by McLaren himself. Twenty-five years later, the music still leaps off the turntable, a completely fresh and vital sound celebrating the joyful energy of a South African youth yearning for independence. I had long loved South African township jazz, and became addicted to McLaren's appropriation, which seemed to retain the strengths of each but whose sum was greater than its parts.

Two years later came Fans: a setting of Madam Butterfly with purely operatic singing to a rock backing, including the aforementioned Jeff Beck, with McLaren playing a combination of recalcitrant bored schoolboy and backstage hand. I actually had some liking for opera, and despite an almost certain recipe for failure, it was pretty great. It was inventive, witty, and didn’t destroy the operatic beauty but just rocked right along.

Two years later came an album of stunning hard dance remixes to some of the Duck Rock tracks with the Supreme Team featured much more heavily—samples from their radio show, hilarious 3 a.m. call-ins from listeners. It had all the strengths of rap, cut ups, and hard dance, plus wild lyrics. This is still 1987, only just post Grand Master Flash.

1990 saw a brilliant amalgam of all the three prior records, with great opera tracks, hard house, and again, wild lyrics. Mr. McLaren had obviously heard the clarion call of the after-hours club scene of New York—Limelight, etc.—where a heady mix of ex-fashion-club kids, gays, and any others made for a heady mix. Again, Malcolm was seemingly well ahead of any others in sensing the worth of new musical styles and mashing them up faultlessly.

And then nothing. For the last 20 years, nary a peep. I heard at one point he had done an hour-long film on the history of Oxford Street from its 18th center of vice at one end to the Tyburn hanging tree at the other, where on a weekend up to a dozen were hung for public enjoyment. Now if ever there was a subject for McLaren, this sounded like it. But I've seen or heard nothing of it since. Maybe he was married with two kids and living on Long Island, but I doubted it. The master of self-aggrandizement and publicity had simply vanished.

I happened to see The Filth and the Fury again the other day. Fifteen years after the events transpired, John Lydon's complete revulsion at McLaren's behavior was still seething. And rightly so. He expressed genuine outrage, sadness, and guilt over Sid's death.  "I mean he died—a human being died—probably my best friend in the world."  It says a lot about both of them. McLaren's contemptible use of the Pistols as an abstract commodity was ghastly. However, in the four albums he produced in six years in the '80s, he showed himself to be much more than the demon carnival huckster of the punk years. In the mid '90s, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London had a major exhibition of punk fashion and iconography. The show highlighted just how revolutionary Vivienne Westwood and McLaren’s designs for their shop (alternately Sex/Seditionaries/World's End—how apocalyptic a name was that) where the whole punk ethos was nurtured and the Pistols met. How much of all the clothing was Westwood's and how much if any was McLaren's has never been clear to me. He did stock the jukebox which was full of wild-arsed rockabilly and spaced-out R&B when neither was much to anyone. But by whatever means he did it for a few years at the end of the '80s. He clearly had a wonderfully creative handle on the musical pulse of New York and the world in those times. One is supposed not to confuse the art with the artist. But in McLaren’s case, it is almost impossible not to. He put himself right in the middle of everything. And I still don’t have the faintest idea where he came out.

Image of McLaren, from Jeremy Blake's work Glitterbest, courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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