Malcolm McLaren was one of the few people I’ve met who left the world different than he found it.
He was an unregenerate, old-time modernist—part of the modernist project, going back to David and Courbet, forward through Malevitch and Hannah Höch—of revolt against the face that power, that organized society, showed the world: the mirror it held up to show the world, to show you and me, what we looked like, who we were, what we wanted, what we were happy to settle for.
Malcolm was part of the modernist current running through the history of the last 200 years: the current that was based in the conviction that changing how the world looked and felt—how we felt when we looked at it—changed how we lived in the world, changed everyday life. Changed what we wanted from life—intensified our desires, our disappointment when they were blocked, our inability to be satisfied with what the world put on offer. Starting with his clothes shops, then with the Sex Pistols, his own sound works, finally in the films he made in the twenty-first century, he kept faith with the old Situationist ideal of flooding the market—which meant money, products, entertainments, art, and politics—with desires the market was incapable of satisfying.
But Malcolm was also one of the few people I’ve known who left the world more interesting than he found it. He did that through clothes, design, noise, music, talk, humor, prank, and imagery—he left the world more interesting because he was interested inthe world. He was interested in what clothes, design, noise, music, talk, prank, and imagery said. He looked and he listened. He took nothing at face value. Behind every statement was another story; inside every image was a story untold.
I think of a moment in his 1991 TV film “The Ghosts of Oxford Street” as a perfect version of rewriting the story, or rewriting history—which Malcolm could see as a series of pranks meant to make fools of us all. One of the tales he told was of Gordon Selfridge, the American entrepreneur who came to London and founded the great Oxford Street department store that bore his name—and how, after he’d been forced out of his own creation for mismanagement, even embezzlement, he wandered the city broke, traveling through London by bus or on foot, standing outside Selfridge’s, a bum staring in his own windows.
For most storytellers, that would be enough—what tricks history plays on us! But, Malcolm said, we can play tricks on history: we can make it speak in our voices. And so, as Malcolm told the story in a voiceover, he upped the ante. He put Tom Jones on the screen, dressed him up like a raggedy Gordon Selfridge, and had him sing what, in the context Malcolm made, was the most soulful, heartbreaking, and self-mocking version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” anyone has ever heard.
The power of the Sex Pistols’ singles—“Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant,” “Holidays in the Sun”—came partly out of Malcolm’s sense that there was another history hidden inside the history written down in books and newspapers—something louder, more unlikely, more, crazy, more desperate, more unsettled—unfinished. “He was the only one who ever listened to us,” one of the Sex Pistols once said: the only one who asked them, in countless different ways, “What do you want? What do you want to say? What do you love, what do you hate?” And out of that—that conviction that anyone could retell the story he or she had been told all his or her life—came Johnny Rotten’s will to rewrite history itself in one poetic flash: “God save history, God save your mad parade.”
You can see that mad parade unfold in Malcolm’s last great work, the film “Paris: Capital of the 21st Century”—a trove of advertisements made for French cinemas from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth, all cut up, recombined, repeated, slowed down, made to sing secret songs and perform forbidden dances, turning the long romance of consumer culture into a field of spells cast and spells broken.
A commercial for a toilet paper boutique—the original filmmakers want you to buy a new line of perfumed, multicolored toilet paper rolls, so they come up with the idea of a shop that sells nothing else—is turned into a frenzied gavotte of buyers and sellers discovering, indulging, and satisfying every erotic fantasy, fetishizing a thing until they they’re bodysnatched by the product itself. It’s a nice little piece as it was originally made—but as Malcolm recut it, making every repeated frame and interchange odd, strange, impossible, extending the tale into realms of hilarity and dread until you cannot believe what you’re seeing, the actors turn into aliens and modern life feels like a plot foisted on us by visitors from another planet—the planet inside our own.
Nothing was as it seemed, Malcolm said all his life, in all of his work—it’s more than it seems. It’s scarier. It’s funnier. The world is scarier than anyone ever told you, and it can be more fun than you ever dared believe. In every conversation I ever had with him, that belief, the foundation of his art, came out of him with every word, every gesture—his voice going higher as he fluttered his hands in the air.
Greil Marcus delivered this speech at the Performa 11 Grand Finale on November 21st, 2011, at the Bowery Hotel's Ballroom in honor of Malcolm McLaren and the first annual Malcolm McLaren Award.