Today Macolm McLaren’s funeral procession made its way through the streets of North London and onto Highgate Cemetery. According to the NME, the coffin, stenciled with the words “Too fast to live, too young to die,” like one of the artist’s many t-shirts, “was drawn by four black horses in full funeral regalia.” The coffin was followed by a Routemaster (the iconic English double decker bus), whose destination was marked “Nowhere,” just like one of Jamie Reid’s graphics. The whole thing, including a PA that blasted various “punk anthems” (including Sid Vicious’s renditions of Rock Around The Clock and My Way, the latter being Paul Anka’s favorite, incidentally) was met by hundreds of unruly fans at the Camden Town tube station.
This morning it occurred to me that, if one is going to take Art seriously — and not Art as spectator sport but Art as early warning system, defense mechanism, weapon, and way of life — you could do worse than to start with a book called England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond by Jon Savage. Indeed, I’ve been hitting this book up regularly since I first shoplifted it in 1991 (I know, not nearly as cool now as I thought I was then) from Waldenbooks in the Millcreek Mall. What thrilled me about the book then, and what continues to do so now, is the central role that Malcolm McLaren plays throughout. In the book, McLaren is portrayed first and foremost as a sort of a brat: not as a malevolent creature, but as a loud, brilliant, in many ways undisciplined figure who does whatever he damn well pleases: kind of like Charlie X from the Star Trek episode (except that he couldn’t destroy spaceships with his mind). It’s not for nothing that, as Savage points out, McLaren would keep returning to the idea, and ideal, of childhood, throughout his work and throughout his life:
To use a kid’s eyelevel to describe ordinary situations and to get the utmost out of these situations. Showing the structure of Oxford Street thru the eyes of a child and the effect it has on him and his elders. The child is unknowing of the media and thus the basis for being there is to see it without commenting on it. Cut into this an older person’s viewpoint, equally subservient to it but serving it. That one has no control over one’s life. Showing how an adult is still a child still no control. Important then to relate how he combats that predicament.
— Malcolm McLaren, notes for Oxford Street (1970)
“The essence of our life consists,” said Foucault, “of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.” That is, Politics is the mechanism of control through which people are exploited and power is exercised — Politics is an organic part of human nature, and it as far weirder and esoteric than Playbook or the idiots of the 24-hour news cycle would have you believe. And for McLaren, this must have been an instinctual, gut-level awareness. Indeed, it’s no wonder that an early and lasting influence of his was the Situationist International, the group of cultural revolutionaries that combined Marxist critique and surrealist perspectives, and who refused to separate Art from Politics, or Art + Politics from Life. “Such were the influences, ideas, and attitudes,” writes Fred Vermoral in Sex Pistols: The Inside Story, “which, percolating through Malcolm’s and Vivienne’s boutique in the King’s Road, gradually assumed the form of decor and clothes, and, eventually, of the Sex Pistols.” Vermoral, a long-time friend of McLaren’s, goes on to say that McLaren probably didn’t always take Situationist ideas very seriously. “But they worked so he carried on with them. And so well did they work that in the end they carried him on, often despite himself…”
(I could go on and draw parallels between chaos magic — and perhaps some day I will, for there are many. Not only does this sentence describe chaos magic, but chaos magic is, among many things, a modern esoteric response to punk rock).
The impression one gets from England’s Dreaming is of McLaren as a man who is always thinking, always playing, and always causing trouble — a man for whom art and ideas took center stage, and for whom his art was his life. And, even, if he wasn’t a grim political actor, we all know that real Art and real Politics cannot be separated. Savage’s book is an inspirational read. Steal yourself a copy today!