This is Malcolm McLaren as he likes to see himself: the Left Bank bohemian, the unappreciated maverick, the exile nursing a glass of chilled pinot noir as he sits in his favourite bistro on the Boulevard St Germain, not far from his appartement. He even, towards the end of this paragraph, compares himself to Oscar Wilde. ‘I first came to Paris to lick my wounds at the end of the Seventies,’ he says, over-enunciating his vowels in a fluty voice that is part estuary geezer, part high duchess. ‘It was after I’d been taken to court by the Sex Pistols because they claimed I had mismanaged them. I had mismanaged them, of course. I was in the business of mismanagement. But I soon realised that Parisians love anyone the English hate. I felt like Oscar Wilde must have felt when he became an exile here. The main difference being that I had zillions of girlfriends.’
The main difference? Clearly we are in the presence of a healthy ego here. The walls of the bistro, incidentally, are hung with giant mirrors that angle away from the wall at the top, so that diners can contemplate themselves. And above the cash register there is a small black and white photograph of Picasso, who was also a regular here. Wilde, Picasso, McLaren. It soon becomes apparent that my dining companion would have no hesitation in mentioning those three names in the same breath.
‘We’re just in the process of moving at the moment,’ he adds. ‘From the 9th to 8th arrondissement. We had a bit of a clear-out. My big Knoll desk was bought at auction by Nicolas Sarkozy. We had to move because we needed a better concierge, one who would deal with packages and be discreet.’ The ‘we’ refers to Young Kim, his 34-year-old Korean-American partner (a graduate of Yale University who is now a fashion historian). ‘This will be my fifth appartement because although Parisians in general love me, I always seem to have trouble with my immediate neighbours. Any bit of noise or rowdiness and they want to complain to the police and put a petition in the town hall. Before you know it you are being taken to court by the landlord of the building. I’ve had that twice. And if you put up the black flag and say ”f— you” then they make your life even more miserable.’
At 61, McLaren’s hair is no longer auburn and wiry, but neatly cropped and frosting at the temples. He is wearing a sensible blue shirt – although it does have a gravy stain on the front – and as he talks he rolls up one sleeve only, the other remaining stubbornly buttoned down. It is as if he only half means business today. He has, he confides, got a stinking hangover. To combat it he orders, in passable French, a beetroot salad, one which leaves his tongue red. ‘I sooo needed to eat something,’ he says, with a roll of his eyes. He holds his knife like a pen and, as he talks, which he does for three hours without flagging – talk, talk, talk – he holds his fork limply, his wrist loose, conducting with it. Perhaps it is all part of the aesthete look he seems to be cultivating: Brian Sewell meets Dame Edith Evans. He is the consummate chameleon, after all.
After his heady days managing the Sex Pistols (and later Bow Wow Wow), McLaren reinvented himself as a pioneer of scratch and hip-hop, having hit singles with Buffalo Gals and a techno version of Madam Butterfly. But after that, nothing. Well, nothing much. With the composer Yanni he arranged The Flower Duet to accompany the BA commercials. He ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of London in 1999. He produced a film, Fast Food Nation, that did quite well at the box office last year. Oh, and he has appeared in a reality show set in a remote village in Scotland. It was due to air this autumn but may now be shelved because another of the contestants, Mike Reid, has since died.
The plot was this: three ‘celebrities’ competed to win the title Baron of Gardenstown, which the TV company had bought. McLaren was the obligatory awkward cuss, something of a tradition on reality shows since John Lydon (Johnny Rotten as was) appeared in I’m a Celebrity?… Get me Out of Here! It ended, fairly inevitably, with McLaren being hounded out of the village by the angry locals he had insulted. ‘You never saw such deformed, awful looking creatures,’ he says now. ‘It was an absolutely sorrowful place. Never, ever go to Scotland if you can help it.’
Not one to brood on past failures, McLaren is now planning to put on a Broadway musical. He also fancies himself as an artist. He has, indeed, persuaded a gallery in New York to put on an exhibition of his work later this month. But McLaren being McLaren, he has, at the time of writing, yet to come up with any exhibits. ‘In the art world I am a sought-after creature,’ he says haughtily. ‘To participate in whatever, to endorse whatever.’ It turns out he is also a consultant on the board of Phillips, the contemporary art auctioneers.
But try as he might to branch out into other art forms, it is the Sex Pistols for which he will be remembered. The band just won’t go away. They have, indeed, just announced a concert to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, one of the most influential albums in rock history. Original members John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock will play at the Brixton Academy in London on 8 November.
When I ask McLaren what words he thinks will appear in the opening paragraphs of his obituaries, he doesn’t say ‘manager’ and ‘Sex Pistols’, although this is clearly what he has in mind. ‘I would have thought “skulduggery”, “charlatan”, “svengali”. Or maybe: “The man responsible for turning British culture into a cheap marketing gimmick.” ‘ And a man obsessed by his own self-image, I suggest.
‘Completely. I have always loved the idea of being someone who can disappear, of never having an identity. It was probably due to my dysfunctional childhood.’ He delights in recounting the picaresque details of his upbringing in Stoke Newington, north London. His father left when he was two, so he was raised by his grandmother, Rose Corre Isaacs, who promptly turned him against his parents and his siblings. She was the eccentric daughter of wealthy Portuguese Sephardic Jews (they were diamond dealers). McLaren was still sharing his grandmother’s bed – at her insistence – when he was 14. ‘She lived for chaos and discomfort,’ McLaren says. ‘She was very possessive and wouldn’t let me have anything to do with girls. But if I was causing mayhem at school, that was OK.’ Sorry to trade in stereotypes, but given how domineering his mother figure was, does he wonder how he managed to turn out straight? ‘Sometimes. I don’t know. Most people think I’m gay.’
He talks at length about the art schools that played such a significant role in the counterculture of the 1960s. He attended several and fell under the spell of the French Situationists,who promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. ‘I went from one art school to another, being chucked out, changing my name, getting another grant. They were all geared towards thinking that it was better to be a noble failure than a vulgar success. It meant you were not afraid to break rules. You wanted an adventure not a career. We saw ourselves as romantics in the tradition of Byron, Keats and Blake.’
After running out of art schools in 1971, McLaren moved into a London house that was pretty much a commune. It was there he met Vivienne Westwood. ‘She was a complete autodidact going on and on about…’ He adopts a northern accent ‘…”culture”. I always found her very annoying.’
Not that annoying – they had a child together. ‘Yes, well sometimes when you are annoyed by people it becomes attractive and stimulating. The house was full of American draft-dodgers and she would walk around it completely naked. Naturally, being young – I was only 17 – my testosterone meant I couldn’t help but be attracted to her body. I found myself in bed with her one night and lost my virginity to her and suddenly she handed me the bill. She was pregnant, and what was I going to do about it? I went to my rich grandmother who gave me the money for Vivienne to have an abortion. Vivienne took the money and spent it on a cashmere twinset instead.’
Did he have no moral qualms at all about an abortion? ‘Not really.’
Does it not make him shudder to know that that foetus turned into a sentient being, a grown man who has gone on to have children of his own? ‘I know, I know, it probably should make me shudder but it doesn’t. It makes me confused. At the time there was nothing about me that suggested I could take on the mantle of fatherhood. I had come from a strange non-parental background, the idea of children was… Well, I was barely 18.’
Their son, Joe Corre (named after McLaren’s grandmother), is now a successful entrepreneur, co-founder of the lingerie chain Agent Provocateur. Father and son are not close. Does he ever wonder what Joe must think when he reads about how his father wanted him aborted? ‘I don’t think he had to read about it. That well has already been truly poisoned. Hell hath no fury like a woman scored. Dear Vivienne.’
But it must mess with his head. ‘Oh, I was upset for a while but…’
No, not his head – Joe’s. ‘Unquestionably it turned him into a raving psychotic. Unquestionably.’
McLaren remembers turning up at the hospital in the snow a few days after Joe was born. ‘The nurse was extremely rude. She said: “What took you so long? Are you a long distance lorry driver?” I thought, f— you.’
Did he feel any fatherly instincts at all? ‘Not really. I was lost in that terrain. I’d been brought up to destroy families.’
But he and Vivienne did have a stab at being normal parents, for a while. ‘We never really had sex again after Joe was born, but we did live together. We became this odd couple. Most of my art student friends didn’t like Vivienne, I think maybe because they were jealous of her. They didn’t want to share me. I was this strange creature who didn’t show any sexuality, one way or the other, so they felt possessive of me. I went into depression for a while, then decided to make myself a blue lamé suit, copying Elvis, and I got Vivienne to help me. That was the big change. I realised she was a gifted seamstress.’
Joe was dispatched to a series of boarding schools, freeing his parents to pursue their unconventional business. Together Malcolm and Vivienne opened a clothes shop on the King’s Road which eventually became Sex, the store that pioneered the punk look of bondage trousers, ripped T-shirts and spiked dog collars. ‘We decided we needed mannequins to model our clothes and that was when we invented the Sex Pistols, with Johnny doing his audition there in the shop.’
Although McLaren protests that he was a mismanager, actually he proved to be inspired. The band had played only a few small gigs before being signed (with a large advance) by EMI in 1976. After a notorious appearance on Bill Grundy’s early evening television show – in which they swore live on air – the Pistols were fired by EMI and then signed to A&M Records for another large advance. That contract lasted a week – the record company got cold feet after the band went on a drunken rampage, smashing up the A&M headquarters. It was then that the young (and brave) Richard Branson signed them up to Virgin, for another huge advance. To celebrate, McLaren organised a boat trip down the Thames so that the Pistols could perform ‘God Save The Queen’ outside the Houses of Parliament (‘the fascist regime’), on the day The Queen (‘she ain’t no human being’) was celebrating her silver jubilee. The boat was raided by police and McLaren was arrested – in another blaze of publicity. When the band split up the following year, amid the inevitable stories of heroin abuse, murder and destruction, McLaren kept the rights to Never Mind the Bollocks. John Lydon took him to court in 1987 and won the rights back. McLaren and Lydon have refused to speak to each other since. It is safe to assume that McLaren’s name won’t be on the VIP list for the anniversary concert.
‘I thought the fashion was much more important than the music,’ McLaren says of the Sex Pistols now. ‘Punk was the sound of that fashion.’ It seems a contrary thing to say, but then he is a contrarian, and the band was his baby – so I ask about the fashion, specifically the swastika T-shirt that Sid Vicious always wore, at McLaren’s behest. In retrospect does he consider it to have been a gratuitous and sick provocation? ‘Not at all.’ Does he think he could get away with it today? ‘Probably not, but back then we were still on the tip of Sixties libertarianism.’
I suppose what I am getting at is that, well, he was Jewish. Didn’t he find the swastika repulsive? ‘Not at all. I didn’t give a damn about all that. I thought it was just great.’ He didn’t give a damn about the Holocaust? ‘Look, sometimes a younger generation doesn’t want to inherit the history of an older generation, so we wanted to appropriate the swastika for ourselves. We wanted to have a clean slate. We decided that we liked certain icons from the past and wanted to reinvent them. We were trying to mix pop culture with politics and art.’
On the subject of politics, I say, the thing I always found confusing about punk as a movement was that you had bands such as the Clash wearing Rock Against Racism badges at the same time as the Sex Pistols were wearing swastikas. ‘Well, the Rock Against Racism I was never interested in. I thought that was too naff. It didn’t annoy people enough. I wanted to be childish; I wanted to be everything society might hate. The idea of sounding sensible or serious was abhorrent to me. I was the ultimate mismanager because I was looking for ways to create chaos. The Sex Pistols were young and ignorant. They didn’t have the political references, they have to be forgiven for that. But what they did have was raw energy. All the energy of Never Mind the Bollocks was about desire for change. We wanted to create an artistic movement that would be like a political revolution. We wanted anarchy. It’s easy to forget how grim things were in the 1970s: the oil crisis, the three-day week, hyper-inflation, unemployment, no wonder there was disaffection.’
Now look at them. John Lydon said recently he quite likes The Queen, after all. Richard Branson is a knight of the realm. Vivienne Westwood has not only had her own retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, she is also a Dame of the British Empire. Even McLaren’s son has been offered a knighthood (he turned it down in protest about the war in Iraq – having learned a thing or two from his father and mother about self-publicity). Would McLaren turn down a knighthood, if one were offered? Tellingly, he doesn’t say no. What he does say is: ‘The thought of the English Establishment ever coming to terms with its culture of deception…’ He trails off. ‘England deceives itself. It is a nation of liars.’
So, yes or no? ‘I can see why Vivienne accepted hers. She is a true capitalist. She would have loved to design for The Queen. She takes herself very seriously and is very stubborn. You are either with her or against her, in her view. She hates being laughed at. She can come across as radical, but she is extremely reactionary.’ McLaren rarely sees Westwood these days, although her name is the one he mentions when asked if he’s ever really loved a woman, apart from his eccentric grandmother.
When I suggest that he could always make a donation to the Labour Party, he laughs and says he prefers David Cameron to Gordon Brown because ‘I’ve had my fill of Scotsmen.’ I suggest to him that, deep down, he has the exile’s craving to be accepted by the country that he thinks rejected him. ‘Actually I don’t, but the English will have to accept one day that punk is their most valuable contribution to 20th-century art and culture. They will see it is as being as fundamental as the invention of the motor car, as impactful as any painting by Picasso. They will have to accept that punk was sexier than sex itself – and that it changed lives. Everyone from the bank manager, to Ken Livingstone or Damien Hirst has to acknowledge that punk is the ultimate measurement of cool and is the only way to sell things.’
Bank mangers? ‘Banks use the Never Mind the Bollocks cut-up ransom-letter typography in their advertisements.’
True. So he sees punk as his legacy to the world? ‘People are beginning to learn the truth about punk, and how instrumental I was in the development of it. That will change the way people will think of me. That will be in the obituaries. As barbaric a culture as it is, the English Establishment is coming to terms with the fact that punk was the best thing that ever happened to it. It wouldn’t be the country it is today without punk.’
Hmm. It sounds as if he is taking politics seriously, after all. But what, I ask, was the lasting political message of punk. Cash from Chaos? If so, isn’t that rather shallow? ‘I think it is very hard for artists to have political convictions. That is why I use art as my raison d’etre, not politics. It is the only way I can get on with myself.’
He’ll be telling me he has some moral fibre next. He laughs. ‘No, I have no moral fibre, at all. Codes of behaviour simply trap you.’
He must have some, I suggest. I mean, he wouldn’t, say, murder someone, would he? ‘No, I suppose not, not even Vivienne Westwood when she was annoying me. I’ve come close, but no. I wouldn’t think myself worthy enough to kill someone. Even if they needed to be killed. I wouldn’t have been the best man to do it.’
Not worthy enough. This doesn’t sound like the Malcolm McLaren we know and hate – the braggart whom John Lydon once called the most evil man in the world. It seems he is more complex and self-aware than he is given credit for being. Indeed, when his girlfriend – slightly built and stylish and in black clothes – arrives to meet him, he more or less admits that he is too selfish to entertain the idea of more children. ‘I am enough for Young to look after. The older I get the more brat-ish I become.’
They divide their time between France and America. ‘I’ve lived a restless life,’ he reflects. ‘I can never settle anywhere.’
Strangely, after three hours in his company, I find it hard to decide whether McLaren is likeable or not. Certainly he is entertaining. There is something pantomimic about the man. He is an engaging raconteur with a range of comedy voices – impersonations of Italians, plodding northerners and a sneery whine for Johnny Rotten. And he is endearingly childlike and buoyant in his enthusiasm for new ideas, constantly trying to understand a world in which he has always feels himself a misfit. But he can also be a bore, not knowing when to stop, or not bothering to stop. He likes to stick to the past; is less sure of the present. I suspect he knows all this, but, in punk tradition, he don’t care.
On one level he is the eternal hustler, still wanting to big himself up after all these years. But there is pathos here, too. He cynically claims all he was ever interested in was ripping people off and making money. But when I ask whether all his various business dealings have left him a wealthy man he looks uncomfortable and, for the first time, unsure of himself. ‘I don’t know what you mean by wealth. If by wealth you mean being able to do exactly what you want then yes, I am wealthy. I pretty much do what I like.’
I take that as a no. So, on his own terms, does he feel he has been a failure? He falls silent for the first time in three, long-winded hours as he considers this. ‘A magnificent failure,’ he says, eventually. ‘I am the walking, talking magnificent failure.’ He shrugs. ‘The ultimate poseur. So maybe I don’t need to do anything else in life. Maybe that is enough. What do you think?’ There is a smile in his voice as he asks.