Thursday, April 8, 2010

"I know you can change the weather"

I have just learned from fellow blogger BookSteve that performer, entrepreneur, and all-around provocateur Malcolm McLaren has died. McLaren's passing is especially ironic to me right now as I had literally been contemplating writing my next piece about what is probably his finest work and for me, my "desert island" album. Coming less than a month after the untimely passing of Alex Chilton, it is an enormous blow to me as a fan of both men, as they had enormous impact on my musical taste.

The obituaries you will read on McLaren will be colorful and varied. Some will discuss his early collaborations with fashionista Vivienne Westwood. Most will focus on his infamous (and some would say deliberate) mishandling of punk rock pioneers the Sex Pistols, and let us not indulge in hagiography: between the lying and posturing and enabling, which contributed not only to the band's untimely demise but also to the ugly deaths of bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, he'll be smoking a turd in Purgatory for quite some time. But in all likelihood, not that many will address his groundbreaking and exciting album, DUCK ROCK, though thankfully, PopMatters seems to share my enthusiasm. As such, what was going to be just a musical puff piece on my part will effectively turn into a memoriam.

DUCK ROCK was initiated by McLaren shortly after the breakup of the Sex Pistols, as he began to be more interested in being in front of the cameras and the microphone instead of managing from the sidelines. With producer Trevor Horn in tow, they went on a worldwide journey visiting and recording all manner of diverse musicians, from South Africa and the Caribbean to Appalachia and New York City, and after they were done, mixing and mashing up the sounds to create surprising combinations. McLaren was not much of a singer, more of a spoken-word carny barker, but his sense of fun as he traveled through the genres was hard to resist. I first learned about DUCK ROCK from rock journalist Lisa Robinson, during a series of promotional interviews she conducted with Malcolm McLaren for the USA Network series "RADIO 1990". Interspersed with the interviews, which covered topics like the breakup of the Sex Pistols and the countries he visited, there were music videos shown. Most specifically, the video for "Buffalo Gals," a still-exciting traffic jam of sampling, d.j. scratches, and old fashioned square-dance calling. For a suburban Cincinnati boy like me who was eager to break from the bland, it was a clarion call. And for decades since, artists like Neneh Cherry and Eminem have replayed it in their own fashion:


Once I got the album (or in my case, Island's unusual "1+1" cassette tape which presented the entire record on both sides), it was a constant presence in my boom box. I loved getting exposed to world music without the stuffy high-toned culturespeak of public radio snobs, and it didn't matter if friends didn't quite understand what I meant when I occasionally shouted "Skip-day-doo, the double dutch," "Zulus on a time bomb," or "Duck for the oyster!" To this day, I still love going on the global tour. For as much as we talk about living in a society that is supposed to resemble a Benneton advertisement, so much about the places we don't know is presented to us in a dry and somewhat "eat your vegetables" fashion, which is why so many of us resent it and don't investigate it. As much as people love Peter Gabriel or David Byrne, they get annoyed at their earnest effort to expose music from elsewhere and don't give a damn about their next WOMAD concert. And don't get me started on how much I hate the "granola rock" of poseurs like Rusted Root. Somehow, McLaren never gave that vibe in DUCK ROCK - the album always said to me, "Hey, it's a big, exciting, beautiful world out there: let's go play!"

In the liner notes, McLaren writes that during his time with a band of South African musicians, as he sat among them at a campfire, they told grand adventure tales, and he was asked to share one of his own, and all he could think of was his version of managing the Sex Pistols. His hosts loved the story, and out of that came one of my favorite tracks, "Punk it Up," where tribal people who have never experienced slam dancing or Margaret Thatcher gleefully sing, "I'm a Sex Pistol, I'm a Sex Pistol, that's what I am!" Maybe they understood the notion of being in a group that wanted to fight the man, or maybe they just fell for a good yarn. But everyone has a happy sing-a-long all the same.

And ultimately, we look to a great artist to take us to another place, even if they are spicing it up with details that are of their own invention and may clash with our own view of things. Malcolm McLaren did that for me. Even John Lydon, a/k/a Johnny Rotten, the man who would have every reason to sneer and spit and dance a pogo on his grave, understands that notion in his gracious send-off:
"For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you."

Thanks for the grand adventure, Malc. May your coffin be circled by Buffalo Gals going 'round the outside, 'round the outside, 'round the outside.

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