Malcolm McLaren died today at age 64. According to the NY Times, he had cancer and was in Switzerland when he died.
McLaren was the manager of the Sex Pistols and in many ways, the architect of British punk. He has received harsh criticism - much of it rightly - for using people around him simply as a medium for his own ambitions. But his ambitions were artistic - he saw the activities of youth like the Sex Pistols as part of a populist movement to live one's life as art and to make that a vehicle for social protest and ultimately social change. He recognized the potential of Johnny Rotten and London's other disaffected youth and helped nurture their genuine desire to create and express. Through his background in visual and performing arts, he contextualized punk and help it create a cohesive and lasting effect on British culture.
Sadly, as the story goes, McLaren's obsessive commitment to his artistic vision caused him to lose all perspective and forget he was dealing with human beings - and often teenage kids at that. If it weren't for McLaren, Sid Vicious might still be alive - but the man didn't introduce Vicious to heroin either. And just as true, if it weren't for McLaren, our own understanding of popular music would be radically different. With a handful of others, from Warhol to Sonic Youth, McLaren explored the intersection of fine art, popular culture and radical social protest, a nexus that has proved the source of the greatest artistic movements of the last half century.
McLaren may have departed the universe of UK punk, and eventually the universe itself, with for more enemies than admirers, but he made a mark in our cultural history and I, for one, believe we're the better for it.
If you're interested in learning more, read England's Dreaming by Jon Savage. For a good story about reading England's Dreaming, click here.