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Malcolm McLaren, R.I.P.

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The soundtrack that Malcolm McLaren provided for Dries Van Noten’s show in March jammed together Bernard Herrmann’s elegant music for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a particularly bolshie bit of punk provocation from the Mekons. Herrmann’s romantically surging strings were continually interrupted by a drunken shouty man, and the audio tug ‘o’ war between the two had people shifting uncomfortably in their seats. In other words, a quintessential McLaren moment. Unfortunately, he wasn’t feeling well enough to relish it in person.

McLaren’s death on Thursday—from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer—means there won’t be any more moments like that. Or, for that matter, any more of his riveting free-associative raids on popular culture. He was a silver-tongued devil, expert at making random connections to create a really big picture, the kind that gets the medieval and the postmodern in the same frame. Even when it made no sense, it was enlightening. Refreshingly perverse—that was Malcolm.

It’s going to be all “Sex Pistols svengali” and “punk impresario” and—God forbid—”Vivienne Westwood’s plus one” for a few weeks, but more than three decades has passed since ’76/’77 and McLaren’s wide-open mind roamed far and wide, teasing, poking, finding gems in dark corners. His ongoing fascination with street culture surely introduced a wider audience to double dutch, hip-hop, sampling, and voguing (a whole year before Madonna). He probably did the same thing for opera with his album Fans. Even the nutty moment when he lived in L.A. (un)developing projects for Columbia (the most mythic, Surf Nazis Must Die, got a big spread in Vanity Fair, which must count as one of McLaren’s minor masterpieces of media manipulation) had a kind of boundary-pushing edge to it. Digitalia, erotica, Japanese girl bands, country music, video art…add them, and so much more, to the list of all the projects that came to fruition—and all those that didn’t—and you’ve got yourself an unsung Renaissance man.

It was much more likely you’d hear him called a charlatan. That was the kind of reaction McLaren seemed to gleefully court. Still, I noticed that he’d been talking about authenticity a lot more. ”Intelligence is definitely creating a new insurgency tactic…Gathering real knowledge has finally become a quest,” he wrote in one e-mail a few years back. ”A new insurgency tactic”? The never-ending promise of provocation suggested there’d be no mellowing for Malcolm.

Photo: Camera Press / Retna Ltd.

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Dept. of Culture