The message on Malcolm McLaren’s Web site today is “Malcolm will return shortly”.
That’s not likely, since the legendary punk impresario – he thrust the Sex Pistols, which he managed, on an unsuspecting public – died yesterday in Switzerland of cancer at the age of 64.
But the impish humor behind the posting sounds a perfect coda to McLaren’s life, which seemed dedicated to upending expectations and pushing contrarian culture, all with wit and a kind of elegance.
Though he’d always been a kind of hero to me, I hadn’t known about McLaren’s Jewish background until recently, when I stumbled on his Wikipedia page. According to obits on Shalom Life and in the UK Jewish Chronicle, he was born into a Scottish-Jewish family in north London and was raised by his maternal grandmother, Rose Isaacs, while his mother and step-father opened a shmatte factory in London called Eve Edwards London Limited.
McLaren, who also made his mark on the fashion world, got into the shmatte business on his own canny terms, with girlfriend and pioneering designer Vivienne Westwood. In the late 1970s they opened the powder-keg London shop “Sex.” Fittingly, their son, Joseph Corre, went on to found the popular lingerie company Agent Provocateur.
Aside from his own provocateur nature, what always fascinated me about McLaren was a very Jewish ability to market pop culture – in his case, a kind of outsider pop culture – into mainstream success. Though a radical, he followed in a long tradition of Jewish pop producers and impresarios. To paraphrase Sid Vicious, paraphrasing another singer, McLaren did it his way. The world will become a little more boring with his passing.