He was a glamorous figure, there that day with Lauren Hutton on his arm. The suit he wore looked flashy at first glance and traditional at the second; he knew how to wear it. Facing the audience, he was full of glee, full of tall tales, his eyes dancing. “When a band plays more than thirty minutes, I don’t care who they are, I’m absolutely bored to death,” he said at one point. “And the Clash could lecture you for hours.” He was clearly someone who could talk for days.
Hell spoke with dignity and clarity about a moment in 1971 when he and his friend Tom Miller, soon to change his name to Verlaine, tried to do something new. He held up a magazine he’d put out at the time: “You see it has Rimbaud and Artaud on the cover. Does that haircut look familiar?” “My generation grew up with crew cuts,” he went on. “They all got grown out because what eight-year-old likes to go the barber? So that’s how the punk cut originated. We wore ripped-up clothes that we wrote and drew on.” Hell’s story may sound trivial now, a man grasping for his place in history, but it was, in the truest sense, momentous: out of nothing, an idea. And the miracle, for the world at large, and the tragedy, for the one person not noticed by the world, was that the idea traveled. “He is ignoring me,” Hell said at one point, speaking of McLaren; I remember the sound of defeat, of surrender–to history, or just to someone else?—in Hell’s voice a few minutes later, when he recalled how the moment came when he saw “that the Sex Pistols were doing what I wanted to do—what I sort of initiated—better than I could have.” You make revolutions, Hell was arguing. “You don’t,” McLaren said. “Let it start and join it.”
Today, after Malcolm McLaren’s sudden death at sixty-four, from the virulent cancer mesothelioma, in Zurich on April 8, I think of that still astonishing line buried in the Sex Pistols’ 1977 “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten roaring as if he were John Henry, hammering through a mountain: “God save history, God save your mad parade”—yes, history itself as a mad parade, James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 put in a pot and burnt down to those eight words. Once, McLaren stepped out of the crowd and into the parade, led it down the wrong street, then escaped from the head of the procession, leaving history to find its own way as best it could.
He went on to live his own life, with project after project—some impossibly grandiose, such as inveigling the Polish government into coughing up vast sums to market Warsaw as the capital of the twenty-first century, some uncannily quick, like the video piece he completed just months ago, Paris—Capital of the XXIst Century. I see him as an auctioneer, standing on a huge platform at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, selling the concept (“The twenty-first century can be yours!”) to the highest bidder—or, with the hunched Fagin posture he affected all through his tour guide’s role in his heartfelt 1991 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street, to the lowest, always assuming he’d be around to see what happened.
Artforum, June 2010